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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 fiction and non-fiction writer Jonathan Pinnock @jonpinnock
I very rarely listen to music when I’m writing because it seems to play havoc with the creative bits in my brain, so with one exception – which we’ll come to later – none of the music that inspired the stories in “Dot Dash” was actually in the background when they were being written.
That said, there is a lot of music lurking behind Dot Dash. A couple of the stories were inspired by two of my favourite Richard Thompson songs: The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife by The Great Valerio, and Piss and Patchouli by Beeswing. The Great Valerio wasn’t a direct influence, I guess, but I think it planted in my mind the idea that a tightrope walker – or indeed a tightrope-walking couple – could make for a powerful metaphor as well as being able to induce a sense of vertigo in the reader. It’s never a bad thing to make the reader feel a bit uneasy, and if you’re going to stage an argument, halfway across Niagara Falls is as good a place as any.
Beeswing – one of the most poignant songs ever written – has a closer relationship to my story, in that both are about a relationship with a self-destructive free spirit, and the choices to make between settling down and cutting loose. In the end, I gave John Martyn a namecheck in the story rather than Richard Thompson himself, probably because Thompson’s still a bit of a geek’s idea of a folk singer. I remember spotting a reference to him in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and thinking to myself that it was absolutely spot on.
The first full-length story in the book, Convalescence, owes a lot to Gary Gilmore’s Eyes by The Adverts, taking the premise of that song – what if you were given the eyes of a serial killer? – just a little bit further. The wonderful thing about punk was that it not only gave anyone permission to pick up a guitar and play, but that it also gave them permission to write a song about almost anything and this is an excellent example of that.
There’s one story in the book, Unfinished Symphony, that is actually about a piece of music – a beautiful, minimalistic piece deriving from nature that reduces an audience to tears. The problem is that the piece I’ve described in the story could never really exist! However, I think the composer that comes closest is probably Einojuhani Rautavaara, who wrote the extraordinary Cantus Arcticus, a concerto for Birds and Orchestra.
The one time that I did specifically listen to a piece of music for inspiration was when I was writing Mr Nathwani’s Haiku, when I wanted – somewhat presumptuously – to locate an Asian voice. So I put on a wonderful Asha Bhosle compilation, The Golden Voice of Bollywood, and by the time the CD had finished playing, I had the bare bones of the story down.
Jonathan Pinnock leads a dual life. In one half, he runs a software development company. In the other he is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His Scott Prize-winning short story collection Dot Dash is published by Salt. His novel, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens is published by Proxima Books. Find him on Twitter at @jonpinnock and on his website and blog.
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A change of gear this week. This is the first time I’ve hosted a writer who is talking about short stories. A lot of music lurks behind his award-winning first collection, inspiring the plot, mood and characters. Various signature songs have passed through his imagination to become a tightrope-walking couple, a doomed relationship, a person given the eyes of a serial killer and a haunting piece of music derived from nature. His name is Jonathan Pinnock and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 Caroline Smailes @Caroline_S
When writing my first four novels, my creative process didn’t involve music. Children shouting, laughing, crying and even dogs barking, then yes I could write. But the minute I played any kind of music I become distracted, lost in the music, unable to commit a word to paper.
Writing The Drowning of Arthur Braxton
Then came the creative process of writing The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. To my surprise music became part of the writing method. The difference seemed to be that the book was about music. It was a novel that had music at its very core, it looked at how music could lure, I even found myself considering how music sounded when being played under water.
The novel has a soundtrack through it, a whistle and a singing nymph, thus for me to populate that mysterious place I had to bring background music into the creative equation.
In one of the first scenes I wrote, Arthur Braxton is fleeing with his pants around his ankles from a group of teenagers. He’d been promised sexual fulfilment by the girl of his dreams. However, it was a trick and he found himself exposed, ambushed by a barrage of flashing mobile phones which instantly uploaded embarrassing images of him to Facebook. The scene ended with him running away, with suicidal thoughts smothering him.
That was the start, it was also when music, for the first time, began to influence the story I was writing.
Have you ever heard a single lyric that inspired you, stopped you in your tracks, and made you catch your breath?
There’s a single line is Gaspard Royant’s Yours: ‘I’ve got a whole world where you’ll never find me’. This was the line that changed The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. It sneaked into my thought processes as I wrote. I wondered what it would be like if a place existed that could keep a chosen few safe, a place that not everyone could find.
That’s when I started writing about the derelict swimming baths called The Oracle. In the novel, for 16 years, the vast building has been closed. From the signs stuck to the erected fences around The Oracle, it is clear that there is a looming threat. Although it is a listed building, the council has sold it to an American company who are planning to demolish and rebuild. As Arthur is contemplating suicide, he finds himself outside The Oracle and that’s when he hears music – a girl’s voice, singing, the most beautiful singing he has ever heard.
Later, the reader discovers that the singing is from Madora, and later again it is revealed that she lives below the surface of the swimming baths in ‘the otherworld’. A secret world where humans don’t go, a whole other world where people cannot be found.
Would I have ever allowed my creative mind to escape into that other world without Gaspard’s lyric? I honestly don’t know.
I guess that one idea led to me thinking about the concept of home and Arthur Braxton’s lack of home, indeed his need for a home.
When these ideas were forming, I heard Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. I watched a YouTube video of a performance; it was when the two singers were still in a relationship. The way they interacted, that feeling that no one else in the room mattered, that absorbing of each other, inspired me. I wanted to take that feeling and apply it to a first love, the redemptive magic of that first love. It allowed for a deeper understanding of my characters.
And Home is a happy song, bouncy and full of energy. I like that about it. So, pulling on their lyrics and that overwhelming sense of home being wherever the two people were together, I let the music play and tried to explore the sense of true love being a returning home, a familiarity and safety.
Yet these were the only songs that I could listen to whilst writing.
There was no place in my creative experience for another song. I had compartmentalised these songs into being acceptable, into them being a tool to create. They played on a loop, almost echoes within the room.
So is this a new way of writing, is music my muse?
My next novel is about The Beatles, I’ve already tried writing to their songs and can’t. Perhaps The Drowning of Arthur Braxton will be my only novel that allows music to aid the creative process. I’ll let you know.
Caroline Smailes lives in the North West of England with her husband and three children. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is her fifth novel. It is published by The Friday Project and is available in paperback and eBook. She can be found at her website and on Twitter as @Caroline_S.
Gaspard Royant lyric quoted with permission.
GIVEAWAY Caroline is excited to give away a print copy of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton to one commenter here. Extra entries if you share this post on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In or G+ – but be sure to leave a note here to let us know that you have!
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My guest this week says she always found music a distraction rather than a help in her writing. Until a lyric sneaked into her thought processes – and from then on the novel took its own turn. She started writing about a secret siren world in a derelict swimming baths, and a character who is looking for a home. She is Caroline Smailes, the novel is The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with its Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 Tom Bradley
Soundtrack by Alexander Scriabin
My current book (Family Romance) and my next (We’ll See Who Seduces Whom) are ekphrases. Ekphrasis is by definition synaesthetic: two or more art forms, under the aegides of disparate sense organs, mutually interpenetrate. And who is the greatest synaesthete of post-antiquity? Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin.
Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom are explicitly Scriabinesque in their merging of visuals and verbals. In both books I have accepted the challenge posed by stacks of preexisting art. Nick Patterson is my collaborator in the former book, David Aronson in the latter. Their pictures came first, and I made the fiction and poetry, respectively, around them.
My method was derived explicitly from Scriabin’s unfinished monstrosity: the Mysterium. It’s a week-long rite, an apocalyptic liturgy of ‘omni-art’ that absorbs and dissolves the entire sensorium: not just the visual, but auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and even the famous ‘sixth sense’ of the Buddhists, comprising manas and dharma. My particular art form, literary, can be said to engage the sixth sense most directly.
While our books are contained between covers, Scriabin’s Mysterium requires an entire gorge in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s meant to be celebrated in a strangely protean cathedral, built expressly for the occasion. This edifice will writhe and swell like a transcendent amoeba. Scriabin says: ‘…it will not be constructed of one single type of stone, but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium’. The architecture is made malleable with psychoactive aerosols and the rhythmic projection of colors by a tastiera per luce, or ‘keyboard of lights’. (Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 are here.)
Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom are less labor intensive and don’t require such a large budget, but the idea is the same: what corresponds to brick and mortar in a printed work becomes protoplasmic as Scriabin’s venue. The illustrations of Nick Patterson and David Aronson, while divergent in style, share this shape-shifting quality. Though static in the literal sense, the longer these images are stared at, the more motion they communicate. It’s only natural to intermingle them with prose and poetry: those two contrivances that traverse time and space more efficiently, and violate solidity more contemptuously, than any other human inventions.
Part of Debra Di Blasi’s program at her great synaesthetical Jaded Ibis Press is to add a soundtrack to each of the books she publishes. I am recommending she make our track Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, for he just happens, by coincidence, to have written the perfect music to help me encompass my job of explaining how the Pattersonian and Aronsonian bizarreries came to be juxtaposed.
If Scriabin is the inner ear of our books, he comprises the entire central nervous system of the Mysterium. Cast in the role of Celebrant, he is seated at his grand piano in the very apse of the gaseous temple, directing what sounds like an orchestra of thousands. They are playing the strangest, most terrifyingly delirious music. A gigantic brace of mixed antiphonal choirs produce a roar without words, identified spontaneously in my mind with certain moiling mobs who stomp through Nick Patterson’s paintings: grotesqueries with shoulder teeth, problematic crotches, and ostrich legs.
Physiologically peculiar choristers
I came to call these physiologically peculiar choristers, these inarticulate roarers, the Relic Amalekites. You might recall from the first book of Samuel the penalty of genocide having been declared upon their remote ancestors by Jehovah. Their vocalizations are often washed away as by a current of God-cursed blood, so I have placed the Relic Amalekites’ home turf — or, rather, home sand–on the banks of a river. When you listen to the Mysterium, you will understand why this waterway could only be called the Judeuphrates.
But from whose simultaneously super- and subhuman larynx issues the single voice that comes stabbing through the rout of Relic Amalekites? It’s a horrifically sublime soprano soloist, also unendowed with the capability of human speech. I knew, of course, that she could only be the aural counterpart of the naked woman who haunts so many of our books’ illustrations: a terrifying creature writhing and hemorrhaging across the pages.
I made her into the Kali-Avatar, the Tantric Initiatrix: sinister, ravenous, erotic Mom. Nude and protean, Mom often indulges a compulsion to mount other creatures and characters in Family Romance. She feeds her spawn a jejune diet consisting solely of psychoactive mushrooms, in a eucharistic shamanism answering to the entheogenically tinctured mists that cause the walls and niches of the Mysterium cathedral to undulate among the Himalayan foothils like a unicellular protozoon.
Meanwhile, bells the size of yacht hulls, alloyed of platinum and electrum, are hung from cumulonimbic clouds that swell among the oozing cathedral’s corbelled vaults. These clouds are engendered and seeded by entire metric tons of cinnamon and sandalwood, benzoin and mace, storax and galbanum, combusting in boundless bonfires and wafting over the attending multitudes. In their simultaneous week-long orgasm, Scriabin’s spectators and performers gradually become cloudlike themselves, indistinguishable one from another.
At this late point in my writing it became useful to supplement the Mysterium with another orchestral work, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire. Scriabin actually managed to finish this piece before he died, so it was consulted in the concoction of the climaxes and denouements of our Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom.
Up until the last chapters everything has been imbued with the famous Mystic Chord: C F# Bb E A D. All has been derived from iterations and inversions of this quartile pitch set, in endless permutations and combinations. Prometheus: The Poem of Fire miraculously, through a heroic act of will and faith on Scriabin’s part, draws the dissonance into a stable minor triad: F-sharp. This sonic normalcy rings out at the final moment, when Scriabin’s commixed congregation and clergy are atomized in the perfumed clouds and drugged mists.
The promethean mystery has popped its climax: nothing less than the annihilation of humanity and the engendering of a more vigorous race of beings from the primordial soup condensed in puddles among the cathedral cobbles. This corresponds perfectly to the moment, on the last page of Family Romance, where just such an extinction and transfiguration takes place within the consciousness of our protagonist. Nick Patterson depicts him as a blindfolded poet with huge hands, sweeping the strangest hieroglyphs upon a scroll that unfurls, roaring like a tidal wave. Scriabin can be sensed in that oglable roar.
Tom Bradley is the author, most recently, of Felicia’s Nose (MadHat Press), A Pleasure Jaunt With One of the Sex Workers Who Don’t Exist in the People’s Republic of China (Neopoiesis Press), Even the Dog Won’t Touch Me (Ahadada Press), Hemorrhaging Slave of an Obese Eunuch (Dog Horn Publishing), My Hands Were Clean (Unlikely Books) and Put It Down in a Book (The Drill Press), which was named 3:AM Magazine‘s Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2009. His next novel, with secret title and hidden nature, illustrated by the alchemical artist David Aronson, is coming next year from the occult publisher Mandrake of Oxford. He’s also a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Further curiosity can be indulged here.
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My guest this week is part of a program that publishes unusual fiction that drenches all the senses. He describes Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin as both the ‘inner ear’ and the central nervous system of his novels which were written as collaborations with artists. His Undercover Soundtrack is wonderful, eerie, apocalyptic and elastic; his name is Tom Bradley – and you can meet him here on Wednesday.
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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 mystery and thriller novelist (and musician) Timothy Hallinan @TimHallinan
I could not write without music.
With more than 7,000 tracks on my hard drive and the best pair of earbuds money can buy, I can create a distraction-free workspace anywhere in the world. That’s necessary because I like to write in public, usually in coffee-shops, where there’s already caffeine in the air and I can look up and steal a face whenever I need one.
I work to playlists with different qualities, most of them 400-1,000 songs long. (My current all-purpose playlist has 1,356 songs on it, heavy on Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Emmylou Harris, Mindy Smith, Lindi Ortega, Over the Rhine, etc.) Generally, music seals me off from distraction, provides a source of energy, and, depending on what I’m writing and the playlist I’ve chosen, an actual entry point to certain emotions and even imagery.
I virtually never write without those earphones plugged in. (I’m listening to Jack’s Mannequin right now.) About half the time I work to the all-purpose playlist, which changes all the time as I add new stuff and yank the old. But occasionally a piece of music will emerge and take over the writing of a book.
In my fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong, a young woman has leapt from a boat into the dark Andaman Sea near three large rocks called The Sisters. It’s the middle of the night, rain is pouring down, and the water bristles with sea-wasps, a particularly lethal jellyfish. The man in the boat has brought her there specifically to kill her. This is the turning point of the book, and it became the longest action scene I’ve ever written. A few pages in, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand kicked in, and I immediately put it on a loop. I wrote to it for several days. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wrote:
the chapter when Rose is in the water was written mostly to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece of music that’s got dark water running all the way through it.
I mention the music I use most at the close of practically every book, and many, many people have emailed me to suggest new artistes. I get a lot of good music that way.
The forthcoming Rafferty book, For The Dead, is largely about a 13-year-old girl having her carefully constructed and entirely fictional identity ripped from her, revealing her to the kids in her exclusive school as a former street child who’s befriended them under false pretences. Much of it was written to Tegan and Sara, who create great, hooky, irresistible rock about girls and young women. They were the primary soundtrack for Miaow’s sections of the story.
But early in the writing process, I began to listen to Fun., and their music crystallized certain aspects of Miaow’s story. At the beginning of the book a phrase from a Fun. song called Benson Hedges, We all float until we sink, keeps running through her mind, and that also song provided the titles of the first two sections of the book: We All Float . . . and . . . Until We Sink. The third section is Drowning Girls, which is a lyric I actually misheard, but there was no way to drop it because it worked so well, and the fourth section is Aim and Ignite, which is the title of a Fun. album.
Finally, in the new Junior Bender book (due out July 2), The Fame Thief, Junior is hired to find out who destroyed the career (and the life) of a young actress in 1950. The central section of the book departs from Junior’s first-person to take us back to the 40s and the early 50s, and for this section I listened to pop music from the day, which had a real impact on both the dialogue and the visual landscape.
If anyone who reads this has some recommendations for me, please comment below or email me at email@example.com And thanks in advance.
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Sometimes I find there’s an inexplicable moment when the tune in my ears tells the story back to me and from then on is part of its world. My guest this week became wedded to a Ravel piano concerto when it started at exactly the moment he began a long, brooding sequence with a killer. He likes to write in public places and his playlist is forever topped up by suggestions from his wide fanbase. Indeed his musical roots run deep; in the 1970s he was in a band that recorded an album for Universal and which ultimately, minus him, became the gazillion-selling group Bread. Songs he wrote were recorded by a number of top artistes in several genres. Now he’s an Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of thrillers and mysteries. His name is Timothy Hallinan and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew
Ah, the difficult second novel.
I’d written a manuscript of 100,000 words, sent it to my agent, and was feeling good. I met him at a pub in Camden, ordered a pint of Guinness, and sat on a bench outside in the watery spring sunshine, expecting a conversation about how large my advance would be.
Instead, I got something else. Something I wasn’t expecting. I got criticism. The voices didn’t work, he said. I’d told my story as a serial first person narrative, with a different character picking up the tale in each chapter. But they all sounded the same. One was an 80-year-old granddad, another a young woman from California, another a cynical 20-something furniture salesman. But they all sounded the same. They all sounded like me.
When I got home, I did what every writer does after receiving helpful, constructive criticism: I took it as an attack on my ability as a writer, went to bed and turned off the lights and felt like never getting up again. The manuscript I’d been so proud of that morning now seemed to me like worthless junk, a waste of two years of my life. It’s lucky I’d made multiple digital copies, otherwise I’d have burnt the thing.
After indulging in a weeklong orgy of pathetic self-pity, I grew up, accepted that he was right, and went to work.
Changing the voice of all seven different narrators is no simple task. It’s easier to write new scenes or even a new ending. Changing narrative voice means going through every line of the novel and rewriting it. But first it means defining what the different voices are going to be. As I’ve done many times before when in need of inspiration, I turned to music.
I created a different mood for each character, based on my idea of who that person was. The Beethoven and Sibelius I’d listened to while writing my first draft was fine for Granddad, but not for young, idealistic Marie from California. She listened to Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and Birds of Chicago. As for Jon, the furniture salesman, he was an Arctic Monkeys man. I listened, and I tried to hear their voices in my head. I did this for all seven characters. For a month I didn’t write a thing. I just spent time with my characters, listening to the music they liked and trying to hear them speak the sentences I’d written.
Doing this helped me see just how much my agent was right. My 20-something furniture salesman referred to a smelly minicab as being ‘like a full-bodied wine, releasing more varied and subtle aromas with more time and attention’. With classical music playing, that had actually sounded OK. With the Arctic Monkeys blasting out, I realised just how ridiculous it was. I changed it to:
Another click and we were locked in. Hot and clammy suddenly, choking on nicotine and pine … At a red light, the fizz of a can, loud slurping, the metallic stench of Red Bull. Behind it all, a strange, burnt aroma…
I did the same with every character, line by line, word by word. I changed the vocabulary, I changed the cultural references, I changed the rhythm of the sentences. Jon, with his guitar-charged indie rock, spoke in a choppy, broken English, while Marie with her contemporary folk was more florid, elegant and occasionally long-winded.
By the end, I couldn’t tell whether I was choosing music to fit the character, or whether the character was being shaped by the music. And the best part was that it didn’t matter. I was listening and writing in different voices. I ended up with 29 chapters written by seven different characters, and there’s nothing in the chapter title to indicate who the narrator is. The voices are, I hope, so distinctive that you can tell within a few sentences who you’re listening to. It’s only possible because of the time I spent with my characters, listening to their music and letting their voices enter my head.
Andrew Blackman‘s second novel A Virtual Love is in bookshops now. His debut novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
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Another Soundtracker returns this week, another book under his belt. Andrew Blackman had set himself a steep challenge with his second novel. His story of love in the internet age had seven narrators, each needing their own voice and style. Early feedback from his agent said they weren’t distinct enough, and for a while, Andrew despaired of finding a solution. Then, as he always did in times of trouble, he turned to music. Which saved the day. He’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to his second novel, A Virtual Love.
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
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Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in writing music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'