May 12, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jessica Anya Blau's novel Mary Jane immerses you in the Baltimore of the 1970s from its first page, and its empathetically-drawn characters will linger in your mind long past the last.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Blau’s intelligent, witty novel captures the essence of the ’70s with humor and immensely appealing characters. Highly recommended."
Soundflashes: 1. My parents put on the Beatles and the whole family dances around our California living room, my brother balanced on my hip. My mother playfully bops our heads with a fist during the Bang, Bang parts of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." 2. With my saved allowance, I buy my first album, To You, With Love, Donny. I sit on the bottom bunk in my pink-wallpapered room, singing "Puppy Love." 3. My high school boyfriend and I agree that it’s time to go all the way. I decide that I want Rod Stewart singing "Tonight’s the Night" for the event. We end up doing it at the beach without music. I vomit from too much beer in media res, and the next morning I feel hungover and cheated out of Rod’s accompaniment. 4. In Europe with my best friend from college, we take a train to Rotterdam for a David Bowie concert and work our way, without proper tickets, to the foot of the stage. When Bowie plays "Young Americans" we scream the words, pointing at ourselves, near tears.
It doesn’t end there. There is marriage (Chaka Khan), motherhood (Rickie Lee Jones), graduate school (Counting Crows), divorce (Taylor Swift), moving from one end of the country to another (Prince), relocating to Canada (Sheryl Crow) and later to New York (Shovels and Rope). . . every chapter in the story of my life has a defining song.
And every book I’ve written has a defining soundtrack. I search for songs my characters would listen to, and I regularly play the Billboard top 100 of the year in which the book is set. The music puts me in the headspace of the time, the people, and the place (If you turn on the radio in Santa Barbara, California—no matter what decade—you will hit an Eagles song within an hour).
My new book, Mary Jane, takes place in Baltimore in 1975. At home, Mary Jane and her mother listen to Broadway soundtracks. At church she sometimes sings tweaked pop music along with hymns. When Mary Jane goes to work as a nanny for a psychiatrist who’s housing a rock star and his movie star wife for the summer, she’s exposed to everything from funk to folk.
Here’s a list of ten from the hundreds of ‘70s songs I listened to while writing Mary Jane:
1. "Up for the Downstroke," Parliament. I’d never heard this song until I was searching for early '70s music. Immediately it was one I played on repeat.
2. "Over the Hills and Far Away," Led Zeppelin. The tempo change from slow and soulful to head-thumping feels very '70s to me (think "Band on The Run").
3. "Love and Happiness," Al Green. One of my favorite songs. Period.
4. "Rhinestone Cowboy," Glen Campbell. I love Glen’s tangy, country voice.
5. "Willin’," Linda Ronstadt. Little Feat sang this song first, but I prefer the Ronstadt version. Is there any song that isn’t better when Linda covers it?
6. "Dirty Work," Steely Dan. I turned my kids on to Steely Dan and they loved them right away. Since there’s really nothing else like this that they’ve been exposed to, I think their immediate love says something, right?
7. "(If Loving You is Wrong) I don’t want To Be Right," Millie Jackson. To me, this is the perfect make-out song.
8. "Hosanna," Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. This is my favorite song from the musical. It has a big crowd sing in it, and I love crowd singing.
9. "Angel from Montgomery," Bonnie Raitt and John Prine. Their two voices roped together gives me the chills.
10. "Shining Star," Earth, Wind and Fire. There is no time of day or night when I’m not happy to hear an Earth, Wind and Fire song. I would get out bed at four am and dance if I were woken to this song.
Jessica Anya Blau was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. Her novels have been featured on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, and in Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Bust, Time Out, Oprah Summer Reads and other national publications. Jessica's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. Jessica co-wrote the script for Love on the Run starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey. She sometimes works as a ghost writer and has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and The Fashion Institute of Technology. Jessica lives in New York.
May 12, 2021
Tor Nightfire shared an essay by Nick Harkaway on writing crime fiction (under the pseudonym Aidan Truhen).
Jason Isbell talked guitars with American Songwriter.
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Ani DiFranco played a Tiny Desk Concert.
Stacey Abrams discussed her new novel with the Los Angeles Times.
Paste interviewed singer-songwriter Lisa Gerrard.
BuzzFeed recommended books by South Asian authors.
St. Vincent's Annie Clark discussed her discography with Vulture.
Stream a new St. Vincent song.
Jessica Anya Blau discussed her new novel with InStyle.
Stream a new Sleater-Kinney song.
The Strategist recommended books about environmental justice.
Indie musicians discussed the NFT phenomenon at Pitchfork.
Entertainment Weekly recommended May's best comics.
The Creative Independent interviewed Matt Sweeney.
NOW recommended summer's best books.
Bandcamp Daily shared a guide to western Washington's DIY music scene.
Vulture interviewed cartoonist Alison Bechdel.
Stream a new Liz Phair song.
SPIN interviewed Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt.
Stream a new Okkervil River song.
Anjali Enjeti recommended books about the partition of Pakistan and India at Electric Literature.
Stream a new Mountain Goats song.
CBC Books recommended spring's most exciting Canadian books.
Lucy Dacus discussed her new album with Rolling Stone.
Monique Roffey discussed how independent publishers are essential for literary fiction writers at the Bookseller.
Stream a new Sylvan Esso song.
The OTHERPPL podcast interviewed author Elissa Washuta.
Stream a new song by Torres.
Full Stop interviewed translator Hedgie Choi.
The Transmissions podcast interviewed Richard Thompson.
The Thresholds podcast interviewed author Rachel Kushner.
Stream a new song by Annie Blackman.
May 10, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeff Chon's novel Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun is a satirical and startling debut, an important book for our times.
Tom McAllister wrote of the book:
"Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is one of the boldest, smartest, and weirdest books I've read in years. I haven't seen anyone, anywhere, write so expertly, clearly, and empathetically about the ways online culture is wrecking young men. Jeff Chon pulls off a remarkable feat in this novel, tackling dark and frightening subject matter in a way that never feels overbearing or preachy. Plus, it's funny."
Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun is about a would-be mass shooter who becomes a folk hero after foiling the plans of another mass shooter. It’s also about the 2016 election, Catcher in the Rye-based conspiracy theories, Pizzagate-style ridiculousness, and the radicalization of toxic young men. These songs were culled from a much longer list of music I listened to while writing the novel. I chose the songs I felt fit thematically, rather than stuff I mostly listened to in order to stay alert—these were the songs that really got my brain going in very interesting ways. It really does feel like a soundtrack to my book.
“Bastille Day,” by Rush
It strikes me calling a song “Bastille Day” and then talking about the Reign of Terror seems a bit ahistorical, but employing ahistorical accounts to push apocalyptic agendas seem to kind of be our thing lately.
“Search and Destroy,” by Iggy and the Stooges
As I’ve gotten older, the badass energy of “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” has been replaced with something a little sadder. To me, it seems the narrative persona of this song knows he’s dangerous and is begging for us to either save him or put him out of his misery. I find his pleas for salvation very moving. Iggy’s vocals also make him sound like a weenie, which just adds to the sense of vulnerability.
“Give Me the Cure,” by Fugazi
The lyrics are oblique enough to apply to any sort of desperate yearning we might have. Teen angst is such a dismissive term. It sucks to be a young person. It’s a scary world. Imagine living in it, knowing it wasn’t a world of your own creation, but that of the adults around you. We should be nicer to young people.
“Shine,” by Collective Soul
Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, was obsessed with this song, and I can honestly see why. In a lot of ways, it’s like “Give Me the Cure” (which I’m sure the punk rock boys will love hearing) in that both are songs about begging for some kind of sign. It really is one of those songs we’re too cool to admit is actually good.
“Subliminal,” by Suicidal Tendencies
They were so much better when they were funny. We should always strive be more funny. I like to think my book is funny in the same kind of way, the way temper tantrums seem funny when they’re not our own.
“TV II,” by Ministry
The lyrics kind of sum of the process of composing this novel, while also being a very good representation of rage swirling inside the skull of my “protagonist.” It’s funny now that I’m out of it. Just an absolutely unpleasant song, to be honest.
“Goodbye to Love,” by The Carpenters
Just a beautiful song about giving up after having your heart broken. I used to live near the Carpenters’ home in Downey. Every once in a while, when I’d drive to the mall, I’d see people taking pictures in front of it. Just seemed so morbid.
“My War,” by Black Flag
Did I want to transition from Karen Carpenter to Henry Rollins? Yes, I did. Do I feel this swing in mood and tone describes this novel’s ethos in a very specific way? Sure, absolutely.
“What a Fool Believes,” by The Doobie Brothers
This song shows up in what I consider to be a really funny moment in the novel. Part of why I find it so funny is because if there were a credit sequence to novels, I’d like this song to play during mine. She’s not into you anymore. You’re not winning her back. Let it go, man.
“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” by Nick Lowe
The idea of lashing out because you need to feel something. It’s so catchy, you find yourself bobbing your head and smiling as he sings about destroying things in order to forget how utterly alone he is.
“Touch Me I’m Sick,” by Mudhoney
I appreciate the confrontational nature of this song. “I am all these bad things you think I am, so let me infect you because you’re no better than me. Join me.” This is what internet trolling is, in a lot of ways.
“Point of Disgust,” by Low
The idea of holding onto things, knowing you aren’t the right person to be holding it is such a sad and lovely idea.
“No Reptiles,” by Everything Everything
It’s frantic, violent, and comically grotesque. The rapid-fire falsetto, the menacing baritone, all the shifts in temp—there’s a playfulness to the composition that I hope I was able to capture in my book.
“Street Spirit (Fade Out),” by Radiohead
The sense of hopelessness in this song gets me every time. “Immerse your soul in love,” he says. How can I do that after everything I’ve seen and everything you’ve shown me?
“I’m So Excited,” by Le Tigre
There’s this undercurrent of menace to this version that no one else seems to see. The Pointer Sisters version sounds like they’re going out on the town—this version sounds like a gang of hooligans getting ready to fuck shit up. The sneering in the chorus brings me great joy.
“Michael Myers Resplendent,” The Mountain Goats
The refrain was an epigraph at one time, but that eventually disappeared when I realized nothing was lost by cutting it (who knew one of my Darlings would be someone else’s words?). I can’t think about the final act without thinking of this song—everything leads here because it’s where people like this end up.
Jeff Chon's stories and essays have appeared in The Seneca Review, The Portland Review, Barrelhouse, Juked, and The North American Review, among other fine places. He currently lives in the Bay Area with his wife and children.
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I love writing. I learned to write almost as soon as I learned to read. I went through a teenage phase where I wrote Christian rock and country music. Turns out those are not genres for me, but I see it both as a passion, but it's also an avocation. I used to say when I wrote my romance novels, I could pay car notes but not buy a car. And now I'm in a place where the purchasing power of my writing is slightly higher and I appreciate it.
Alt.Latina took a deep dive into Mexican regional music.
Mark Millar talked screenwriting with CBR.
The Current is counting down the 893 best debut albums.
The A.V. Club recommended May's best new books.
The New York Times recommended the week's best new books.
The Guardian interviewed Curtis Sittenfeld.
Noisey examined the world of Filipino indie music.
Vulture listed the best books of the year (so far).
PopMatters listed the best R.E.M. albums.
Stream a new song by HEALTH.
LAMBDA Literary previewed May’s most anticipated LGBTQ literature.
BrooklynVegan listed the week's best music livestreams.
Patterson Hood and his father, David Hood, discussed the "Muscle Shoals sound" with AL.com.
Bustle profiled author Torrey Peters.
Stream a new song by Thurston Moore.
Stream a new song by Lisa Gerrard and Jules Maxwell.
Bookworm interviewed Rachel Cusk.
Pillow Queens covered the Cranberries "When You're Gone."
The Rumpus previewed the week's online literary events.
Aquarium Drunkard interviewed singer-songwriter Rosali Middleman.
Emma Donoghue shared how she wrote her novel Room at the Guardian.
Maryanne O'Hara talked to CarolineLeavittville about her new memoir.
Stream a new song by Fucked Up.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interviewed Garielle Lutz.
Stream a new song by Moon-Drenched.
May 6, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michael Lowenthal's collection Sex with Strangers explores our need for connection with wisdom and poignancy.
Justin Torres wrote of the book:
"This book, just like seeking sex with strangers in real life, is sometimes risky, sometimes about loneliness, and continuously offers lessons about the roots and vagrancies of our own desire. Sex with Strangers always leaves an impression and reminds us of the eternal resurrection of hope in the human heart."
Music used to be a huge part of my life. Throughout high school and college and into my early twenties, I played jazz and classical trumpet, as well as folk and bluegrass on the banjo and guitar. I was constantly performing, listening to records, making tapes (yes, tapes; this was the ’80s and ’90s) for friends, going to shows. But then somehow it all stopped. I moved from a farmhouse in New Hampshire to Boston, into an apartment building where I knew I would disturb my neighbors if I played. Plus, I was starting to get serious about writing, and when I’m writing, music (or any sound, really) derails me. I wrote with earplugs in my ears, plus noise-cancelling headphones. So somehow I got into this terrible habit of not listening to music. Fast-forward to 2021, and I don’t use Spotify or iTunes; I rarely listen to CDs in my car, opting instead for NPR or podcasts or audiobooks. About the only time I listen to music is at the gym, where I blast motivational techno into my ears. (Or did, before the pandemic.)
All of which is to say, when I first considered making this playlist, I suspected music had not had much to do with my writing of Sex with Strangers. And yet, as I thought of the stories, I realized that they all do have strong musical connections—songs that are either mentioned directly in the text or that I associate with the times, places, and situations that gave rise to the fiction. Music must still be part of me in ways I’m not quite conscious of. Which is a relief.
Here’s one song for each of the collection’s eight stories.
1. “Madagascar,” Art of Trance
In the first story, “Over Boy,” the youth-obsessed protagonist goes clubbing on his twenty-ninth birthday, “the last birthday when, if he told people the occasion, and they asked how old he was, he could truthfully say a number starting with twenty.” He goes to Campus, which was very much a real club in Cambridge, Mass., located between Harvard and MIT, popular with college students and their admirers. I have great memories of dancing at Campus, and I can close my eyes and see my friend Ricky strutting up and down the dance floor to Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.” But that’s not the song I’m choosing. The story is also about taking Ecstasy for the first time and giving yourself up to a kind of collective joy. And when I think of the experiences that inspired that part of the story—unforgettable, endless nights of dancing in the late ’90s and early aughts, sometimes at Campus but also at clubs in Boston, New York, London, and elsewhere—I think of the trance music that was so intensely gorgeous it made me stop dancing and just stand on the dancefloor and absorb it. My favorite track was “Madagascar,” which is like souls turned into sound.
2. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” Harry Belafonte
In “You are Here,” a newly ordained Catholic priest, as a prize for having the highest marks in his seminary class, gets a junket on a Caribbean cruise, where he serves as the ship’s chaplain. Just as he’s starting to come to terms with having chosen a life of celibacy, he runs into his ex-girlfriend, who is the ship’s Shore Excursion Manager. In one scene, they go to the Jolly Roger Room, where Kip’s Kalypso Kings libidinously perform. Kip is a “jowly, ash-skinned man who, according to his bio on the drinks menu, once sang backup for Jimmy Buffett.” He croons “Day-O” as if it were a love song. (I can remember my dad singing this song in the car, during summers on Cape Cod.)
“Uncle Kent” is maybe the least musically oriented story in the book—the only one, I think, that doesn’t mention a song. But it still has musical associations for me. It’s set on Christmas day, when the narrator, her thirteen-year-old daughter, and her honorary “Uncle” Kent (the mother’s fun but problematic ex, who has just come back from living overseas) are cooking a holiday dinner. On the surface, all is festive as they make Brussels sprouts and stuffing and angel-food cake. But there’s an undercurrent of discomfort, culminating in a moment when the mother has to reckon with whether, now that her daughter is a teenager, their relationship with Kent may need to be reconsidered. As someone who was raised Jewish and bristles at Christianity, one of my darkest secrets is that I love Christmas music. Not the poppy Muzak shit, but real Christmas music: old German and English carols, boy choirs. My favorite Christmas songs—the ones I listen to on Christmas morning as I’m cooking for a holiday I don’t believe in—are those that, like this short story, have an undernote of darkness. I especially like “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
4. “Beijo na Boca,” Axé Bahia
“Thieves” involves a fraught sexual liaison on a fictional Brazilian island, for which I drew inspiration from the island of Itaparica, off the coast of Bahia, where I was lucky enough to spend two months at an artists’ residency. While I was there, I fell hard for all things Brazilian, very much including the music. I listened to the great Tropicália singers as well as more contemporary pop artists like Ivete Sangalo, plus traditional Northeastern forró and lots of Axé, the style that originated in Salvador, the city I’d take a ferry to on weekends. But while I could pick sublime examples from any of those genres, instead I’m going to go with the ridiculous: “Beijo na Boca,” a cheesy but infectious track by a super-commercial Eurodance-y group called Axé Bahia. When I got involved with a local guy (remember, I fell hard for all things Brazilian), this became our song. We would sing its ludicrous lyrics to each other and laugh and laugh and laugh. The chorus, translated, goes something like: “French kissing is old-fashioned/ The in thing now is making out naked.”
5. “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” Liza Minnelli
In “Stud,” the seventeen-year-old narrator is a music-club busboy who has a momentous sexual encounter with a performer during intermission. I based the club on the Iron Horse Music Hall, in Northampton, Mass., where I got my first job after college. I was a dishwasher, which was tough work, and I couldn’t see much of the shows through the dish room’s smudged porthole. But there were speakers on the wall above the sink, so I could hear everything. In this way, I “attended” shows by Richard Thompson, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Taj Mahal, and dozens of other fabulous musicians. There’s a moment in the story that I stole directly from something I witnessed at the Iron Horse: an a capella group (was it the Nylons?) was doing their sound check, and to test the levels in each mic, the singers, one after the next, going from zero to sixty in a millisecond, would belt out “You’ve made me so very happy, I’m so glad you came into my liiiiife.” Just that one line, over and over. Campy and operatic and unforgettable. The recorded version of the song that best matches my memory is Liza Minnelli’s.
6. “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” Aretha Franklin (and the whole Songs of Faith album)
“Do Us Part” is a story about a man and woman who, despite being mismatched in all too many ways, get married. “They had so little in common. But wasn’t that the excitement?” the woman tries to convince herself. “Weren’t those differences the magnet-pull of their love?” One example of the mismatch: she likes to belt out Woody Guthrie songs in the shower, imagining herself rousing a crowd of workers, but he scoffs at her: “Please. You’re from Scarsdale—a woman of the people?” In another scene, she takes him out on the town for his birthday: fancy dinner, then an Aretha Franklin concert at the Orpheum. She thinks she’s pulled off a perfect night—including the birthday present she gave him, a CD of fourteen-year-old Aretha, pre-stardom, singing gospel in her father’s church—but on the subway ride home, suddenly he pulls away and becomes inscrutably hostile. It’s a harbinger of the darkness to come. But teenage Aretha singing gospel? Sublime!
7. “Frio Frio,” Juan Luis Guerra
“Marge” is set in a tough city neighborhood, back in the early 1980s. The title character is a trans woman (although her neighbors don’t give her the respect of seeing her fully that way) who is both bullied and fetishized, and who arouses poisonous shame in those, including the teenage boy narrator, who can’t come to terms with their attraction to her. I kept the setting purposefully vague—it’s urban, pre-gentrification—because I wanted the story to seem gritty but almost mythic, just as Marge herself, to those around her, is unable to be seen as the specific woman she is, and instead looms as a kind of symbolic figure. I also kept the race and ethnicity of the characters somewhat vague, though some of them have Latino names. For twenty-five years now, I’ve lived in and around the parts of Boston that have thriving Dominican communities, and I guess it was inevitable that when I was dreaming up my fictional places and people, I borrowed from elements of the neighborhoods I’m familiar with—even though, as I’ve said, I didn’t set the story exactly there. One thing I love about these areas is the sound of Dominican music booming from the porches of traditional triple-decker houses. (I feel a special affinity for the Dominican Republic, where my parents lived in the 1960s and where my sister was born.) I can imagine the characters in “Marge” on a too-hot summer day, sitting on their stoops, listening to Juan Luis Guerra. I especially love his Areito album, with tracks like “Frio Frio.”
8. “Missa Luba,” Muungano National Choir Kenya
The collection’s last story, “The Gift of Travel,” is the one most firmly rooted in an autobiographical situation. It’s about a young writer trying to salvage a long-distance relationship while caring for his mentor, a gay erotic writer dying of AIDS. The mentor is based strongly on John Preston, who took me under his wing before his death in 1994. John was very sexually in-your-face; he’d worked as a hustler in San Francisco; he edited a series of erotic anthologies called Flesh and the Word; among his best-known books were the S/M classics In Search of a Master and Tales of the Dark Lord—but in his everyday life, by the time I knew him, he was surprisingly avuncular and conventional. Less bondage, more Brooks Brothers. And although he was wonderfully irreverent, as he faced death, he found some comfort in the religious traditions in which he’d been raised. He specified everything he wanted at his high-Episcopal memorial service, to be held at St. Luke’s Cathedral, in Portland, Maine. (The Harbor Masters, an LGBT leatherfolks’ group, showed up in full leather gear.) At the service, “A Mighty Fortress” and other hymns were sung, but the religious music that I most recall John appreciating in his final months was the “Miss Luba (Kyrie Eleison).” I really like the version from the Muungano National Choir, from Kenya.
Michael Lowenthal is the author of four novels: The Same Embrace, Avoidance, Charity Girl, and The Paternity Test. He lives in Boston.
Anna Dorn's memoir Bad Lawyer recounts her experience in law school and as a lawyer, and exposes the flaws in our justice system with uncanny honesty and humor (that is also found in her brilliant debut novel, Vagablonde).
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A must-read for anyone considering law school."
Bad Lawyer is about my wack experiences in law school, courthouses, and law offices. The idea is to demystify law as a revered profession, mostly using myself as an example. The period I’m writing about—my 20s—is pretty cringe. (I’m never not cringing at a fairly recent version of myself.) In my 20s I had a blacklight Biggie Smalls poster in my bedroom and carried around a baby blue pipe and a grinder filled with weed in my Marc by Marc purse at all times. I wore culturally insensitive jewelry and unironically wrote raps. In my spare time, I’d tag “Vagablonde” (my rap name) in glittery paint pens on random buildings around Berkeley, where I went to law school.
I thought I was really cool.
I wasn’t. But in retrospect, my behavior makes sense. In law school, I felt very small. I was a queer woman in a historically hetero-male institution. If a teacher noticed me it was mostly to tell me there was something wrong with me. I spoke too softly and without enough certainty. My demeanor was inappropriately casual. My hair was messy and I had the posture of a crow.
I used rap music to feel powerful. I guess that’s why rap is so popular among Suburban nerds. When I rapped along to Nicki Minaj, I could vampire her swagger and feel like someone else.
Here are some songs that helped me escape my meek self in law school and beyond:
“She Neva Seen” - Mac Dre
In retrospect this song isn’t very good. The lyrics are silly and the production is shit. But it fills me with nostalgia for my early 20s in San Francisco (“the world’s biggest little city”). When I moved there to intern at the public defender, I had a major crush on a guy who wore a bedazzled Mac Dre T-shirt every day.
“93 ‘Til Infinity” - Souls of Mischief
My move to San Fran inspired a major Bay Area rap phase, and this track—recorded in San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios in 1993—is the apotheosis of the genre.
“Machine Gun Funk” - Notorious B.I.G.
My 20’s were all about Biggie Smalls. I recall wandering around the Mission high late at night listening to Ready to Die and feeling oh so badass.
Bad Girls — M.I.A.
I have the most vivid memory of having sex in my Berkeley studio to M.I.A.’s 2010 mixtape Vicki Leekx, lighting a bowl, and hearing the part of the mixtape that became “Bad Girls.” My chain hits my chest while I’m banging on the dashboard. It was so sexy. I thought to myself, this should be its own track, and then I got my wish! And then I got the bonus gift of Romain Garvas’s sizzling music video. M.I.A. filing her nails on the edge of a speeding car? Rolling her body before a desert expanse while a car explodes behind her? I need to take some deep breaths.
“Pop The Glock” — Uffie
Miami-via-Paris rapper Uffie is exactly how I wanted Vagablonde to sound—autotuned and scrappy and blasé af.
“Did It On ‘Em” - Nicki Minaj
In law school I was a Nicki Minaj superfan. I’ve always felt like a crazed stage mom with her because I started listening to her before she was popular and tweeted in 2009 that she was “about to blow up.” Her music has become more sophisticated over the years but I’m partial to Pink Friday, which came out when I was a 1L, or first-year law student in inane lawyer speak. At law school parties I would turn off Arcade Fire or whatever people were listening to and blast “Did It On ‘Em” at max volume.
“212” — Azealia Banks
This song dropped when I was a 2L and it was just the best thing I’d ever heard. I was still dating men at the time but Azealia rapping about getting her cunt eaten by a Parisian woman offered promise of a better life.
“Gucci Gucci” — Kreayshawn
This song also came out my 2L year and it felt very personal. Much like myself, Kreayshawn was a white rapper living in the Bay Area (“Oakland city represent, address me as your majesty”). We were basically the same, except she was much more famous.
“The Recipe” - Kendrick Lamar
Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City dropped when I was in law school and blew everyone’s minds. This track samples Mr. Twin Sister’s adorable track “Meet the Frownies” and preaches love for the Golden State: “women, weed and weather.”
“Blood On The Leaves” — Kanye West
I often credit Yeezus for my passing the bar. I would listen to it every day as I ran through the Berkeley hills during study breaks. This song in particular gave me the confidence to keep going. To this day, when the horns drop I’m filled with a rush of adrenaline.
“Murda Something (feat. Waka Flocka Flame)” - A$AP Ferg
Ferg and Waka—what a duo! I saw them both perform live in DC the year I did my clerkship. I would listen to “Murda Something” every day as I swerved past the metal detectors at DC Superior Court, where they had a lot of murder trials. Uncouth, I know….
Anna Dorn earned a BA at UNC-Chapel Hill and her JD at UC Berkeley Law. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch. Dorn went on to practice law for five years-first, as a law clerk at DC Superior Court; then, as a research fellow at the criminal justice nonprofit Phillips Black; finally, as a court-appointed appellate attorney in California. She left law in 2018 and doesn't plan on going back.
Stacey Abrams discussed her new novel with the New York Times.
eBooks on sale for $1.99 today:
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Music writer Ed Ward has passed away.
Alan Moore signed a contract to write a five-part fiction series and a short story collection.
NPR Music examined the state of new British post-punk music.
The Ringer's "60 Songs That Explain the ’90s" feature is filled with interesting reads.
Paste previewed May's most anticipated albums.
BuzzFeed recommended books by Asian American authors.
Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner discussed her memoir with The Cut's podcast.
Electric Literature interviewed author Christine Smallwood.
Vulture listed the best albums of the year (so far).
The Big Issue recommended history books.
The Creative Independent interviewed musician Big Boi.
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May 5, 2021
Winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize, Heather Frese's The Baddest Girl on the Planet is a brilliant debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Frese debuts with an impressive examination of small-town island life in coastal North Carolina...dynamic structure and strong voice...Readers will find lots to love."
This is my debut novel. It follows Evie Austin, native of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, and, ostensibly, the baddest girl on the planet, as she weaves in and out of time, untangling the threads of her bad reputation. (My one rule while compiling this playlist was to avoid Joan Jett.) I decided to go chapter by chapter and try to capture the mood of Evie’s evolution as she navigates the shifting shoals of her relationships – familial, platonic, romantic, and communal.
I loved going through and feeling out songs. Each chapter has a pretty distinct vibe and time frame, as I wanted to look at the small, seemingly insignificant moments or turning points that end up building into the transformation of someone’s character, the way we come of age into our adulthood. The book seemed particularly ripe for a soundtrack; here’s Evie’s.
So What by Pink
Evie Austin opens the book by dealing her no-good husband a sucker punch (by sleeping with Royce, the guy she works with at the real estate office). Things are bad at home but she’s not going to sit around waiting for things to implode; she’s going to torch the marriage herself. She’s gonna start a fight. I also chose this song to play off the appearance of Mike Tyson in the book, a theme that ended up carrying more metaphorical heft than I initially imagined. The brashness and bravado and fury in this song were the same things that drew me to Evie’s voice and made me want to keep writing about her.
I’m Just a Girl by No Doubt
This is a tiny little chapter, but it encapsulates the way Evie internalizes the bad girl reputation that dogs her throughout her childhood and teens, and how pissed that makes her as she grows up to realize what was going on all along; the way girls are dealt a raw deal when it comes to the formation of a “reputation” that wouldn’t happen if they were male. She’s just a girl in the world.
Beautiful Stranger by Madonna
In chapter three, nine-year-old Evie narrates the summer of 1999, when the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was being plucked up and moved inland to save it from erosion. This song would’ve been playing on the radio while her Aunt Fay drove Evie and her brother, Nate, up the beach; they lived with her this summer while their mom was busy having an affair with a lighthouse-mover and their dad worked and drank through his broken heart. Through the tumult of her summer, Evie meets Charlotte, a little girl from Ohio camping in Hatteras on vacation, and they become BFFs.
Muchachita Linda by Juan Luis Guerra
Flash forward fifteen years and Evie’s a single mom while Charlotte teaches poetry in Boston. They’ve grown apart over the years, but they take a vacation together to the Dominican Republic, thanks to Evie winning a contest sponsored by Dominican Al’s Rum and Fine Spirits. They do a lot of bachata dancing on this trip, and a lot of disconnecting and coming back together(-ish).
Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
Evie’s Aunt Fay dies in this chapter. Aunt Fay has been Evie’s consistent source of support and understanding, so her loss has Evie feeling like she’s veiled in a film of grief, her life gone overcast.
Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destroyers
For a spot of comic relief after a sad chapter and the one time I’m going to let myself use a song with “bad” in the title, this song is for Aunt Fay’s Very Bad Dog, Walter, who’s adopted by Evie.
Phantom Limb by The Shins
This chapter falls back in time to the period immediately after Evie’s son’s birth, when Evie’s whole self feels like a phantom limb. “A phantom and a fly/Follow the lines and wonder why/There's no connection” speaks to the way Evie doesn’t feel an instant, maternal bond with her baby and how she’s living in a marriage that’s already beginning to fracture.
Simple Song by The Shins
Another Shins song for the Austin siblings—this one for Evie’s brother as he searches for lasting love. “And it feels like the ocean, being warmed by the sun,” is a lyric I can’t live without. And this one: “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff/You brought me a great big flood/And you gave me a lift/To care, what a gift.” While the upper arc of the section is Evie’s vicarious observation of Nate’s love life, the underlying love story is that of siblings who go from bickering kids to adults who care for, understand, and support one another.
Good as Hell by Lizzo
Evie goes on a truly ill-fated trip to Las Vegas with a former pen-pal in this chapter. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say Evie ends up feeling real Lizzo-ish.
Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift
Bad reputations don’t just come out of nowhere, and good girls don’t turn “bad” all on their own. The frustration in this song mirrors how Evie feels in this chapter, which is framed as a letter from Evie to the woman who made her son break up with Evie in high school. Evie’s trying to show how she was pigeonholed into this bad reputation, identifying the role people in her community shoved her into. She’s also thinking about how those people are going to regret it because she’s going to rise above.
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon
When I was drafting this chapter where Evie is falling in love, I initially had her love interest’s name as Julio, and lyrics from “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” incorporated into the chapter when Evie is singing in the car. I really loved “I’m on my way/I don’t know where I’m going/I’m on my way/I’m taking my time but I don’t know where” for falling in love, or lust, or what may be something amazing or may be another failed affair. I ended up realizing that I’d never be able to get the rights to publish those lyrics and then also changed the name of Evie’s new guy, but whenever I think of this chapter those lyrics still run through my head.
Simple Gifts by Joseph Brackett
It’s a little odd to choose an old Shaker hymn for a chapter where Evie’s drunkenly wandering the Las Vegas strip searching for Mike Tyson, but there you go. Evie loves the Bellagio fountains, and this is one of the songs they play. By the end of the chapter, Evie’s search for Mike Tyson results in working toward some self-acceptance. “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.”
Home is Wherever I’m with You by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Throughout the book, Evie has a complicated relationship with her island community. She’s searching for home, really, for a place that doesn’t change, for something steadfast and true. A nostalgia for a time she can’t get back. But she finally feels like she belongs, you know? She’s at home with her spirit, secure in herself and her place in the community. And then she has to decide if she’ll leave.
Heather Frese's fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She received her master's degree from Ohio University and her M.F.A. from West Virginia University. Coastal North Carolina is her longtime love and source of inspiration, her writing deeply influenced by the wild magic and history of the Outer Banks. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Celeste Mohammed's novel-in-stories Pleasantview is an ambitious and empathetic exploration of lives in a Trinidadian village.
Claire Adam wrote of the book:
"In one of Chekhov's stories, a character says that every happy man should have someone who taps at his door with a little hammer, reminding him that there are unhappy people in the world. Reading Celeste Mohammed's novel-in-stories makes me think of that magical little tap - except that the door opens not to a vision of unhappiness, but to a world crammed with life that you never knew existed."
Music for the people: Pleasantview, a novel-in-stories
Everyone loves a Caribbean accent. In fact, in 2014, CNN ranked the Trinidadian accent among the top ten sexiest accents in the world . Melodious and lilting, a melange of interesting words—French, Spanish, English, and more—uttered in a unique cadence or, as some might say, a danceable rhythm. I blame the drums: the bongo and the tassa, the Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean drums which represent the two major ethnic groups of Trinidad and Tobago. Is it any wonder then, that music and the musicality of how we speak are a major influence on my fiction writing? The stories of my novel-in-stories, Pleasantview, were written to share with readers the rhythm of a people. If you want to get to know us, you have to learn our rhythm.
Maya Angelou once said, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” That perfectly expresses my intention while working on this book. In Pleasantview, one finds different ethnicities, different accents, different languages, and people code-switching at will between the basilect of raw creole to the acrolect of the Queen’s English. I hope the reader develops an ear for the differences, sees each character as an individual, but also notices that on these islands, language is a sliding scale. I also want the book as a whole to have an orchestral effect, greater than the sum of its individual voices. In literary terms, I’m echoing the clarion call made by Ella Andall in one of my favourite calypsos, “Rhythm of a People”:
People gather round, I want you listen well
To set your spirits free, I have this tale to tell.
Hear the grumbling of the drums, feel its mystic sounds
As it elevates you now to a higher ground.
Are you ready? (Are you ready for this?)
Rhythm to shake the living
Rhythm to raise the dead
Rhythm to purge the pain from your heart
Rhythm to make you laugh
Rhythm to make the soul of a people dance.
This general goal aside, there were specific stories which I wrote with the help of music. For example, the story “Six Months”, awardee of a 2018 Pen/Robert J Dau Prize for Emerging Writers, was written under the influence of the song “Deportees”, a Buju Banton classic from my high school days. Every time I’d sit to work on the story, I played that song to get into the character and mental space of an illegal Caribbean immigrant living that high materialistic life in America, but unaware that the fall’s not far behind. “Deportees” reminded me of the sense of entitlement to “share in the wealth” which many of us—those left behind—feel when our loved ones migrate; and the sense of abandonment when our box, barrel and money remittance expectations are unmet; and the derision we feel when deportees return home in dishonour:
Yuh wretch yuh! Yuh spen’ the whole ah it abroad
Squander yuh money, now yuh livin’ like dog.
There is a sex scene in “Six Months” where the protagonist, Afro-Trinidadian Luther, expresses wonder at the fact that he is “fucking a white chick”. In another story, “The Dragon’s Mouth”, Indo-Trinidadian fisherman, Sunil, is obsessed with marrying Consuela, who has been human-trafficked from Venezuela. In both cases, the Trini man’s unapologetic fascination with “white” women is revealed. Mind you, “white” could mean anything—Latina, Caucasian, Syrian, Eastern European—as long as there’s very light skin and straight hair involved (the blonder, the better, though). This is an accepted part of our culture. However for me, a dark-skinned Trini woman, to channel the levity with which our men display their prejudice and their unconscious loathing of their own mothers, sisters etc., I listened repeatedly to two songs:
“Congo Man”, a calypso classic, where The Mighty Sparrow laments:
I envy the Congo Man.
I wish I was he, I wanna shake he hand.
He eat until he stomach upset,
And I never eat a white meat yet,
and “Spanish Woman”, a soca-parang (i.e., a fusion of calypso and Venezuelan-derived folk music), in which The Baron declares,
I try all them other woman before
But them Spanish mujer is all I adore.
The epilogue of Pleasantview is entitled “Kings of the Earth”, borrowed from a Jamaican song. Jamaica’s dancehall culture took a lengthy detour into “consciousness” during the mid-to-late '90s when I was studying at The University of the West Indies. The high priest of the genre was Rastafarian, turban-wearing Sizzla, and he converted everyone my age to his Bible-thumping, kettle drum pounding, chantlike music. I think we, as a generation, were searching for something deeper in our Caribbean culture, something beyond dance and jook, wine and jam, crime and violence. At least in Trinidad, we were the generation born at the tail end of the '70s oil-boom, raised during the trauma of the '80s recession, and now watching our adulthood loom. We were desperate to believe in a higher power who would make things secure. The flip side of that: we were resentful of the older generations who had squandered our patrimony but who still sat pretty in places of authority. They would get their comeuppance, and we would be more responsible than them—we hoped.
Enter Sizzla, chanting:
Kings of the Earth
Come to yuhself
Yuh cannot chase every skirt
True Jah bless yuh with yuh wealth.
Woman of the soil, where is your meditation?
Fi de black child, the future generation.
In much the same way, Pleasantview’s Brother Omar names his youth group “Kings of the Earth”, and uses the guise of calling disaffected black boys to responsibility, then radicalizes them to his alternative ideology.
The story with the most obvious connection to music—in fact, I would call it a love letter to indigenous music—is “Santimanitay”. That word, derived from the French sans humanité, is loosely translated as “without mercy”, and is the traditional refrain to each verse of an extempo war. Extempo is a calypso artform where verses are made up on the spot, in response to a particular stimulus or challenge (picture a rap battle). This is exactly what happens in the story “Santimanitay”. The people of Pleasantview meet to mourn the death of one of the town’s prominent citizens, and they expiate their feelings through song. As a storyteller, I wanted to honour the fact that the root of all storytelling in the Caribbean is the oral tradition, the call-and-response, which survived colonialism, slavery and indentureship, into the modern day. Long before we had newspapers and social media in the Caribbean, we had the calypsonian and the chantuelle. It was their job to inform the people, to engage in social commentary, to satirize and criticize the establishment, to vent the resentments of a powerless majority by making an inside joke of polite society.
What I hope readers will take away from the story, and in fact from Pleasantview as a whole, is that the stories of a region belong not to its literati or intelligentsia, but to its ordinary people: they invent the new words, they set the pace and they make the rhythm.
Celeste Mohammed's fiction has won multiple awards, including the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, the 2019 Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and the 2017 John D Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New England Review, Litmag, Epiphany, and The Rumpus, among other places. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Celeste graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently resides in Trinidad with her family.
Stream a new song by Mitski.
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May 4, 2021
J. Nicole Jones's memoir Low Country is as affecting as it is surprising, a stunning book.
Bustle wrote of the book:
"J. Nicole Jones' devastating memoir examines the realities of living in a picture-perfect, privileged family where nothing is as it seems to the public eye."
There’s a famous Kurt Vonnegut line about writers wishing they could be musicians instead. It’s a claim I would never argue with. Music—and the craft of songwriting—were integral parts of a childhood with a father who taught himself how to write country music. When I began to write my memoir Low Country, I had to figure out how to weave in the music that was always around our house. Playing music felt like trying to understand a language that I just couldn’t crack, but I loved the rhyming dictionaries and books by songwriters that lingered in messy stacks on the coffee table—the perfect height for a nosy kid. Below are a few songs that were in the background of the events of Low Country.
John Prine, “Sam Stone”
My dad recalls singing this song as a busker on Broadway in downtown Nashville when he was just starting out as a musician, and I remember him singing it around the house. The line “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes” might be the first memory I have of really getting figurative language, and thinking it was powerful.
Guy Clark, “Anyhow I Love You”
Lines from Clark’s songs are quoted around my parents’ house constantly, like proverbs. “The only thing money can’t buy is true love and homegrown tomatoes,” is a summertime refrain, which is not from this song. I love this one for the harmonies, Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings, very recognizably.
Loretta Lynn, “One’s on the Way”
She’s got so many good ones. This one is so witty and sly, but somehow from the perspective of an overburdened wife and mother. It’s written by Shel Silverstein, the children’s book author, which is one of those facts that I love.
Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”
A classic. Their duets were on a lot in our house growing up, which I mention in the book. It was a toss-up as to whether I should include “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” or this one. Their bickering at the end is fun.
Hank Williams Jr., “Red, White & Pink Slip Blues”
I don’t know that I can say he’s anybody’s favorite, but this song took off on the radio for a while, and it’s the song my dad wrote that I allude to at the very beginning of my book. I recognize the pick-up truck and the desperate feeling from childhood, of the bills not being paid and struggling to make ends meet.
Brandy Clarke, “Hold My Hand”
Clarke is probably my dad’s favorite writing partner. He really loves her, and they wrote this one together. (Possibly throwing the baseball back and forth out in the yard, he likes to tell.) It’s the song that was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Country Song,” and she sings it beautifully. It’s very much the opposite of “Red, White & Pink-Slip Blues,” which I think my dad is proud of.
The Commodores, “Easy”
I can remember my dad trying to figure out this one on the piano and singing it coming home from morning shifts waiting tables. The year he got to go to the Grammys, there was a tribute to Lionel Richie and we got to see him onstage. That was pretty special.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
In my book, I write about the presence all over my childhood home of my dad’s rhyming dictionaries and thesauruses and legal pads with song lyrics. Jimmy Webb famously wrote this one, and he wrote a book about songwriting called Tunesmith that still floats from countertops to bookshelves in my parents’ house.
Taylor Swift, “I Think He Knows”
I have listened to a lot of Taylor Swift over the last year, especially during lockdown. Sixteenth Avenue is Music Row in Nashville, which features in the book. It used to be all these cool old homes turned into publishing houses where artists would drop off demos and meet to write.
Dolly Parton, “Two Doors Down”
I love this song so much, she is really a huge, beloved part of my childhood—as I’m sure her music and her persona are for so many. This one’s definitely a bop.
J. Nicole Jones received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University, and has since held editorial positions at VICE magazine and Vanity Fair. Her viral essay defending the art of memoir, "Why's Everyone So Down on the Memoir?" was published by the Los Angeles Review of Books and Salon, and her reviews and other writings have appeared in magazines including Harper's. She grew up in South Carolina, and now lives in Brooklyn and Tennessee.
Gian Sardar's novel Take What You Can Carry tells a poignant story of family and war.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"This is an unforgettable story about war and family, responsibility and love, but Sardar also pays tribute to the priceless connections we forge at the most terrible moments…A heartbreaking story about war, family, and love."
Writing a book means being haunted by it. If I’m ordering wine, there’s my character, hovering off to the side, forcing me to say okay okay, do you want red or white? Choosing perfume is no different, with my selection perhaps eliciting the claim that gardenia is just wrong. And music - I think of my book and wonder if whatever song I’m listening to would get turned up, or turned off. But for me, music is more than just items on a like/dislike list, but backdrops for scenes I’m writing or characters I’m trying to figure out. Often, I’ll have a song on repeat only to realize that low and behold, the lyrics fit perfectly with a moment I’m working on, and the more I listen to it the more I begin to direct the movie version in my head, and hone in on the elements I should play up - or realize what should be abandoned, since they didn’t make the cut.
Take What You Can Carry is the story of an American, Olivia Murray, who accompanies her boyfriend, Delan, to his home in Kurdistan of Iraq. When there, she’s confronted with a reality she’d never imagined, one that changes her forever. Since the year is 1979, music from the time period helped set the mood in certain scenes, but this list also includes those songs that helped me envision specific moments in my book, regardless of the year.
1) “Celebrate" by Dirty Heads
My character, Delan, is an actor who’s found success in America. There’s a certain amount of guilt he carries for being the only one in his family to have left Kurdistan, and all he’s missed with his parents weighs on him. From the moment I heard the first line in this song, Delan’s voice took over.
2) “Monsters” by Seafret
Without giving too much away, I’ll say there’s a moment in the novel after something terrible has happened, when the family’s gathered together in one room. Everyone but my main character is sleeping, and when I heard this song I saw this scene, and the lyrics captured the fear and disbelief Olivia would feel. Also, it’s just a great song.
3) “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
While in Kurdistan, Olivia gets a taste of the trauma that Delan experienced growing up, and with this comes insight into some of his past behavior. At one point, after a particularly devastating event, she remembers a night in Los Angeles when Delan dealt with news of home by drinking too much and passing out during his own party. As he sleeps, this song is mentioned. Not only was it a time period appropriate song, but I saw the party-goers hearing their state mentioned and latching onto that fame, thrilled and proud of their home while Delan has essentially escapes his.
4) “My Sharona” by The Knack
Released in 1979, this song worked for scene setting, but also I just love it. That said, when I was listening to it my 10 year old grabbed my phone to read the lyrics…and let’s just say I had to act quickly, as they’re definitely not kid appropriate. Whoops.
5) “Runnin' With the Devil” by Van Halen
This was one of my scene setting songs, and to find it I actually enlisted the help of my Facebook friends with a post that said, “I need a recognizable song that could be played early June of 1979, that a skeezy youngish dude in a gold colored Firebird would be playing as he checks out the ladies.” The suggestions were amazing, but this song won.
6) “The Wanton Song” by Led Zeppelin
I needed a song that would’ve been played at one of their parties, too loudly. This one fit the bill, and gets a reference.
7) “I’ll Be There” by Jess Glynne
This one made me think of the little girl in my book, and the love Olivia has for her, and became a song I associated with the end of the book. Strangely, I never heard the song outside of my iTunes playlist, until the day I boarded my Emirates flight to go to Kurdistan for a research trip. As I took my seat, still hoping my book would make it out into the world, they played this song. I took it as a sign. 😁
Gian Sardar was born in Los Angeles, California. Her father is from Kurdistan of Iraq, and her mother is from Minnesota. She studied creative writing at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of the novel You Were Here, and is the coauthor of the memoir Psychic Junkie. Gian’s work has appeared in the New York Times and Confrontation Magazine and on Salon.com, among other places. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and insane dog, and she enjoys gardening, cooking, and other forms of procrastination. For more information, visit www.giansardar.com.