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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 guest is award-winning novelist, essayist and poet Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
The Good Cemetery Guide began one fog-laden winter’s night in a dimly-lit music locale in Kalk Bay, South Africa. Three acoustic guitarists, jamming loud enough to wake the dead, shifted my world a step to the left.
The uninhibited energy that rocked that small dingy space attracted a motley crowd, including some local town ghosts. Tony Cox, Steve Newman and Syd Kitchen, acoustic guitar fingerstyle masters, opened a passage between the real world and the possible world. On the long road home we passed a drab brick house with salt encrusted windows. The nondescript sign of a funeral parlour floated in the sea fog under a street lamp. Behind the walls I saw Anthony Loxton looking at himself in a bathroom mirror, back from a guitar gig, wishing his life could be different.
It’s hilarious in retrospect. My first novel was going to be about a funeral director moonlighting as a guitar player, when I knew nothing about making music or the undertaking business. But the musician before his audience was a perfect metaphor to underpin an ancient literary theme: No Man is an Island.
Part of my research was always having the car radio on – it felt necessary. One day I found myself finger-tapping to Ziggy Marley’s Jammin, and an image popped into my head of Sweet the guitar teacher jiving to his own beat, adding a repetitive gospel music refrain to the reggae beat; taking liberties with the musical greats.
Anthony’s alter ego, Tony the Fox, evolved in a similarly strong-willed direction; he began to think of himself as looking like Phil Collins. In those early days of story incubation I turned to my favourite power balladeers for inspiration: Richard Marx’s Waiting for You made me feel the pain of missing the woman you love; Phil Collins’s Survivors made me feel the sadness of doomed love with a shared past.
Gradually all the listening paid off. I borrowed bits and pieces of songs that felt completely right and authentic, and that amplified the storybook of a third-generation funeral director who strives valiantly to outfox destiny.
At a major crossroad of his adult life Anthony remembers ‘that sometimes the words of a song don’t have to make sense for it to be a good song’, and he ‘lets the man and the woman go to Mexico before the gringos came, and make capsicum chilli love as often as they want.’
The Mexican theme came up when I was ‘doing research’ in Kalk Bay. The discovery of the afternoon was a Mexican cowboy cardboard puppet who fired from the hips. Bang! Bang! He was delightfully impish, although the skeleton Señorita in her cellophane packet seemed impervious to his charms. I could see a small boy discovering Mexico in a forbidden library book. By torchlight he might see a band leading a procession and then a host of twirling skeletons and masked dancers (to help the dead go back) attending El Día de los Muertos. On that night of heartfelt sorrow and great celebration the veil between the living and the dead would be lifted; the Mexican cowboy would serenade the beautiful Señorita, and he would raise his pistols – Bang! Bang! – for every suitor, dead or alive. It was the mesmerizing Lila Downs who acted as my guide to a Mexico of the soul.
Anthony’s double life embodies secrets. The theme of concealment is interwoven with melody to express dark, melancholic thoughts the adult man cannot otherwise vocalise. I unearthed Texas troubadour Willis Alan Ramsey’s Ballad of Spider John while researching guitars.
Much of the novel is about coming to terms with existence, and how sex is only a temporary diversion. Writing about sex from a man’s perspective was a challenge. Listening to Meatloaf’s soaring lustful lyrics, particularly the gothic epic You Took the Words Right Out Of My Mouth, helped the sex scenes to flow. The effect of that single song and its sexual tension and irony was enormously helpful to get inside the head of my lascivious male character as he spun from one carnal adventure to the next.
When gothic love is followed by gothic death the musician quits playing and the masquerade is temporarily suspended. It’s left up to the broken-hearted to process the inexplicable as best they can. Robbie Williams’s Cursed perfectly evoked the mood of ‘immeasurable sadness’ that occasionally struck Anthony down. Cursed has a driving rock beat which captures the concrete physicality of being alive and then it slows completely and incredible piano sections evoke the fragility of love and the power of memory.
This is the unique soundtrack of a man who was born the son of a mortician, and given the gift of a guitar. In The Good Cemetery Guide music has the power to wake not only the dead, but also the living.
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town. After leaving the IT business, she completed an MA in creative writing. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2006. It was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books in 2007. After retrieving her rights she self-published as an ebook. She has also published poetry and short stories. Her essay, ‘Was Ayn Rand Wrong? An essay on capitalism’, appeared in The Face of The Spirit: a century of essays by South African Women published by the Department of Art & Culture. Her second novel Lady Limbo is due for release by Jacana Media in November 2012. Connect with her on Twitter @ConsueloRoland Facebook and her website.
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HIATUS – Next week I’m taking a brief break. The Undercover Soundtrack will return on 14th November
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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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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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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'