From bullied kids to meth-smoking mothers, these characters in dire straits take measures—sometimes drastic ones—to take charge of their own fates.

“This is uncompromising work—kinetic, gripping, affecting, and terrifyingly true to life.”  — Steven Heighton, author of The Dead Are Less Visible and Afterlands

Click the song titles to hear the tracks, or check out the entire playlist HERE.

Story: On the Line | Song: “I Want” by Alejandra Ribera

“On the Line” is a story about wanting — in terms of the immediate needs of the flesh, as well as the desire to chart one’s own course in life. Wanda works in a meatpacking plant in small-town Alberta. Yeah, it pays well, but as she puts it: “The closer you get to the plant, the more the air smells like shit.” Like my story “On the Line,” Alejandra Ribera’s “I Want” is about one woman’s dream of a different life for herself and the desire to feel things authentically.

Story: Four Pills | Song: “Friends” by Meshell Ndegeocello

Here is a succinct synopsis of this story from a recent review in Maisonneuve: “Four Pills” covers the day of a sexually confused and nearly homeless drug addict as he and his dealer friend steal an old woman’s purse so that they can buy crack. This is all true; but even more simply put, this is a story about friendship and trust — which are also key themes in Meshell Ndegeocello’s original, darkly hypnotic interpretation of the Whodini hiphop classic “Friends.” Like the song, my story “Four Pills” interrogates the mercurial nature of friendship, particularly at the intersection between deception and sex.

Story: Family Circus | Song: “Palmcorder Yajna” by The Mountain Goats

“Family Circus” is another story that complicates the notion of friendship — and family, and commerce. Behind the closed doors of a small, dumpy Winnipeg apartment, a motley ensemble cast runs an assembly line that forges cheques, all in order to fund their shared methamphetamine habit. Amidst this barely controlled chaos, one woman plans to finally get out — and take her two young children with her. Set in similarly tight quarters — a cramped hotel room in Pomona, CA — the Mountain Goats’ “Palmcorder Yajna” perfectly captures the intensity, claustrophobia and paranoia that are hallmarks of chronic meth use. The song’s emotional climax is cri de coeur of nihilistic despair: "If anybody comes into our room while we're asleep / I hope they incinerate everybody in it" — a sort of fate my narrator barely manages to escape herself.

Story: Snap (Read it here) | Song: “Caleb Meyer” by Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” is a song about a rapist, and my story “Snap” is about a bunch of rapists — and their impact on the man who is trying to help rehabilitate them. The energetic and startling song — captured here in a live performance by Welch and her musical collaborator David Rawlings — forms an interesting counterpoint to “Snap.” The song is a vivid and sanguinary testament to female survival and self-determination, where the story is told from a male point of view characterized by a haze of self-doubt and insecurity. As a straight white male, one might expect my protagonist Jake to feel empowered and assured — but instead his life feels out of control and subject to influences from other men whose actions he abhors.

Story: Get Brenda Foxworthy | Song: “Courage” by Sarah Polley

“Get Brenda Foxworthy” is the story of an unhappy queer kid growing up in 1980s Niagara Falls — autobiographical much? When thinking of a song to pair with this story, at first I considered “One More Colour” by Canadian wunderkind Jane Siberry — since in the story, protagonist Dean bemoans the fact his buddy Preet prefers ZZ Top to the quirky Jane. But I quickly turned to this Tragically Hip cover from the Atom Egoyan movie The Sweet Hereafter, based on the Russell Banks novel of the same name. Actress Sarah Polley provides her take on both the Siberry song and the Hip classic on the movie soundtrack. I like how her stark and plaintive voice highlights the notions of both courage and coming of age, which are also central to my story.

Story: Taking Creative License | Song: “And as the ship went down, you never looked finer” by Woodpigeon

Selecting this one was easy — after all, my character Jenna masturbates with a UHU Glue Stick while watching a video of this Woodpigeon song on YouTube in “Taking Creative License.” Jenna becomes obsessed with a handsome gay singer, and re-imagines herself as an older, bearded man as part of her sexual fantasies about him. “And As the Ship Went Down…” is a passionately romantic song, and the singer’s lovely voice and smoldering good looks will give you a sense of why Jenna develops her crush.

Story: Man, Woman, and Child | Song: “Man Is the Baby” by Antony & the Johnsons

“Man, Woman, and Child” is a short and quirky story that first appeared in This Magazine as part of the Great Canadian Literary Hunt. In it, three people chafe against mainstream sexual role definitions, each of whom takes steps to defy them in small and larger ways. Which sometimes involves dressing in onesies and adult diapers. The song title “Man is the Baby” fits neatly with the Adult Baby identity at the heart of this story, even if the song itself is, rather, one of the many trans-feminist explorations of spirituality at the core of Antony’s own complex and entrancing oeuvre.

Story: The Eden Climber | Song: “All for You” by Janet Jackson

Two sisters share a room in an old-age home. One has a sexual relationship with her caregiver. “The Eden Climber” is an exploration of the place where personal consent intersects with social and institutional power. While researching this story, I learned a lot of disturbing facts about elder sexual abuse. The Janet Jackson connection is a lighter element of the storyline. Grumpy Cassandra scolds her sister Ruthie for her inordinate enjoyment of a visiting choir who include Miss Jackson’s songs among their repertoire. I chose “All for You” for this playlist because, as an upbeat paean to sexual self-determination and self-presentation, I think it makes an interesting companion to a story where sex, desire, personal agency feel a bit more complicated — behind the four walls of the Brentwood Pines Home for the Aged.

Story: The Exchange (Read it here) | Song: “Swimming” by Martha and the Muffins

In this story, which debuted on Little Fiction, Roddy and Bettina spend a significant amount of time underwater. Literally; their elementary school has sent them to a swimming class. But so much else in their young lives can feel murky, submerged — caught up in a web of bullying and sexualization against which they fight to regain control, while developing a quasi-romantic friendship with one another. As Martha Johnson puts it simply in a song about struggling with definitions and descriptions: “We’re afraid to call it love / Let’s call it swimming.”

Story: Three Tuesdays from Now | Song: “Heroin” by Velvet Underground

“Three Tuesdays from Now” is about a lot of things — the nature of friendship, how to get pregnant when you’re HIV-positive, how to have sex when one of you uses a wheelchair and the other one doesn’t. And it’s also about heroin. This story’s quiet heroine is Charla, who locked herself in her apartment to kick the habit she had developed while shooting up with her one-time lover Erich. Like a heartbeat that slows and speeds and slows again, this Velvet Underground song is a musical emulation of a life coming unraveled and then, bit by bit, pulling itself back together. Fitting for Charla, and so many of us.

Story: East on 132 | Song: “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads

Driving across Canada on a road trip with their young son Todd, Beth and Gus listen to Talking Heads’ seminal art-rock album Remain in Light in the car on cassette tape. This is in some ways a device to set the story in time — it takes place in 1980s Quebec as the independence referendum looms — but it’s also a thematic indicator. In an unplanned interlude, Beth hooks up with a biker in a campground men’s room. Musically and lyrically, this song evokes a suggestion that in the domestic sphere, things are often not as they may seem. At times, everything around you may be recognizable, yet nothing looks familiar.



Arsenal Pulp Press | Powell’s | Indigo | IndieBound

Read two stories from the collection here at LITTLE FICTION:




A story-by-story soundtrack for Shawn Syms’ critically acclaimed debut story collection, NOTHING LOOKS FAMILIAR (Arsenal Pulp Press). By Shawn Syms

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