- Roz’s blog
- THE NOVEL
- Who’s Roz?
Posts Tagged Bob Dylan
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 publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran
Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.
I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.
My latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.
Pleasure and pain
That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).
You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.
Strength is weakness
I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?
Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.
The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.
Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.
One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.
Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.
Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.
We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!
Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.
David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.
American Idol, authors, Band of Gold, Bessie Smith, Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Bobby Gentry, Dave Van Ronk, David Gaughran, Desert Island Discs, Diana Ross, drama, emotional resonance, entertainment, Ernie Ford, Freda Payne, Game of Thrones, historical fiction, Johnny Cash, Lee Christmas, literary fiction, literary novels, male writers, Mercenary, Motown, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nelson Mandela, Nina Simone, non-fiction, Ode To Billy Joe, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, science fiction, Special AKA, The Band, The Pogues, The Supremes, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, 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 novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees
Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!
To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.
A poetic novella
I now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)
I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.
Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.
I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.
Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…
The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.
My equivalent liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’ and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.
The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.
Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.
GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.
1960s, A Shadow in Yucatan, authors, Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Boer War, Bristol University, Desert Island Discs, Don McLean, drama, entertainment, history of thought, Involution - An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God, Joan Baez, Juliet Hughes-Rees, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Philippa Rees, playlist for writers, poetic novella, poetic science, poetry, Roz Morris, 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 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 debut author Barry Walsh @BJWalsh
Soundtrack by Neil Young, Handel, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Marvellettes, Rod Stewart, Adele, Flanagan & Allen, Mozart, JS Bach, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Dexy’s Midnight Runners
The Pimlico Kid is about first-love, which can quarry a hollow in one’s life that is hard to fill. It’s also about kids scrabbling past puberty and slamming into emotional or physical barriers set by adults.
… the most we might have expected to deal with was a first kiss or a dying grandparent, we were undone by love itself, and violence – and that adults betrayed us.
The lyrics of Neil Young’s songs were ever-present in my head while writing the book. For years I had piled up notes from which to make The Pimlico Kid a novel but it was the beautiful reference to childhood friendship and secrets being revealed in Philadelphia that turned intention into action.
The narrator, Billy, unlike some of his friends stands on the solid ground of happy family life. His easy-going father is a hard man and his volatile brother, John, will become one. However, Billy’s father is comfortable revealing his softer side and expresses it in his fine singing. And, when his sons were small, he kidded them he knew Italian and sang his favourite Beniamino Gigli songs, such as Handel’s Ombra mai fu, in beautiful gibberish.
This contrasts with Bob Dylan’s less mellifluous The times they are a changin’ (played loudly enough to shake the house) that defines the rebellious younger brother John, who is yet to discover his softer side:
When he’s asked or told to do something, he has this stiff, chinny look that makes it clear he doesn’t have to comply, but that he will, only on this occasion.
The exhilaration of first attraction is almost always about a face. And it is nailed by the Beatles’s I’ve Just Seen a Face. When Billy falls for Sarah, he worries that his more mature friends will disapprove because she is still flat chested. However, he’s prepared to wait for breasts:
I know that whatever Rooksy says about fabulous flesh, love starts with a face.
A host of songs evoke the summer of 1963 but none more vividly than the Beatles’s She Loves You. Billy and his friends stand transfixed outside a pub from which it is blasting out, again and again. This is the song that vanquishes the old pop music order – along with Brylcreem. When an Elvis song starts up, they leave.
During one of those never-ending summer days of childhood, the loves of four friends – Billy, his best mate, Rooksy, Sarah and Josie collide and magic is conjured up by declarations of love and secrets revealed. The Marvelettes’ When You’re Young and in Love kept popping into my head as I tried to pin down the excitement of new love. The lyrics may be simple but if you are young and in love, they couldn’t be more true.
At a critical moment Billy’s behaves like an idiot in front of Sarah. Burning with shame, he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t affect how she feels for him. This reflects my experience of how often weak and flawed people, usually men, are lucky enough to find someone who loves them anyway. Neil Young ‘gets’ it in Hangin’ on a Limb, in which a man wobbles at the edge of an emotional precipice and a girl teaches him how to dance.
As their relationship grows, the four friends come to learn that love breeds compassion and diminishes judgement of those it’s easy to ridicule, whether it’s because of a birthmark or sexual orientation. In the early sixties there were few openly gay teenagers and a great deal of unthinking homophobia. A decade later, Rod Stewart’s The killing of Georgie helped to change things a little and it came to mind constantly while I struggled to get this issue onto the page.
Adele’s Someone Like You wasn’t a creative influence but, on a more exalted level, it provided creative confirmation of the universal theme that I was trying to make personal. During my fourth re-write, the song was playing every day and everywhere and its reference to glory days of summer goes to the heart of The Pimlico Kid, in which …
love can endure but … promises are hard to keep.
Finally, the streets of London are the main stage for The Pimlico Kid. Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner anchors Billy – and me – to the greatest of cities.
I write to classical music, which provides welcome harmony to counter the dissonance in my head. I start most days with Mozart’s String Quintet No 1 because it lifts my default mood of pessimism about finding the right words. Each day features Bach, lots of Gregorian chant and the liturgical songs of Hildegard von Bingen. I regularly work my way through Beethoven’s quartets but stop when I reach No 15, which triggers Wordsworthian ‘thoughts that lie too deep for tears’.
When the writing has gone really well, I celebrate with the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which isn’t at all ‘solemn’. And, when there’s no one else in the house, I turn to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen and jig around like mad Ben Gunn on the beach.
Barry Walsh grew up in the heart of London during the 60s and thought belatedly that there might be a story in it. The result is The Pimlico Kid, published by Harper, a story of first love. He is now writing his second novel. When not at the keyboard, Barry enjoys cycling (he once rode non-stop to the top of Mont Ventoux), holidays in France, watching Arsenal, listening to Neil Young and gazing at Audrey Hepburn’s face. He is a proud trustee of the world’s oldest youth club – St Andrew’s, Westminster – and believes that London might just be the centre of the universe. He is married with two daughters. Find him on his website and Twitter @bjwalsh
GIVEAWAY Barry is offering a signed print copy of The Pimlico Kid. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
1960s, 1960s London, Adele, adolescence, authors, Barry Walsh, Beethoven, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, Desert Island Discs, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, drama, entertainment, first love, Flanagan & Allen, Gregorian chant, Handel, Harper, Hildegard von Bingen, JS Bach, literary novels, London, male writers, Marvellettes, Mozart, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Neil Young, Pimlico, playlist for writers, puberty, Rod Stewart, romance, Roz Morris, The Beatles, The Pimlico Kid, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music, young love
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 award-winning literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew
It was 1st November 2007, and I’d set myself a ridiculous challenge. By the end of the month, I would have written a novel, from start to finish. It would be a road novel for 21st-century Britain, a forlorn but determined attempt to live authentically and spontaneously in a highly controlled society. As I stared at the blank screen, planning things out and calculating just how many thousands of words I would need to write each day, I came to an important realisation.
Before I could begin typing, I would need new music.
Before then, you see, I’d been a devotee of calm, soothing, contemplative music. I’d always started my writing day by lighting an incense stick and playing George Winston. Beautiful, aren’t they, those dreamy piano notes? A perfect soundtrack for a morning spent gazing at swirling incense smoke and waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, not a good way to get a novel written in a month, certainly not a novel of frustrated youth raging against the stunted future mapped out for them. Poor George would have to go.
Enter The Velvet Underground and Heroin. Yes, I know, it starts out slow, but just listen to it ramp up around 1:20, and again at 2:22, and a few more times until, 6 minutes in, you can almost feel the spike in your vein. Suddenly some words appeared on the page:
I first met Neil not long after my father died.
Not much, but it was a start, and soon I was describing Neil, and the words started to flow, and I followed it up with Reef and Jimi Hendrix and burningpilot and Supergrass and I saw my characters, Jack and Neil, rampaging up and down the Holloway Road on a cold November night. I kept writing as they ran the life of drinking and parties swiftly to its conclusion, and after a week or so I was already five chapters in, and Jack and Neil had ditched London and made it to John O’Groats and were paddling in the freezing North Sea at three in the morning to the accompaniment of the suitably weird Alien Ant Farm.
By this time a change was called for, both for me and my characters. The frenetic pace couldn’t last. I took to walking a few miles every morning, and completed the bulk of the book sitting in a now-defunct north London cafe all afternoon for a couple of weeks with the likes of Bob Dylan and Stereophonics on my iPod. The quieter mood suited my characters, who were getting worn down by their quest but kept going anyway, taking one more step, visiting one more town, drinking, like me and Dylan, just one more cup of coffee. They went forward not with the hopeful enthusiasm of earlier; they went forward simply because they couldn’t go back.
For the ending I wanted something quiet and poignant, almost an anti-ending after all the noise and fury of earlier on. It was 30th November and I was tired, and so were Jack and Neil, and the three of us gritted our teeth and limped to the finish line with the dying chords of Wish You Were Here reverberating in our ears.
I took a week or two off from writing, printed off my manuscript and was amazed to discover it was ten times better than the novel I’d spent years working on before that. It would go on to win an award for unpublished writers, netting me £2,500 and a publishing deal, and my life would change.
Of course, that was still in the future. Before all that happened, I still had to edit the novel. That’s where George Winston and the trusty old incense stick came in handy again.
Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.
Alien Ant Farm, Andrew Blackman, Bob Dylan, burningpilot, contemporary fiction, George Winston, Jimi Hendrix, literary fiction, male writers, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, On The Holloway Road, Pink Floyd, playlist for writers, Reef, Roz Morris, Stereophonics, Supergrass, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Velvet Underground, undercover soundtrack, writers, 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?
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
Follow me on TwitterMy Tweets
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
Sign up for my newsletter
- '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'