If you’re itching for a book to transport you to a different time right now, look no further than Emily Gould’s latest, Perfect Tunes, released this past Tuesday, April 14th in the US (August in the UK and September in Australia). Starting in the early aughts and spanning years, Gould’s book is funny, devastating, and insightful. We follow Laura, a burgeoning musician in New York City who becomes a mother after a liaison with another musician. As a woman who spent her formative twenties in New York and now lives in the suburbs with my kid, I was thrown into all kinds of nostalgia of distant to recent past. I was excited to field these questions to Gould, a writer I’ve followed since she worked for Gawker, and then as the co-founder of Emily Books, which introduced me to some of my other favorite writers.
Jessica Maria Johnson: Perfect Tunes was the book I needed as everyone in my area and the U.S. started quarantining. I read it so quickly, underlined so many passages, and it kept my attention on a not-too-distant past that distracted me from feverishly refreshing the news on my phone. So: thank you. How are you handling quarantine?
Emily Gould: Uh … badly? It’s really hard. It’s hard for everyone in different ways, I know, but my older kid is really not handling it well. He’s almost five and he misses his friends in Pre-K and his teacher, and he’s too young and hyper for the distance learning stuff to really be working for him at all. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating. We spend a lot of time just keeping him from physically injuring himself or his brother. I hope we’ll find some inner reserves of strength. Right now we’re all really going through it.
JMJ: What made you turn to music—centering Perfect Tunes on a musician—for this book? (By the way, your playlist on Spotify helped my already raging case of NYC nostalgia while I read this; “Heartbeats” by The Knife always brings me back to that time period!)
EG: Thank you! The title of the book is taken from “Heartbeats” – it’s such a great, evocative song. It has that great aspect of being a little bit maudlin and melodramatic but also genuinely moving.
I love the mystique of music and the way it can create a kind of magic that bonds people. Live performance is a big part of this book and it’s one of the main experiences we currently can’t share, so it’s interesting and sad to think of people being able to kind of “have” a version of that experience as they read about Laura playing shows and seeing bands.
JMJ: How much research was involved in the music side of the story? Were there any books that informed your writing? And/or, were you going to shows at Brownies in the early aughts?
EG: Oh uh people keep asking me this and I’m like …research?? I don’t think I formally thought of it as research but there were lots of things I used to jog my memory and sort of … enable myself to create alternative fictional versions of my own memories. One of them was Lizzie Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom – a very valuable resource and also a super entertaining look back at this time from some of the musicians who shaped it. I highly recommend it!
JMJ: Was there a reason you chose this specific time period from 2000 through 2016?
EG: Yes! I moved to New York in May 2001, like Laura. While that’s pretty much where the similarities between our lives ends, it helped me to feel like I could navigate the same streets and cultural milestones she does with some familiarity.
JMJ: Did you have musician inspirations for Dylan and Laura? I kept picturing Julian Casablancas from The Strokes because he’s so quintessential to that era, but I wondered about Laura. She’s such a singular kind of character that I came to love (and relate to quite a bit) by the end of the novel.
EG: I was imagining a particular acquaintance when I wrote about her, just someone who I could call to mind when I needed to imagine her physicality. Dylan is more of an amalgam of ex-boyfriends for me. Like when you wake up from a dream and are not exactly sure who it was about because he’s just everyone you’ve ever dated rolled into an archetype. He also has some Kurt Cobain DNA, that potent mix of pathetic helplessness and charisma.
JMJ: I won’t say the devastating event that happens to a character pretty early on in the book to avoid spoilers, but I was shocked—and I suppose I’m asking: are you a writer that knows each turn of events when they start writing or does the narrative unfold as you write?
EG: I worked backwards from the way I knew Marie and Laura’s relationship would be when Marie is a teenager, so discovering who Laura was before she became Marie’s mother was what drove the early part of the narrative; I definitely felt I was figuring it out along with the reader.
JMJ: The book seems to take care to show a range of women, all with different perspectives and personalities. I especially loved the dynamic between Callie and Laura, and how their friendship is examined after one has a child. (One of my favorite passages in the book starts with, “To childless people, children were a logistical problem to be solved…”) Can you speak to that relationship and the women in your novel?
EG: Before I had children, I wrote a novel (Friendship) about how a friendship is changed by one character’s pregnancy. I didn’t exactly want to write the same book twice, but I did have a new perspective on the things I’d described in Friendship as I was working on Perfect Tunes. I also wanted to show a range of female relationships, and I wanted to exclude relationships that had to do with men. To me the characters in these books sort of are their relationships; I’m not as concerned with portraiture as I am with creating these dynamics.
“To childless people, children were a logistical problem to be solved: find a way to pay for and arrange childcare, and you were free. They didn’t understand that even when you weren’t with your child, the child continued to exist in a part of your brain that you had to consciously work to silence, or as a low hum of anxiety that colored everything. Either way, you were fucked. Either way, pleasure and creativity were sacrificed entirely, or only permitted in small doses.”
JMJ: The duality that emerges out of Laura after she has a child is something that resonated with me as a mom, and I’m sure will to many readers. At one point Laura refers to it as “the animal that had not existed before Marie was born.” Is that duality something that you wrote from personal experience?
EG: Yes, although I do think some of the intensity of Laura’s experience is specific to her circumstances: she had a really hard time and her shift from being a very responsibility-free and somewhat naïve young person to being someone’s mother was far more abrupt than mine was. That being said, I do think there’s a self that’s gone forever and it’s kind of sad and beautiful at the same time, because of course a new self is born.
JMJ: The end of Perfect Tunes made me a little teary-eyed and when I flipped the page and it was *The Last Page*, I was flummoxed (in a good way). Any intentions to continue Laura and Marie’s story in the future?
EG: Ha, I know, right? I did try to keep writing past that point, but everything I did just seemed wrong. Ultimately it seemed better to leave the characters there, with a little bit of hope but nothing definite. My husband, for one, is sure that Laura finds a way to keep her artistic self alive and also stay in her marriage. I feel like… it’s for the reader to decide!
JMJ: I love Emily Books! Congratulations on the endeavor and I’m so sad and sorry it shut down last month. The subscription I had introduced me to so many writers I love: Heather Lewis, Amy Berkowitz, Jade Sharma, Barbara Comyns, Jenny Zhang, Emma Jane Unsworth, and so many more. You’re such a wonderful book curator: what books are you loving right now? Any authors that you’re especially excited about?
EG: Thank you!! I am so thrilled you like those books. Speaking of Emma Jane Unsworth, her latest novel Adults is really great.
I am super into Rufi Thorpe’s new book The Knockout Queen right now. It comes out later this month!
Perfect Tunes is out now. Read our review!
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