In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Willa C Richards’ novel The Comfort of Monsters is a complex, inventive, and wholly engaging take on the literary crime novel.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
“Richards has flipped the usual narrative, centering not on the crime itself but on the loss that ripples from it, on the grief that can’t be relieved even with the prospect of so-called ‘closure.’”
At the heart of my debut novel, The Comfort of Monsters, is the relationship between the narrator Peg and her sister Dee. My portrayal of their relationship was very much informed by the diverse kinds of sisterhoods I was lucky enough to be a part of as a child. First, and perhaps most importantly, was my relationship with my younger sister, who remains my best friend, my fiercest admirer, my co-conspirator, and the most beautiful person in the world. (Not biased.) The comfort and safety of that relationship has sustained me in ways that are difficult to fully articulate or even to fully know.
Similarly, my relationships with my older sisters, who are twelve and fourteen years older than me, were extremely formative. They were like surrogate mothers to me, taking care of us younger ones while my parents were working. Importantly for this novel, my sisters were teens and young adults in the nineties, which means I thought they were the definition of cool. So I spent a lot of time as a kid listening to their music, and trying to dress like them, which as a teenager in the ‘aughts awkwardly translated to me listening to The Indigo Girls, wearing fishnets, buying lots of chunky silver rings, and even donning the occasional choker. (Though I’ve heard those have officially come back in style, they certainly weren’t while I was in high school, and I’m sure this was one, among many reasons, I was never cool.)
I also modeled Peg and Dee’s friendship on my mother’s relationship with her sister, my aunt, who is also named Peg. (Sorry, Aunt Peggy!) Though my aunt moved to California and my mom stayed in Wisconsin, they have stayed close through the years. I remember, as a child, thinking how lucky they were to have maintained their friendship despite that distance.
In some ways this playlist is dedicated to Dee and Peg, and the era in which they were together for the last time: the summer of 1991. In other ways, it’s dedicated to my sister, Emma, whom I miss every day of my life, and without whom I could not have written this book. Then finally it’s dedicated to my older sisters, who had their own secret, very special bond with one another, and who showed me what love between women could look like, what it can do, how it can fill you up and keep you going when everything else sucks.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes– Paul Simon
This one is for Dee. It speaks very much to her spirit and her beauty: “She said you’re taking me for granted, because I please you.” Also my parents were huge Paul Simon fans, and so my older sisters were too. They played this album over and over again when I was a little girl. Sometimes I still cry when I hear Graceland. This outs me as a millennial, or whatever, but I also love Grizzly Bear’s cover of “Graceland.”
Where You Lead– Carole King
My mother was big into Carole King and I remember the cover of this record very vividly. For my younger sister and I, this felt like our anthem way before Gilmore Girls took it over and made it theirs.
Come As You Are– Nirvana
This one is for Leif, (Peg’s boyfriend at the time of Dee’s disappearance). He is definitely one of those Nirvana listeners that would brag about having listened to Nirvana before Nevermind. But “Come as You Are” would be his favorite nevertheless.
Losing My Religion– R.E.M.
My oldest sister said this had to go on here, so here it is. This song was everywhere during the summer of 1991, and so I’d expect it was playing at an obnoxious volume in the bars my characters went to and at the house parties they attended that summer.
You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio– Joni Mitchell
This is a song I imagine Peg and Dee blasting in the car while they drive around Milwaukee. I know my sister and I did the same. And my mom and her sister too. I always think of my aunt when I hear this song, because she used to think that Joni was singing “I’m a little bit horny” instead of “I’m a little bit corny”. Also, this line: “I know you don’t like weak women, you get bored so quick/ And you don’t like strong women, ‘cause their hip to your tricks” is iconic.
If Not For You– Bob Dylan
My parents, my sisters, and my brother were big Dylan fans, so it’s no surprise I turned into one too. Personally, I’ve always loved the story about Dylan that involves him denying he’d ever even heard of Arthur Rimbaud, only for a member of the press to find a dog-eared, completely marked up collection of the French poet’s poems at Dylan’s home. Or something like that. I think my Dad told me that story. So the details are probably off. But I love it and I love Dylan’s music which has always, for me, maintained such a universal, time-tested quality that I can return to his work again and again and find so much to discover. This is a track off one of the Bootlegs that I love and that always makes me think of my younger sister.
I’m Your Baby Tonight– Whitney Houston
Including some Whitney because nothing screams a gay bar in the summer of ‘91 more than Whitney Houston. This was one of her big hits that summer and it has some potentially dark lyrics for a pop song. That’s always my kind of pop song: “Whatever you want is fine/ Whenever you’re ready…Whatever you want from me/ I’m giving you everything”.
You Are My Sunshine– Johnny Cash
This is a hard song for me to listen to because it holds so many polyvalences for me. My parents and my sisters used to sing it to me when I was little. I used to sing it to my younger sister. And we all sang it to our beautiful, beloved, sorely missed, Aidan, my sister’s oldest son, when he was in the hospital. I imagine Peg sang it to Dee often when they were kids too.
Who Will Save Your Soul– Jewel
My oldest sister was a huge Jewel fan, and she played Pieces of You a lot when I was little, so I grew up loving that album. Maybe a little too much. When I was in high school my best friend and I formed a Jewel-cover band, and we had a disastrous flame-out fiasco of a performance at Battle of the Bands, most of which was so embarrassing I’ve blocked it out. But oddly, I still love this song.
Dahmer Is Dead– The Violent Femmes
My older sisters first, and then my brother, were big Femmes fans. The Violent Femmes were a point of pride in Milwaukee for a long time, though I’m not sure their music really holds up. I do admire their commitment to performing at Summerfest almost every damn year though. This song was probably my first conception of Dahmer, or my first notion that Milwaukee might be more famous for the serial killer than almost anything else.
Lovely Agnes– Sally Rogers
This is another tear-jerker for me. I can’t even hear the beginning without getting emotional. In the novel, Peg references the song at the very end of the story. My family has deep roots in Michigan, particularly the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so this song always speaks to me. When I was writing the ending of the book, I just played this song over and over and cried and cried.
Paradise– John Prine
My Dad used to play this on the guitar all the time. Later, my brother and him would play it together, and sometimes we would sing along. I had the sense the song spoke to my father very much about the nostalgia he held for his hometown Detroit, though that might not be true. In any case I’m including it her because it reminds me of my childhood, and also evokes such a deep sense of loss, of the pull of memory, and place. RIP John Prine, whom we lost to COVID-19 in 2020.
I Shall Be Released– Nina Simone
I’m including this as the final song for Peg, whose suffering, I know, is my own fault, and for whom I feel a deep sense of responsibility. I love her, and I love Dee, the way I love my own sisters, and so I want for her, what I want for my sisters, for all women, for everyone suffering in the world: peace. This form of peace might not have come in the way most readers hoped, but by the end of the novel, I believe Peg is equipped with everything she needs to be released. I loved the Bob Dylan version of this song first, but I love the Nina Simone version more.
Willa C. Richards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was awarded the Sheila Roberts Prize for best short story twice, the Thomas J. Bontly Faculty Fiction Award, and the Academy of American Poets Edward Ryan Prize. Her first story, “Failure to Thrive,” was published by The Paris Review last fall.