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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by 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).
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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.
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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 author Jane Rusbridge @JaneRusbridge
I’d love to be able to write in a crowded room like D.H. Lawrence, but I need silence and solitude. The early stage of Rook was a very noisy exception. Cello music, volume up high, accompanied me most of the day, as did the cellists I watched on Youtube, over and over again: YoYo Ma, playing Saint-Saens, The Swan; Jacqueline Du Pre playing Elgar’s well known Cello Concerto in E minor, especially the Adagio.
My main character, Nora, had to be a cellist so, knowing nothing at all about the cello, I needed to observe technique, as well as listen. I bought CDs and played them in the car and in the kitchen, until my husband complained. He’s more of a BBC Radio 5 Live person. I read Mstislav Rostropovitch: Cellist, Teacher, Legend by Elizabeth Wilson, a book which lead me the Bach Prelude in G major and helped me fall a little in love with Rostrapovitch and his spark of genius.
Wrestling with ferocity
A friend teaches at the Royal Academy so I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit in on some lessons. These had a profound effect and were inspirational in terms of understanding my central character. One gifted young student, Cecilia Bignall, played cello music I’d never heard, such as Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 and the Martinu cello concerto no. 1. To observe, at close range, a cellist play such vigorous, powerful music in a relatively small room was electrifying. My whole body reacted; the sound vibrated through my spine, ribs and jaw-bone. It raised my pulse. Cecilia is petite. Her body language while playing gave the impression she and the cello were wrestling with ferocity over the music.
Influenced by Jacqueline du Pre’s tragic life story, I’d been under the misconception the cello was largely a romantic, melancholic instrument. While music like Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei still plays a vital role in the novel, discovering the cello’s gutsy side was a revelation, and led to the development of Nora’s corresponding passion and strength of mind. Though she’s been knocked sideways by what happened to her, she’s feisty.
Wild and feral
Not long after my Royal Academy visit, I went to a university conference on the Uncanny. In one seminar session, we discussed the ‘wildness of being’ which exists beneath language. We talked of the fear of wildness, about feral children and the wildness of giving birth. In my notes at this point is a drawing of a light bulb – my private shorthand for eureka moments – followed by a few frenzied scribbles about Nora, my main character.
‘Harry sees her playing ‘wildly’. Martinu. She feels exposed. Ashamed.’
Nora, a professional cellist, has abruptly abandoned her career, her reasons gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Our discussion about the fear of wildness that day helped things fall into place: Nora’s memory of certain events has been repressed. Trying to ‘tame’ her spirit, she no longer allows herself to play with the abandon she once did. If the wildness resurfaces, her memories could be too painful to bear. Ideas about wildness and taming also tied in with the story of the baby rook Nora finds and nurses back to health. I wanted both the rook and Nora to be able to ‘return to the wild’ at the end of the novel.
‘holds the cello close, fingers flat on the wood, the flecks and ripples of varnish, the intimate flaws in the gleam of the cello’s surface, the strength of its body’s curve against her hip and breasts’.
This scene, where Nora plays the Martinu cello concerto no. 1 ‘with the urgency of long deprivation’, is a turning point her recovery.
Natalie Goldberg talks of the ‘wild mind’ of the writer, a phrase which I use in preference to the ‘unconscious’. Through the discovery of the wild side of cello music, I found parallels between my creative process and Nora’s relationship to her cello, essential to my understanding of her character and motivation. And the trailer for Rook has just gone live. The music was composed especially by Aiden O’Brien of Shadowboxer, and inspired by photographs Natalie Miller (my daughter) took of rooks when we were rooking together. If you like, it’s the other side of the coin – music growing from the writing process.
Jane Rusbridge is the author of The Devil’s Music, long-listed for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award, and Rook, one of the launch titles for exciting new imprint Bloomsbury Circus. She is the recipient of the Philip Lebrun Prize, and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester, where she was Associate Lecturer in English for more than 10 years. She lives and works in West Sussex. She has a blog Jane Rusbridge and can be found on Twitter @JaneRusbridge
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by bestselling romantic novelist Fiona Walker @fionawalkeruk
If I know I’m not going to be overheard, I sing – in the bath, on long dog walks, and when writing, or more realistically the thinking pauses between writing. This habitual distraction is also creative inspiration. It’s no coincidence that characters sing in many of my books, from my first novel French Relations in which dinner party guests gather around a piano to perform Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight, to my twelfth novel The Love Letter, where my heroine inadvertently finds herself duetting an old Bo Diddley number with her ex boyfriend in the local pub. That song, You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, is a joyful riot of old-time rhythm and blues that also feeds into the themes of a novel in which characters are not as they first appear, most especially a reclusive writer who hides his identity behind a pen name.
As a romantic novelist with a reputation for raunchy romps, I appreciate Bo Diddley is a far cry from a power ballad, but I once bought The Greatest Love Songs In The World…Ever to listen to when writing passionate scenes – much to my husband’s hilarity – and it was the most awful backing track from which to seek inspiration, like writing on the dance-floor at an over-40s singles night. Most of the music I listen to when I write is white noise, and if I’m on a roll I don’t notice it at all, until that one song sticks, and that’s when inspiration strikes.
When a song connects with a book’s plot, I often play it – and sing it – day and night, and it occasionally even gets woven into the text. This means that I have to be very careful what I listen to when writing. It once cost me almost as much as a new car to gain permission to quote six lines of a Jim Steinman track that I couldn’t get out of my head, after which I not only stopped featuring heroines who were Meatloaf fans, but also monitored my listening habits and now tailor them to each book. I keep a limited number of CDs ripped to my computer, so if I’m not listening to the radio, I’m going through the same albums on a loop, many of them instrumental. The energetic Brazilian guitarist/percussion combo Rodrigo y Gabriela fuelled the first draft of The Love Letter; the sultry Gotan Project added tempo; saxophonist Jan Garbarek injected cool, and I played endless Mozart for jollity and Bach for comfort.
When the rough plot of The Love Letter was in place, that tailor-made compilation changed to vintage Kate Bush, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Bjork and Birdy, all inspiring the book’s larger than life characters, comic melodrama and coastal setting, as well as a very long, flirty seduction in a fairytale tower. Yet it was when googling something entirely unconnected that I found the Bo Diddley song that fitted the story so well that I couldn’t stop playing it.
If I hit upon a theme-tune for a plot or its characters, I know I have a secret entrance into the book, and although the album or song itself may never appear on the page, you can guarantee I’ve listened to it hundreds of times when writing certain scenes. One of my novels was written whilst listening to Damien Rice almost non-stop, another to Alison Krauss – and when a romantic hero who always made me think of Christy Moore’s Ride On featured in a sequel 10 years after his first appearance, I only had to listen to the song to find him coming to life again. Although many of these songs get honourable mentions in the books, only the very special few are performed by me and my characters; You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover is still being sung loudly in Worcestershire.
Fiona Walker became a best-selling novelist in her 20s and her books have sold over two million copies worldwide to date. Dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’ she is renowned for her large casts, addictive plots and sharp wit. She lives in rural Worcestershire with her partner Sam who is a dressage trainer and their two daughters. Her twelfth novel, The Love Letter, is published by Sphere.Find her on her blog and on Twitter @FionaWalkeruk
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by author, games designer and graphic novelist Dave Morris @MirabilisDave
On ‘a dreary night of November’, with rain pattering dismally against the panes, the creature animated by Victor Frankenstein draws his first breath. His senses are a confused storm of inputs and feelings. Sounds have colour. Shapes have taste. Gradually he makes sense of the world, marvelling at the mystery of birdsong and the immense round mountain that rolls across the sky at night.
Music as the vanishing point
Last month I published a new version of Frankenstein: a digital, interactive retelling of the story, the purpose of which is to rescue Mary Shelley’s classic from the neglect into which it has fallen. It’s a great story, but one mired in swathes of schoolbookish prose. My aim in making it interactive has been to turn it up to eleven, to reach out and drag the modern reader right into the text. That opening scene of the creature’s birth gave me the clue for one way to do that – a way to show his awakening consciousness using all of the senses. And that led me towards music as the vanishing point where his raw sense of hearing converges with his aspirations to join the communality of art and culture that unites the rest of humankind.
Spurned by his maker and rejected violently by everyone he meets, the creature takes shelter in an outbuilding adjoining the chateau of an aristocratic family, the de Lacys. Here’s where Mary Shelley, not always too concerned with crafting tidy plotlines, came up with an inspired story device: a crack in the wall through which the creature is able to spy on them. He observes the de Lacys at the dinner table, or gathered around the elderly, blind pater familias as he plays the harpsichord. When a Turkish girl comes to stay, the son of the family starts to teach her French and, eye pressed to the crack, that’s how the creature gets his education too.
The former ingenue
It’s at this point in the novel that we start to perceive, buried in its grosser body tissue, the outlines of another familiar story: the former ingenue who, as he acquires education and culture, becomes increasingly dismissive of those who remind him of his former ignorance. ‘Her grasp of French is almost as good as mine,’ remarks the creature of Safiye, the Turkish girl, in a backhanded compliment. When a bullying official of the Revolutionary government shows up to evict the family, the detail that causes the creature greatest outrage is that the man is unable to read.
Finally the creature feels that his efforts at self-education have earned him a place by the hearth. He is ready to creep out of his ruined hovel and go round to the front door. Dressed in stolen clothes, he waits till the others are out to present himself to old Monsieur de Lacy, whom he expects to be the most sympathetic to his plight:
Alone in the cottage, the old man sits at his keyboard playing the opening contrapunctus of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. It is a sweet sad air, mournful and yet gloriously so. Though Bach intended this piece of music as just an exercise, everything human is contained there. We live and will die. Nothing has meaning except what we give it. And yet the tiny equations of mortal perception contain everything that is beautiful and true.
Now, Mary Shelley doesn’t do a whole lot of showing. ‘He played several mournful but sweet airs,’ is how she renders this scene, ‘more mournful and sweet than I had ever heard him play before.’ But in my reworking of the novel I wanted the reader to see how the creature has changed over these months – from a thing whose senses run together in a synaesthetic whirlpool to a man who can quote Plutarch and Milton. And that piece by Bach, played here by Margaret Fabrizio, is surely the epitome of humanity in its melding of simplicity and beauty, logic and a sense of the spiritual.
But it’s not enough to show your character has become almost a gentleman. You must remind the reader where he came from. A few minutes later, talking to M de Lacy, the monster asks him to play something:
Turning back to the harpsichord, he lets his fingers find the keys and then bursts into a performance of Rameau’s Tambourin. It is of a very different mood from the Bach he was playing before I came in: a fast-paced work full of gusto and melodramatic flourishes. A mere entertainment. How disappointing that he doesn’t recognize a kindred spirit.
The creature’s scornful reaction to what is, after all, a jaunty bit of 18th century pop (played here with great verve by Julian Frey) is more than just resentment at being thought unsophisticated. It shows us his fatal flaw. Sheltered in his hovel beside the chateau, all that he has seen through the crack is the best and most serious side of mankind. The aristocratic M de Lacy is wise enough to appreciate that there is room in life for both the transcendent brilliance of Bach and the heel-kicking silliness of Rameau. The creature fails to understand that. His morality is as pure and absolute as an adolescent’s, as furious as those French revolutionary fanatics’. And in the gap between these two pieces of music, these two essential but opposite sides of the human self, he will experience his downfall.
Dave Morris is the author of the graphic novel series Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, originally serialised in Random House’s comic The DFC. His interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books. Dave has two blogs: Mirabilis and Fabled Lands, and you can follow him on Twitter: @MirabilisDave
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The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by mystery novelist Margot Kinberg
Music has always been a very important part of my life, and that’s just as true of my writing life as it is of the rest of my life. All sorts of songs – and the ideas I get from them – have been woven through what I write because quite honestly, I think in music. So when I write, music has a way of inspiring me. My second crime novel B-Very Flat is in a way divided into four musical ‘sections’, although I didn’t do that deliberately, nor are there rigid divisions among the sections.
The close connection between artist and instrument
Several of the characters in the novel are young musicians at university who are hoping for music careers. One of them, Serena Brinkman, is the main character for the first part of the novel – until she’s murdered. Triumph’s Magic Power really helped to put me in the state of mind where I could feel that love Serena has for music, and so understand her character better. Musical artists are absolutely passionate about what they do, and I wanted that to come through. Even the characters who aren’t musicians are young and passionate about life, and that song helped me tap into that energy.
Serena is a brilliant violinist, and music means a lot to her. In fact, she and a rival are preparing for an important musical competition as the story goes on. JS Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major helped me get a sense of what playing a violin is like. It’s such a warm, tender piece, and yet with some real richness to it. To me, it captures at least a bit of the connection between the artist and the instrument. There are a few scenes in the novel where Serena is practising and one in particular where she plays a piece for her adviser. The Bach sonata helped me to tap that feeling of getting utterly lost in a brilliantly-played violin piece.
A sense of emptiness and devastation
About halfway through the novel, Serena is murdered. Her death leaves a gaping hole in several lives; even people who didn’t know her personally are affected by her murder. That includes my sleuth, who never does meet her. That sense of pain and loss is a big part of Billy Joel’s Nocturne, so that song helped me to focus on the emptiness and devastation left behind when someone dies. In a few scenes in the novel, people who loved Serena are coping with the realisation that she’s gone. Because Nocturne is empty and lonely, but restrained, it was very helpful to me as I wrote those scenes. Depicting sadness and loss without melodrama isn’t easy.
Towards the end of B-Very Flat, we find out who killed Serena Brinkman and why. In that sense, the story is resolved. But the people who knew her are not all of a sudden ‘whole’ again. They have to find a way to go on, especially her parents. They have to figure out what happens next for them. One song that helped me explore that sense of having to pick up the pieces after heartbreak is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Another Suitcase in Another Hall. Admittedly the song doesn’t have to do with going on after a loved one has died. But it does deal with that need to be strong despite the pain. That song helped me to explore how the people in Serena’s life might begin to pick up their pieces.
Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist and Associate Professor at National University, Carlsbad, California. She was born in Pennsylvania, where she graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She taught at the University of Delaware and Knox College, then moved to California where she lives with her husband, daughter and dogs. She is the author of the Joel Williams mystery series which includes Publish or Perish and B-Very Flat.
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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- '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
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Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
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- 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
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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'