The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by writer, publisher and literary performer Dan Holloway
Soundtrack by Nouvelle Vague
Non-Musical Express So, Dan, you’re not one of those people who writes because they’re a failed musician?
Dan Holloway I am one of those people who writes because they’re a failed musician.
DH Wait, failed isn’t right. That would imply I tried, which I didn’t. For the good of humanity.
NME So tell me about you and music in a paragraph that doesn’t contain a single chip-bearing shoulder.
DH I’m drawn to the spoken word more than the written, and I write my novels with at least one ear to how they’ll sound at readings. I run a lot of literary shows, and there’s always music. My collective even held its first show at Rough Trade. My role-models are musicians. Jack White with his stripped-down aesthetic, for example, and if I could be anyone I’d like to be Patti Smith. Even my writer role-models are only vaguely writery, like Ginsberg because he sounds so good when he reads.
NME There are lots of bands in your books.
DH I love making up names. Book titles, band names. It’s the most fun form of showing not telling. I like to know what band a character would be in, and if I can’t think of one I’m probably not interested enough in the character for them to be central.
There are two in What There Is Instead of Rainbows, which I’m writing at the moment. There’s The Alice Band, an urban post-punk reggae outfit modelled on The Slits, and The Gashes, a hardcore all-girl punk feminist twosome rather like L7. I’m happy with the names. I think they say in a couple of words what would otherwise take pages.
In Songs From The Other Side of the Wall there’s The Point of the Bomb and Sandrine Chanteuse. The Sandrine Chanteuse persona, which we only see in three scenes, was what nailed her voice.
DH When I was writing Songs I was obsessed with Haruki Murakami and Norwegian Wood in particular. I wanted exactly that sense of nostalgia and directionlessness, and I wanted Sandrine to have Toru’s disaffection. But the music was wrong, or both right and wrong at the same time. Murakami’s music is the music of her world, a world she loves. I hope I conveyed that in one of the key sentences of the book that describes a bar where she and Point of the Bomb are gigging:
Behind the bar a CD player broke the quiet – just – with acoustic jazz covers of Kraftwerk so cool my breath formed little clouds that danced over my beer.
But at the same time she is not at home there. It’s not her music. Sandrine is a gay teenage girl but there’s no sexual politics, not even any questions about gender or sexuality. She was who she was and it wasn’t up for grabs. Writing first person it’s hard to convey that. You can’t say it because that suggests it’s still an issue. So you have to do it through voice. Which is where Murakami let me down, because his women lack something.
I found the answer in the band Nouvelle Vague, who do wonderful bossa nova covers of punk/new wave classics, and also have a slight tinge of torch song. I have no idea about their sexuality, no desire to know, but their mix of confidence and fragility, sadness, darkness and joy, froth and hiddenness, said everything I needed for Sandrine. So I wrote the book as though it were a Murakami narrated by Nouvelle Vague.
Dan Holloway writes novels, short stories and poems but is happiest behind a microphone. He was the founder member of the literary fiction collective Year Zero Writers and runs the literary project eight cuts gallery which promotes and publishes work which crosses disciplinary boundaries as well as staging live shows. His novel The Company of Fellows was voted favourite Oxford novel by Blackwell’s readers. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th anniversary episode of the international spoken word event Literary Death Match, and his next show, Lyrical Badlads, at Modern Art Oxford on November 12th explores the boundaries between music and poetry and features everything from traditional tabla to electronica.