Building a Book Playlist

New YorkedOne of the first things I do when I write a book is make a playlist. I’ve got three rules: It can’t have too many songs—I like to keep it to roughly an hour’s worth of music. Only one song per musician or artist. And none of the songs can have been used in a previous book’s playlist.

I don’t listen to it while I write. When I’m actually sitting at the keyboard I prefer music without words, like Bach’s cello suits or Aphex Twin or Sigur Ros (they sing in a made-up language; doesn’t count).

The soundtrack is for editing, or while I’m walking to and from work, or when I’m at the gym. Anytime my mind is wandering and it helps to be in the right headspace.

South Village is the third Ash McKenna novel, set on a hippie commune in the middle of the woods. Ash, an amateur private investigator (though he prefers to himself as a blunt instrument), is hiding out from a bad thing he did, waiting for his passport to come through so he can flee the country. And then someone gets killed. Just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in.

The book is a little bit about madness, but also a little bit about loneliness. And it took me a while to find the right combination of songs, but this is what I came up with.

The ‘Nam Connection

“Shelter from the Storm” – Bob Dylan

“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones

This isn’t exactly scientific, but I wanted to evoke the feeling of the Vietnam era, when hippie communes were growing in popularity. These are some songs I’d expect to hear while watching a movie in which soldiers traipse through the jungles along the Meikong River. And each one plays a bit into Ash’s personal journey.

Plus, the first two Ash novels—New Yorked and City of Rose—feel very current to me, whereas this one feels a bit untethered to time period, given the lack of modern amenities at the commune. So I wanted the music to reflect that.

The Hippie Connection 

“Revolution” – The Beatles

“Redemption Song” – Bob Marley

“John and James” – The Maytals

“What I Got” – Sublime

It’s a hippie commune. There’s got to be some Bob Marley. And “Redemption Song” is a little on the nose, but it’s also a really good song. “Revolution” is the same—a little obvious, but it works for me.

I went to SUNY Purchase College, which had a big hippie scene, so I’m pretty used to that vibe. I spent a lot of time listening to Sublime, though I guess that’s not exactly unique to my college experience. But I also listened to a lot of the Skatalites and the Maytals, ska bands from Jamaica. Something was going to end up here; just happened to be “John James”.

Time to Get Angry

“Sleep Now in the Fire” – Rage Against the Machine

“Dogma” – KMFDM

“I’m Against It” – The Ramones

Part of the book involves militant hippie activists and a protest, so I needed some angry songs on here, too. The Ramones because I always need at least one punk song on every soundtrack. Rage Against the Machine because it’s Rage Against the Machine.

KMFDM, to my mind, is Rage Against the Machine with more staying power and a better sense of humor. I could have picked a lot of songs from their huge catalogue, but went with “Dogma”, because there was a snippet I wanted to use in the epigraph. Which the band leader, Sascha Konietzko, very graciously allowed me to use.

The Personal Cuts

“You Learn” – Alanis Morissette

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Johnny Cash

Twelve years ago, when I visited The Hostel in the Forest—the commune South Village is loosely based on—my friend Jacqui and I were driving from Brunswick to Athens. It was the middle of the night and I got it in my head I wanted to listen to Jagged Little Pill. I don’t even know why. We had to visit three Wal-Marts before we found the CD, and then we sang along until sunrise, driving back road through Georgia. I associate that album with that trip. “You Learn” gets a spot.

And, finally, Johnny Cash. This particular song made it because Ash is dealing with his loneliness, and how he relates to other people. But also, I’ve always got to have Johnny Cash. That should probably count as the fourth rule.

Party Princess

I am such a pretty princess.

And do you know what a pretty princess can get away with?


This wasn’t supposed to be a full time job. When I got laid off, I figured appearing at children’s parties dressed like Snow White or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty would just be a way to pay my bills.

I have a master’s degree. Surely someone would want me.

But then I recognized the real value of this job.

Making It Easy

The man in the gray suit careens out the glass door, nearly knocking over an elderly woman while screaming into his cell phone. “No, you tell that fucking bitch that if she wants a hostile work environment, I’ll give her a hostile work environment.”

Ding ding ding.

Richie tosses his cigarette to the ground, flips up the collar of his coat to protect against the bitter wind, and sets off down the sidewalk after the man in the gray suit.

The man is fleshy around the gut and thin in the upper arms and his hairline is marching backward. The kind of guy who hides behind a big voice, who probably isn’t actually game for a real fight.

Richie smiles. There’s potential here. And on the first try.

The man in the gray suit doesn’t look for a cab. Maybe he works nearby. It’s just after 9:30 a.m., in that twilight period when the sidewalks are empty, the morning rush getting settled at their desks with their coffee and scones.

Richie was never a big reader. Books are a pursuit best left to his nerdy brother. But every morning, Richie reads the newspaper. You never know when a good idea is going to land.

And just yesterday, Richie got a really good idea while flipping through the Daily News.

So good it might be brilliant.

New York City is in the middle of a housing crisis, in that if you don’t make at least six figures, you can’t really afford to live here anymore. So the mayor got this brilliant idea to give tax subsidies to developers, on the condition these developers build their fancy new apartment buildings with a selection of affordable units.

The man in the gray suit seems to be veering toward the entrance to the 1 train, but he doesn’t go down the steps. Good. He’s still screaming into his cell phone. “I wouldn’t count that as sexual harassment. I didn’t even touch her. Don’t you have to touch someone for it to be sexual harassment?”

So this deal between the mayor and the developers—everyone wins, right? The mayor looks good for making some apartments you don’t need to hock a kidney for, and developers get some extra cash to pad the budget.

Except, the moneyed folk, the people these fancy new apartments are marketed too, found out about this plan and got a touch upset.

How dare they be forced to share oxygen with people who don’t have trust funds? People who shop for groceries at the corner bodega instead of Whole Foods?

So the developers get their own brilliant idea, for something the tabloids have dubbed “poor doors.” Separate entrances for people living in the cheaper apartments, so the people paying market rate don’t have to share doorways and elevators.

In 2015, in New York City, this is a real thing that’s happening.

The man in the gray suit cuts down a side street, still yammering into his phone. “Then fire her. Find cause. Make something up. I don’t care. I don’t need this shit.”

Richie quickens his pace, and the man in the gray suit doesn’t hear Richie over the sound of his own voice. The block is just delivery bays and trucks. Nobody in sight. There’s an alcove coming up, created by a small service entrance, that looks perfect.

Here’s the brilliant idea that Richie had: If there’s a poor door, by default, there also must be a rich door.

It’s like the mayor and the developers conspired to make this easy.

Nothing sucks more than rolling some yuppie asshole and finding out the fancy suit was a façade and there was nothing but change and lint in his pockets.

The man in the gray suit though, he came out the rich door.

And as Richie comes up alongside him and body-checks him into the alcove of the doorway, as the man stiffens with fear and hands over his cell phone and a very thick wallet, Richie feels a little like Robin Hood.

Poor doors.

Maybe not such a brilliant idea after all.


They shuffle in their shiny shoes, gazing at the sidewalk. Standing apart, as if to hide from each other.

“The password,” I say.

The boy mumbles something. I tell him to speak louder.

“Red dragon,” he says.

I open the door all the way and they dive past me, seeking out the refuge of shadow.

This is not uncommon. Everyone has a line. For most people, that line is the back door of my restaurant, and it takes courage to cross.

More people will turn and run than stay to eat.

The door safely closed, the couple unclenches. I get a better look now that they aren’t backlit by the harsh light from the street. The boy is blonde and squarely handsome, freshly-shaved. The girl is brunette, small, hair-straightened. Pretty in a way that would fade into the background of a pleasant group photo.

They’re dressed neatly. Collars and buttons and smooth fabrics. Not married, but from the way his outstretched hand hovers near her, considering it.

I turn up my palm and smile. They can’t see me smile because they won’t look at me. But the boy sees my hand. He pulls a wad of bills out of his back pocket and places it on the flat plain of my fingers. The wad is folded over once and secured with a purple rubber band. I flip through. All there.

Without another word I move through the narrow hallway toward the black door. They follow.

When they get this far, they always follow.

I open the door to a small wood-paneled room, barely bigger than the one table and two seats in the middle. Atop the table is a skinny candle in a silver candlestick. Bach’s cello suites play low.

Points for ambiance.

On the white-clothed table are two plates. Each plate is set with a silver fork, a silver knife, a folded white cloth napkin, and an empty wineglass.

Piled atop each plate is a wrinkled nest of red cured meat, streaked with thick bolts of white fat. Next to the meat is an orange dollop of chipotle mayo, two slices of crusty bread, and three cornichons. The plate is wide and curved, the food arranged like a painting.

The couple lingers by the door. I stand aside, hold out my arm. Welcome them. Smile, even though they won’t look at me.

“Please,” I say. “Be seated.”

They move into the room like it’s a theory they’re testing. They settle into their seats and I produce a cork on a silver platter. The boy looks at me, unsure what to do, so I place it down and pour a taste for the girl. She swirls it, takes a sip, and nods, like she understands what’s in her mouth.

Box wine, poured from a recycled bottle of 2003 Latour Bordeaux.

The drinks poured, the guests settled, they finally look up at me. Their eyes wide and soft. Quivering.

“You are about to join a very elite club of diners,” I tell him. “After this you will be different. Embrace it. Do not fear it. Do not concern yourself with what society thinks. Society is behind the curve for people like us. You are pioneers.”

The girl stares at the nest of red meat on her plate, her hands folded in her lap. She opens her mouth and stops. She opens it again, and asks, “Who…?”

“Do you really want to know the answer to that?”

She shakes her head.

No one ever does.

And no one wants an audience for this. I bow, deeply, and take my exit.

Close the door and head back to the kitchen.

Pull the wad of bills out of my pocket and count it off.

Pick up the phone, and place an order for another ten pounds of jamón ibérico.

Expensive at $90 a pound. But you can sell it at a 500 percent markup when you can trick yuppie foodies into believing they’re eating human charcuterie.

And in ten minutes, when I clear the plates, which will be empty, or untouched, or covered in vomit, I will regret nothing.

Only the strong survive the astronomic rent of the Meatpacking District.

Second Chance

The digital readout on the dash of the rental says the outside temperature is 97 degrees. The sun went down three hours ago. I tap the plastic like that’ll make the numbers drop.

Fucking Texas.

I kill the engine. The air conditioner stops chugging and heat creeps in like it wasn’t even on. When I open the door the swelter clocks me across the jaw.

I hate this kind of weather, but in this economy, it’s hard to say no to a job.

Especially when Ginny Tonic gives it to you.

The aluminum briefcase next to me is still cold. I hold it at arm’s length, try to guess at what’s inside. I can’t, so I drag myself into the parking lot as sweat breaks on my brow.

I hit the lock button on the key fob. The car beeps, and the sound bounces off the empty stretch of road and the laundry across the street. There’s nothing else around beside that, a streetlight, and the building in front of me.

A vegetarian restaurant in Texas. This is like a parallel fucking universe.

The door is open. Inside the lights are off and the place is spotless clean. The tables are made of heavy, weathered wood. Muddy Waters is humming quietly from the overhead speakers. Robust air conditioning makes me chilly and thankful.

Across the restaurant is a guy at a table. He doesn’t move when I shut the door. He doesn’t stand as I walk toward him. He just nods at the seat across from him, pulled out from the table.

He’s got a half-eaten garden salad in front of him that he doesn’t acknowledge. He’s small, but thin and tight, hammered out of iron. I can see him vibrating, even in the dim light. I tense my shoulders, waiting for him to dive at me.

He doesn’t, so I toss the briefcase onto the table. He cocks his head at it.

“From Ginny,” I tell him.

“I know.” His voice echoes like it’s coming from another room.

“I got the first number for you.”

“She didn’t give you all three?”

“Not my job to look inside.”

Ginny was specific. When she slid the briefcase across her desk in Hell’s Kitchen, back where the weather behaves at night, she said: Deliver it and don’t open it. Acknowledge that the contact was in receipt of the contents. Then come home.

She gave me the first number to the lock and said the other two were in Austin.

I did ask Ginny what was inside. She said, “A second chance.”

She didn’t need to explain what that meant. The last job I did, the job I fucked up, I thought that was the end of me, and my next living situations was on the bottom of the Hudson.

It was a generous offer and the whole ride down here I wondered if it was too generous.

The guy cocks his head again, like it’s the only way he can express himself. He asks, “The number?”


He nods, rolls the other two numbers in place, then clicks the top open.

He smiles. It’s the smile of a kid on Christmas morning, but for people like us that can only mean one thing. I don’t even wait. I pull my Walther PPK from my waistband and put a bullet in his forehead.

The ringing in the air drowns out the music. The salad is on the floor but I don’t know how it got there. I wait for something else to happen and nothing does. Then I turn the briefcase around.

Inside is a Smith & Wesson Model 500. This bitch would have blown through me, then the back wall of the restaurant.

Second chance, Ginny?

Maybe I’ll use it to visit you with my new friend here.

The silver gun is heavy in my hand. There’s something stuck to the grip.

A magnet, the size of three stacked dimes.

Under the red felt lining of the briefcase I find another, different kind of digital readout. These numbers are dropping, not in a good way.

I look at the dead guy across from me.

“I guess we both fucked up.”