Posts Tagged music for writers

‘Everything about the characters was held within these notes’ – Jason Hewitt

for logoMy guest this week says that when he gives talks about writing, he often says that writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. He describes how his lead characters are like the principal instruments, plotting the crescendos on paper beforehand (not unlike to an idea I sketched out in my first Nail Your Novel book – drawing the characters’ parts on manuscript paper, like a score). One of his novels is set in 1940 and music pervades the whole narrative, especially as the principal characters are musicians. There is music for each character’s mental signature, music for particular moments, music that helped him retune if he felt his grasp on the story slipping. And watch out for a track with a simply sublime title: And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound of Bees. He is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Clare Flynn

for logo‘Watching the wintry sea and reflecting on a marriage’

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 guest is Clare Flynn @ClareFly

Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys,   Pussycat Dolls

When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 14.47.05Inhabiting another era

When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.

Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.

The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”

I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.

Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.

Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.

When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.

Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:

Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”

Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.

I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.

I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.

I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”

And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.

Kurinji Flowers LARGE EBOOKThe passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.

Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”

The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.

Winding down
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.

Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Naomi Elana Zener

for logo‘Battle songs

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 guest is Huffington Post blogger and satirical thriller author Naomi Elana Zener @satiricalmama

Soundtrack by Vivaldi, Rolling Stones, Eagles, Chumbawumba, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Bob Marley, Starship, Rick Astley, Grieg, Sarah Bareilles

Her career is circling the drain. Her almost marital apartment is empty. The fiancé is Decamped Dude, off on a lovers’ jaunt with his best man. And, Joely is alone tracking the remnants of her life as though the shark from Jaws is following her every move ready to engulf what’s left of her in one fell swoop.

NEZ HEADSHOT (2014)Music is to my writing as oxygen is to my breathing. One cannot exist without the other. Certainly, there are moments of silence, but generally when I write anything, including Deathbed Dimes, often the staccato sounds emanating from the dancing keyboard punctuates Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing on a loop, as I build the world and characters with whom I live inside my head until they find their way onto the page.

Having grown up in a classical music and opera loving household, and being a lawyer by day, writing with the melodic sounds of the piano, violin, wind and other string instruments wafting through the air was symbiotic to my process of creating the law firm world — quite a WASPy one in fact—in which Joely toiled day and night during her grueling 80-hour work weeks. It was when her world fell apart cataclysmically that the soundtrack of her life and mine changed. Gone were the soothing tones.

Joely is a character trying to find a way to happiness, which for her is defined by career success, a romantic marriage, and wonderful friendships. Having been jilted at the altar, looked over for partnership at her law firm, and displaced geographically from her two best friends, Ethan Berg and Coco Hirohito — her surrogate family to replace the one she knows she has to return to in Los Angeles—who are both on the West Coast, Joely is staring eye-to-eye with the nadir of her life. To accompany her downward emotional spiral, my writing was dispatched to the tune of You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones) and carried through on the wings of thematically similar music, most notably The Eagles’ Hotel California. When I write, I tend to listen to certain songs on repeat. I’m an extremely focused person—the antithesis of having ADD—such that when I’m concentrating on or writing something, my laser-like tunnel vision works best listening to the music that evokes the creative spirit from within.

To return my heroine to that from whence she came: Beverly Hills, to live with her Oscar-winning aging screen siren mother, Sylvia, and her D-list philandering director father, Armand, I had to fill my head with fight music. To don her war paint and gear up for battle—more like war since her parents’ selfish desires for their daughter have little to do with what Joely wants for herself—I listened to a cacophony of sounds, including the theme song from Rocky Balboa, Chumbawamba’s I Get Knocked Down (Tubthumping), AC/DC’s Back in Black, and Guns N Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle. Down, but not out, Joely was able to hop drunkedly on her return flight to Los Angeles for the fight of her life.

Joely’s reunion with her respective chosen and birth families, her return to the practice of law on her own terms, and her quest for personal fulfillment was written to a musical mish mash. The emotional roller coaster ride of having her heart pulled in three directions—the fiancé who left her, the married mentor, and her best friend for whose love she’s willfully blind—was written to a myriad of tonalities, ranging from Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us, and to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up — yes, I’m a child of the 80s—but to name a few. The legal warpath was written to the echoed sounds of the battle songs I listened to in order to prepare Joely for her return to Los Angeles. Brief moments of serenity were hallmarked by my return to listening to classical music, with Edvard Grieg’s Morning marking a quintessential awakening for Joely.

Deathbed Dime$ Final CoverIn the end, the moment in which Joely and I jointly discovered that we would find a way for her to ‘have it all’—career, love, marriage, success—the song playing on the radio by happenstance was Sarah Bareilles’s Love Song. Both mine and Joely’s heads were proverbially ‘under water’ prior to that moment — I was unsure whether it would be realistic for a woman to have it all, as I was struggling with a similar shared female experience in my own life. When Bareilles’ song blared through my radio, and eventually through that of Joely’s car stereo as she drove along the PCH highway in Los Angeles, it underscored the revelatory moment for when I realised how Joely’s story would end. Or, rather begin again.

Naomi Elana Zener is the author of both Deathbed Dimes and satire fiction, which is posted on her blog Satirical Mama. Her vociferous blogging has been read and appreciated by industry bigwigs such as Giller Prize winner Dr Vincent Lam and New York Times best-selling author and journalist Paula Froelich. Naomi blogs for Huffington Post and her articles have been published by Kveller, Absrd Comedy, and Erica Ehm’s Yummy Mummy Club. She’s currently working on her sophomore novel. You can connect with her on her website or on Twitter @satiricalmama.

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‘The planes, the explosions, the dust, the calm’ – Kerry Drewery

for logoMy guest this week specialises in YA novels set in war zones. With just two novels under her belt, she’s already much-decorated with awards and award nominations. Her music selection is small in number, but it helped her keep the intensity of the environments she was writing about, and connect with the characters’ emotions. Indeed, she has scored a first among Undercover Soundtrackers, because one of her choices was to help her decompress after working with such harrowing material. She is Kerry Drewery and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Tenderness, fragility, an understanding beyond her years’ – Myfanwy Collins

for logoMy guest this week has just one musician in her book-s arsenal – a singer who  perfectly, wholly, uncannily embodied the character she was searching for. The story is a young adult novel – a new departure for the writer, who has had other works published in the adult market and in literary magazines. Anyway, the emotions run high – and also the fragility. Stop by on Wednesday when Myfanwy Collins will be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music that seeps beneath your skin, then grows’ – Andrew Lowe

for logoMy guest this week is a sometime musician – and as a result he’s another writer who finds that music is not a background but his master. His novel is a hard-edged story about a childhood event whose consequences are poisoning the characters many years later, and the soundtrack is a double-barrelled mix for the past and present timelines. Expect 1970s grit and modern-day anguish – with a dose of catharsis from Sigur Ros. He is Andrew Lowe and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music and love transform your internal landscape’ – Louisa Treger

for logoMy guest this week used to be a classical violinist. She says music informs every word she writes, expressing states of feeling that she then strives to render in words. Her novel is a biographical story about the little-known author Dorothy Richardson, who pioneered the stream of consciousness technique, although she is overshadowed today by Virginia Woolf. In the novel, Richardson is invited to stay with a friend who is married to HG Wells, which is the start of a tangled and tumultuous affair. It’s a novel full of love and loss, with a soundtrack to match. She is Louisa Treger and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’ – Garry Craig Powell

for logoMy guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Cander

for logo‘Stay close to sounds that make you glad to be alive’

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 novelist, screenplay writer and writing teacher Chris Cander @ChrisCander

Soundtrack by Slaid Cleaves, Miles Davis, Alexander Scriabin

Though I’m a writer of prose, it’s music that seems to me the most transcendent art form. Music casts a collective spell that detaches listeners from the tangible world and encourages a sort of free fall of emotional experience that doesn’t require words to be passionately felt. Yet being so moved beyond words can also inspire the use of them. In each of my novels, music informs some key aspect.

I had only just begun work on Whisper Hollow, which is set in a fictional coal mining town in the early 1900s and follows the intertwining lives of three women, when I heard the song Lydia by Karen Posten and covered by Slaid Cleaves. It’s an Appalachian tale of a widowed woman who has lost two of her loved ones to the coal mines of Virginia. It’s so moody and evocative that it influenced the way I imagined my character Alta, who lost her son, husband, and lover in the fatal mine explosion that divides the book into its two parts. I remember listening to it over and over, letting the sadness seep in until I, too, was grief stricken.

Chris-CanderThough I’ve incorporated music into all my novels, this was the first time that nearly every line of a song impacted the story in some way. In the song, the eponymous Lydia, full of melancholy, sits down one day in the place where she lives alone, and is carried away by the memories of her first-born and his father. Listening to it, I could see Alta sitting alone in her cabin, numb with a similar loss, exactly one month after the accident. That image became the chapter titled November 7, 1950. It was because of these lyrics that she tried smoking the cigarette that her aunt had given her decades before, that she imagined the weeds growing atop the graves of her loved ones, and that she, like the song’s character, never was the same.

But I couldn’t leave Alta to suffer that kind of ache for the rest of her life—and the rest of the book—without something to mitigate it. And so I created the young woman named Lydia whose life parallels Alta’s in some significant ways and whose friendship enables Alta finally to begin to heal.

Two seconds and two-hundred-and-forty pages

In my novel 11 Stories, the story opens on the protagonist Roscoe Jones standing on the roof edge playing Yesterdays (composed by Jerome Kern in 1933) on his trumpet in the style of Miles Davis. He is serenading the newly released spirit of the woman he loved in secret for 50 years; it will be the final few moments of his life.

I’ve always loved Miles Davis for his music and his peculiar temperament, and this piece — which I hear as elegiac and keening, an ode to both love and solitude — was perfect for Roscoe. Normally I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but as I wrote this opening scene, I looped Yesterdays so that the mood of it might land on the page:

Windows opened beneath him and people looked around for the source. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, mingled as it was with the sounds of street traffic and the machinery of urban dwellings. But because the air was dry, “Yesterdays” cut through it more clearly than it otherwise would have, and by the time Roscoe was descending chromatically through the final melodic phrases – G, F C, D E, and E, E, E – there was an audience of fifty people at least, or a hundred, or maybe more.

He held that last E as long as he could, until his breath was nearly gone, and then his soul slammed back into his old body so hard it seemed to jostle him a little, and he became aware of the sound of clapping and even a few whistles which grew louder but didn’t displace the purity of that last E.”

In the next breath, Roscoe falls off that roof, and for the duration of his two-second and 240-page fall, time slows, and Roscoe’s history unfolds in tune with the energy of that final note.

So that you may hear what it is that I see 

In my new book The Weight of a Piano (which my agent will begin shopping this week) music is secondary to the instrument, but there is one piece that plays like a soundtrack to the story and links its two narratives: Alexander Scriabin’s frenetic, colorful Prelude No 14 in E-flat minor. I wanted a piece that might have been a favorite of the Russian concert pianist who first owned the eponymous piano, and was also unusual enough to charge a moment when it is recognized by another character years later.

Whisper-HollowFINAL3There was something serendipitous about this piece that I didn’t realize until after I’d chosen it. One of my characters, the son of the original piano owner, is a photographer who describes his purpose in taking pictures as ‘so that you may hear what it is that I see’. I hadn’t known when I gave him this trait of chromaesthesia (a form of synesthesia in which sounds translate as colors) that Scriabin was also a chromaesthete. Discovering that minor coincidence at a time when I was feeling pessimistic about the novel (it happens more often that I care to admit) gave me a dose of optimism that recurred each time I mentioned the Prelude in the story.

I find it interesting how important and prevalent music is in my books, because the only musical talent I have is the ability to appreciate it. In life and in fiction, I try to follow Hafiz’s recommendation: ‘Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive’.

Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, screenplay writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013. Her most recent novel is Whisper Hollow, published by Other Press. Her website is here, tweet her as @ChrisCander, and find her on Facebook.

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‘Into the warzone’ – Alison Layland

for logoMy guest this week is tackling the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and she used music to suggest fragments, atmospheres and moments of memory. When she sent me her post, she remarked that she found the process of writing it had been even more challenging than the novel, as she had never before admitted anyone to her personal space of creativity. This is one of the reasons I’m continually refreshed by this series – no matter what genre the book is, or what type of music they choose, the heart of each post is this real contact with a writer delving for the truth. Anyway, here you’ll find some haunting and unusual pieces by PJ Harvey, Smoke Fairies, Steven R Smith and Laurie Anderson, all in the Undercover Soundtrack of Alison Layland – airing here on Wednesday.

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