Monica Byrne’s Playlist for Her Novel “The Actual Star”

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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.

Monica Byrne’s ambitious novel The Actual Star is truly an epic, covering 2,000 years with a rare degree of compassion and humanity.

Booklist wrote of the book:

“A fascinating and intricately woven piece of speculative fiction…Byrne’s work delves into themes about entropy, destiny, how place affects us as we change the world, and the search for meaning. But it is also a thoroughly human work where ambition, loneliness, love, and the need to belong resonate, no matter the year. Complex and captivating.”

In her own words, here is Monica Byrne’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Actual Star:

The Actual Star is an epic that spans two millennia, jumping back and forth among the years 1012, 2012, and 3012. In each era, three reincarnated characters make their way back to a cave in Belize, where the ancient Maya performed human sacrifice to Xibalba. Why do they feel drawn there in every age? Is Xibalba a myth, or is it a real place? This book is my answer.

“Jungle” by X Ambassadors & Jamie N Commons

When the book begins, we’re in the ancient Maya lowlands, where Ixul and Ajul are the twin heirs of a dying kingdom. Ascending the throne requires them to play the sacred ball game. Writing actions scenes was really challenging, so to psych myself up, I played this song over my headphones and imagined them facing off in full regalia.

“Wichita Lineman” by Skylar Gudasz

In 2012, the main character is Leah Oliveri, an oddball teenager in rural Minnesota. She doesn’t fit in at her conservative white high school, she doesn’t fit in with the farm kids, she doesn’t fit in with her stepfamily. This cover of “Wichita Lineman” by Skylar Gudasz—released while I was writing—reminded me of Leah’s isolation, and how she made the best of it as long as she could.

“Cheater’s Prayer” by Chris Martin

When I hear this song, I’m instantly transported back to Belize. It was a huge hit when I first went there in 2012, playing on the radio nonstop, and I still hear it every time I go back. I’m also obsessed with the music video, which follows the horny protagonist through a day full of temptations. (The sandwich? Why??)

“Through Patient Eyes” by P.M. Dawn

A curious fact of Belize: it’s awash in early ’90s R&B. In other words, everything that was on the radio when I was twelve! Sometimes I’d be walking in San Ignacio and be like, “Wait…is that…P.M. Dawn?” and then have this weird time-of-life whiplash in the middle of the street.

“Lone White Horse” by Clare Byrne

My Dad and I were very close, and he was very important to helping me formulate the book in its early stages. He died in hospice in July 2018. After that, focusing on writing was one of the things that got me through the grief. The same was true for my sister Clare, who released her album Celestials the next spring, which included this beautiful track inspired by those last days in hospice.

“Emilia” by Ana Tijoux

After I went to Belize, I wanted to learn Spanish. It’s not the most common language in Belize—Kriol and English are—but I had an inkling that Spanish would play a big role in the future worldbuilding of The Actual Star. As part of my learning, I made a playlist of songs in Spanish and listened to it constantly—this was one of my favorites. (Sadly, I still cannot roll my r’s.)

“Maykhaneh“ by Mohammad Shajarian

In 2014, I traveled through Iran, which became a place of longing for my character Xander. You can hear the beloved singer Mohammad Shajarian everywhere in Iran—tea shops, traffic jams, threading salons, restaurants, everywhere—so during a pivotal scene with Xander, I specify that Shajarian is playing in the background.

“Gloria: In excelsis Deo” by Patti Smith

The 2016 election felt like a punch in the throat. In the months afterward, I started worldbuilding my 3012 timeline as a direct response to current events. Part of that mood was listening to angry music by badass women—I played Patti Smith’s album Horses on repeat for weeks, and probably drove too fast.

“Take My Hand” by Toto

Dune was a HUGE influence on The Actual Star. So while writing, of course I re-watched the Lynch film and fell in love with it all over again. I went through a phase where I needed to watch the closing credits every day. Why am I so mesmerized by those faces appearing against the waves? I just am.

“Gelaye” by Radio Tehran

When I got home from Iran, I started listening to Iranian artists like Radio Tehran, whose album 88 I played on repeat in my car for months. “Gelaye,” in particular, is such a lush tapestry of musical textures—and inspired my character Niloux’s mysterious longing for Persia.

“Mushrooms and Roses” by Janelle Monae

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this song to the book. I’ll just say this: when I was composing the final chapter, I put on my over-ear headphones, shut my eyes, listened to (and usually cried to) this song probably a hundred times.

Monica Byrne studied biochemistry at Wellesley, NASA, and MIT before pivoting to fiction and theater. She is the author of the novel The Girl in the Road, winner of the 2014 Otherwise Award, and loves a good thunderstorm.

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