When I first started writing, I'd give stories to friends and press a mix tape into their hand: when you read this, listen to this
. Let me take this moment to apologize to all the friends of my youth for those tapes. I was like that: gushy, curatorial, annoying. It goes without saying that I was also very much not spocking girls in the graveyard like the friends of my youth. I had time on my hands. But if I sold one Dream Academy cassingle, it was worth it.
That shimmering prospect of sync — between story and song — is, I think, an importation from film, and I was trying to ferry its effect to literature. I used to record movie soundtracks off the television and fall asleep to them. (Like John Carpenter's Escape from New York's apocalyptic synth lullaby: "In 1988, the crime rate in New York City rises 400 percent...") Now, as a screenwriter and short filmmaker, I've learned firsthand just how powerful music is. The filmmaker D. W. Griffith said film is like writing with lightning. Music, then, is thunder: half the story, all the echo. As the amazing sound designer and editor Walter Murch points out, our eyes close, our ears do not.
I wrote every single page of The Brink listening, ears open, to something. I've met authors who are baffled by this — the nonfiction writer Kent Russell said a few posts back that he doesn't see how anyone can write to music. In the immortal words of the Internet: wtf? (He also said his list of music was "garbage," but having listened to it, as I just did and as you should, it's plainly not). Music isn't accompaniment — it's the spirit passing through the pages. Songs dilate time, conjure atmosphere, transform hours of typing into ceremony. What is music good for? It reminds me that vulnerability and emotionality are the point, the endeavor, the test. And what I learned (from great teachers like Sam Lipsyte) was that it's possible to play sentences like a score. To push the rhythm and sounds to the front and let language lead you through.
Below is an acoustic tour through The Brink. After all, what is a short story collection but the cassette tape of the publishing industry — a run of discoveries, an album of tries? But I did have certain rules: post-rock and ambient electroacoustic win, and no lyrics unless they're unintelligible or ignorable (which is why favorite songwriters like Josh Ritter or Neil Finn don't make the cut) or just straight-up Latin. Thank you for listening. The 14-year-old boy in me just went squee.
÷ ÷ ÷
1. "Solsbury Hill" by Kyte
for "How to Win an Unwinnable War"
The first story is also the most autobiographical — in seventh grade, I took a summer class in "How to Win a Nuclear War." I did not learn what I was supposed to learn. There's debate about what the hell Peter Gabriel is talking about, but Kyte's expansive, rallying rework captures the sweet dark dream I once had of exploding at adolescence.
2. "Ahull" by Loscil
|Note: In order to listen to the playlist, you will need to log in|
to Spotify. You can sign up for a free account here.
What happens when an alt-world turns off? If I had to choose an artist to underscore the end of a world, this brilliant electro-acoustic ambient artist from Vancouver would be my (vanishing) desert island discographer. This track — like all of his work — has a haunted, expansive quality that mesmerizes.
3. "Been So Long" by Vetiver
for "Getting There and Away"
Friends of mine went to Bali for their honeymoon — the next month, dozens of people were killed in suicide bombings in the tourist district. I collapsed the two events, wondering not so much what it would be like to experience the attack (I'll let better writers tackle that) but about the struggle to keep the horror from becoming the story.
4. "A Meaningful Moment Through a Meaningless Process" by Stars of the Lid
for "The End of the Age Is Upon Us"
This story imagines the last three days of the Heaven's Gate cult, with one young man falling in love with another member at the very moment of their annihilation. This spacious track — full of bowed something — helped slow my metabolism down to let a story unfurl.
5. "Take a Drink from My Hands" by Hammock
for "The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts"
What this post-rock group does so well are the epic builds — and as dark as this fiction is (about a father finding something unspeakable in a bag in the basement), I wanted it to have a big transformative finish.
6. "Eternity's Sunrise" by John Tavener
I listened to this track on loop while writing this 15th-century, queer, seafaring ghost story. Too many adjectives? Never.
7. "Joy to You Baby" by Josh Ritter
for "Everything, All at Once"
Okay — I had to throw him a bone! All this pretty much happened. I wasn't around. The story collection transits through a series of end-times, apocalyptic scenarios — this one is the smallest, most personal and most New Jersey. People, Purpose, Progress!
8. "Hengilas" by Jónsi
for "Hazard 9"
"Try to dig out warmth and trials, try to break in, try to drill..."
9. "Cycling Trivialities" by José González
for "When You Are the Final Girl"
This is, I suspect, the chilliest story in this book. José González is not known for his darkness, but there's a kind of acoustic nihilism coming from his guitar in this one, I swear.
10. "First Self-Portrait Series" by Rachel's
for "Curious Father"
This began as a short story, became a full-length play, and then transformed itself back into a story. When we did a reading, I played this as entrance music. I also brought a rug to home up the place. This amazing chamber band from Louisville no longer records together, but man what talent, what a town.