Ellen Airgood’s Playlist for Her Novel “Tin Camp Road”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Ellen Airgood’s Tin Camp Road is a novel impressively rooted in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Heartfelt…Airgood offers an impactful look at the ineffable bond between a mother and daughter and the tenuous grip they have on their sense of home. Readers will fall in love with this story’s rich characters and scenery.”

In her own words, here is Ellen Airgood’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Tin Camp Road:

I spent swaths of time pretending stuff as a kid. Pretty frequently I was a cowboy riding my horse across the plains, rounding up dogies and squinting into the sunset. Just as often I was a bonneted pioneer girl cleaning ash from the woodstove. (I really was. My mom sewed me a bonnet.) Once the firebox was clean, I’d embark on other useful chores: pretend-churn butter on the front porch. Push a few ears of field corn through the grinder that sat nearby. Weave a mat out of cattails yanked from the drainage ditch; dye scraps of cloth by smashing wild grapes into them.

As a writer, I still cut swaths of time across imaginary worlds, but it’s more of a stretch now. My life feels noisy and insistent. Plus, I’m a waitress, and waitresses keep smiling no matter what. Before long we’ve smiled so widely and made so many promises, we don’t know how we really feel or what we really think. To wave off the world and my own inhibitions, my endless message that everything is fine and your order will be coming out soon, I often seal myself into a cave of song. I plug my headphones into my laptop, click Apple music, and put a track on endless repeat. Soon, a quiet that isn’t silence spreads. Space opens for characters and settings and events to become vivid in a tangible way; I relax enough to let my real life with its ceaseless demands fade and blink away.

Each of my writing efforts has its own soundtrack. Below, in the sort of chronological order of the story, are the highlights from my novel, Tin Camp Road.

“Never Going Back Again,” Fleetwood Mac. Spin critic Chuck Eddy described “Never Going Back Again” as ‘an arty trance,’ and even though I didn’t know that when I started playing it on an endless loop, it fits perfectly. The lilting, pretty melody helped me unclench my fists from their death-grip on worry and expectation and let me start to know single-mom protagonist Laurel Hill. After a while, it was Laurel and not me who was hearing it. When she did, it was on the only radio station that comes in where she lives, ‘good old out of date WCMZ, playing oldies from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.’ The song always brought her mom to her mind: beloved, disappointing, flaky, talented, loving, far away. In short–as mothers tend to be–complicated and sneakily similar to oneself.

“Turn the Page,” Bob Seger. As a Michigander, I love and claim Bob Seger, and this song kept me company from the start of the project. And a writer does need company. Especially in an endeavor that seems doomed and ends up taking years and scaring the daylights out of you, making you think you are not now nor ever will be a legitimate artist. A trip like that is a form of being on the road. And for an author who also runs a restaurant, the fit is even better. Managing a diner in a tourist town, working too many hours, being pretty good at what you do, and also being exhausted, hungry, and lonely– It resonates, this song.

Every ounce of energy, you try to give away…

Yep.

Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed, with the echoes from the amplifiers ringin’
in your head…

Except it’s the hum of the compressors ringing.

“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon. The scene doesn’t show up in the final version of the book, but in earlier versions, teen-aged Laurel turns the radio up in the family homestead’s kitchen and she and her mom and grandmother sing along to this song. Like Laurel, every time I hear the tune, I see Gran: short salt and pepper hair, a calico shirt printed all over with flowers, blue jeans. Her chin is tipped up and she howls with gusto while Laurel and her mom dance around the kitchen table. Missing Gran and regretting some of her own choices near the end of Gran’s life drives Laurel throughout the novel; having a song that brought Gran to life in an unexpected way was a touchstone for me.

“Rachmaninoff, Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 in B-flat Minor L’istesso Tempo, Allegro Molto.” Though they don’t know its name, Laurel and Skye hear Sam playing this song as they walk home from working at the B&B one day, the B&B that was Laurel’s family home before her mom lost it to the bank. They stop to watch the sunset over Lake Superior from up on the ridge, and for that moment are filled with the majesty and complexity of the setting as well as of their own souls. We play a lot of rock and roll oldies in the world of this novel, but our thoughts and emotions are as nuanced and as wordless as Rachmaninoff’s.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” The Temptations

Because where the heck was Laurel’s dad in this story? Awkward authorial confession: I forgot to write him in. And not just forgot to write him in, I neglected to even think about him.

I gasped out loud when I realized that. Then I hunted for a song that might explain his absence and hopefully also color in his character a little. I needed backstory and a clue as to how Laurel felt about him. Who was he and how did he and Laurel’s mom meet? What attracted them to each other? Music?

Maybe. I still don’t know. Lynette doesn’t look back much in this book, anyway, and Laurel’s dad is still barely there. But he does have a song.

“My Shit’s Fucked Up,” Warren Zevon. I first heard this song on satellite radio while I was washing a floor. I sat back on my heels for a moment. Then I went back to work, smiling the way you do when someone has spoken a rocky truth more often kept quiet.

I played the song often throughout the years of my work on TCR, guzzled certain lines like cold water on a hot day. I had a dream, aw shucks oh well. Now it’s all fucked up, it’s shot to hell.

The song was for me, but it was Hugh’s song too. This apparently minor character kept niggling at me. I spent inordinate, unjustifiable amounts of time listening to Zevon’s gravely voice and mentally hanging out with Hugh. The song brought not only him but also Belle’s Tavern where he works into focus. It carried with it the mood of the place and the complexity of the people who live and eat and drink there. The song was a rainy March night in a deserted tourist town. It was Hugh sleeping off a hangover on top of a freezer in a storeroom and also Hugh reading Kafka on the Shore while eating a burger on a ten-minute break from cooking pizzas.

“The Way it Goes,” Gillian Welch. The characters didn’t know and probably never ought to know how much I worried about them. Like a parent, I wanted to protect them. I wanted to shove their little boats out of whirlpools and into smoother stretches of water. My wanting this so much sometimes led me to close my eyes to how things really go. And as much as I did not want things to go terribly for Skye and Laurel (and in the end did not allow them to), I needed to keep in the forefront of my mind what was at stake for them. This song helped me to do that.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot. Every November this plays often on the local radio station, and it played on Laurel’s radio while she squatted in an abandoned trailer in the woods with Skye. She baked chicken and watered plants and fed a gerbil; she sewed and watched Skye do homework and was offered a job unexpectedly. The song was a quiet winter afternoon with dinner in the oven; it was an ordinary homey song that is part of life here. I think that no matter if you’re seventy years old or fifty or thirty like Laurel or ten like Skye when you hear this song (even if you don’t like it; lots of Yoopers don’t), it brings you home.

“Any Cure,” The Subdudes. Is there any cure for being alone? Writing is probably trying. And Laurel is trying. I played this one a lot in the later stages of this book.

“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding. Late last winter while I was washing dishes, this song came on the radio. I instantly saw Skye sitting on a dilapidated wooden dock with her feet dangling in the water. She was a little older than when the novel closes; she seemed in a quiet mood. I think she was fishing. I know for certain that in that moment she was content. Content and maybe a little wistful, but wistful is okay sometimes.

Ellen Airgood grew up on a farm in Michigan’s thumb, where her favorite things were reading, riding horses, and writing stories. Homesick for the farm life, she nearly left the University of Michigan after her first year, but then returned, earning a BS from the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Since then, she has been an air quality sleuth, a timber cruiser, and has co-managed a diner in Grand Marais, MI with her husband Rick, where she serves multiple roles as waitress, pastry chef, and bouncer. Her recent novel, Tin Camp Road, (August 3, 2021) and three previous novels have been published by Penguin Books: South of Superior (A Michigan Notable Book) and the acclaimed books for middle-grade readers, Prairie Evers and The Education of Ivy Blake. www.ellenairgood.com.

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