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 writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland @JimVermin
Soundtrack by Jay Reatard, The Lost Sounds, Dillinger Four, The Stitches, AA Bondy, Kurt Vile, Mind Spiders
For a book with such an upbeat title, Forest of Fortune was drenched in despair.
The first draft was written in a frenzy. The novel has three points of view. I’d work on a scene, get a character into trouble I didn’t know how to get out of, and move on to the next character. By the time I made it back to that first character, I’d have thought of a solution and start the process over again.
The novel is set in an Indian casino. At the time, I worked in an Indian casino. If the first draft has a soundtrack, it’s the chiming of the slot machines, calling out to be played, jangling their jackpots, paying out their plunder.
The music a slot machine makes when no one is playing it is called an attract sequence. It’s an anxious, urgent sound. The music of chance. That’s what the novel felt like: a machine that promised big rewards if I just stayed in the chair.
I don’t remember much about those days, but then the calendar flipped and I wish I could forget the days that followed.
Music to grieve to
When I lost a close friend to a drug overdose, I mourned his passing by listening to the dark, violent punk rock music we loved.
My first choice was Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions, an album as disturbing as the title implies. My friend’s name was JJ and we had seen Jay Reatard together and the aggressive, menacing songs matched my anger over losing my friend.
That led me back to The Lost Sounds, Jay Reatard’s former band. Their self-titled record is filled with songs like I Get Nervous. Frantic guitars, wailing keyboards, droning feedback. It’s music to get lost to, which is what I did with the help of a steady supply of vodka and cocaine. I succumbed to the seduction of lostness.
When the anger passed and the sadness moved in I turned to Dillinger Four’s Civil War, the saddest punk rock record I’ve ever heard. The songs are suffused with melancholy that I drank up like the cheap vodka I drank on the long drive to and from the Indian reservation every day.
I tried to write about the record but after repeated listens, a little beer and a lot of blow, I wasn’t sure I knew what a record review was anymore. Civil War made me intensely sad, and that sadness made me feel close to JJ. I never wanted that feeling to go away.
A better way
One of JJ’s favorite songs was Better Off Dead by the Stitches. They played the song at his benefit show about a month after he passed away. It’s one of the last things I remember about that weekend. The rest is lost to a blackout.
When I came to, I knew I was done with the drinking and the drugs. I asked for help and I got it. I got sober and stayed sober.
Eventually, I returned to the novel. One of the characters in Forest of Fortune is a Caucasian copywriter with a severe drug and alcohol problem. Suddenly, his behavior didn’t seem so mysterious anymore. I could see his problems so clearly.
The revision process was slow, deliberately so. Jay Reatard released a new album called Watch Me Fall. It was softer, slower and poppier than his previous album. I didn’t really like it but it liked me. It got its hooks into me and its melodies pulled me along.
Then the calendar flipped and tragedy struck again. This time it was Jay Reatard who overdosed. Another life senselessly lost. I went back to his music, but I didn’t let it derail me. I stayed on the sunny side of the street.
I sought and found solace in nurturing my novel along to completion. Without realizing it I found myself listening to music that was more soothing than shocking. A swampy mix of AA Bondy’s lush guitars on Believers and Kurt Vile’s wry but barely there vocals on Smoke Ring for my Halo.
It was music I could listen to over and over again as the final pieces of my novel fell into place.
I had changed a great deal since I’d invented the characters that inhabit Forest of Fortune’s haunted casino. Part of me wanted to take them on a journey that would turn their lives around – just as I had – but their fates were already sealed.
I quit the casino not long after I sold the book. I didn’t sell it for a lot of money, but finishing the book and knowing it was going to be published gave me an immense feeling of freedom. Freedom to quit a job I didn’t like. Freedom to try new things. Freedom to live.
When it came time to choose a song for the book trailer, I asked Mark Ryan of Mind Spiders to come up with something. He wrote a song that captures in 90 seconds what it takes me 300 pages to accomplish, a spooky shriek and mournful lamentation for my autobiographical ghost story.
Jim Ruland is the author of the novel, Forest of Fortune, the short story collection Big Lonesome and is currently collaborating with Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF!, on his memoir My Damage, which will be published in the fall of 2016. Jim is the books columnist for San Diego CityBeat and his column, The Floating Library, appears every three weeks. He also writes for the Los Angeles Times and Razorcake – America’s only non-profit independent music zine. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Believer, Esquire, Granta, Hobart and Oxford American, and his work has received awards from Canteen, Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. He runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year. Tweet him as @JimVermin and find his website here.
This week’s Undercover Soundtrack is so raw and honest. Although all great books are personal journeys for the writer as well as the reader, this one has a truly traumatic back story. The writer lost a dear friend while he was drafting it, and his soundtrack is as much a journey of grief and recovery as it is the story of the novel’s making. He is award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland, and he’ll be here on Wednesday.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Carnegie Medal nominee Tanya Landman
Soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday
I don’t listen to music while I’m writing – I need total silence to concentrate – and I rarely play music in the house. It’s only when I’m driving that I stick on a CD (yes, I’m that old fashioned), and even then I often prefer silence. So why am I writing this blog? Because, when I was invited to, I realised how much music had contributed to the making of Buffalo Soldier.
Some books have a very long evolution. Strands of music, images and ideas that have been knocking around in your head for years eventually come together and form something new. Buffalo Soldier started with the Westerns that were constantly on TV and in the cinema when I was a child. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy. There were two particularly memorable movie themes that made me long for a horse, a hat, and the wide open range – Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, and Ennio Morricone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly.
Then there was Gone With the Wind. I was taken to see it for the first time when I was about 11 or 12 and was captivated by its epic scale and sweep. It was the first time I’d seen a heroine take charge of her own fate. I still find Tara’s theme by Max Steiner stirring, particularly when Scarlett vows never to be hungry again.
When I was growing up, the Wild West and the Deep South seemed worlds apart. I had no idea how closely connected they were until I was doing background reading for my book Apache and came across references to black soldiers. It was after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – who were these guys and what were they doing in the west?
Further research led me to the buffalo soldiers. The Bob Marley song suddenly made sense. That lyric took on fresh importance.
Many of the men of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry were freed slaves in a world that had been turned on its head. They signed up and were sent to fight the Indian Wars. Freed men, fighting Native Americans? I was struck by the bitter irony of the situation and started reading everything I could get my hands on about slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. In the car I started listening Nina Simone and Etta James, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. Gospel music. Spirituals. And then I went back to Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a hugely problematic film, depicting a wildly romantic Old South where slavery is a benign institution, where field hands contentedly pick cotton and sing from pure happiness.
When I re-read the novel, the scene in which Big Sam starts singing Go Down Moses as he’s sent off to help fortify Atlanta against the advancing Yankee army snagged in my head. He’s clearly meant to be a faintly comic character and Scarlett fondly watches him go. Now, Margaret Mitchell was a gifted writer and she knew her Civil War history inside out yet she appears to have no idea about the significance of that particular song. A spiritual about the enslavement of God’s Chosen People. Didn’t she ever listen to the lyrics? Go Down Moses is linked to Nat Turner – organiser of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in US history. It was used as a rallying cry by Denmark Vesey when slaves rebelled in Charleston. Harriet Tubman used it as a code song when helping fellow slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. How could Margaret Mitchell not know this? Go Down Moses gave me an insight into a very blinkered view of history in which whites chose not to see what was happening under their noses. It also gave me a burning desire to tell the story of the Civil War from the other side.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot (sung here by Paul Robeson) was another song I listened to repeatedly and in fact it features in the book – the longing for a better place, to be taken from a world of misery and suffering and carried ‘home’ speaks volumes. It stirred my emotions and helped create mood and atmosphere. Way back in school when I was in the sixth form I was in a play, which featured I Shall Be Released (sung here by Nina Simone) and Change Gonna Come (Sam Cooke’s version here). The yearning, the terrible weariness you can feel in both songs, informed various characters’ emotional development and fed my writing. There’s one particular scene in Buffalo Soldier in which Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was in my mind. So quiet, so passionate, so powerful – I can’t listen to it without feeling a chilling sense of horror. It makes me weep.
And finally – there’s one piece of music that runs all the way through Buffalo Soldier – Sam Hall. I was looking for something with a traditional feel and upbeat but also with a dark, violent undercurrent and a real sense of menace. Appropriately enough I heard the song first watching the 2011 Western Blackthorn with my children and tracked down the Johnny Cash version because the lyrics suited my purpose perfectly.
Tanya Landman is the award winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults. Buffalo Soldier has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.
My guest this week grew up in thrall to wild west movies, especially the ones with epic theme music. Many years later, she was reading some history books as research and stumbled across the freed slaves who were conscripted to fight the Indian Wars. Those early movie memories with their sweeping soundscapes came back to her, along with a more bitter kind of song – gospel music and spirituals by Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Sam Cooke. She emerged with a mission to, as she puts it, tell the story of the Civil War from the other side. She is Tanya Landman 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 process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by former actor and theatre director Paul Adkin @AdkinPaul
Soundtrack by Paco de Luia, Oasis, Mike Flowers Pops, Miles Davis, Schubert, JS Bach, Natalie Imbruglia, David Bowie, Stockhausen, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, Brahms, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead
When Sirens Call is replete with musical references, but the real musicality of the novel is in the writing itself. Through my work in theatre, as a writer and director, I very quickly saw the relationship between theatricality and music. In the composition of the novel When Sirens Call, I wanted to create a juxtaposition between its two protagonists and music helped me find it. In musical terms, the plot was a seductive struggle between the classical and the contemporary. Between the traditional and the actual.
Protagonist A is Belinda Babchek. A young Australian traveller, in Madrid, on her way to Greece. It’s summer. To locate the mood of the foreigner in Spain I listened to a lot of flamenco (Paco de Luia Entre Dos Aguas). I live in Madrid and frequent the flamenco bars, but I wasn’t listening to it to imbue Belinda with it. Quite the contrary. Flamenco is an alien concept to the young Australian. She is displaced and floundering before the backdrop of the Spanish guitar. Flamenco isn’t a music that one can lie back and relax with. It’s stirring and passionate, but also a disturbing symphony.
And this is Belinda’s mood in Madrid. She is walking a knife-edge between her own pop-culture of the here-and-now and a yearning for something deeper. Even though she has no idea what that deeper thing could be.
In Madrid she befriends Charo, who is more sensual than Belinda and full of jazz as well as flamenco. Charo has an American boyfriend, Troy. He is completely superficial. When drawing him I thought of Oasis’s Wonderwall, but in the cheesier, Americanised Mike Flowers Pops version.
Through Charo and her American lover I wanted to create a crossing. A little bridge inspired by Miles Davis, bleating his deeply sad Solea . Even at the beginning, the final tragedy can be sensed. Belinda, like the Solea is intense and suffering.
Protagonist B is Robert Aimard. A middle-aged British writer and hotel owner on a small Greek Island. As an antithesis to Belinda he is a classical man. A lover of Schubert and Bach. He reads Schopenhauer and like Belinda he has his demons. He is separate from a wife and daughter he still loves. Nevertheless, he is comfortable in his island exile. At home in the timelessness of it. The Greek music that flows around him is traditional, a sad drinking song , the perfect theme for his own melancholy.
The melancholy is what will eventually unite Belinda and Robert, and to bring them together I had to build another bridge over that which naturally separates them. A music connection. Although at the first glimpse, their tastes are completely different. Belinda’s own pop is Australian and 90s. She is Torn by Natalie Imbruglia and disturbed by her Australian boy friend’s Bowie. Is she running into life on her world trip or away from it?
Between Madrid and Greece she goes to Cologne in Germany. Suddenly the double mask of contemporary Europe confronts her. A mask of pop and a mask of heritage manifesting itself in the monstrous music of Stockhausen. Is this heaven or hell? In Germany she is reminded of her own musical training. Her piano classes. This was the vital detail I needed to construct that musical bridge between her and Robert Aimard. So, I made a classical bridge via the Schumanns. They had their own bridges: Schubert inspires Schumann who inspires Clara Wieck who inspires Johann Brahms. Art rolls into and through itself and the music flows and gushes through the entire process. There are other connections as well: Schumann was a manic-depressive and Belinda is a manic-depressive. She fears death by water like Schumann, like Shelley. A strong romantic theme now grows in this undercover sound track. Meanwhile Robert Aimard’s bridge to the romantic and unto Belinda is in his passion for Leonard Cohen.
All of this sounds so sad and it is, but the landscape is the Aegean. It sparkles full of life and love, and a profound simplicity. The backdrop is the life of the Greek taverna and the spectacle of the traditional Greek wedding. For the most part When Sirens Call is set on this Greek Island and its spirit is the bouzouki , grilled octopus and a glass of ouzo with ice.
Music as sublime tragedy
It is essentially a Greek book and it does end in its own Greek tragedy. For the final scene I turned to Radiohead for inspiration and their Pyramid Song. The piece is bleak but also ethereal and sublimely poetic. Both lyrics and music were perfect to set the mood for my own finish. When Sirens Call is that song.
Paul David Adkin was born in England and grew up in Melbourne where he obtained a degree in literature and drama from Rusden. Since then he has worked in the theatre, directing and writing plays. Paul moved to Madrid where he has formed three theatre companies. He his wife holiday in the Greek Islands. His short story Kalimera won the Eyelands competition in 2012 and was translated into Greek. He has three novels published: Purgatory (2012), Art Wars (2014) and now When Sirens Call. His website is here. Find him on Facebook and on Twitter as @SirensCallNovel @AdkinPaul
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.