Posts Tagged music for writers
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.
The 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.
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.
This 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.
My 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.
My guest this week has a historical novel with two timelines, each of them full of loss and turmoil. Music by Portishead, Jem and The Moxy defined the characters and their dilemmas, hurling her into their lives and channeling their emotions as she wrote. Modern Greek music by Elena Paprizou and Glykeria inspired the setting – the island of Zakynthos. She also writes short stories and poems and performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival 2013. She is Chrissie Parker 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 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 Nadine Matheson @nadinematheson
Soundtrack by Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Odell
Personally, I’m not committed to one genre of music. I will listen to anything and writing the story of The Sisters was also an opportunity to look back at my history with music. There is a scene where Lucinda is shopping in Portobello Market with her manager and she picks up a Jim Reeves album. Now, Jim Reeves was a 50s/60s country singer and my dad would play him on a Sunday morning and then move on to soul or reggae while my mum would be playing David Bowie or reminding me about the giant Marc Bolan poster that she had on her bedroom door when she was teenager. That’s how eclectic my own musical journey was and it was an important part of my own journey when writing this book.
In my head, I think that everyone walks around with their own theme tune. I like to think that Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic or All Along the Watchtower is being blasted out of speakers every time I enter a room or walk down the street. The same warped principle applies when I begin to write. The idea of writing in complete silence fills me with dread and when I’m planning my book’s I always play All Along the Watchtower. The start of the song is about formulating a plan and that there has to be an escape. That’s how I feel about the process of writing a book. There has to be a way out of this story I’ve created. There has to be an end.
The underlying theme of The Sisters is transitions and the effects of misunderstanding. Just like a good book, music is both transitional and emotive. The first character that I could see as a fully rounded person was Lucinda and the only singer that I could hear in my head was Nina Simone and one of my favourite songs Don’t let me be misunderstood. As I began to write Lucinda, I had an immense dislike for her and I initially thought that she was one dimensional but I kept playing Nina Simone’s Don’t let me be misunderstood.
I kept replaying that song because not only did it become the character’s mantra but it also reminded me that this was a character with many facets and not the resident one-dimensional baddie of the book. There is a scene in The Sisters when Lucinda says that she wants her music to be stripped back – that is Nina Simone’s reminder to me that for Lucinda to make her transition, I had to show her vulnerabilities. A favourite quote of mine from Nina Simone is ‘Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.’
Because I was writing about sisters who were in an R’n’B band in the 90s, I made a conscious effort not to listen to any music from that time period, that the sisters would have been playing/singing. I think that would have pigeonholed the characters and not allow them to grow.
There are lot of misunderstandings in The Sisters and the classic syndrome of people covering up how they really feel. When I was writing a scene that involved the sisters finally acknowledging what was going on both internally and with their own relationships I would play Tom Odell’s Can’t Pretend. It is haunting but when you listen to the lyrics it’s not the end of the world, as if all hope is gone. There needed to be a strong sense of authenticity in The Sisters and while writing the book, I chose music where there was a clear complexity in the lyrics. I wanted to show that life isn’t a glossy manufactured package and that there is always more to us than what you first see when we walk into a room.
Nadine Matheson’s The Sisters was published last month. She has also contributed to the sci-fi anthology No Way Home. When she’s not writing, Nadine works as a criminal lawyer. Her crime novel Key Positions was shortlisted for the City Uni/David Higham Associates Crime Writing Competition 2014. She is planning another sci-fi short story as well as working on completing her crime novel. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @NadineMatheson.
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.
My guest this week is making a return appearance to the series. Last time he wrote about how he’d driven his wife bonkers by playing certain albums that evoked the souls of his characters. This poor spouse will surely be donning the earplugs again as his musical choice for his current novel is a striking album by Fiona Apple, which consists of drums, close-up vocals and percussive piano. He describes the pieces as having the feel of a therapy session, all raw emotion and obsession – and perfect for his characters who are all connected by an act of betrayal. He is Scott D Southard and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.