In Random Rules, The A.V. Club asks some of its favorite people to set their MP3 players to shuffle and comment on the first few tracks that come up—no cheating or skipping embarrassing tracks allowed.
The shuffler: Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics In Calamity Physics, a celebrated debut novel sketched through a playful coming-of-age story that doubles as a sly sort of murder mystery.
Atlantic Starr, "Always"
Marisha Pessl: There is a character in my book, Zach, who's sort of the epitome of this '80s cheeseball high-school jock/nerd, and when I was writing scenes with him, I would listen to a lot of cheesy '80s music. This was one of his songs. I listened to music for a lot of the characters, especially when I was doing the last round of revisions.
MP: I went through a period of loving U2 in high school when Achtung Baby came out, and then I found it too neurotic, so I put it down and haven't listened for a while. They're a good band. Good bands you can kind of lose, then come back and realize they're still good. A friend of mine who is really into current music and spends a lot of time on iTunes said they re-recorded it for some charity, I think with Mary J. Blige. I meant to download that one, but I got the wrong one.
Nick Drake, "Northern Sky"
MP: I never knew who Nick Drake was until the Garden State soundtrack, and then I got his greatest hits, and I really like it. It's really restful and thoughtful, something so pure about his sound. It's good for when you're walking around New York listening to your iPod—nice to listen to instead of all the craziness happening around you. I don't know anything about him, though.
The A.V. Club: He was a reclusive, depressive guy who died very young from a drug overdose.
MP: Really? You're kidding. He sounds so put-together.
Tom Petty, "Learning To Fly"
MP: I think this was my senior year in high school. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was the first concert I went to unchaperoned. All of us just piled in from Asheville High and drove to Charlotte. I felt sort of like Cameron Crowe, because we were all graduating, and this song is very inspiring, in a very cheesy way. I also like "Mary Jane's Last Dance," that video when he's throwing Kim Basinger around and she's this dead body. That was so weird and so cool.
AVC: Did you grow up with Southern rock in North Carolina?
MP: I actually just rediscovered it now. I hated country music because I heard it all the time. But now I love Lynyrd Skynyrd and a lot of other bands. When you're away from home, you realize how great it was.
Kings Of Convenience, "Toxic Girl"
MP: This is a band I just discovered that I absolutely love. Occasionally when I'm procrastinating writing, I'll while away the hours on iTunes. You can just keep going forever and find these bands you'd never normally hear of. I really like the sound of this. It's nice and relaxing. And I feel like I know people like that—toxic people. People who cross your path who are absolutely maddening, and then they just move on and you never see them again, which is exactly what the girl in the song is doing. She's very self-centered and sort of nightmarish. It's sort of a more poetic version of Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman," describing the same sort of character who moves through a life and disrupts it and leaves a lot of waste.
AVC: As a novelist, do you gravitate toward characters in songs?
MP: A little bit, yeah. When I'm creating characters, I definitely think of theme songs. Writing for me is very visual, so I sometimes think of it in terms of a movie with a soundtrack, and try to transfer that to words.
Bloc Party, "Blue Light (Engineers' Anti-Gravity Mix)"
MP: I found this because my main character's name is Blue, so I just randomly started listening to it. It goes on for a really long time, and there's a lot of repetition. It's one of those perfect songs. It's really emotional, and it reminded me of my character. When I wrote the book the first time, I had to have absolute silence. I had to be in my room with as much silence as you can possibly have in New York or London. And then when I had to do revisions and tighten the book last summer… This sounds really weird, but it's almost like an actor's preparation: to work on certain scenes, you have to get the mood right, and listening to certain music seemed to help.
Linkin Park, "Numb/Encore"
MP: I downloaded this after seeing the Miami Vice trailer, because I love Michael Mann. His cinematography is unbelievable. It's so impressionistic. That preview was just a minute of complete awesomeness. The hair, the bitches in bikinis, all the drinking, and then Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx with guns.
Louis XIV, "Finding Out True Love Is Blind"
MP: This is a song that I absolutely love the lyrics to. I read some essay that said it was incredibly sexist, but I find it absolutely hilarious. He's basically talking about all these different women, talking about makeup and how women are so insecure. There's one line, like "Oh, carrot juice / I wanna squeeze you until you bleed." It's basically this horndog guy looking at all these different women and beckoning them to him, but you kind of get the sense that they're not giving him the time of day.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Free Bird"
MP: Here's my Southern-rock thing—the perfect ending. It totally brings me back. I can just see… I'm not going to say that, never mind.
AVC: You have to say it!
MP: I was about to say, I can just see all the trailer parks and the fast-food restaurants. In high school, we all congregated in the parking lot at Fuddruckers, outside this hamburger joint, and somebody would be playing Southern rock really loud on the radio. We were good kids. We didn't do anything crazy. We'd just hang out, and something like this would always be playing.