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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 my guest is Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh @ThereseWalsh
Soundtrack by Robert Plant, Alison Krauss
I haven’t been shy in admitting that I wrote much of my second novel, The Moon Sisters, in a state of fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish the draft, that I didn’t have a second book in me, that I’d fail despite — or because of — a two-book contract. But a duo of songs helped root me to characters in my story, and whenever I needed to be reminded that these characters deserved for their tale to be told, I brought up this particular music.
Both songs are from an album featuring Robert Plant and Alison Krauss called Raising Sand. The album is laced with conflicting ideas that somehow work; it’s there even in the notion that rocker Plant and bluegrass star Krauss might make music together. But there’s also balance and ingenuity with the merging of their unique approaches; and if this music lives at the edges, then it fits all the better with my lives-at-the-edges novel and its characters.
A gypsy quirk
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, sung by Krauss, is the first song that spoke to me, with a gypsy quirk and haunting melody. Its bluegrass spirit complements the setting of the book, West Virginia, where you might indeed hear the bright pluck of a banjo marry with the darker sound of a tensely bowed violin.
This was the perfect anthem for Olivia Moon, who sets off by foot at the beginning of The Moon Sisters to find a will-o-the-wisp light in order to fulfill her dead mother’s dreams. She’ll wander and hop a train and sleep under the stars, stretching personal boundaries that are already plenty different from those around her—especially her sister, Jazz, who has the opposite of a gypsy’s spirit and would rather be in control and safe and left to herself, thankyouverymuch.
It wasn’t just the sound of the music that summoned up Olivia Moon for me; the lyrics were spot on, too. Mmm, don’t you love the poetic weirdness of this? I do. Music, summoned from somewhere unknown. Secrets. The sound of hope. Olivia Moon loves this song. I would venture to say that it’s her favorite. She sways out of time with the music because she’s pondering the sound of hope, even the taste of it. She has synesthesia, a condition whereby her sensory areas are jumbled. She can tell you about coloured letters and the look of a song up above your head, or the way the sun smells like her mother. (She probably won’t want to talk about why she stared at the sun after her mother died and why she’s lacking her central vision, but maybe you’ll pull it out of her before the end of the book.)
The second song that spoke to me, sung by Plant, is called Nothin and immediately called to mind an essential character: a train-hopping drifter named Hobbs. Hobbs hasn’t had an easy life, and this song’s driving blend of eff-you electric guitar, down-home-and-dirty fiddle, and what-ya-gonna-do-about-it tambourine speaks to that. It evokes a damaged person, and if you were to stick a label on Hobbs you might choose that word — damaged. He’d notice that and pat you on the back for your smarts, then send you on your way without hearing an argument.
Motherless Hobbs nodded whenever this song played, and wasn’t one to condemn Olivia’s staring at the sun either, maybe because he understood that bit in the second-to-last verse about how being born is going blind.
The tune itself is dark and uncomfortable and winding, like a train, and feels too personal yet I never could turn away from it. Listening to it helped me to stick with the story, which was just as dark and uncomfortable and winding, and made it just as impossible to turn away from it.
Thank you, Roz, for the chance to share the sound behind the story.
Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is published by Crown (Random House). She’s the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction. You can learn more about her and her books on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Therese is giving away a print copy of The Moon Sisters to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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 bestselling romantic novelist Fiona Walker @fionawalkeruk
If I know I’m not going to be overheard, I sing – in the bath, on long dog walks, and when writing, or more realistically the thinking pauses between writing. This habitual distraction is also creative inspiration. It’s no coincidence that characters sing in many of my books, from my first novel French Relations in which dinner party guests gather around a piano to perform Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight, to my twelfth novel The Love Letter, where my heroine inadvertently finds herself duetting an old Bo Diddley number with her ex boyfriend in the local pub. That song, You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, is a joyful riot of old-time rhythm and blues that also feeds into the themes of a novel in which characters are not as they first appear, most especially a reclusive writer who hides his identity behind a pen name.
As a romantic novelist with a reputation for raunchy romps, I appreciate Bo Diddley is a far cry from a power ballad, but I once bought The Greatest Love Songs In The World…Ever to listen to when writing passionate scenes – much to my husband’s hilarity – and it was the most awful backing track from which to seek inspiration, like writing on the dance-floor at an over-40s singles night. Most of the music I listen to when I write is white noise, and if I’m on a roll I don’t notice it at all, until that one song sticks, and that’s when inspiration strikes.
When a song connects with a book’s plot, I often play it – and sing it – day and night, and it occasionally even gets woven into the text. This means that I have to be very careful what I listen to when writing. It once cost me almost as much as a new car to gain permission to quote six lines of a Jim Steinman track that I couldn’t get out of my head, after which I not only stopped featuring heroines who were Meatloaf fans, but also monitored my listening habits and now tailor them to each book. I keep a limited number of CDs ripped to my computer, so if I’m not listening to the radio, I’m going through the same albums on a loop, many of them instrumental. The energetic Brazilian guitarist/percussion combo Rodrigo y Gabriela fuelled the first draft of The Love Letter; the sultry Gotan Project added tempo; saxophonist Jan Garbarek injected cool, and I played endless Mozart for jollity and Bach for comfort.
When the rough plot of The Love Letter was in place, that tailor-made compilation changed to vintage Kate Bush, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Bjork and Birdy, all inspiring the book’s larger than life characters, comic melodrama and coastal setting, as well as a very long, flirty seduction in a fairytale tower. Yet it was when googling something entirely unconnected that I found the Bo Diddley song that fitted the story so well that I couldn’t stop playing it.
If I hit upon a theme-tune for a plot or its characters, I know I have a secret entrance into the book, and although the album or song itself may never appear on the page, you can guarantee I’ve listened to it hundreds of times when writing certain scenes. One of my novels was written whilst listening to Damien Rice almost non-stop, another to Alison Krauss – and when a romantic hero who always made me think of Christy Moore’s Ride On featured in a sequel 10 years after his first appearance, I only had to listen to the song to find him coming to life again. Although many of these songs get honourable mentions in the books, only the very special few are performed by me and my characters; You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover is still being sung loudly in Worcestershire.
Fiona Walker became a best-selling novelist in her 20s and her books have sold over two million copies worldwide to date. Dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’ she is renowned for her large casts, addictive plots and sharp wit. She lives in rural Worcestershire with her partner Sam who is a dressage trainer and their two daughters. Her twelfth novel, The Love Letter, is published by Sphere.Find her on her blog and on Twitter @FionaWalkeruk
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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 Sanjida O’Connell @sanjidaoconnell
In my fourth novel, Sugar Island, Emily Harris is a glamorous young English actress who arrives in America in 1859, determined to make enough money to save her father’s theatre company. But while she’s there, her father dies, leaving her alone and, in her vulnerable state, a charming Southern gentleman, Charles Earl Brook, sweeps her off her feet and into matrimony. It’s during their honeymoon that she discovers his terrible secret: he owns a plantation in Savannah, Georgia, run by seven hundred slaves.
Darkness, danger and charm
Like many writers, I rarely listen to music whilst I work but I found that soul-haunting and edgy blues tracks, such as Down to the River to Pray by Alison Krauss and Natural Blues by Moby, helped me write about this naïve British woman who suddenly finds herself into the lush swamps of the Deep South, and of the heart-rending misery that she encounters. I played Jace Everett’s Bad Things endlessly. It has the darkness and the dangerous charm that is at the core of Charles’s appeal to Emily, as well as an evocation of the south’s decadent glamour.
Emily glimpses St Simons Island, where her husband’s plantation is, for the first time:
‘…the marsh appeared to close in, the reeds brushing past the edge of the boat. The overriding smells were rotting fresh seawater, seaweed, fish on the edge of decomposition. To her right lay an island of dense deep green tangled jungle; the dark grey sky pressed in on them. She’d spent the whole journey trying to dissect her emotions and now she realized that at the heart of all her arguments was one very simple thing: she felt as if she were slowly being pushed into a trap.’
This is when Emily encounters slaves for the first time. A group of them row her, her husband and her husband’s brother, Emmanuel, to the plantation. As they do so, they sing:
‘Mother, master gone to sell we tomorrow?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.
Gone to sell we in Georgia?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.’
Emmanuel uses the song as a way of telling Emily about their slaves, which he does with relish.
‘That’s why they are so pleased that you are about to have a child,’ said Emmanuel quietly, leaning towards her, ‘It means our family – your child – will continue to own them in the future and their families won’t be split up by being sold at auction.’
‘Mother don’t grieve after me,
No, no, no,
Oh, watch and pray.’
I found this slave song on www.negrospirituals.com and then altered the words slightly to keep them in the dialect I used for the St Simons slaves. Originally, I was so taken with some of these lyrics, their poignancy and their way of expressing the emotions of the slaves in a way they could not, I used them frequently. My editor at John Murray quite rightly said that less is more.
Emily does her best to help the slaves, from pleading with Charles to make their lives less miserable, to cutting down a young girl who’s been strung up by her thumbs and whipped, to teaching one slave to read, which at the time was illegal. Ultimately, Charles will no longer sanction her actions and makes her choose between her freedom and her daughter.
The only other slave song now remaining is right at the end of the novel but it might give away too much of the plot to quote that one.
Once I’ve finished writing for the day, I tend to go for a run and listen to some completely head-banging, heart-pulsing music to blast me out of the Deep South, Emily’s horrific quandary and the chilling plight to the slaves – songs such as I Fought the Law by The Clash, Mr Brightside by The Killers, All My Life by the Foo Fighters and Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day.
Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island (John Murray). She is on Twitter as @sanjidaoconnell
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
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Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
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 inspirational 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'