Posts Tagged music for writers

‘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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‘An expectant silence, a connection to something greater’ – Kathryn Craft

for logoI have been looking forward to sharing this Soundtrack with you. I’ve known the writer for a number of years on social media as we’ve moved in the same Venn diagrams, but when I saw the pre-publicity for her latest novel I had to approach her for this series. One of the hallmarks of these posts is that they are deeply personal journeys, and this novel is perhaps an ultimate example – it’s based on true events, the suicide of her husband. Do you recognise her already? If you’re in our Venn diagrams, perhaps you do. Before I confirm her name, let me say a little more about the music. This Soundtrack is a series of songs that reached out of the radio at the right time, to comfort, add perspective or share a moment; to make it possible to create a novel out of such a happening. She is Kathryn Craft, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to The Far End of Happy.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Jim Ruland

for logo‘An anxious, urgent sound: the music of chance’

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 award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland @JimVermin

Soundtrack by Jay Reatard, The Lost Sounds, Dillinger Four, The Stitches, AA Bondy, Kurt Vile, Mind Spiders

For a book with such an upbeat title, Forest of Fortune was drenched in despair.

The first draft was written in a frenzy. The novel has three points of view. I’d work on a scene, get a character into trouble I didn’t know how to get out of, and move on to the next character. By the time I made it back to that first character, I’d have thought of a solution and start the process over again.

The novel is set in an Indian casino. At the time, I worked in an Indian casino. If the first draft has a soundtrack, it’s the chiming of the slot machines, calling out to be played, jangling their jackpots, paying out their plunder.

JimThe music a slot machine makes when no one is playing it is called an attract sequence. It’s an anxious, urgent sound. The music of chance. That’s what the novel felt like: a machine that promised big rewards if I just stayed in the chair.

I don’t remember much about those days, but then the calendar flipped and I wish I could forget the days that followed.

Music to grieve to

When I lost a close friend to a drug overdose, I mourned his passing by listening to the dark, violent punk rock music we loved.

My first choice was Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions, an album as disturbing as the title implies. My friend’s name was JJ and we had seen Jay Reatard together and the aggressive, menacing songs matched my anger over losing my friend.

That led me back to The Lost Sounds, Jay Reatard’s former band. Their self-titled record is filled with songs like I Get Nervous. Frantic guitars, wailing keyboards, droning feedback. It’s music to get lost to, which is what I did with the help of a steady supply of vodka and cocaine. I succumbed to the seduction of lostness.

When the anger passed and the sadness moved in I turned to Dillinger Four’s Civil War, the saddest punk rock record I’ve ever heard. The songs are suffused with melancholy that I drank up like the cheap vodka I drank on the long drive to and from the Indian reservation every day.

I tried to write about the record but after repeated listens, a little beer and a lot of blow, I wasn’t sure I knew what a record review was anymore. Civil War made me intensely sad, and that sadness made me feel close to JJ. I never wanted that feeling to go away.

A better way

One of JJ’s favorite songs was Better Off Dead by the Stitches. They played the song at his benefit show about a month after he passed away. It’s one of the last things I remember about that weekend. The rest is lost to a blackout.

When I came to, I knew I was done with the drinking and the drugs. I asked for help and I got it. I got sober and stayed sober.

Eventually, I returned to the novel. One of the characters in Forest of Fortune is a Caucasian copywriter with a severe drug and alcohol problem. Suddenly, his behavior didn’t seem so mysterious anymore. I could see his problems so clearly.

The revision process was slow, deliberately so. Jay Reatard released a new album called Watch Me Fall. It was softer, slower and poppier than his previous album. I didn’t really like it but it liked me. It got its hooks into me and its melodies pulled me along.

Then the calendar flipped and tragedy struck again. This time it was Jay Reatard who overdosed. Another life senselessly lost. I went back to his music, but I didn’t let it derail me. I stayed on the sunny side of the street.

I sought and found solace in nurturing my novel along to completion. Without realizing it I found myself listening to music that was more soothing than shocking. A swampy mix of AA Bondy’s lush guitars on Believers and Kurt Vile’s wry but barely there vocals on Smoke Ring for my Halo.

It was music I could listen to over and over again as the final pieces of my novel fell into place.

FoF_CvrThe haunted casino

I had changed a great deal since I’d invented the characters that inhabit Forest of Fortune’s haunted casino. Part of me wanted to take them on a journey that would turn their lives around – just as I had – but their fates were already sealed.

I quit the casino not long after I sold the book. I didn’t sell it for a lot of money, but finishing the book and knowing it was going to be published gave me an immense feeling of freedom. Freedom to quit a job I didn’t like. Freedom to try new things. Freedom to live.

When it came time to choose a song for the book trailer, I asked Mark Ryan of Mind Spiders to come up with something. He wrote a song that captures in 90 seconds what it takes me 300 pages to accomplish, a spooky shriek and mournful lamentation for my autobiographical ghost story.

Jim Ruland is the author of the novel, Forest of Fortune, the short story collection Big Lonesome and is currently collaborating with Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF!, on his memoir My Damage, which will be published in the fall of 2016. Jim is the books columnist for San Diego CityBeat and his column, The Floating Library, appears every three weeks. He also writes for the Los Angeles Times and Razorcake – America’s only non-profit independent music zine. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Believer, Esquire, Granta, Hobart and Oxford American, and his work has received awards from Canteen, Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. He runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year. Tweet him as @JimVermin and find his website here.

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‘An anxious, urgent sound: the music of chance’ – Jim Ruland

for logoThis week’s Undercover Soundtrack is so raw and honest. Although all great books are personal journeys for the writer as well as the reader, this one has a truly traumatic back story. The writer lost a dear friend while he was drafting it, and his soundtrack is as much a journey of grief and recovery as it is the story of the novel’s making. He is award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland, and he’ll be here on Wednesday.

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‘A horse, a hat and a fight for freedom’ – Tanya Landman

for logoMy guest this week grew up in thrall to wild west movies, especially the ones with epic theme music. Many years later, she was reading some history books as research and stumbled across the freed slaves who were conscripted to fight the Indian Wars. Those early movie memories with their sweeping soundscapes came back to her, along with a more bitter kind of song – gospel music and spirituals by Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Sam Cooke. She emerged with a mission to, as she puts it, tell the story of the Civil War from the other side. She is Tanya Landman and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘The distraction of silence’ – Louise Marley

for logoThis week’s guest discovered by accident how music could be such a useful a creative partner. She found that whenever she got stuck on a scene or a character, the most distracting thing would be the silence around her. She began playing music purely so she wouldn’t hear it – and magical things started to happen. The novel she’s talking about in her post is a romantic suspense with a whiff of murder, and her first book was a finalist in the Poolbeg Write A Bestseller competition. She also writes short stories for the UK women’s magazines Take a Break and My Weekly. She is Louise Marley and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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