In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Julia Dixon Evans’ moving and unpredictable novel How to Set Yourself on Fire is a startling debut.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:
“The atmosphere taut with tension, secrets and lies, How to Set Yourself on Fire exudes the quiet menace of an explosion waiting to happen…the start of a literary career that will be nothing short of incendiary.”
“She’s So Hard” – The Jezabels
Setting out to write this book, I didn’t know I’d be writing a problematic female character. But when I first wrote my first line about Sheila, I knew she had to be a bit of trouble, and not entirely likeable. She’s obsessive, difficult to talk to, and seems to sabotage everything. This song, in a way, is just the permission slip I needed but Sheila isn’t entirely hard. Sheila is soft. She’s soft in her own self-doubt and needs and the ways she seems to crumble when she wants to be hard.
“The Gardener” – The Tallest Man on Earth
This one’s about obsession and I love it. Sheila is owned by her obsessive nature in so many ways. And yeah so what if she follows people and breaks into their backyards, at least she doesn’t bury bodies by the lilies ha ha ha!
“Two Small Deaths” – Wye Oak
This song, I think originally soundtracked the writing process for me because of the way it emboldened the quiet sadness of everyday, specific shit. Sheila struggles with this all the time: is it something real and bigger than that quiet sadness of everyday shit? Is it something large or something clinical? And also the key relationship in this story, the friendship between Sheila and Torrey, was spun into being on account of two separate, actual deaths.
“Home” – Daughter
I wrote much of the first draft of this story while listening to Daughter’s atmospheric early stuff. Sheila has no real sense of home, and I think that’s something she’s constantly seeking. Take me home / cause I don’t stand a chance in these four walls.
“I’ll Still Destroy You” – The National
Not really a writing song because it came out long after this book was finished, but there’s the fatherhood in this song is striking: Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you / I’ll still destroy you. Sheila has to come to terms with her own absent father while watching Vinnie, her neighbor, parent his 12 year old daughter, Torrey. It’s so easy to destroy the people we make.
“Something” – Julien Baker
Sheila’s insomnia is almost like a backdrop to this story, and the way the lack of sleep nudges her closer and closer to insanity and incapability. I’m still up walking around / The walls of my skull bend backwards and in like a labyrinth. Julien Baker songs are also sad af. Enjoy.
“Love More” – Sharon Van Etten
I was listening to a lot of SVE when I was inspired to write this book, in 2013, and I saw her play live that August that I started writing it, and it was the first show I ever went to alone; I’ll never forget how that felt. I heard this song for the first time there and promptly started writing this story. I love the way this song is a little bit about healing and redemption, and ends with a mysterious “she” making her love, after cycling through a verse of “you” and a verse of “it,” and that structure kinda makes me think of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You.” I love the implications for that in a story so hinged upon female friendship and motherhood.
“Dendron” – The Hotelier
A friend told me this song is about a father. I think it’s about loss. Wish I was there to say goodbye when you went away / Wish I was home but no place was there. It’s also a bit of a rager so here’s a nice reprieve from all the slow songs.
“The Underside of Power” – Algiers
Rager rockblock! This song is dark as hell, but, like, a banger. I think there’s a bit of that in Sheila. This internal rage and darkness, masked by her own misunderstanding of herself and what it means to be down and out.
“Husbands” – Savages
Men really don’t fare well in this book. Except Vinnie. Vinnie is a good man. This is another banger. This song’s not for Vinnie.
“Yesterday’s Fire” – Moonface and Sinai
When I first heard this song, I’d already written most of the book. This is something that Vinnie pretty much says to Sheila one night, that simultaneous insignificance-magnitude combo of the universe. All the stars are dying and most of them are already through / We’re just getting off on yesterday’s fire. Bonus point for fire mention.
“Fuel to Fire” – Agnes Obel
I listened to a lot of Agnes Obel while writing this book. She has a lot of haunting tunes with sparse vocals, including entire albums of instrumentals if lyrics stifle your writing process, which is sometimes the case for me. This song makes me think of Sheila and her mother. Torn by the hours / All that I say to you / Is like fuel to fire.
“Don’t Save Us From The Flames” – M83
I think I have a minimum M83 song requirement on playlists so here’s a good one for a fiery book. This also has the greatest snippet of lyric: …a piece of brain in your hair.
“Sapsorrow” – Lanterns on the Lake
This is such a tragic song of external insecurity. You say that I’m cold and I’m hard to know. And I’ve been told this before and it feels like I’ll never recover from it. Sheila doesn’t need to be told it. She tells herself, and in her past we see those little seeds of being told it, and how they bloom into her own solid sorrow later.
“I Wish I Was The Moon” – Neko Case
If I put this song on my playlist, and then mention @nekocase on twitter when I tweet about it, maybe she’ll see it and then maybe she’ll read my book. Also there’s a few sweet moments in the book about Children’s Moon and mothers. I feel like this song is about longing and not belonging, and a little bit about the loss of youth, which is just so perfect for Sheila. Also: I’m paralyzed and collared-tight / No pills for what I fear.
“Benediction” – Touche Amore
A religious upbringing never leaves you, really, regardless of what you believe. The churchiness of it, the prayer of it. And when all the old church ladies from my past send me emails saying they can’t wait to read my book, I at first thing oh god the fucked up sex scenes, but then I think, oh god the post-church feeling. But I think there’s something really seeking and repair-thirsty about Sheila’s relationship with churches. She spends a lot of time breaking into them. And in particular, I imagine this song playing when Sheila is just standing at her car, detached and a bit angry, at a burial site. I love how this song, which is completely outside my musical wheelhouse, has a fuckin’ prayer in it, screamed. [screaming] MAY THE LORD BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU FOREVER. This post-hardcore one’s for u, church ladies.
“My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars” – Mitski
There’s a scene where Sheila, in some sort of olive branch moment, calls her mom to ask her what a particular star is, fully knowing how her mother will cherish being needed, being motherly, and it might not be anyone at their best, but it’s Sheila and her mother at their most… understanding of each other. I also love the combination of sadness and rage in a good Mitski tune.
“Gunshots” – The Twilight Singers
Another desolate, rock bottom sort of song that ramps up whatever mood I’m in. That’s a good space for writing. And everything Greg Dulli does is weirdly hot.
We now enter the Harold C. Carr portion of the liner notes. This novel is written mostly from Sheila’s POV, but there’s a solid epistolary element throughout, in the form of letters sent by someone in the ‘50s called Harold. He’s hopeless, and he’s sappy, and he’s just so incredibly polite. He’s a bit of an emotional mess, too, and maybe that’s why Sheila latched onto him so much, but it meant I had to change gears, often, while writing, to get into Harold’s voice. I had a little arsenal of Harold music that I’d cue up when I needed to find him, and here’s a taste.
First up is:
“Never Gonna Love Again” – Lykke Li
A big part of Harold’s voice was the sheer tunnel vision of his despair and desolation, putting all of his hope into love from Rosamond, Sheila’s grandmother. This song is just, like, the line never gonna love again x 30. V. Harold.
“’50s” – House of Wolves
Kiss me like it’s the ‘50s. I also verily relate to the line It’s the bitter side of life, that I like.
“Please Mr. Postman” – The Marvellettes
This one’s for the LOLs, and for all the letter carriers out there. Sheila’s fixation on a UPS driver, a letter that belongs to him, and her grandmother’s stash of letters from Harold makes this whole book a bit of a love letter to snail mail. (I literally never listened to this song while writing it, though, or…. I think I might’ve quit writing).
“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” — Stars
I can’t say that this song bred the novel’s title, but I also can’t really say that it didn’t. I don’t think I’m allowed to make a playlist without this song, is that this boils down to. I think Sheila builds her life in fragments, stealing work, sleep, and also connections and friendships only when she can both find them and stomach them. And I love the way this song sort of captures the idea of a passing connection: I’m not sorry I met you. Or in Sheila’s case, a passing obsession. And (no spoilers) I think of that scene in the church at the end: Live through this and you won’t look back.
Julia Dixon Evans and How to Set Yourself on Fire links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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