Like many writers, I listen to music when I write. Nothing with (intelligible) lyrics, of course. I wrote most of The Geography of Pluto lost in the fuzz and noise of shoegaze bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, or deep in the melancholic soundscapes created by Boards of Canada. I wanted music that mirrored the mental state of my main character Will Ambrose, a profoundly introspective young man who felt lost in the emotional geography he had to navigate.
But then there are also the songs that made me think about the book. Songs I listened to on my long walks to work out the story, or even songs I have stumbled upon since it was first published. Songs I feel that capture the book’s essence, that would fit in a movie version if one was ever made.
I’ve always been interested in a writer’s creative process, so in case you are too I thought I would share some of the songs. There’s lots more where this came from. I add songs all the time to a folder on Spotify. But for now, here are ten that I connect with the novel.
“Pete Standing Alone” by Boards of Canada
I vividly remember hearing this song for the first time in Kilo coffee shop on St. Laurent. I had taken the day off from work because I was sad, and so I sat at the table and wrote and wrote. When this song came on, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I asked the barista what was playing and went out to buy the CD as soon as I could. I don’t remember the last time I discovered an artist that would come to mean so much to me. There is something so mournful yet beautiful in all of their work, especially the album Music Has the Right to Children.
“Untitled” by The Cure
No other album has had more of an impact on me than The Cure’s Disintegration. I hear any track on it and immediately I am transported back to high school. Suddenly, I’m a kid again and the world is new and sad and strange and wonderful. Coming at the end of what is already an epically emotional album, “Untitled” is a sweet ballad about everything that remains unsaid in a relationship. That feeling also runs through Pluto—what it’s like to live in the unspoken.
“Once in David’s Royal City 2″ by Sufjan Stevens
This traditional Christmas song haunts me. It sounds like it is being played on a toy piano in a small dark room. It too is sad and beautiful (see a trend here?). The song makes me think of Will and his mother, who chooses to keep her Christmas tree up longer than normal because it makes her happy. Pluto opens in the days following Christmas, and I can see the outdoor Christmas lights from the street flashing into Will’s apartment as he sits in the dark on his couch.
“Shell Suite” by Chad Valley
It’s both the lyrics and melody of “Shell Suite” that make me think of the book. There is an almost orbital quality to the song, the way its electronic blips just loop over and over, like a satellite. And then there is this big burst of energy two quarters through, a sonic supernova. Its lyrics resonate too: “You, you would always see the signs / The echoes in my head they rhyme.” This song is telemetry.
“Ange de Ville” by Lili Fatale
Pluto is set in Montreal, a city of two dominant cultures the exist side-by-side: French and English. Growing up in the city as an anglophone meant that I didn’t know much about French-Canadian pop culture, but that would change as I made French-speaking friends and dated French-speaking boys. Lili Fatale were a big hit in Quebec in the 90s. You’d even hear them on English radio. This song was a favourite. “Ange de Ville” is about being alone in the city, about it being populated with lost angels that go unseen. Vocalist Nathalie Courchesne makes herself vulnerable when singing about her lover, who is gone: « Puisque sans toi, je n’suis personne » (Without you, I’m nobody).
“Wait” by Death Cab for Cutie
I listened to a lot of Death Cab around the time I wrote this book. Like Ben Gibbard, I wore my heart on my sleeve. I had so much feeling ALL THE TIME. This song is not one of the band’s popular ones, and it is very short, but it too makes me think of the Pluto. I don’t know even know what the song is about (early Death Cab songs had vague lyrics), but all I need is the melody, the voice and Ben reminding me that, “Every town has a corner, where I see you…”
“Circles” by Digitalism
I don’t even know how this album ended up on my iPod, but one day this song shuffled on and I almost cried listening to it (which is odd for what is essentially a dance track). The singer jumps in right away with “Gather all the good times / When they chill with me behind / I didn’t have enough time / For this stuff, on my mind.” It sets the stage for what’s to come—a frenetic and repetitive electronic tornado with lyrics that seem to speak directly to Will’s experience. Like the “You” in the song, Will is also caught up in a never-ending circle, trying to travel back in time but instead living things over “again and again and again and again.”
“Burning” by MK
Pluto takes place in Montreal in the 90s and early 2000s, much of it in the city’s gay bars. The clubs that Will and Angie would first go to would be places like K.O.X and Sisters and Sky. House music was played in these clubs and “Burning” by MK brings me back to that time. I suppose there are dozens of more tracks that I could also include here, but this track has the additional element of desire to it, of wanting and longing and needing, all of which we felt on the dance floor.
“How Soon is Now” by Tatu
I write a lot about the music I would hear in Montreal’s village bars. Often times, I would find myself moved by a really bad song (I suppose it all depended on the mood I was in). Downstairs at Parking, they played everything. Russian faux-lesbian duo T.A.T.U’s cover of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now,” was one of those songs you’d hear and say to yourself, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” But it’s wonderful in how truly bad it is. Like many people, Will is stuck in the past. The original things remain classic to him. But the world does go on without you.
“So It Goes” by Greg Haines
If you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, you’ll recognize the phrase “So it goes.” It appears many times throughout the book, every time someone’s death is mentioned. I see it almost as a shorthand for “Life sucks, then you die.” It may not be obvious, but Slaughterhouse-Five was a huge inspiration for this book (the epigraph is taken from it). I decided to make Pluto non-linear after reading it, because that is how dealing with loss felt— being out of time with the rest of the world. I was in awe of Vonnegut told this story that was really about how the end of things is never really the end.
So, there you have it! These are just ten of the songs. There’s about forty them on a playlist over on Spotify. Happy listening!