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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 historical novelist Anjali Mitter Duva @AnjaliMDuva
Soundtrack by George Ruckert, L Subramaniam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Chopin
Music is at the heart of Faint Promise of Rain. The setting for the story — 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India — had already been laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the sky is devastatingly blue. The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a classical storytelling art from North India.
I’d decided to try out kathak, and stepped timidly into the dance center where a class happened to be offered just down the street from my home. As I climbed the three stories of steps to the kathak studio, the sound of ankle bells grew louder. Then I discerned the slap, stomp and drumming of dozens of feet, and the glorious sound of voices singing in unison. In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal), the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. In addition, dancers memorise their compositions and recite them in a series of mesmerising syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes.
As I delved deeper into the dance, I learned of its early history, first among wandering minstrels bringing the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from village to village, then as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples by devadasis, girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity and served it through dance, while also serving wealthy patrons as sexual companions. Soon, it all began to coalesce into a story—the setting, the history, the dance itself.
Music and rhythm in writing
From the moment I started writing the book, I was aware of the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story. When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance, I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was writing in a cafe, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand.
Music to transport me
I wrote the book in New England. There are some hot days, and many cold ones. Bundled up in a wool sweater as a Nor’easter rages outside, dumping two feet of snow and closing schools, it’s hard to imagine being in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. So I often turned to music to pull me back to the right place. One of my favorites for this is L Subramaniam playing his violin, especially in Raga Kalyani. The strains of the Indian violin are haunting, rich and emotionally charged. They always give me goosebumps, and conjure up images of India right away. L. Subramaniam is from South India, and plays in a Carnatic style that is not the one found in Rajasthan, but his music is all I need to feel back in India. I get memories of playing among the rocks on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai with my friends while the sun set smoggily and the air filled with the smoky smell of kerosene fires. I see myself standing wrapped in a shawl on the ramparts of the fort in Jaisalmer, looking out over the grey-blue desert as the sun rises and colors it with warmth. I think of sitting on an elephant, plodding through foliage dripping with the night’s condensation, listening for tigers at the break of day.
Once in an India frame of mind, I have some favorites that I put on while writing to elicit a certain mood, or to help with inhabiting a character’s mind. For scenes depicting dancers and musicians, I love the creative and melodious music of George Ruckert, sarod player/composer and longtime disciple of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a true maestro. George Ruckert is the husband of my dance teacher, a professor, a mentor and a friend. His dedication to his art is inspiring, and so is having his music playing as I write. (He is also on the book trailer.) For energetic scenes, I enjoy the dynamic, celebratory qawwali (Sufi devotional) singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s hard to feel down when he sings. And for getting into the writing mood on a rainy day, I diverge to Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes. The simple beauty of the piano playing, stripped of any distractions, is meditative, and reminds me of the necessity of getting to the essence of the story and the characters.
The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain is the first. Find Anjali on her website, Facebook, and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva
16th century Rajasthan, Anjali Mitter Duva, authors, blue skies, Chopin, dance, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Faint Promise of Rain, George Ruckert, golden sand, Hindu temples, historical novel, historical novels, India, kathak, L Subramaniam, literary fiction, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, northwest India, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, oz Morris, playlist for writers, 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 open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning novelist and incorrigible genre hopper @GGVandagriff GG Vandagriff
Right next to my love of writing is my love of music. In fact, as I look at my novels, I find that music is inescapably woven through them. I take my literary cues from the music I listen to.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major was the inspiration behind my women’s fiction: Pieces of Paris. My heroine, Annalisse, is stuck in the Missouri Ozarks with her quixotic husband who thinks he has found the Garden of Eden. However, she grew up on a farm and knows that a farm is just a farm. She is overcome by PTSD and finds herself immersed in flashbacks of another life her husband knows nothing about.
Before that life ended tragically (thus causing her to bury the memories deeply), she was a concert pianist (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Chopin’s etudes figure here). More importantly, she was passionately in love with a brilliant violinist consumed by the Tchaikovsky.
In creating that character, I also became consumed – both with him and with that amazingly complex composition. I played it as I wrote, and Jules became one of my most memorable characters. The concerto is vastly yearning, longing for resolution. Jules’s character development traced the concerto’s. In the same way, as I wrote this book during my 25-year apprenticeship, I was yearning for the completion that only writing could give me. I was stretching, as the violinist stretches in this composition. It was plainly the soundtrack for my literary life.
In my most recent book, The Only Way to Paradise, a tale of four women who find hope and healing in Italy, two of my ‘crazy ladies’ are violinists. Arthritis has stricken Georgia, ending her career as a violin sensation. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was her signature piece, and she played it ‘like silk’. As I wrote of Georgia and her memories, I played the concerto as my soundtrack. When she thinks she wants to end her life, she hears through her window in Florence, the sound of the Dvorak violin concerto played by an anonymous virtuoso. The Slavic melody of the music echoes her mood, but saves her life. The violinist turns out to be one of her companions, whom she undertakes to mentor.
It is one of life’s great ironies that I understand music, but cannot play a note, nor even read it! However, I cannot live without it. Now, as I write a frothy romance, I am listening to a lot of Bach and Puccini Arias. Except for the duel scene—that is accompanied by Shostakovich’s uber-dramatic Fifth Symphony!
GG Vandagriff is the author of 12 books and an inveterate genre hopper. She has a series of five mysteries, two suspense novels, one award-winning historical epic, two novels of women’s fiction, and two non-fiction. She is also a journalist, writing for an on-line magazine and Deseret News. Educated at Stanford, she studied music at Stanford-in-Austria. Her latest book is another genre hop into romance, The Duke’s Undoing. Find her on Twitter, her website and her blog.
authors, Chopin, classical pianists, classical piano, contemporary fiction, contemporary women's fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, Dvorak, entertainment, GG Vandagriff, JS Bach, literature, Mendelssohn, Missouri, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paris, piano, Pieces of Paris, playlist for writers, Rachmaninoff, reincarnation, Roz Morris, second piano concerto, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, The Only Way To Paradise, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, violin, 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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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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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'