In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tyler McMahon’s novel One Potato is a vivid, imaginative, and bitingly told satire.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“McMahon serves up a biting satire of genetic engineering and its discontents . . . This winning story feels all too real.”
When I look back on the years that I spent writing this book, mostly they’re a blur. This is due in part to age and in part to the nature of our times. It’s difficult to clearly recall when I started and finished One Potato, but I’m certain it was well underway before the 2016 election, and I was definitely sharing the manuscript in 2019, before ever hearing of the novel coronavirus. During the actual writing process, I mostly listened to haunting instrumental albums by The Dirty Three, my go-to soundtrack for writing. But during the entire gestation period, I was often derailed by the deaths of great musicians–before and during the pandemic. Many of my listening hours—I realize now—were deep dives into work by the recently departed. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that stood out to me.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Prince
I grew up with Prince on top 40 radio, and was something of a casual fan. I always loved seeing him on halftime shows and awards specials, but never bought the t-shirt or went to the concert. After he passed away, and the songs were in the air once again, I couldn’t get over how moving this track is, how much detail lie within every line. It’s silly, but I always hum it to myself whenever I write a scene in which a character eats in a restaurant by themselves (as Eddie does often in One Potato).
“The Old Revolution” by Leonard Cohen
This was probably the hardest death for me to take, all things considered. Leonard Cohen is my favorite musician of all time–my favorite writer of any sort. I listen to him more and more as the years go by. His death occurred at a particularly difficult time. I thought of this tune as I was writing the subcomandante character—a world-weary guerilla who can see all the warts on his revolution. The lines: “I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing/ As they carry the bodies away” seem to sum up the experience of writing novels in the 21st century.
“Lonesome Friends of Science” by John Prine
I might be wrong, but Prine was the first celebrity death I can recall from COVID. I’m not sure if there’s a takeaway from this tune—or if I’d necessarily agree with it. But it does seem to touch on the central dilemma of my book. “Those bastards in their white lab coats…should leave the universe alone” is a statement that’s alternately true and false…both in the real world and in One Potato. Eddie Morales is, if nothing else, a lonesome friend of science.
“Lovely Day” by Bill Withers
I love the way this song hovers between joy and sadness. I think of it as the soundtrack to a moment late in the novel, just after Eddie and Raven have consummated their attraction in Huanchillo. Eddie is initially pleased, but can’t escape a sense of foreboding. He doesn’t have to wait long for the other shoe to drop–on multiple fronts.
“Trains Across the Sea” by Silver Jews
The news of David Berman’s tragic death hit me pretty hard. I hadn’t listened to or read his work in quite a while, but he was a major influence during my formative years as a writer. He lived in Charlottesville while I was a student at UVA, and could often be seen nursing a beer in a corner at the local basement music venue. I love the way this song feels like both a whisper and an anthem all at once. I think of it as the soundtrack to Raven and Eddie’s escape from Puerto Malogrado.
“Hot Burrito #1” by The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gib Guilbeau, one of the band members, passed away in 2016. I’m not exactly sure how involved he was in writing this tune—if at all. But the news sent me down a Burrito Brothers rabbit-hole nonetheless. I could listen to this song for hours.
“Waiulu” by Willie K
Willie K’s untimely death in 2020 caught a lot of people here in Hawai`i by surprise. Famous musicians came out of the woodwork to eulogize him. He’s best known for his more uptempo, bluesy-rock tunes. But he could truly do everything musically. This is my favorite of his traditional meles.
“Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones
The late Charlie Watts is at his best on this song. Many times in the past few years, I’ve listened to Beggars Banquet, then Let It Bleed, then Sticky Fingers—in that order. This tune always feels like an ending to me.
Tyler McMahon is the author of the novels How the Mistakes Were Made, Kilometer 99, Dream of Another America, and One Potato. Tyler is a Professor of English at Hawai`i Pacific University and the editor of Hawai`i Pacific Review. He lives in Honolulu with his wife, Dabney Gough.