In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Suzanne Burns' The Veneration of Monstersis a stellar short fiction collection featuring unforgettable characters.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Burns is an unmissable heir to writers of the peculiar, from Shirley Jackson to Roald Dahl."
As I began shaping the stories that became The Veneration of Monsters, the follow-up to my debut collection, Misfits and Other Heroes, both published by Dzanc Books, I started to see the characters in the book as real people. This is a cliché that I've heard writers say from small town critique groups to that time, in the mid-nineties, when I participated in Ken Kesey's last writing workshop and the class sat in rapt enchantment when he told the story of an anonymous person who sent letters to his house years after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came out. I am Big Chief, the letters proclaimed. I am in Denver waiting for an airplane eating an omelet. Do you know they put ham in their omelets out west? I am in Paris. I am in Rome. I am watching you outside your bathroom window while you shower and shave.
I think the reason these characters, more than any other characters, felt real is because the process of writing and rewriting coincided with a tumultuous few years in my life, through breakups and death and European travel and more breakups and more death. It was a time of reflection and headphones, pastry and tears.
I do write in complete silence. I can't have a television on in the next room, a stereo in a far corner of the house. I can't even hear the quiet sounds of someone sleeping close to me, so I've never listened to music while I work. Maybe sometimes if I'm typing a long section of a piece, since I handwrite all first drafts, I might sneak on Pandora and let Beethoven or a very quiet Nina Simone help get me by, but this playlist is not a playlist to read by, necessarily, as much as it is a playlist dedicated to the characters in this collection. These are the songs I imagine they listen to in their dark times, in their bright times, and in those times in between.
First Movement: "On the Street Where You Live" by Vic Damone
A song for an eternal optimist. A song for someone as much in love with love as they are in love with the person who lives on the only street in town where lilac trees bloom. Cherise listens to Vic's version on her long walks through the city as she plots the beginnings of her new life, new shoes wearing in, pack of violet mints in her purse. Nat King Cole's version is too syrupy for her taste, a little too slow, borderline maudlin. Dean Martin doesn't take the song seriously enough. On lonely Saturday evenings Cherise plays this song on repeat and memorizes facts about Vic Damone from Wikipedia, which she believes to always be true. Rocco and Mamie, his parents, came to America from Italy, he an electrician, she, a piano teacher.
Selfie: "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" by The Smiths
Violet doesn't believe in downloading music. She hasn't even accepted the near obsolete CD yet. It's vinyl for her or nothing at all, Louder Than Bombs in permanent rotation, this song topping the list of her favorite mope rock dirges. In between boyfriends, both alive and undead, she listens to this album while sitting cross-legged in a candlelit room trying to find all the lines Morrissey pilfered from author Elizabeth Smart's prose poetry novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Violet loves memorizing anapaests while dipping the dregs of broken Pirouette cookies in warm Nutella.
Happy Anniversary: "World Keeps Turning" by Tom Waits
This song makes Thomas cry. It also used to make his wife, Emma, cry before she became Rose, which is a long, complicated story. Emma cut the fat off pork tenderloin before cooking the meat with baby red potatoes in a very expensive round Dutch oven from Le Creuset in the oceanic blue color they call Caribbean. Now Rose listens to Bikini Kill. She likes to say the phrase "old bootlegs." The Dutch oven is collecting dust on a shelf much too high for either of them to reach.
Best of Show: "Fighter" by Christina Aguilera
Tiny Ron's wife plays this song while she secretly works out to old Tae Bo VHS tapes. Sometimes after her workout, if her husband is still filming a commercial or running more lines with a costar anywhere but close to where she sits and sweats, she sips off a bottle of Mike's Hard Pink Lemonade. She throws the cap on the ground and never recycles the bottle. She sees both of these small gestures as steps forward.
Reducing: "I Started a Joke" by the Bee Gees
Veronica and her mother listen to this song on the CD player in her mother's SUV on the way to Starbucks to buy one birthday flavored cake pop to share. When she was pregnant, Veronica's mom listened to this song while she smoked cigarettes and responded to chain letters in hopes of warding off any bad luck to her coming daughter. In high school Veronica's first boyfriend felt her up in the backseat of his car while this song played on an oldies radio station. She cried when she got home that night.
The Line of Fate: "It Ain't What You Do It's the Way That You Do It" by Fun Boy Three featuring Bananarama
After every doll in the house is arranged on Tabitha's kitchen table each morning after her husband goes to work, she plays this song and dances in front of her miniature audience. Each time she checks her pulse, heart rate right in the precise target zone, Tabitha bows to her silent companions. She never gives up hope because dolls never give up hope.
The Unfortunate Act of Falling: "Ladder of Success" by Skeeter Davis
Sometimes is gets lonely in Joan's gourmet kitchen, late at night when Harry and the twins are asleep upstairs and maybe she misses someone she used to know, or even someone she thought she knew. She kills little summer bugs between her manicured fingers while listening to this song on nights like this. It brings a brief respite from middle age creeping up on her, the destiny of such a tiny creature destroyed on Congress Street, though the act of killing something so innocent always leads to other ideas.
Unwound: "Ribbons and Detours" by Silversun Pickups
Lara and her ribbons. Of course she listens to this song on her phone while she picks out ribbons at the fabric store. Most of the time she calls her ribbons "notions," intoxicated by the prospect of a new idea springing up each time she ties one tight around her neck.
The Compromise: "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Once, on a dare, Claire and Jack went dancing. Claire loved the way the mirror ball at the Elk's Lodge lit the room in rainbow stars. Jack complained about the price of well drinks. Jack loved the tray of complimentary caprese skewers. Claire wished the event organizer took lactose intolerance into consideration. But the couple danced to this song like no one has ever danced to this song, even on TV. A dance for the ages between two people who don't even know how to dance. Not really, anyway. So this song became their song, to dance to on occasion, to travel with, to plot what to do as they spy on another couple on vacation, so in love they almost don't know what to do with themselves.
The Borrower: "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" by The Rolling Stones
Each time Sheba moves into the cul-de-sac of a new neighborhood in a new town, she blasts this song while watching the movers unload her possessions. She likes it when people notice her listening to music almost too loud to hear herself think. She likes it when they marvel at her velvet cape, her seemingly never ending collection of claw-footed furniture, the way her eyes change color every few minutes, and her hair, too, in the course of one afternoon going from black to red to blonde, having nothing to do with highlights or lowlights or the way the sun hits.
Just the Right Kind of Stranger: "When You Wish Upon a Star" by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket
This short story collection opens and closes with what I consider to be two of my most optimistic characters, Cherise at the beginning and Irene, with her love of this song, and all things Disney, at the end. This is the song of dreamers, and Irene dreams bigger dreams that maybe all of my other characters combined. Though maybe a lot of you out there reading this list, and my book, might view her dreams as nightmares. So please, as always, proceed with caution.
Suzanne Burns and The Veneration of Monsters links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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