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.
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 Louisa Treger @louisatreger
Soundtrack by Hozier, Amy Winehouse, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms
Before pursuing a career as a writer, I was a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Music was fantastic training for being an author because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Music was, and still is, a huge part of my life. It informs every word I write.
Many authors listen to music while they are working, but I can’t. For me, music is too powerful; it’s like a magnet, drawing all my attention to it. It shuts out the words. I listen to music in my car, while walking the dog, or doing chores at home.
Music lifts us into a different realm. It allows us to enter a place where our emotions can flow freely, in a way that transcends ordinary experience. Yet although music expresses things that go deeper than words, I find that it inspires words. Music expresses states of feeling that I want to capture verbally. At first, these are dim and half formed in my mind; I am fumbling my way towards them. Listening to music is a catalyst, helping me put emotions into words.
Music was fundamental to the writing of my debut novel, The Lodger.
It’s a biographical novel about the little-known author, Dorothy Richardson, who was a literary pioneer and something of a cult figure in her day. She wrote stream of consciousness before anyone else and was considered Virginia Woolf’s equal, but somehow, she got forgotten by history.
At the start of my novel, Dorothy is existing just above the poverty line, working as a dentist’s secretary and living in a shabby boarding house in Bloomsbury. She receives an invitation to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer hovering on the brink of fame. Dorothy doesn’t recognise his name: HG Wells, or Bertie, as his friends call him.
Bertie Wells appears unexceptional at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval…
Tormented about betraying Jane, yet unable to draw back, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with him. Then a new boarder arrives at the house – striking Veronica Leslie-Jones – and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie… Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
A song that helped me capture the mood and tone of both love affairs in my book is From Eden by Hozier. This is a very powerful song: tragedy and rapture rubbing shoulders. It reaches into your soul, pulls it out and throws it on the ground. It’s about people who are damaged by their pasts, who are flawed and cynical, yet have found something incredibly precious in each other.
Dorothy had fallen; she was living in sin; betraying Jane … The hunger she felt for Bertie was all-consuming; it obliterated everything else, even her guilt.
Loss and longing
There is a great deal of loss in The Lodger, and I looked to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black for inspiration. I think it’s one of the best breakup albums of all time. Amy sings about the kind of love that goes so deep inside you, it transforms your internal landscape and marks you forever. And her voice: smoky and ancient, expressing more loss and longing, more pain and despair than one person can bear in a lifetime. It speaks to me.
Often, it seemed as though a part of her still existed continuously in the past. Lived with Veronica; the two of them lying eternally in each other’s arms, belonging together, as in the early days.
Music did more than help me identify states of feeling. There are many parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, colour, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or to make a single voice stand out. Listening to classical chamber music – especially by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms – taught me about all of them. Chamber music is pure and precise, yet at the same time, it’s a real dialogue between characters. There are too many wonderful works to list individually, so here are three of my favourites: Mozart String Quintet in G minor KV 516; Schubert String Quintet in C major D 956; Brahms String Sextet G major opus 36.
Finally, The Lodger is a novel about writers and writing. Great music is sublime in the way writers strive for sublime prose; it soars above the humdrum of everyday life, transforming it. It’s what Dorothy Richardson and H.G. Wells tried to do with words:
When you are in the right mood, words appear faster than speech or even thought; your pen follows them as quickly as your hand can move it across the page, and sometimes, the most exquisite phrases spill out. It’s hard to explain what a wonderful feeling it is; it smoothes out all the creases in your mind, and completely revives you. And you see life with such clarity…
This is what I am striving for too – and constantly feeling I am falling short of it. As Wells says in my novel: Will I ever get the things I want to say properly said?
Louisa Treger began her career as a classical violinist and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, gaining a PhD in English at University College London. Married with three children and a dog, she lives in London. She spends as much time as she can in South Africa, where she supports a feeding scheme for underprivileged children living in shacks in the desolate Kurland Village in the Western Cape, where 70% of adults are unemployed. The Lodger is her first novel and is published by Thomas Dunne Books. Find her on Facebook, her website and on Twitter @louisatreger.
GIVEAWAY Louisa has offered to give away two print copies of The Lodger. To enter, comment here. Extra entries if you share the post on social media, but we might not know you have unless you let us know in a comment – so remember to come back and confess your good sharing deeds.
My guest this week used to be a classical violinist. She says music informs every word she writes, expressing states of feeling that she then strives to render in words. Her novel is a biographical story about the little-known author Dorothy Richardson, who pioneered the stream of consciousness technique, although she is overshadowed today by Virginia Woolf. In the novel, Richardson is invited to stay with a friend who is married to HG Wells, which is the start of a tangled and tumultuous affair. It’s a novel full of love and loss, with a soundtrack to match. She is Louisa Treger 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 post is by award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell
Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles
Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)
As for the music:
…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’
Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.
A novel in stories
Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.
A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:
Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’
Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.
Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.
Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:
Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’
Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.
Chopin and chopsticks
In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:
How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’
The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?
Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:
Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’
I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.
Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.
My guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week is crossing her fingers as her agent sends out her third novel. It’s called The Weight of A Piano, so you can probably see why she fits very well here. All of her fiction is heavily shaped by music behind the scenes, from a song about a widowed woman that presented her with a grieving character, to a Miles Davis piece that captured the heart and peculiar solitude of a man who has just lost his secret love. And then, of course, there’s the piano. She is Chris Cander 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 post is by supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Arvo Part, Paul Horn, Philip Glass, Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors, Reiki Tribe, John Barry
I’ve always found music to be a wonderful tool while writing. Sometimes I will search for hours to find the perfect song to write a particular scene before I can begin. After I find the right music, I will loop it for days, sometimes weeks. And I’ve found I cannot write while listening to any lyrics. It must be instrumental or else it is distracting.
When I first began writing The Memory Painter years ago I did not think to make note of all the music I was listening to, so this is only a list of the highlights. For readers who are not familiar with the book, The Memory Painter is a supernatural historical thriller about a group of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret to reincarnation and a love story about a two lovers who have traveled through time to remember an ancient legacy. The novel spans a lot of history and many of the chapters are devoted to specific lifetimes. Here are a few of the time periods and the music that inspired the writing…
Cremona Italy, 1700s
There is a special lifetime that deals with the famous violinmaker Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, and for this I played one song repeatedly: Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) by Arvo Pärt. I would actually loop the YouTube video of Anne Akiko Meyers playing del Gesù’s Vieuxtemps violin. The song is incredibly poignant and it was just perfect for writing those scenes. Hearing Guarneri’s violin being played while I was trying to imagine his life was invaluable.
China 6TH century AD
Another album is 80 minutes of Reiki Music by Reiki Tribe and it’s filled with Asian flutes and Tibetan bells. I listened to it primarily while writing the Bodhidharma lifetime, the Zen master who trained the Shaolin monks. I literally plugged the search term ‘Tibetan bell music’ into iTunes and spent hours listening to sample tracks before deciding on this particular collection. Many of the songs felt very transportive and helped create the mental space to write the lifetime of a Zen Buddhist monk.
Ancient Egypt 10,000BC
Just listening to Inside The Great Pyramid by Paul Horn was the time capsule I needed to get my imagination in ancient Egypt where the climax of the novel takes place, and I wrote all of the chapters listening to it. This special album came out in the 1970s. Paul Horn went to the Great Pyramid and recorded the music inside the King’s Chamber. There have been acoustical studies on the King’s Chamber because of its incredible reverberation capability. This music really is quite something.
Present day and 1980s
Philip Glass’s album Glassworks was perfect music to write to, particularly track 1, and I played this album a lot throughout writing the entire novel. The mathematical harmonies within the songs and the heartrending melodies were a perfect backdrop.
Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors’ album Totem was another go-to album that I looped repeatedly, particularly tracks 1-3. Totem has a driving rhythm and mystical feel and in general simply helped me to focus and write. I actually went to write a letter to Ms. Roth to tell her what I fan I was of the album because I was listening to it so much, but I found she had passed away in 2012. So instead I ended up spending the afternoon reading about her life and the legacy she left behind with 5Rhythms and I bought one of her books, Maps to Ecstasy, which is a fascinating read about her journey and the power of meditative dance. So that was a surprise veer one afternoon, researching the artist I was listening to and becoming inspired in other ways.
I also played several tracks from the soundtrack to Somewhere In Time, music by John Barry. It’s a favorite movie of mine and I’ve had the soundtrack well over 20 years. Several of the songs are so lovely and again poignant (a running theme perhaps in some of the music I chose). Many scenes in the book were written with this music.
Those are the main songs behind The Memory Painter that easily come to mind. For the current novel that I’m working on, I am keeping a more detailed account because it is fun to look back at what inspired you along the way. My current playlist is numbered with some incredible music that is filling my ears at the keyboard and helping the story come to life.
Gwendolyn Womack grew up in Houston, Texas. She studied theatre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and then moved to California to pursue an MFA in Directing Theatre, Video, and Cinema at California Institute of the Arts. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. The Memory Painter is her first novel. Find her on Twitter as @Gwen_Womack, on Facebook and on her website.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation stories – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.