Posts Tagged contemporary fiction
My guest this week spent 16 years as a rock journalist, interviewing stars and trying to understand what their music was trying to say. When he started to write his first novel, music took on a fresh role – no longer the endpoint, it was now the beginning. The book is the story of a man looking back on an intense love affair, and the music is an aural journey of the character’s obsession, his unstable serenity that could turn dark, his complex sense of comfort in the prison of his memories. Dan Gennoe will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Burial, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Magazine, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros, The xx.
That was his tragedy. He didn’t yet know that fear was more powerful than love.’
The Ghost is a novel about violence. At its centre is an act of extreme violence, perpetrated by three children. The book tells the story of how the consequences trickle down through time; a slow-acting psychological poison which engulfs the three children in adulthood.
I wrote it as a crescendo: smouldering beginning, gathering middle, explosive ending.
I didn’t completely throw away the structure rulebook. I understand that continuous intensity will exhaust the reader, and so there are dropouts of release, spikes of hypertension, recurring motifs and anchoring asides.
In other words, I wanted it to feel like a lot of the music I love – the kind that steals over you, seeps beneath your skin and then grips and grows and grows.
Soundscape to landscape
Music is as vital a part of my life as light or air. I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘background’ music in film or television. My favourite filmmakers bake it into the centre of the drama – as commentary to underscore the action, as soundscape to emphasise landscape. They also use the absence of music to wrongfoot the viewer into relaxing. (Is there anything less shocking than a jump scene telegraphed by a rising note and announced with a jarring chord?)
Music informs my writing in a similar way. It’s not there on the page, but it’s always present in my plotting brain and typing fingers.
When I’m not at my desk, I play out the scenes – particularly the set-pieces – on an internal cinema, soundtracking them with music in my headphones. Almost every story peak in The Ghost was conceived in this way; the events were enhanced by a vivid awareness of the sound which surrounded them.
I suppose it’s a form of creative synaesthesia. Before I write a word, most of my moments are steeped in distinct aural flavours. I find it difficult to write a significant sequence before seasoning its mood with music in this way.
The book follows two separate timelines in the life of lead character Dorian Cook: his impoverished childhood in early 1970s industrial England, and his working life as an adult film critic in modern-day London. As the present-day Cook realises he is being held to account for his actions as a child, the past timeline builds up to the inciting event itself.
The house carried an unholy chill that flowed deep through its foundations – a vaporous spectre of cold that first stirred in late August and had the place comprehensively haunted by December.’
For the austere 70s chapters, I favoured songs which seemed to define Cook’s world: corporal punishment, factory discharge, municipal menace. The clamour and whisper of Joy Division’s Heart and Soul; the inner-city palpitations of Burial’s Loner; and the slouching panic of Nine Inch Nails’s Corona Radiata, with its sense of impending reckoning which mirrors the book’s recurring first line:
Something was coming up the stairs.’
Two key sections in the past timeline take place during the notorious UK heatwave of 1976. At the time, I remember sweltering with a strawberry Mini Milk as my tiny portable radio squeaked out Minnie Ripperton’s ever-lovely Loving You and Mungo Jerry’s lascivious In The Summertime. But for the story I was telling, I needed Sketch For Summer by The Durutti Column, with its synthetic birdsong and rebounding guitar – a song that always evokes the invincibility of childhood summers, and Larkin’s mighty line about ‘the strength and pain of being young’.
In the present day, two songs defined Cook’s marital and mental collapse: Missing by The xx – a hushed and horrified dissection of a crumbling relationship; and, as the threat from his past grows ever mortal and Cook is forced to plot a counterattack, Magazine’s The Light Pours Out Of Me sets the death-defying scene.
So, The Ghost is a novel about violence. The story is triggered by violence and it ends with violence – although not, I hope, of the sort the reader is expecting. The final sequence – a queasy kind of closure – was linked to Sigur Ros’s monolithic Festival, a song which emerges, ever so delicately, with a lone Icelandic voice keening beneath overlapping string notes. It hovers like a hummingbird, and then drops hard into a midsection of martial drumming, before lulling and at last detonating in a starburst of choral harmonies. It briefly, unbelievably, ramps up one more level before collapsing into a single voice again, this time whistling the melody.
It doesn’t give me The Chills; it gives me The Glow – a surge of whiskey-warmth. I must have heard it a hundred times and I still get it, around eight minutes in, as if something in the song is hardwired into me.
Fellow writers talk of how their characters ‘take over’ and dictate the narrative. Others claim the muse descends in a certain place, or country. For me, it’s music that guides me through, defining the lifts and rifts of the characters’ inner lives and choreographing their actions in bold, movie-like rhythms.
The Ghost has been described as a ‘dark’ book, but I hope some of my musical motivation pokes through to reveal the more complex qualities I was reaching for – redemption, restoration, courage, euphoria, enduring connection. These are all qualities I find in the music I love, which in turn rouses my writing.
Andrew Lowe is an author, editor and journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames, and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by cycling and coaching youth football. The Ghost is his first novel, but it won’t be his last. Find him on his website, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Twitter @andylowe99
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow
Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar
I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.
I first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.
The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.
In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.
David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.
During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.
My guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 Scott D Southard @SDSouthard
Soundtrack by Fiona Apple
Music can be like little time capsules. For some, they may return you to younger days, for me they return me to books. Whenever I take on a project, my creative psyche demands that I find the right soundtrack for it. And if I don’t, I might as well kiss that creative spirit goodbye. They flounder, gasping and dying like a fish out of water.
When I began work on my novel Permanent Spring Showers I knew I was doing something a little odd. It was a book very loosely based on a screenplay I had written years earlier, but this was going to be a very different work, not an easy adaptation. Also, I was going to present it chapter by chapter on my site. I liked to call it then a book in real time since you could enjoy the book and witness the creation of it as well. Yet, it was even more than that. Since I wasn’t bogging myself down in thoughts of sales, agents, and publishers, I was opening the door for sheer possibility. I could do anything, only limited by my own imagination.
It was so creatively exhilarating to throw off the shackles that so many of us feel when creating. And, adding in the danger that I could screw it up at any moment (for everyone to see) was just as thrilling. I was playing with literary fire. Luckily, I never felt alone in the flames.
The Muse Behind the Story
Around the time I began work on my little literary experiment, Fiona Apple had released her CD The Idler Wheel…. It’s a different kind of CD for Apple, losing her big production feel that she used to have working with Jon Brion, now simply just a piano and drums. And sometimes the piano is only keeping tempo to her singing. This put her lyrics and voice solely in the front. It gives the album almost the feeling of a therapy session as Apple deals with her demons and frustrations in each song. When she screams, she screams from her soul. You would have to be a cold person indeed not to feel it.
Permanent Spring Showers begins with an affair, a betrayal.
After discovering her husband’s affair, Dr Rebecca Stanley-Wilson has one of her own. The problem is her drunken one-night stand was with an upcoming painter named Vince. That evening inspires one of the greatest works of art, capturing the world’s attention by storm. The book is about each of the people tied to that painting and that spring of its creation. Some are lovers, some are writers, all are a little broken.
Characters breathing in the songs
I see my characters throughout Apple’s CD. Putting on the CD, doesn’t just take me back to when I was writing the work, it reintroduces me to old friends.
Let me give you an example. One character is an experimental author named Jenn Gane. Her dream is to make a new literary genre, and to accomplish that she needs an unsuspecting victim/character. Poor Steve doesn’t realise how much his life and heart is being manipulated by Jenn. Jenn is the song Daredevil with lyrics about taking from others and not worrying at all about the consequences, especially to the other individual
What about the pure creative energy of Vince? For me that is the vibe of the last song Hot Knife. In the song Apple seems to sing about obsession, but the song grows and grows as her voice multiples into different personalities almost all overcome by passions. I like to imagine that is what it is like in Vince’s head when he is creating, with the unrelenting beat of the timpani driving him forever forward.
And listen to that piano line in Left Alone. That right there is the mind of the character of Steve captured in song. In Steve’s story, he came home to find his girlfriend had moved out, leaving the apartment a mess and no note. Finding her and discovering why she left is Steve’s main focus and until it happens he is almost in a panic just like the song. Lost in hopeless and anxious energy.
I could go on and on… The fact is I needed this CD, my book demanded it, and I was lucky to find it.
I used to dream of the idea of collaborating on a novel with a musician, having a CD to accompany the work, both complementing each other. The funny thing is with Permanent Spring Showers, I seemed to have accomplished that with Fiona Apple. She just has no idea I did. My dream is that someday she will discover the book (and she won’t mind).
Fiona Apple seems to demand your attention throughout her CD, definitely making an album that is never merely background noise. Her heart is in every song, soaring and breaking. I like to think that each of my characters do that as well in Permanent Spring Showers.
Scott D. Southard is the author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, Megan, 3 Days in Rome and Me Stuff. His eclectic writing has also found its way into radio, as Scott was the creator of the radio comedy series The Dante Experience. The production was honored with the Golden Headset Award for Best MultiCast Audio and the Silver Ogle Award for Best Fantasy Audio Production. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. Scott can be found on the internet via his writing blog The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. He even shares original fiction on the site. Scott is also the fiction book reviewer for WKAR’s daily radio show Current State.
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 journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner @karenberner
Soundtrack by Icicle Works, Peter Gabriel, The Indigo Girls, The Doors, The 5th Dimension, Bach, Phil Collins
I was a singer way before I was a writer. Nothing on a grand scale, although I was asked to try out for the Lyric Opera children’s chorus, which I turned down because I hated opera and didn’t recognize the value of the musical education I would have received. What did I know? I was only ten. I settled for local variety shows, high school musicals, and choirs. Wise? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t have discovered writing.
Only natural then that music helped me create the Bibliophiles series, which revolves around members of a classics book club. Not your typical series, each book stars one or two of the book club members and tells their stories. Tragedy. Coming of Age. Romance. You never know what you’re going to get.
Small and helpless
The first is A Whisper to a Scream, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as the title of an Icicle Works song from the 80s. Most people think A Whisper to a Scream is a mystery novel, but if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it’s really about feeling small and ‘ever helpless’ in the face of a greater force, which is exactly what the book is about.
Overwhelmed stay-at-home mother of two Sarah Anderson feels adrift in a sea of diapers, Legos, and school projects. Her workaholic husband is never home, and she longs for just 10 minutes to herself to reclaim the person she was pre-kids. When she finally gets out of the house and joins a classics book club, she meets Annie Jacobs, a public relations executive. Annie’s infertility treatments send her spiraling out of control. What starts as a mere notion, a small whisper of the promise of motherhood, consumes her, whipping her into a frenzy.
The song’s happy dance beat underscores the need to surrender to circumstance, something both Sarah and Annie eventually do at the end.
Tell me Y
Having never written from a male perspective, I was worried Annie’s husband John could easily become a stereotype. After all, who do you think of when a couple is dealing with fertility issues? Not the guy.
When John sensed his marriage was coming undone, I’d listen to Peter Gabriel’s tender, yet melancholy Blood of Eden, which perfectly captured what John felt as his wife spun out of control in a vortex of hormones, emotion, and deep craving that he cannot understand. He missed the intimacy of their life before sex became mechanical.
Was this guy married to Annie too? He tipped his glass to Peter Gabriel, comrade in misery.’
A Whisper to a Scream
Several years ago, I bought the Indigo Girls album Rite of Passage. One track is Galileo, which talks about reincarnation and how many times must we go around until we finally get this life thing right. But instead of reincarnation, I envisioned a young woman who kept reinventing herself from location to location. That became Until My Soul Gets It Right, about another classics book club member, Catherine Elbert.
She was a fraud. Had been for years.’
Until My Soul Gets It Right
I’d wanted the final book in the series to be a love story. Opposites attracting is always fun, so why not bring together fastidious Anglophile computer programmer Thaddeus Mumblegarden IV and the free-spirited daughter of Hippies Spring Pearson in A Groovy Kind of Love?
The chance to delve into the 60s and the Pearsons’ background was too much fun to resist. Only a small child when the Hippies embarked on their psychedelic journey, I was drawn to their sense of freedom, something I had never felt growing up as an only child.
Every day while writing Spring’s childhood, the velvety smooth vocals of Jim Morrison in The Doors’ classic Light My Fire showed me a window to their world and explored quintessential sixties sounds. I mean, does anyone use an organ like that anymore? Aquarius belted out by the 5th Dimension and originally from the musical Hair signified pure freedom. Anything was possible if you opened your mind and let the sunshine in. That bass line underscores the funkiness of the dance. You can’t help but move.
That’s how I felt about the Pearsons. Sure, they might be potheads who left their eleven-year-old daughter in charge of their juice bar, but you can’t help but like them.
In contrast, Thaddeus’s family is traditional, and he, himself, is more formal. The Brandenburg Concertos played on repeat while writing his chapters. They helped me focus on structure and complexity. While driving, Thaddeus puts on the local classical music radio station hoping for Handel or a medieval madrigal.
Instead one of John Cage’s twentieth-century avant garde sonatas accosted him, which he immediately turned off with disgust. Better no music than that trash!’
A Groovy Kind of Love
Music helps my imagination find its sense of time and place. It’s almost hypnotic. As soon as one of my inspiration songs plays, I’m back in the 60s with the Pearsons, bouncing from coast to coast with Catherine, or drinking scotch with John. I really cannot write without it.
Karen Wojcik Berner writes contemporary women’s fiction, including the Bibliophiles series. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, and Fresh Fiction. She is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. When not writing, she can be found on the sidelines of her youngest’s football or lacrosse games, discussing the Celts with the oldest, or snuggling into a favorite reading chair with a good book and some tea. Find her on Goodreads, Facebook, her blog, Google +, and Twitter @karenberner
My guest this week says she was a singer long before she was a writer, and when she started writing, music was a natural place to find story inspiration. She writes a series of novels based around the members of a book club, and many of the titles and characters come from tracks that have been special to her. I took unashamed pleasure in seeing Icicle Works and Peter Gabriel make an appearance – the latter with Sinead O’Connor (gasp). And one of her books was inspired by a track by Indigo Girls, which talks about reincarnation and the soul reinventing – possibly a familiar idea to longtime visitors here. Anyway, she is award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 crime and psychological thriller writer Debbie Bennett @debjbennett
Soundtrack by Alice Cooper, Soul Asylum, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, The Seekers
I always wanted to be musical. I’m sixties-born, but identify most with the 1980s – the era of the New Romantics and the beginnings of computer-generated music, but I always had the hidden desire to be a full-on rock chick with my AC-DC, Whitesnake and Rainbow albums! Yes – I did the whole biker-jacket and leather mini look too (see proof here!). I wanted to play music too, but we didn’t have a piano and it took me four years of compulsory music lessons at school to realise I was never going to get past Chopsticks! My teenage daughter is a talented musician and singer, but I don’t think the genes come down my side of the family.
So I turned my creative impulses to writing – firstly fantasy and more recently crime. My first crime novel was dark. Very dark. Part crime, part psychological thriller, we’re dealing with street drugs and rent boys, but while there are police, the story is told from the point of view of the ordinary people involved. And music plays its part in setting mood and tone.
The hero in Hamelin’s Child is Michael, who we follow through another two books – Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune. Michael goes clubbing to celebrate his seventeenth birthday and meets Eddie, after which life is never going to be the same again. Michael’s journey from middle-class suburban naivety through heroin addiction and out the other side is Alice Cooper’s I Never Cry, particularly when he’s thinking about jumping off a motorway bridge.
They’d all done their best, in their own way, to help him forget the past and he couldn’t blame them for not understanding that he didn’t want to forget. He needed to remember. It was the only way he could make any sense out of it all.’
Sometimes it’s not even the lyrics is it? It’s the mood of the piece – the actual notes in a certain sequence that can instantly transport you to a certain place or time in your life. Or even just an emotion. Synaesthesia, they call it…
Out of control
‘He bought me comics,’
Lee says, referring to the best of his mother’s boyfriends, the man who eventually decided he preferred son to mother, at which point Lee was out on the streets. Runaway Train came out in 1992 (or so my CD case tells me) and it was many, many years later when I found it on Youtube and saw for the first time that the accompanying video is all about missing kids. Strange but true.
In Paying the Piper, we first meet my bad-boy Lenny, who started out as a bit-player but I soon realised was way more involved than I’d first thought. Lenny is Skid Row’s 18 And Life, albeit with a lot more money and a public school education. It’s not until Calling the Tune that we learn of Lenny’s real childhood and he becomes far more ambiguous and complex. Lenny’s story continues into Rat’s Tale and new release Ratline and his music becomes softer and more uncertain as we get inside his head. Now it’s less rock and more Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (the Seekers version – way better than Bob Dylan, in my opinion).
I can’t in all honesty say I listen to music while writing, because I find any noise hugely distracting when I’m working (although a playlist on my iPhone is a Godsend in an open-plan office in the day job). But I do find that music fits the mood of the moment when I’m writing and I’ll subconsciously look for and play certain tracks – even if only in my mind.
Debbie Bennett claims to get her inspiration from the day job in law enforcement. She can’t talk about a lot of the stuff she’s seen and done over the years, but it stews and matures in her mind and often comes out in some twisted form in fiction many years later. She’d tell you more, but then she’d have to kill you afterwards. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter as @debjbennett