Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is award-winning YA author and creative writing tutor Kerry Drewery @KerryDrewery
Soundtrack by Radiohead, The Streets, The White Stripes
Music has always been an important part of my life. Growing up the television was never on until after teatime, yet the radio always was. Born in the ’70s, I remember singing along to my parent’s new Blondie album, going to Radio One roadshows in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, and listening to chart run-downs on hurried Tuesday lunch-times in school (as it was then).
My brother’s music choices of heavy metal would pound through the house, and perhaps had some influence on my turn from a Buck’s Fizz and Duran Duran fan to teenage goth listening to bands such as The Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cult – I listened for the lyrics, but even more so the mood.
My goth years are waaay behind me now and I’ll listen to any genre, yet it’s still the feel and the mood of the music that’s more important to me rather than the lyrics, and that’s mostly how it affects and ties in with my writing.
Unfortunately I’m not one of those writers who can listen to music as they work (I wish I was!) because I find my brain latches onto the lyrics and instead of thinking about what’s happening in my novel, I start singing along, much to the disgust of anyone in earshot.
However, when I leave the computer at the end of the day, when I go for a run, when I’m in the car or reluctantly doing housework, or even when I’m planning, the music will go on and the volume will go up. If I’m listening on my iPod, I’ll find myself skipping through tracks to find the ‘right’ one – ‘right’ being whatever provides the correct mood.
I was doing this when writing A Brighter Fear, and latched onto Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. It reminded me of the novel; it made me feel the mood of it. The track begins very quietly, Thom Yorke’s voice lilting with some melancholy accompanied by acoustic guitar, yet as it progresses a crescendo builds, his voice more forceful, higher and with electric guitar, before fading away again.
For me this mirrors the bombing scenes in the novel – the quiet and calm beforehand, slowly building as fear spreads throughout the communities, then the sounds of planes overhead, followed by the bombs exploding around them sending rubble, bricks, homes to pieces, before finally the dust settles, the planes disappear and calm, quiet, returns.
It was never the lyrics, but on listening now, I’m aware of the repetition of a phrase talking about being worn out by what’s happening, which is exactly the mood of my character struggling to survive this.
Another song that helped me to write A Brighter Fear, but in a different way, was The Streets, Dry Your Eyes. Although this again gives the perfect mood and places me as a writer in exactly the right frame of mind, it’s far more about the lyrics – and for a very particular scene where two characters who’ve become supportive friends, are forced to part.
The whole song is a story of a girl breaking up with a boy, and the lyrics are very directional, telling how he moves his hands towards her to touch her face, or how she turns away but takes one last look back, and this allow you, the listener, to see exactly the scene the writer intended. I encourage you to listen, to close your eyes and let the picture form in your head of precisely what’s happening between this distraught couple. That’s what I wanted to do with the scene I was writing – I wanted my reader to see it as I saw it in my head; this showed me how effectively it can be done.
I could bleat on all day about tracks that have affected, helped and supported me as a writer, but I think they’d fall under the same category as these – putting my head in the right mood, or showing me how well something can be done. To finish on one that is different, though, and takes me to my second novel – A Dream of Lights…
This novel saw my character going through some tough times in North Korea, and there were days when the research got to me (I discovered some truly shocking things), and there were times when stepping away at the end of the day and leaving it in my office rather than letting those things stay in my head, was difficult. This track though, with the volume high and my eyes closed, would melt all that away on its guitar; it helped me smile at the end of the day or face the next chapter afresh. I love it…The White Stripes, Ball and Biscuit.
Kerry Drewery is a YA writer of the novels A Brighter Fear and A Dream of Lights (published by HarperCollins). A Brighter Fear is about a teen growing up in Baghdad when war breaks out in 2003, and was short-listed for the Leeds Book Award. A Dream of Lights follows a teenage girl in North Korea as she discovers the truth about her country and struggles to survive with her family. It was awarded Highly Commended at the North East Teen Book Awards and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Kerry lives between the countryside and the sea in the north of England in a house full of books, films and dogs. She’s a Patron of Reading, creative writing tutor and co-organiser of UKYAX. She’s currently walking around with tape over her mouth as she has news of her new novel but isn’t supposed to tell yet… She’s repped by Jane Willis at United Agents. Find her on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter @KerryDrewery
My guest this week specialises in YA novels set in war zones. With just two novels under her belt, she’s already much-decorated with awards and award nominations. Her music selection is small in number, but it helped her keep the intensity of the environments she was writing about, and connect with the characters’ emotions. Indeed, she has scored a first among Undercover Soundtrackers, because one of her choices was to help her decompress after working with such harrowing material. She is Kerry Drewery and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is fiction editor and creative writing teacher Tawnysha Greene @TawnyshaGreene
Soundtrack by Harold Arlen, EY Harburg, Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Michael Nyman, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
My narrator is hard of hearing like myself, so many of the scenes including music in A House Made of Stars are ones in which the music is felt rather than heard. For example, the narrator’s cousin earns a part in The Wizard of Oz, and as she practises her songs in her room, the narrator and her deaf sister watch, hands placed on the stereo to feel the rise and fall of the music.
Similarly, as I wrote these scenes, I played Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg on my laptop and turned the music up loud, so that I could close my eyes and listen with my hands to feel the same notes the characters in my novel did. This way, I could be closer to my narrator, a girl who struggles through poverty and abuse and who wishes for a better life for her and her family.
While writing the majority of A House Made of Stars, the music I listened to was usually instrumental. One of my favorite musical collections was The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2), and guided by these songs, my novel began to take shape. The following individual songs from this compilation were especially helpful — Comptine d’un autre été by Yann Tiersen, I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi, and The Promise by Michael Nyman. The quickness of these pieces, especially The Promise and the way the notes would domino into one another helped me with the pacing of my novel, because I wanted each scene to tumble into the next so that the story’s momentum would be constantly moving forward as the narrator and her family’s situation become more and more dire.
However, in some cases, it was necessary for me to slow down the scene and concentrate on smaller details. My narrator is very observant and what she lacks in hearing, she compensates in what she sees and understands. The song Childhood by Alexandre Desplat played on repeat while I wrote these scenes, and the way the song is composed is appropriate for the realisations the narrator makes during these instances — Childhood is slow with distinct piano keys forcefully played one at a time in a way that causes each note to be almost jarring. Similarly, during the moments in which I chose to listen to this song, the narrator makes discoveries about her family — read in a diary hidden underneath the stairs and glimpsed through the wooden slats of a bedroom closet — moments that are jarring for her as well.
Regardless of the scene, music served as a catalyst for the general mood of A House Made of Stars, and towards the end when I wrote the last act in which the narrator and her family are homeless and starving, I listened to Hans Zimmer’s To Zucchabar. The duduk’s haunting melody is accompanied by isolated drum beats in the background, an interesting progression from the pronounced notes of Childhood, because these notes are more subdued and allow the duduk’s voice-like melody to take center stage. The music is appropriate for this final leg of my narrator’s journey, because she, too, is finally finding her voice and speaking for herself and her family against all odds.
When I wrote the last scene, I did not play just a single song. I played all of them. The compilation of The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2) sounded in the background as I wrapped up the story with my narrator looking up into the night sky. By then, she was all those songs. She was the drum beats, the piano notes, and the duduk’s melody as she reached for the stars and made them her own.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others. A House Made of Stars is her first novel. Find her on Twitter @TawnyshaGreene, on her website and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Tawnysha is excited to sponsor a giveaway of A House Full of Stars. To enter, simply share this post – and then comment here to let us know. The more platforms you share on, the more entries.
My guest this week might be a surprising addition to the Undercover Soundtrack series as she has impaired hearing. Nevertheless, music is important to her, both as a writing environment and to help her slip into the shoes of her characters. Some of her novel’s people also have impaired hearing, which is an interesting creative choice – what they miss in aural terms, they make up for in what they understand and observe. My author is also a creative writing tutor at Tennessee University and a regular contributor to literary magazines, so I’m delighted she’s guesting here with her first novel. She is Tawnysha Greene and you’ll find her here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is Edinburgh Festival Award nominee Rebecca Mascull @RebeccaMascull
Soundtrack by Chopin, the Raconteurs, Mychael Danna
I’ve always had a soundtrack in my writing life. I’m a classically trained pianist and often think in notation, often find my fingers running up and down the table in old scales and moments from piano pieces, often find I’ve had Chopin running through my head all afternoon. It’s just the way my brain works. Having said that, the funny thing is, I cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I just can’t do it. I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a musician, that listening to music becomes an active rather than a passive pastime, and means that if trying to actively engaged in something creative, like writing a first draft, my brain can’t split itself in two and live the music and create the prose at the same time. I often think of music as architecture – the notation itself looking like rows of bricks on the page building into a structure in a particular style – classical, romantic, or whatever. And writing is like that too – the words the bricks, the sentences and paragraphs the walls building up into the mansion or the castle – the novel.
So, I don’t listen to music while I’m working. But curiously enough each of my two published novels has had a particular piece of music that has influenced them, become a catalyst for them and become a kind of ‘undercover soundtrack’ for each, as your series so cleverly names it.
The novel is about a deaf-blind girl living in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm in Kent, who is released from the prison of having no form of communication by meeting a hop-picker who teaches her the manual alphabet. So, I hear you cry, what on earth could this song possibly have to do with this novel??
Well, before I started the first draft, while it was still just an idea percolating in my head, I thought I might set this novel in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I thought the teacher who opens up the world to my deaf-blind girl might be an English woman come over to America. There was going to be a romance for the girl. Then I heard the song Old Enough, or more precisely, I saw it. My partner showed it to me on TV and I was transfixed. I loved the video set in the studio, with all these great musicians just strumming around then coming together to create this great song. I had also just started to learn the violin around that time, so loved watching the fiddle player do his stuff too. And there was something about the lyrics, this idea of a young woman thinking she’s old enough to do things, and this older, wiser voice slowing her down. It even says that she never speaks, which of course was so apt for my deaf-blind girl who is mute.
But the real hook for me and why it spoke to me about this book was that the song encapsulated for me the central romance of the book, between my deaf-blind heroine and her teacher’s brother. Without giving too much away, that song I imagined playing in my head during every scene they had together, and of course, I discovered, he too played the violin and taught her about sound by holding the instrument and feelings its vibrations.
Later I had a change of heart. I felt that the war must come later, as I wanted the teacher’s brother to go to war and so we were back to England, late Victorian/early Edwardian and the Boer War. We were in Kent now, but the song stayed with me.
In my second novel, a similar thing happened i.e. a soundtrack came to me that ostensibly had nothing to do with the setting or time of the novel. Song of the Sea Maid begins in 1730s London, and then travels to Portugal and Menorca in the 1750s. I bought a CD of C18th Portuguese ballads, which was lovely, and listened to a few Portuguese fado songs, but found out they were developed a bit too late for my setting. Around that time, I saw Life of Pi at the cinema. Wow. What an experience. Such a stunning film. Yet what stayed with me as much as the gorgeous visuals was the lush and beautiful music. I ordered the CD and listened to it in the car with my (at the time) seven-year-old daughter Poppy. Though I knew she was too young to watch the film (she’d find it too sad), she loved the music (by Mychael Danna) and so did I. I became quite obsessed with this particular track, Skinny Vegetarian Boy.
The story of Pi of course is dominated by the sea. At the cinema, the ocean fills the screen for much of the action and being in the dark surrounded by water as far as the eye could see filled my mind whenever I thought of Pi. The story of Sea Maid takes my heroine across the ocean with a certain young argumentative and reactionary sea captain to deal with. She studies islands and develops theories about ocean-going ancient cultures. The sea filled this story too. And every time I sat down to write, whenever I was with her paddling in the Mediterranean or gazing across the Atlantic at distant storms, I had the Life of Pi running through my head, and always first, that one track, its soaring Indian flute completely out of place for my eighteenth-century heroine yet somehow it went deeper than that and expressed something out of range, just beyond your reach.
It’s that atmosphere I need when I’m writing, trying to express the inexpressible. And that’s why Walter Pater said: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It’s that abstract beauty I’m trying to reach. I’m doing my best in my own small way. And music helps me get there.
Rebecca Mascull is the author of two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton. Her first, The Visitors, was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award. Song of the Sea Maid is her latest release. Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Find her on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter @RebeccaMascull.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably just seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is Myfanwy Collins @MyfanwyCollins
Soundtrack by Jessica Lea Mayfield
Before she was fully formed on the page, I knew who I wanted Laney to be. She would be 15, tall and gangly, with a face that would not seem immediately beautiful to the young world but an astute adult would know how she would bloom fiercely and beautifully one day. Laney would not be an obvious intellectual, but she would think long and hard in an emotional way. People would often say to her, ‘You think too much’, a sentence she would find curious and staggeringly ridiculous. Yes, she does think a lot but what’s wrong with thinking? It’s safer to live in your head than it is to live out in the world anyway. Laney knows that more than anyone. After all, she has just lost everything. Her home. Her brother. Her mother. And her sense of self.
And yet, she carries on and continues to seek connections in all things and to try to not only understand her own miserable situation but that of the human condition at large. In short, I wanted her to be a young woman like Jessica Lea Mayfield. Deep, thoughtful, emotionally advanced, quirkily beautiful. Strong but not in a way that is obvious. Rather, I wanted her to have a quiet, poignant strength born from sadness, from desire, and, ultimately, from her ability to empathise.
Mayfield embodies all of these qualities in her voice and also within the songs she writes. And the more I listened to her music, the more Laney became the sort of young woman Mayfield is. The first time I knew of Mayfield was when I listened to the Avett Brothers cover her song For Today. Like so many of her songs, this is a song of contradiction. A song about a romantic relationship in which the singer pretends she does not love this person. Maybe she feels like she is a relationship fuck-up or that the other person is or that they both are. Maybe she believes she doesn’t deserve love or that her beloved’s love is false. Regardless, she pushes this love away, eventually, because she says it has stifled her. She will accept it, though, in this one moment. She will accept it for this day.
In this song, as in so many of Mayfield’s songs, there is a keen understanding for romantic love—an understanding beyond her years (she recorded her first album, White Lies, when she was 15) and, frankly, beyond the understanding that many middle-aged people (including me) are able to access. She witnesses the world in a way that is both stunningly youthful and staggeringly aged. Like Laney, Mayfield’s eyes are wide open and innocent, but her heart has seen some serious shit and she is on this earth to share her knowledge.
It wasn’t until I saw a video of Mayfield singing an acoustic version of a new song in the kitchen of Seth Avett, that I truly saw Laney. The song, Seein* Starz, is about an overwhelming, impossible love. This is not unlike the love that Laney has for Marshall. There is something about the strength of Mayfield’s voice in the acoustic, kitchen, version and how it is unmarred by the shaky, nearly fragile quality it also possesses. It is that tenderness she exhibits, the raw woundedness of her song and singing that struck me as so akin to who I wanted Laney to be. Like Mayfield, I wanted Laney to send her voice out into the world with vulnerability and strength. Qualities that should be antithetical but which, I believe, are actually able to exist within the same person at once.
Mayfield’s voice and her songs, then, are all about containing and managing contradiction. Just as Laney is all about protecting her heart while at the same time learning how to open up to love and face her fears. Learning that even though she feels entirely weak, she is actually fully undaunted. Like Mayfield pushing back out into the waters of love again and again despite the possibility for pain, Laney pushes forward, paddling her canoe into an uncertain future. Fearless.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of three books—a collection of short fiction, a novel, and her latest, a young adult novel, The Book of Laney, published by Lacewing Books. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review. Echolocation, her debut novel,was published by Engine Books in March 2012. A collection of her short fiction, I am Holding Your Hand, was published by PANK Little Books in August 2012. Her website is here, her blog is here, you can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter (@MyfanwyCollins), Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads and Google+.
My guest this week has just one musician in her book-s arsenal – a singer who perfectly, wholly, uncannily embodied the character she was searching for. The story is a young adult novel – a new departure for the writer, who has had other works published in the adult market and in literary magazines. Anyway, the emotions run high – and also the fragility. Stop by on Wednesday when Myfanwy Collins will be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Burial, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Magazine, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros, The xx.
That was his tragedy. He didn’t yet know that fear was more powerful than love.’
The Ghost is a novel about violence. At its centre is an act of extreme violence, perpetrated by three children. The book tells the story of how the consequences trickle down through time; a slow-acting psychological poison which engulfs the three children in adulthood.
I wrote it as a crescendo: smouldering beginning, gathering middle, explosive ending.
I didn’t completely throw away the structure rulebook. I understand that continuous intensity will exhaust the reader, and so there are dropouts of release, spikes of hypertension, recurring motifs and anchoring asides.
In other words, I wanted it to feel like a lot of the music I love – the kind that steals over you, seeps beneath your skin and then grips and grows and grows.
Soundscape to landscape
Music is as vital a part of my life as light or air. I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘background’ music in film or television. My favourite filmmakers bake it into the centre of the drama – as commentary to underscore the action, as soundscape to emphasise landscape. They also use the absence of music to wrongfoot the viewer into relaxing. (Is there anything less shocking than a jump scene telegraphed by a rising note and announced with a jarring chord?)
Music informs my writing in a similar way. It’s not there on the page, but it’s always present in my plotting brain and typing fingers.
When I’m not at my desk, I play out the scenes – particularly the set-pieces – on an internal cinema, soundtracking them with music in my headphones. Almost every story peak in The Ghost was conceived in this way; the events were enhanced by a vivid awareness of the sound which surrounded them.
I suppose it’s a form of creative synaesthesia. Before I write a word, most of my moments are steeped in distinct aural flavours. I find it difficult to write a significant sequence before seasoning its mood with music in this way.
The book follows two separate timelines in the life of lead character Dorian Cook: his impoverished childhood in early 1970s industrial England, and his working life as an adult film critic in modern-day London. As the present-day Cook realises he is being held to account for his actions as a child, the past timeline builds up to the inciting event itself.
The house carried an unholy chill that flowed deep through its foundations – a vaporous spectre of cold that first stirred in late August and had the place comprehensively haunted by December.’
For the austere 70s chapters, I favoured songs which seemed to define Cook’s world: corporal punishment, factory discharge, municipal menace. The clamour and whisper of Joy Division’s Heart and Soul; the inner-city palpitations of Burial’s Loner; and the slouching panic of Nine Inch Nails’s Corona Radiata, with its sense of impending reckoning which mirrors the book’s recurring first line:
Something was coming up the stairs.’
Two key sections in the past timeline take place during the notorious UK heatwave of 1976. At the time, I remember sweltering with a strawberry Mini Milk as my tiny portable radio squeaked out Minnie Ripperton’s ever-lovely Loving You and Mungo Jerry’s lascivious In The Summertime. But for the story I was telling, I needed Sketch For Summer by The Durutti Column, with its synthetic birdsong and rebounding guitar – a song that always evokes the invincibility of childhood summers, and Larkin’s mighty line about ‘the strength and pain of being young’.
In the present day, two songs defined Cook’s marital and mental collapse: Missing by The xx – a hushed and horrified dissection of a crumbling relationship; and, as the threat from his past grows ever mortal and Cook is forced to plot a counterattack, Magazine’s The Light Pours Out Of Me sets the death-defying scene.
So, The Ghost is a novel about violence. The story is triggered by violence and it ends with violence – although not, I hope, of the sort the reader is expecting. The final sequence – a queasy kind of closure – was linked to Sigur Ros’s monolithic Festival, a song which emerges, ever so delicately, with a lone Icelandic voice keening beneath overlapping string notes. It hovers like a hummingbird, and then drops hard into a midsection of martial drumming, before lulling and at last detonating in a starburst of choral harmonies. It briefly, unbelievably, ramps up one more level before collapsing into a single voice again, this time whistling the melody.
It doesn’t give me The Chills; it gives me The Glow – a surge of whiskey-warmth. I must have heard it a hundred times and I still get it, around eight minutes in, as if something in the song is hardwired into me.
Fellow writers talk of how their characters ‘take over’ and dictate the narrative. Others claim the muse descends in a certain place, or country. For me, it’s music that guides me through, defining the lifts and rifts of the characters’ inner lives and choreographing their actions in bold, movie-like rhythms.
The Ghost has been described as a ‘dark’ book, but I hope some of my musical motivation pokes through to reveal the more complex qualities I was reaching for – redemption, restoration, courage, euphoria, enduring connection. These are all qualities I find in the music I love, which in turn rouses my writing.
Andrew Lowe is an author, editor and journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames, and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by cycling and coaching youth football. The Ghost is his first novel, but it won’t be his last. Find him on his website, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Twitter @andylowe99
My guest this week is a sometime musician – and as a result he’s another writer who finds that music is not a background but his master. His novel is a hard-edged story about a childhood event whose consequences are poisoning the characters many years later, and the soundtrack is a double-barrelled mix for the past and present timelines. Expect 1970s grit and modern-day anguish – with a dose of catharsis from Sigur Ros. He is Andrew Lowe and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.