A novel playlist is a very serious thing. While I draft, I curate mine obsessively because I know I’ll need it. Each song is a portal to a memory or an emotion, and listening to the right one at the right time can inspire me in a way nothing else can. Finding a song that feels worthy of The Playlist is an electrifying, satisfying experience.
My debut YA novel, If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come, is about mental health, queer love, and what makes life worth living. Avery Byrne has secrets. She’s gay; she’s in love with her best friend, Cass; and she’s suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression. But on the morning Avery plans to jump into the river near her college campus, the world discovers there are only nine days left to live: an asteroid is headed for Earth, and no one can stop it.
In honor of Avery’s nine new days–a gift and a curse all at once–I’ve broken my playlist into nine pieces to explore the themes, lyrics, and melodies that made this story what it is. I must admit that after eleven years of working on it, I’m more than a little emotional this playlist has reached its final form. I know this is terribly self-indulgent, but thank you for letting me share it with you.
Content notice: Please note the following post discusses mental illness, depression, suicidal ideation, homophobia, and religious bigotry. It also includes some spoilers. Read with care.
- Mad World (happy birthday, happy birthday)
“Mad World” by Demi Lovato covering Tears for Fears
Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello, teacher, tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me
On Avery’s 19th birthday, she decides to end her life. Instead, Cass’s phone call and the news of the asteroid convince her to stay. She can do it, can’t she? Just nine days? At least one?
Tears for Fears’ classic song, “Mad World,” has been covered extensively, and Gary Jules’ melancholy version caught my attention in Donnie Darko when I was a deeply depressed teenager. Many versions of this song have graced this playlist over the years but the one that stuck, ultimately, is this Demi Lovato cover. It feels like they move between whispering and shouting the words, and depression feels like that so much of the time. There is so little energy. There is so much anger. There is so much longing for more, or at least enough of something to hold us here. And because of Lovato’s queerness, this song carries that heaviness too. Avery isn’t depressed because she’s a lesbian, but it weighs on her–the threat of hell, of exclusion, of losing the people she loves. The shame, the questions, the yearning.
I didn’t write the story with these lyrics in mind, but ultimately I am struck by the parallel images. Avery’s birthday has always carried sadness for her; it’s the day her mother’s sisters died by suicide on the day she was born. It’s supposed to be the celebration of a beginning, but instead, it always feels like a reminder of the end. A beckoning. The lyrics, too, are about struggling in school, about feeling invisible, about dreaming about what it might feel like to finally stop? They’re fitting.
“feel something” by Bea Miller. And it’s not fair/I keep on writing a sequel to stories/I know that are not there/I don’t wanna die but I don’t wanna live like this
- Sunday (whose God, whose heaven?)
“Sunday” by Joy Oladokun
“let it be me” by Joy Oladokun
What was once out of the question now gets met a quarter way
It might not be a rainbow but at least it’s more than grey
If you poisoned the apple why plant the tree?
Why plant the tree?
If there’s one in the city you’re willing to keep
Let it be me
If I have one regret about my novel acknowledgments it’s that when I wrote them, I had yet to discover Joy Oladokun (not that they will ever read them, but I know). While many people feel like art should speak for itself, I’m not among their numbers. Of course art can speak for itself. And of course artists owe us absolutely nothing from their private life and it’s dangerous to believe otherwise. But when artists do share something of themselves, it makes the experience richer. It makes my connection to it stronger. There are many queer artists on my list who grew up religious, and it’s no wonder I relate to their stories and artistic expression (The Aces, Brandi Carlile, and others fall into this group). Joy is a nonbinary lesbian raised Christian by Nigerian American parents, and so much of their work is grappling with this tension. They love her, and she loves them too. But what does that look like when they’ve been taught that her happiness in life as a queer person is the ultimate shame; something to be feared and avoided? What can that relationship look like?
In the novel, Avery is raised in the Catholic Church, and for most of her life, she’s devout. She finds hope and salvation in her religion. She finds meaning and purpose in her life. In all her despair, she has someone to pray to. Her realization that she’s queer is a slow one, in part because of compulsory heterosexuality but even more so as a self-defense mechanism. If she’s gay she has so much to lose, and she’s only barely hanging on as it is.
Joy’s music so perfectly captures the pain of growing up queer in a religious or conservative culture. In “let it be me,” she writes about her father’s slow acceptance of her, and her appreciation of his long, growing love.
Avery’s parents, too, can never completely shake their upbringing, but they ultimately do choose to try.
Listening to Joy’s music also made me realize how much religious imagery I’d unintentionally included in the novel. In “let it be me,” she references the apple trees, a call back to the Garden of Eden. If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is primarily set in the apple orchards of New Hampshire–I place I included because it’s ripe with nostalgia but because perhaps, too, it’s a setting loaded with meaning about self-discovery, desire, condemnation, and shame.
In “Sunday,” Joy writes about baptism and cleansing.
Sunday, carry me, carry me down to the water
Wash me clean
I’m still struggling
Sunday, bury me under the weight of who you need me to be
Can’t you see
Avery chooses to die by drowning herself in a river. She thinks it will cleanse her. She thinks it will take her away, somewhere she won’t be a burden to anyone. In my writing I like to play with contrasts; mornings and nights, beginnings and endings. The river and other waters in my pages are both rebirth and finality. What you find in their depths depends on how you show up on the shores.
“Somebody Like Me”, by Joy Oladokun. I’ve watched all my rivers run dry/Over and over/Now I know that’s no way to get by/Can’t keep on fixing/The things I haven’t broken.
- august (gay yearning, or in defense of the unrequited)
“august” by Taylor Swift
Back when we were still changin’ for the better
Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all
I’ve always been stricken by how much the imagery of this song matches my own characters, Avery and her best friend Cass, in their high school summers. But it’s the aching feeling captured in the melody that matches their longing. While Avery’s reasons for not pursuing Cass are desperately misguided–she thinks her depression makes her unlovable, that Cass is better off without her–her love for Cass is easily one of my favorite parts of her story.
There is a stereotype that lesbians are the ultimate masters of the art of yearning, and maybe that’s true. I suspect some of that is for unfortunate reasons–life in the closet, our culture teaching women their desire is shameful, and it’s wrong to be assertive or to ask for what you want. Still, there are also beautiful things about this desperate yearning. The enormous respect for boundaries and consent. The act of loving someone–so completely, wildly, painfully–without ever expecting anything in return. And the electric feeling of that love that lives in every cell of your body. You’re living for the hope of it all. The wanting is enough.
Avery loves Cass without needing to own her, and most of the time without wanting anything from her besides her friendship. She studies her when they’re together, and falls in love with every detail. Love can’t save Avery, or Cass, or the world. But it does make her feel terribly alive.
Other (& angstier):
“Sleepover” by Hayley Kiyoko. But at least I got you in my head.
“Boyfriend by Tegan and Sara.You call me up, like you want your best friend/You turn me on, like you want your boyfriend.
“Goodnight and Go” by Imogen Heap. Why’d you have to be so cute?/It’s impossible to ignore you/Oh, must you make me laugh so much?/It’s bad enough we get along so well.
- Dress (at least we were electrified)
“Dress” by Taylor Swift
Say my name and everything just stops
I don’t want you like a best friend
Only bought this dress so you could take it off
Take it off
Carve your name into my bedpost
‘Cause I don’t want you like a best friend
Only bought this dress so you could take it off
Take it off
Inescapable, I’m not even gonna try
And if I get burned, at least we were electrified
And OK, alright, the only feeling bigger and more electric than the unrequited is the requited. The only thing better than almost, maybe is yes, god, me too. For Avery, numb with depression, wanting is something rare and special. She wants Cass. That’s something big.
“Just Thought You Should Know” by Betty Who. I’m so happy that you’re happy with her, wait that’s a lie/Almost called or tried to text you like a million times.
“New Emotion” by The Aces. You’re my friend/I shouldn’t be thinking about you like that/But I’m thinking like that.
- Holy (hell)
“Holy” by King Princess
Avery’s relationship with Cass is also healing because of how much shame she carries around her sexuality. I’ve noticed in recent years many queer women and people releasing songs where gay love is likened to holiness; often irreverently (like in the King Princess song) or more earnestly. I asked author Jeanna Kadlec about this in another Chicago Review of Books interview, and she had this to say: “Holiness is what makes you feel whole. When I think about it in that way, it could not be possibly more different from church. I find it in the moments when I’m so connected and tuned into my body.” For Avery, that’s true too.
Her Body is Bible, Fletcher. I found God the moment that I put my lips on yours/I thought, “This is what they’re talkin’ ’bout.”
Lovin’ is Bible. The Aces. Take me to your holy places/Treat you like an idol/Confessing all my secrets to you/With no denial
- I’ve Loved You For So Long (and I’d do it again)
“I’ve Loved You For So Long” by The Aces
I’ve loved you for so long
Oh, I’d forgotten how it feels
Feelings come back strong
You’re taking me back
To where it all started
Wearing your hair up in your New York apartment
I’ve loved you for so long
I’d do it again
The Aces are my very favorite band, and this is my very favorite song. Not just because it feels just the way I want the love story to feel. Avery Loves Cass in almost every way. And in the end, Cass loves her too. If Avery had ended her life in the river, she would have missed it. This song more than any other captures the sweetness of the two of them, the nostalgia of their friendship, their patience. The payoff. The hope.
It’s simple, but the declaration, “I’d do it again,” is everything for Avery. At one moment she’s ready to end her life, she’s so sick with depression. But even after all the pain, all the sorrow, she looks at her life and she feels this way, I’d do it all again.
“Right on Time” by Brandi Carlile. It’s not too late/Either way, I lose you in these silent days/It wasn’t right/But it was right on time.
“Going Home” by The Aces. Say so, don’t go, I know you won’t/You push, I pull you in so close, I know/You’ve seen me in my darkest places, won’t lie/All my demons they’re too familiar/But you’ve never held me to a filter, you say/Let it all out, no need to fight it just cry.
- Loose Garment (draped in it)
“Loose Garment” by MUNA
Used to wear my sadness like a choker
Yeah, it had me by the throat
Tonight I feel I’m draped in it
Like a loose garment, I just let it flow
Despite Avery’s love, despite her newfound hope, her depression isn’t gone. For most people with this illness, it’s something we live with our whole lives. But I so love these MUNA lyrics–a perfect description of what it’s like to still carry it all but not feel like you’re choking to death. Avery doesn’t fully heal. Not really. But there is so much power in her healing or hoping enough, even if her desperate sadness will always still be draped around her.
“Kind of Girl” by MUNA. Yeah, I like tеlling stories/But I don’t have to write them in ink/I could still change the end.
“Somehow” by Joy Oladokun. I know what goes up comes down/And if you stick around/Life can change with the weather/Oh, somehow things just get better.
- Look Up
“Look Up, Joy Oladokun
Do you see the sunlight?
There’s flowers in your hair
‘Cause somebody loves you
You know trouble’s always gonna be there
Don’t let it bring you to your knees, yeah
To return once more to Joy Oladokun’s music, I have noticed in her lyrics the theme of holding onto life when you could just as easily let go. When you want to let go. When you sometimes feel like you have no other choice. I’ve often wondered if, for some people, life doesn’t feel like such a question to be answered all the time. Joy seems to be much more like me, like Avery. Their music captures not only the hurt of being a queer person in the church, but the potential beauty of religion–all its encouraged kindness and compassion, the purposeful, persistent search for meaning.
For so long, Avery tells herself a story about herself: I am broken. Irreparably so.
It takes an asteroid, but she does look up, eventually. She starts to write another one.
“Oh, What a World” by Kacey Musgraves. Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave/All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe/Thank God it’s not too good to be true/Oh, what a world, and then there is you.
- I Will Follow You Into the Dark (heaven or hell)
“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Adrienne Tooley covering Death Cab for Cutie
Love of mine
Someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark
No blinding light
Or tunnels, to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
It’s fitting to end both the book and the playlist here; with uncertainty about tomorrow and what comes after. With this beautiful cover of a beautiful song by my writing mentor and friend, Adrienne Tooley.
I won’t spoil the end completely but I will say this: Even if tomorrow isn’t promised, and even if tomorrow makes no promises, Avery is sure of this: She will stay until it’s over. She will wait for the hint of a spark. She will let it burn.
I have another playlist made up of songs friends and readers have told me they associate with the book! It’s collaborative so please do add some if you have one in mind!
If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come
By Jen St. Jude
Published May 9, 2023
Jen St. Jude is the managing director at Chicago Review of Books and has work in Catapult, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus. Her debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN'T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children's in 2023. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.