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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’s post is by Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb
Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues
An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.
The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.
Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide
The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.
He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.
Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.
Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.
Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in the mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?
We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.
Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.
air raids, authors, Britain, collective trauma, Desert Island Discs, Drake, drama, First World War, Great War, Help for Heroes, Kenneth Branagh, mental health, Mickleden Press, Moody Blues, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nick Drake, Pen and Sword Books, playlist for writers, post-war Britain, PTSD, Roz Morris, shell shock, Shell Shocked Britain, Shell-Shocked Britain The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, soldiers, soldiers' mental health, soundtrack, Suzie Grogan, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, war years, Wilfred Owen, Women Writers, World War I, World War II, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
air raids, authors, Britain, Desert Island Discs, drama, Help for Heroes, Kenneth Branagh, mental health, Moody Blues, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nick Drake, playlist for writers, post-war Britain, PTSD, Roz Morris, shell shock, Shell-Shocked Britain The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, soldiers, soldiers' mental health, Suzie Grogan, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, war years, Wilfred Owen, Women Writers, World War I, World War II, writers, writing, writing to music
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 science fiction author Jake Kerr @jakedfw
Soundtrack by Crosby, Stills and Nash
When I was 10 years old I had two passions in my life: Music and reading. I was never that good at producing music, so I did the next best thing–gathering up all the 45 RPM records I could, stacking them on my cheap plastic phonograph player, grabbing a laundry clip, and then pretending I was a DJ. Similarly, I wasn’t very good at writing, so I would write reviews and commentary about the books I read. I would discuss what I liked about the stories, what the writer did well, and all the things that I didn’t like and how he or she had failed. I would type these up on sheets of paper, staple them together, and then collect them in a drawer.
I wasn’t really a DJ, and I wasn’t really a literary critic. And I definitely wasn’t a musician or a writer.
Such is how dreams are born.
At the age of 27 I was hired to move to Los Angeles to write a column about music and the radio industry. I told all my friends: ‘I’m not really a DJ playing music, and I’m not really a writer or writing about stories, but I have achieved this amazing thing of merging my two dreams into one: I’m writing about music and DJs.’
It took about six years before I realized that this wasn’t really my dream. Music wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was part of who I was. I lived through music, where it would provide me with solace, understanding, and escape. But I didn’t want to actually create it or write about it. I experienced it. It was me. But I needed more from books. I did want to create. I did want to write the books, to tell the stories.
Such is how dreams are formed.
So I live the dream, and I write the stories. But make no mistake: The music is still there. Sometimes it is the soundtrack to what I’m writing, inspiring me even as it sets the tone and attitude of the words forming in my mind. Sometimes it is the source of the scene I’m writing, providing me with raw material that I never would have experienced otherwise. And sometimes it is the story. But the role of music in my dream is always there.
The song is the story
This is happening right now. I am writing a story for the third volume of Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’ Apocalypse Triptych. As I began thinking of the story I wanted to write, the song Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash was playing, and I immediately realized that this particular song was the story. There are lines in that song that are both heartbreaking and yet oddly hopeful. The more I thought about it, the more it integrated with my ideas for this apocalyptic story. It didn’t just set the tone of the story; it was the story.
So I put the song on repeat and started writing. The song, with its gentle rhythms and bittersweet lyrics took me exactly where I wanted to be for my story. The melancholy, the hope, the dream, the freedom—it was all there.
It’s odd. For various rights reasons I couldn’t actually include the song in the story. As a result, no one who reads the story will know of its importance. This is common. For many of us, certainly me, while there is not always this explicit a connection between the music and the words on the page, some kind of connection is always there, and it is powerful. I somehow knew it when I was 10. It just took me many years to understand how to put the pieces together.
After 15 years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr’s first published story, The Old Equations, was nominated for the Nebula Award from Science Fiction Writers of America and shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year’s best collections. A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters. His debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, an adventure story for teen and pre-teen readers was released in 2014. Find him on Facebook, on his website, find more about Tommy Black here, and tweet him as @jakedfw.
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My guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Alonso Alegria, Apocalypse Triptych, authors, drama, entertainment, fantasy, Hugh Howey, Jake Kerr, John Joseph Adams, looking for a life path, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nebula Award, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, science fiction, speculative fiction, StorySouth Million Writers Award, The Undercover Soundtrack, Theodore Sturgeon, Theodore Sturgeon Award, undercover soundtrack, Ursula K Le Guin, writers, writing, writing to music
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 author Sarah Yaw @SarahYawWrites
Soundtrack by Alexis Zoumbas, Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
If you’ve ever spent time with kids, you know that they play out whatever event has dominated their recent life. They need the space to do this, to find peace after a new experience. This is how they register and assign meaning to the things they encounter. This is how they create the map of what they know and how they learn to respond to new events in more sophisticated ways. They have context and reference for what occurs. And when life throws them a curve, they play it out and add that curve to their map. In the event of a, b and c, d can also occur. It soothes them. Life becomes known and thus less threatening. Watching my children play recently, I thought how stories and music do this for me. They give me a place to work through experiences so that I can make sense of my own life. Stories and music, in other words, are my play.
In the mountains of northern Greece, there is a religious festival held each year. People attend the festival to cleanse themselves of mourning and rejoice in the fact that they are still alive. This is literal. The person seeking healing will sit in the middle of the sound. The music is played at them. It’s a vibrational experience as well as a melodic one, they say. The music, its vibrations and its intensity, can get into places that words can’t. It helps wash the person free of sadness and loss. Then the music shifts to joy. It becomes a celebration of the life that remains. Follow this link and scroll down to listen to Alexis Zoumbas play Epirotiko Mirologi and you’ll understand how this music gets to the heart.
When I was a very little girl, it was my habit to fall asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to my father play music. He toured the world with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and his own band The Everyman Band, among others. Here he is playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1975 Coney Island Baby. My parents divorced soon after this. I had no words then to work out my grief; I was too young for the kind of play I watched my children doing recently, but I had all that music, and in that way that music can, it got into me, into my places that needed soothing.
What I love about music is that it touches everyone who can hear it and while it is an individual experience—the mourner in Greece is on her knees, wiping out something very internal, very personal—all who surround her are connected by the sound and the experience. There was constant live music in both my parents’ homes when I was growing up. Someone was singing or picking up an instrument and filling my space with vibration. When I was old enough, I chose the clarinet and became Woody Herman’s youngest fan (and the world’s biggest dork). The clarinet is a reed instrument. Controlling the vibration to make pleasing sounds was how I spent my youth. I was an only child. Done alone, play was not as fulfilling as music; music was heard by others, shared and, therefore, not lonely. I excelled as a musician because it was my birthright and because it was all I had. I wasn’t a reader. I rehearsed music for hours on end. It cleaned out my head. It calmed me. I went to it the way a swimmer goes to water, the way a yogi is called to asana, the way a runner seeks a path. Then, I developed tendonitis; I couldn’t play.
In college, the instructor of my women writers course said: ‘You can take an exam or you can write in the voice of one of the authors we read this semester’. It was the word ‘voice’ that caught my ear. Voice is musical. I may not have been much of a reader or have been all that good at spelling and punctuation, but I understood sound. So I wrote what I heard and this relief came over me. There was all this blocked up teenage, young-adult stuff that had built up since losing music—my sense of belonging, my value, was I lovable? —that I hadn’t been able to move and it started to move and I had once again found the relief of music. And this idea of voice was why. The sound of words, rhythm, dynamic, all of this mimicked the irresistible tension and release of music. The narrative gave me a place where I could explore paths, work through what it meant to be me.
In You Are Free To Go, my first novel, I wrote about a prison. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d chosen to write about a musicless place. Right before I started writing the book, my marriage to a musician had ended and so did the music. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by silence. I wrote about a prisoner who was mourning the loss of his friend; I wrote about a town where people wall themselves off from one another; I wrote a narrative with one moment of music: The characters are in a bar, coming together, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is playing. What else? I can’t know the deep forces that drive us to our subjects, but still I have never been alone like I was when I began writing this book, nor as sad.
A friend of mine recently organised the first musical performance in decades in the prison that inspired You Are Free To Go. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performers and said, ‘I haven’t heard live music in twenty-eight years’. My friend, who had just read how the Nazis brought the prisoners their instruments each day so they could perform for each other, said: ‘I think we can do a little better than the Nazis’.
In You Are Free To Go, a condemned man’s death affects countless lives at all strata of society. Yet, none of the story’s characters, in the prison or outside the walls, are given the relief that music could provide to help connect them to each other, soothe their grief, and help them contemplate the ubiquitous desire to understand how we belong in a world that is fundamentally unknowable. And in retrospect, that makes sense. Writing this story, the music was gone from my life when I needed it most. What I had was this book, the joy of writing it, so I used it to make sense of all that silence around me.
Sarah Yaw’s novel (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College. She fell asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to the music of Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and the Everyman Band. She lives in Central New York. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter @SarahYawWrites
Alexis Zoumbas, all that music, authors, clarinet, Coney Island Baby, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Don Cherry, drama, Engine Books Novel Prize, entertainment, Everyman Band, literary fiction, Lou Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, music, music career, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, prison, Roz Morris, RSI, Sarah Yaw, Silence, tendinitis, The Everyman Band, the heart, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, voice, Women Writers, Woody Herman, writers, writing, writing to music
My first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, clarinet, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Don Cherry, drama, Engine Books Novel Prize, entertainment, Everyman Band, literary fiction, Lou Reed, music, music career, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, RSI, Sarah Yaw, tendinitis, The Everyman Band, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 contemporary romance author Jan Ruth @JanRuthAuthor
Soundtrack by Katherine Jenkins, Sarah Brightman, The Pogues
Christmas music; what’s the first track that springs to mind? It’s usually always Slade, that staple of commercial radio and drunken office parties. And as much as we may hate this stuff being regurgitated every year, it wouldn’t be the same without it, such is the power of music and the way it can ‘set a scene’.
The brief – to myself – was three, longish-short stories set in my usual comfort zone of Snowdonia, North Wales, UK. I wanted to make them all very different from each other, and I’ve chosen four pieces of music which I feel sure heavily influenced my dormant festive muse.
I started my Christmas selection back in July and it was a tall order to find the mood when the sun was beating down on the parched Welsh mountains. This is where music plays a massive part, well, that and mince pies. I relied quite heavily on baked goods as husband objected to Christmas music in high summer, and even considering earpieces there’s always a certain level of wailing-along to contend with. So, an empty house, a dangly piece of bald tinsel and plenty of icing sugar…
Rudolph the Brown-Nosed Reindeer – Rejoice by Katherine Jenkins
Rick isn’t looking forward to his lonely corporate Christmas, but it’s the season of goodwill and magic is in the air.
An off-beat love story, with all the hierarchy of the Christmas office party to contend with. It’s time Rick wore his heart on his sleeve, or is it too late? Lessons in love from an unlikely source, in this case, Rudolph. This story has its wry fun, but Rick-the-Reserved is in major denial. Oh, he’s the tall dark sensitive sort but there’s a limit to self-preservation and he’s in danger of losing what’s under his nose. Rejoice is one of those tracks that seems to become richer with every listen, rather like peeling away the layers of doubt and indecision – something my main character needs to examine. Rick would do well to listen to the lyrics of this track and take some of them to heart. Above all, it managed to transport me to the snowy forest in the story. Can you hear the snow dripping and the fire crackling in the grate?
Jim’s Christmas Carol - Angel by Sarah Brightman
Santa and Satan pay a visit. One brings presents, the other an unwelcome presence.
Paranormal reality? Jim’s played with fire and it’s time he got his comeuppance, but from who?
Paranormal isn’t something I seek out to read, let alone write, but Sarah Brightman’s track Angel was one of the triggers for this story. Jim’s Christmas Carol isn’t a serious tale, it does have an element of farce about it, but Brightman’s track (and especially the video) is interesting in that the words and the imagery can be interpreted in many different ways, a bit like Jim’s Christmas Carol. And a lot like our kaleidoscope of beliefs when it comes to religion, guardian angels and all things paranormal.
Home for Christmas – The Pogues: Fairytale of New York (You WILL sing, and you will tap your feet.)
‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa la-la la-la, la-la la-la. Tis the Season to be jolly…’
Romantic-comedy. Pip might accidentally find her true vocation, but the folly of her fibs are about to catch up with her…
The local village play, Deck the Halls, not only saves Philippa Lewisham from herself but promises an entirely different direction for New Year. She’s something of an old-fashioned girl, hiding behind a carefully fabricated facade of career-driven feminism – but she’s very much a fun-loving party-girl too, who’s perhaps lost her way a little.
I love the drunken fun of the Pogues song. It never fails to make me feel Christmassy, and lots of scenes in Deck the Halls take place in the village pub and the old school hall with a jangly old piano. In this story I flirt with romantic comedy and yes it does have a happy ever after, but I can’t bear mushy sentiment in books, film or music, so for me, The Pogues track IS Christmas.
Deck the Halls or Deck the Hall (which is the 1877 title) is a traditional Christmas, yuletide, and New Year carol. The melody is Welsh dating back to the sixteenth century, and belongs to a winter carol, Nos Galan. Merry Christmas! Nadolig Llawen!
Jan Ruth lives in Snowdonia, Wales, UK. This ancient, romantic landscape is the perfect setting for her fiction, or for just daydreaming in the heather. Jan writes contemporary stories about people, with a good smattering of humour and drama, dogs and horses.
Home For Christmas is available now. Full-length novels by her include: Silver Rain, Wild Water, Midnight Sky and White Horizon, plus two collections of short stories. Find Jan on Facebook, Twitter and her website.
The Undercover Soundtrack will be taking a Christmas snooze, and returns on January 7th. Merry everything.
authors, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Christmas carols, Christmas music, Christmas songs, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Home For Christmas, Jan Ruth, Katherine Jenkins, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, North Wales Yes, paranormal, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Brightman, short stories, Slade, Snowdonia, The Pogues, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wales, Welsh mountains, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, yuletide
Yes, this week we have a seasonal Undercover Soundtrack – and one that examines the imaginative lengths a writer has to go to. When you hunker down to read a Noelish tale on a snuggly sofa with snow at the windows and a fire crackling in the grate, spare a thought for the writer, who was probably in flip-flops and T-shirt, shutting the curtains against the sun blazing on her laptop screen. Such was the lot of this week’s guest, who began writing her Christmas collection of off-beat romance stories in July. She says she relied heavily on music to create the mood – and risked husbandly disapproval (though he didn’t mind the unseasonable baked goods that were also necessary). So are we about to drag you through the infuriating radio canon of Slade, Mariah and Bing? No, let me reassure you this Soundtrack is a dignified collection, with Katherine Jenkins and Sarah Brightman. Mostly. Drop by on Wednesday to meet Jan Ruth and her Undercover Soundtrack for summoning Christmas in July.
authors, Christmas, Christmas carols, Christmas music, Christmas songs, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Jan Ruth, Katherine Jenkins, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, paranormal, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Brightman, Slade, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, yuletide
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 UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro
Soundtrack by Karen Siegel
What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. An exciting new publishing company, (Shebooks) gave me the opportunity to publish an ebook of three short works of my choice. I already had two stories that I was delighted with, but there was one in me that my bones, my guts, had needed to write for so long, and each time I started out, the ‘how’ of writing the story — its basic narrative, where to start, the climax, denouement—was like a balloon bobbing overhead with the string always out of reach, no matter how high I jumped.
I went to music as I often do for inspiration, direction. Writing lines of prose on a page or notes on a staff are hugely different, but have parallels—they begin, have a middle, and an end. There’s mood, pacing, breath stops. I played Chopin, Sousa, Wagner, nothing clicked. And then, in one of my procrastination bouts, I looked up a video of my daughter-in-law, Karen Siegel and her acapella composition Confessions from the Blogosphere, and had the eureka moment I had been hoping for.
Karen (the woman with the blue top in the video) holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MM (masters of music) in musical composition from NYU’s Steinhardt School where she studied with Marc Antonio Consoli, and a PhD in music composition from CUNY Graduate Center where she studied with Tania León. In this piece, she alternated and layered humorous excerpts from random blogs. Sometimes the text was set intact and homophonic—with the whole choir singing the same text at the same time, in a single rhythm — as in the opening statement, ‘I like Paris Hilton for real. Should I be ashamed?’ More often, a fragment of text was repeated in one or two voice parts at a time, offset against the same text in another voice part or voice parts, to create a rhythmic texture. This texture was frequently a backdrop for a melody in a single voice part. At other times, the rhythmic texture itself was the focal point. Altogether, it was like a cento, a poem made up of quotes, lines, phrases from others.
It occurred to me that neither Karen nor I had to have the total vision of what our creations were going to be. She used lines of dialogue gathered by different people. Bingo, I could write lines of dialogue from each of the characters I wanted in Secrets (the first and newest short story in What I Wish You’d Told Me, and see how it came together later, rather than trying to create order right away.
It made sense to me, even physically. I have a spot in my right eye that I need to see around. Sometimes it blots out the full picture of what I need to see, but somehow, my mind creates the whole of it. A study from John Hopkins University shows that when a person looks at a figure, a number, or letter, or any shape, neurons in other areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different parts of that shape, almost instantaneously interlocking them like a puzzle to create an image that sees and understands. I’m sure this is true for all of our senses.
In Secrets, a story set in the 60s about a teenage girl, Leah, whose illusions about her best friend, Arianna’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot, I began with a piece of dialogue from Arianna’s mother. ‘You ran him over!’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a dog. It was an old man.’ Arianna’s father counters with, ‘I wouldn’t have hit anything if you weren’t so drunk that I had to be the one to drive after I had a few.’
After pages of dialogue, some of which I got rid of in the end —’Kill your darlings,’ as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his lectures On the Art of Writing — I was able to fill in the rest, and that was the secret of my writing Secrets.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in the Coe Review, Compass Rose, the Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Read more about her at her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro
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My guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
a capella, authors, blogs, characters, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, literary fiction, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, Rochelle Shapiro, Roz Morris, She Writes, Shebooks, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, vocalists, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
- '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
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
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
Find something unforgettable
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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'