Posts Tagged music for writers
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
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.