I make a playlist for every book I write. I listen while I write, sometimes, and I listen to it in the car or while I’m doing dishes, just to keep myself in the right frame of mind. The songs help me maintain the tone I want for the book, and keep my brain chugging away on the themes I want to explore.
Here are some of the songs on my playlist for the two Alice Payne books, which are about a time-travelling highwaywoman and a war to change the course of history. (The first one drops Nov. 6.) I’m not going to put all the songs here, just a few that I have something to say about.
What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? by R.E.M.
R.E.M. was so good at capturing the essential weirdness of humanity, and that’s what this song does for me. I remember the first time I heard about the attack on Dan Rather in which the attacker asked this question, and how it made me feel like the world is both stranger and more banal than we imagine it to be, all at once. That alternate realities exist but they’re unevenly distributed, to bastardize William Gibson. This song reminds me that we’re all walking in our own realities and that connecting those realities takes compassion and effort. Alice Payne Arrives is about that, sort of.
Magpie to the Morning, by Neko Case
This song makes me think of moments missed and moments seized, and it just has the right energy. Sort of melancholy and triumphant.
My Shot, Rise Up Remix, feat. Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz and Nate Ruess
The Alice Payne books are set largely in the 18th century, with a lot of deliberately jarring juxtaposition with the diction and mores of later periods. So Hamilton was, naturally, an inspiration. I love this remix. It gives me shivers.
Remains, by Algiers
This song gives me a sense of history laid out like one long Jean-Luc Godard tracking shot, full of crimes. “We’re your careless mistakes/We’re the spirits you raised/We are what remains…”. Appropriately sobering for a book about how privileged meddlers screw up the timeline for everyone, over and over again.
City With No Children, by Arcade Fire
In the Alice Payne books, the humans of the 22nd century send their children backward in time, as refugees. We don’t see much of that future from which the children have been sent away, but it was always in my mind as I wrote.
The Black Spot, by Murder by Death
There’s a Black Spot of sorts in the second Alice Payne book, and it’s probably because I was listening to this song so much. The original Black Spot, of course, was in Treasure Island, as a harbinger of death, and it’s since turned up in other piratical stories (including a Doctor Who episode and Pirates of the Caribbean).
My playlist also includes a bunch of songs that seemed obligatory for a book about history and time travel: Time After Time, of course (the Iron & Wine version), Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads, Galileo by the Indigo Girls. And there are some other songs that just have the right energy, for reasons I can’t explain.
A lot of the songs on the playlist are “Alice songs”; they put me in mind of my 18th century highwaywoman for one reason or another. But I’ll close this with one that is there entirely for Prudence, my character from the future. Sinead’s music helped me survive to adulthood, and the one time I got a chance to see her live, a dude in the crowd groped me, so all in all, this song helps me to write with both middle fingers raised, which is not as hard as you might think.
The Last Day of Our Acquaintance, by Sinead O’Connor