Michelle Hart’s Playlist for Her Novel “We Do What We Do in the Dark”

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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.

Michelle Hart’s novel We Do What We Do in the Dark is a lyrical and moving debut.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

“Hart has written a realistic world where women do all the talking, to each other, and rarely about the men in their lives…. Hart’s novel does something exceptional that few pieces of fiction have done successfully: She presents the older married professor as not only a complicated figure worthy of desire and suspicion, but makes her a woman too…. We Do What We Do in the Dark has flashes of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, or Halle Butler’s The New Me. Sometimes it’s erotic, sometimes it’s devastating. Maybe this is what the new erotic thriller has morphed into in literature…. [T]he writing always crackles, written by someone who clearly knows what it’s like to desire another woman in ways you just barely understand.”

In her own words, here is Michelle Hart’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel We Do What We Do in the Dark:

“Mr. Peterson” by Perfume Genius

I started working on what would become the novel around 2010, when I was in college, still in the closet and trying to process my mom’s death. For a creative writing class, I had written a short story about a girl whose mom is sick and who spends time with the mother of her once-best friend—the latter of whom has just left for college. My own mom not being around—and my own childhood friend having left for college—sort of severed my connection to womanhood, and what I yearned for was a teacher from whom I could learn the about world, about desire, about womanhood, about art. It was then that I first heard “Mr. Peterson”, a song about the moral ambivalence of a queer student-teacher relationship. In less than 3 minutes, with just a piano and his quivering vocals, Mike Hadreas captures the simultaneous gratitude and resentment inherent in such a situation, what it’s like to believe you have an advantage over someone only to realize later that you were maybe the one taken advantage of, whether you should thank the heavens for that person or condemn them to hell.

“Save Me from What I Want” by St. Vincent

A very early draft of the novel was titled after this song by St. Vincent, which is lovely and ominous, sexy and sad. I was enamored with it as a title because I constantly had to work through what it means for someone to plead with another this way, to save them from what they want. For me, it speaks to the scariness of one’s desire, being almost fearful of what one covets. Good fiction is built on contradictions like this. Also, this line gives me chills each time I hear it: “Honey, what reveals you/is what you try and hide away.”

“It’s Too Late,” by Carole King

This is one of two songs that are directly referenced in the book. My mom was a Carole King obsessive, but it wasn’t until she died that I actually sat down to listen to Tapestry. For me, then, it was bittersweet. It was too late; I couldn’t share the experience of listening with her. But now whenever I hear the song, I can imagine listening to it together. One of the most wonderful things about art is that it transcends life and death.

“Young Adult Friction” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

This is the other song that shows up explicitly in the book, though I don’t mention it by name. It came out in 2009, when I was in college. At least among indie music fans, the song was a hit. It’s peppy and upbeat, breezily pleasurable, and it was only after I heard it a dozen times that I realized it was about having sex in a school library. The wordplay in the song is really dazzling, and perfectly captures the intrinsic eroticism of higher learning. I mean: “I never thought I would come of age/let alone on a moldy page/you put your back to the spines/and you said it was fine if there’s nothing really left to say.”

“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” by Lucy Dacus

The first time I heard this, in 2015, I was waiting for the subway in Manhattan and I felt so totally stunned by recognition that I almost forgot to board the train when it came. In the book, Mallory’s mother and maternal aunt are known, respectively, as the “pretty” sister and the “funny one,” a paradigm Mallory herself ascribes to her own relationship with a childhood friend. She’s the latter. I too heard this a lot growing up, and I knew that I was the funny one. I was the class clown. I could make my classmates—and even my teachers—laugh. At a certain point, though, you can’t help but want to put on a too-short skirt and hope that maybe you’ll be the cute one.

“A Burning Hill” by Mitski

For me, character creation is all about finding the perfect balance between being active and remaining passive, being self-aware in some situations and unaware in others. Mitski is so good at writing songs about people ruminating on loneliness while reaching out, sometimes disastrously, for connection, beautifully summed up in a line from this song: “I am a forest fire/and I am the fire and I am the forest/and I am a witness watching it.” If there’s a better description of what makes a compelling character—being the forest and the fire and the witness all at once—I haven’t found it.

“Tears for Affairs” by Camera Obscura

This song is wistful and wry, both breezy and laden with emotion, a tone I try to capture in my own prose. To me, this is a song about entering into a relationship you suspect is sort of doomed from the start, it can’t ever be more than it is, and yet realizing this in the moment still very much stings.

“Turn Out the Lights” by Julien Baker

Like the Perfume Genius song, Baker’s ballad is very spare, just vocals and a guitar. I first heard this when I was trying to decide how to end the book. I still remember how stunned I was when I heard the line “When I turn out the lights/there is no one left/between myself and me.” That kind of loneliness and depression is a double-edged sword: how frightening it is to be alone with your own thoughts, but also how comforting it can be once you get used to the silent dark. There’s an uneasy peacefulness in the final few seconds of Baker’s song, which to me feels very literary.

Michelle Hart’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and Electric Literature, and she has written nonfiction for Catapult, NYLON, The Rumpus, and The New Yorker online. Previously, she was the Assistant Books Editor at O, the Oprah Magazine and Oprah Daily. She received her MFA from Rutgers-Newark and lives in New Jersey.

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