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 comic mystery author Anne R Allen.
Soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter
I don’t write with background music, although I do occasionally use a CD of rain or ocean sounds to block neighbourhood noise.
When I was writing Sherwood Ltd. which is set in the soggy English Midlands—I often put on a CD of rainstorm sounds to conjure my memories of living in a 200-year-old warehouse in rainy Lincolnshire. An epic flood figures strongly in the plot. I don’t know if that CD is to blame, but I’m sure it gave some inspiration.
His own jazz age
But when I was brainstorming ideas for my Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game, I often listened to big band jazz, especially Cole Porter tunes. The anti-hero, Alistair, is a charming, self-destructive loser who tries to live as if he’s a character in a Fitzgerald novel. Although the story is set in the 1970s, Alistair inhabits his own private, imaginary Jazz Age.
The character was inspired by David Whiting, a man I knew in college—who died mysteriously on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie. The mystery of David’s death has never been solved, but I’ve always had a theory of how it might have happened.
I was finally inspired to write about it last year, when I was going through some old college papers and found an ancient note David had left in my dorm room one night, hidden under my pillow. It said, ‘While you were out, you had a visitor…wearing spats, and a straw boater, perhaps, and humming a Cole Porter tune…maybe the ghost of Jay Gatsby?’
It brought a vivid memory of David. He was always humming those tunes—so completely anachronistic in the days of psychedelic rock and roll. David’s image came to me in perfect clarity—with all his theatrical charm, narcissism, and the tragic pain that always showed just under the surface.
That was when I knew I had to write his story—and listening to Cole Porter helped me keep in touch with the memories.
I think the greatest recording of the Cole Porter songbook is Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic Verve recording from 1956. I played it a lot while I was writing The Gatsby Game.
The music itself appears in several scenes. When the narrator, Nicky Conway (yeah, a little homage to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway there) first meets Alistair, she finds him charming but evasive. He’s constantly bursting into song to avoid conversation. As he drives her away from her Bryn Mawr dorm to who-knows-where, he responds to each of her questions by singing another line from You’re the Top—appearing to compliment her while he’s bullying her into silence.
Later, when she introduces him to her über-wealthy relatives, she finds Alistair romancing her (very married) aunt to the tune of Begin the Beguine. Throughout the story, Nicky is never quite sure how much Beguining Alistair got up to with her aunt—and/or if some Beguining went on with her uncle as well.
Alistair often retreats into silliness, making clever puns and wordplay to avoid real communication. I imagine him as one of the ‘silly gigolos’ Cole Porter talks about in Anything Goes. I could also imagine Alistair responding to Nicky’s pleas for more intimacy with the line from It’s Too Darn Hot: ‘Mr. Pants, for romance, with his cutie pie, is not.’
As I played that 1950s recording, I realized it might have been a favorite of Alistair’s mother, whom I imagined as a kind of high-class hooker. Alistair’s primary relationship is always his love/hate enmeshment with his mother—whom he calls ‘the Gorgon’.
It’s delectable, it’s delerious, it’s de-limit
She made him into her surrogate partner whenever she was between ‘employers’, which is why he dresses and behaves like a member of her generation instead of his own. The rest of the time, she abandoned him in expensive boarding schools where he rubbed elbows with the children of the glittering ultra-rich Fitzgerald and Cole Porter wrote about—perhaps triggering Alistair’s compulsive social climbing.
In the end, the Gorgon doesn’t even pay for Alistair’s funeral, so he becomes a tragic figure in spite of the shallow Cole Porter-character persona he invented for himself. The honest, direct perfection of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice combined with the brilliant silliness of Porter’s lyrics conveys to me that same tragicomic reality.
Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries debuting in 2011 with two publishers: Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.— Food of Love (September 2011) The Gatsby Game (October 2011 – and now available on Nook as well as Kindle) Ghostwriters in the Sky (October 2011) Sherwood Ltd (December 2011) and The Best Revenge (December 2011) She is also working on a self-help guide for writers with Pay It Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne has a blog for writers at http://annerallen.blogspot.com, where she blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris. She can be found on Twitter as @annerallen