Posts Tagged music for writing

‘The music of exile’ – Kathleen Jones

for logoMy guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – David Penny

for logo‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’

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 my guest is science fictioneer-turned-historical-murder mystery writer David Penny @DavidPenny_

Soundtrack by Tinariwen, Neil Young, Joe Satriano, Grace Potter, Counting Crows, John Hiatt

I’m a frustrated musician. Many writers I talk to wish they were musicians (yes, we know who you are, Mr Rankin) but, when I talk to musicians they often want to be writers. Or actors. As for the actors, well…

For me writing is a constant striving to achieve the same visceral punch I get from great music. It’s hard because writing is a different medium, but every now and again, for a brief moment, I like to think I’ve almost attained that ambition.

david-penny-full-bw-600-webI use music to inspire me, to turn off my analytical mind and don a cap of imagination. While writing my first new book for over 35 years (don’t ask) I used music as inspiration, but also as a wash of sound through which my hands drifted across the keyboard.

That book, The Red Hill came to me complete in less than a second, the entire idea and thread for a multi-book series. Then it took two years to write. The protagonist, Thomas Berrington, is an Englishman a thousand miles from home, a surgeon working in the final years of the Moorish caliphate that has ruled Spain for over 700 years. For much of that period the Moors were a beacon of civilisation in a Europe shattered by invasion, war and ignorance. They were cultured, scientific, and curious about the world. While the Vikings invaded the north, the Moors were inventing flying machines (1100), algebra, the clock, and studying the stars and medicine. In the book Thomas uses the techniques and instruments invented by the Moors – many of which have developed into those now used in modern operating theatres. His life is settled, deliberately constrained, until a man he can’t refuse asks a favour that could get him killed.

Below is the music that inspired me in the writing of the book, but more importantly music that just inspired. What more is there?

Tinariwen

This is how I see Thomas dressed in The Red Hill. It’s also here because I listen to Tinariwen when I need to get into the emotional world of the Moors before they came to Spain, the world they carried with them. I can hear this music – without the electric guitars, but the Moors did have lutes and some even believe they created the acoustic guitar – being performed in al-Hamra at the time The Red Hill is set – the music rhythmic, dense, ululating. And the performers – you can see their lives etched deep on their faces.

Neil Young

I love everything about Neil Young when he plays electric guitar this way. His acoustic, Harvest Moon period, I can take or leave, but when he performs like this it sums up how I feel about writing. The music is on the edge, barely constrained, constantly threatening to tip over into chaos and feedback, always pulling back from the brink. I love his uncompromising nature. I understand it’s also what turns people off his music, but the point is he doesn’t care. He does what he does, what he must do. Whether you like it, love it, or loath it, it is what it is. The struggle to write something possessing this raw power and emotion is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again. It’s an unattainable dream, but that’s all right, because it means I never need to stop. Just like Neil. And take time to listen to the words.

Also there is this cover of Cortez the Killer by Joe Satriano and Grace Potter. Written by Neil, of course, but included for a couple of reasons – the main one being the dichotomy between the slight Spanish vibe and the words. And it tells the result of the victors in the battle the Thomas Berrington series is about. I can’t help wondering how different the world would be today if the Moors hadn’t been defeated.

Counting Crows

Another band I can’t get enough of, another singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. My wife and I – kids too – have seen this band more than any other, and every time they’re different. Some people don’t like that, wanting things to sound just like on the album. Us? No – we like different. This song, A Long December, contains one of my favourite lines: about oysters and pearls… listen… Also listen to Miller’s Angels – stark, haunting, beautiful.

the-red-hill-600-webJohn Hiatt

This song, Have a Little Faith in Me, has nothing to do with The Red Hill, other than I listen to John Hiatt all the time. It isn’t my favourite song of his (that’s another guitar blow-out, but I’ll spare you), but it is his best known and most covered. John Hiatt it the best unknown singer-songwriter in the world. No, don’t disagree – he is. He just is. And again, listen to the words and bow down to the man…

I first saw John Hiatt at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 90s and at the end of a three-hour show that blew my socks off he said something that sums up exactly how I feel about writing: ‘Hey, thanks y’all for coming. If you weren’t here we’d still be playing this stuff, but we’d be doing it in our garage.’

Also try Cry Love. I’ve included this because Immy from Counting Crows is on mandolin (plus it’s brilliant).

David Penny is the author of four science fiction novels and several short stories published during the 1970s. Near-starvation led him down the slippery slope of work, which distracted him from his true calling. He has now returned to writing and The Red Hill, a Moorish mystery thriller, is out July 13 2014. He is currently working on two new books: the follow up to The Red Hill, and a thriller set in the world of industrial espionage. You can find out more about David and his writing at his website and you can connect on twitter @davidpenny_

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‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – David Penny

for logoMy guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just seen an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rohan Quine

for logo‘Sadness and longing in the wildest pleasures’

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 my guest is magical realist author Rohan Quine @RohanQuine

Soundtrack by Sinead O’Connor, Dead Can Dance, Suede, Lana Del Rey, Kim Wilde, Soft Cell, This Mortal Coil, Roxy Music, Madonna, The Orb, The KLF, Ministry, Genesis, Marc and the Mambas, Marc Almond, Kode9 and the Spaceape, Bronski Beat, Donna Summer, Erasure, Bauhaus, Bryan Ferry

Since women are a bit cooler than men, I’ll start with the women in the following cast of principal characters – a cast loosely spread across all five published tales (The Imagination Thief and four novellas – The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong). Aptly here, Alaia Danielle is a singer. She’s morally upright and somewhat high-tension, with cool good taste and a large, cerebral compassion. Her dignity and the humanity beneath her seriousness were partly conjured up by the majesty with which Troy by Sinéad O’Connor builds up, from controlled quietness into a world-bestriding anger that’s just as controlled. Performing, Alaia emits a wordless song with the viscerality of Diamanda Galás and the ethereality of the Cocteau Twins; but the best single suggestion of her was the sublime The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance.

Rohan Quine, by James Keates - author photo 1 more compressedGreen eyes

Pippa Vail is a sweet, depressive dreamer who sits on her high-rise tower-block balcony in silence, while her rich inner life seeps out across the town spread below her; her prominent green eyes look wet and hurt, as if she’s been crying, though there are no tear-stains. Evoking the swell of silent beauty she hears in the sky, from within the unending loneliness of her high-rise balcony-grave, many early tracks by Suede influenced my creation of her. Two amazing examples are Still Life and – appropriate for her high-rise location – High Rising.

Evelyn Carmello is sunny, tough, sassy and social, looming large in her small home-town of Asbury Park, near New York. Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album fed into her, but Evelyn is lighter. Starcrazy by Suede was useful as a very Evelyn example of another kind of Suede heroine: joyously functional in the real world, she’s a dirty-sexy streetwise party-girl, although that scene is mostly now in her recent past. I can also hear in Evelyn an echo or two of that cool-eyed, dirty-city classic Kids in America by Kim Wilde.

Angel’s Baby Doll is the self-image of the character Angel (see below). I birthed her from somewhere in the vicinity of two beauties by Soft Cell: the divine Torch; and Sex Dwarf.

Ravens in the tower

Constant in the Chocolate Raven is a yearning for the everyday external world to transcend its qualities of dullness and flatness, to attain the colours and lights living in her mind. The music that helped create her, therefore (especially when she’s on that Dubai skyscraper terrace, creating the tower in the mountains from convulsive blasts of energy she fires across the night-time desert), was music that radiates a transcendent beauty undercut by regret that such beauty will always be up against such a deadweight. Salient examples were Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil and To Turn You On by Roxy Music. The Chocolate Raven’s creation of the Platinum Raven is in itself a song to the siren.

In that nightclub tower where the Platinum Raven presides, events of the brightest darkness, decadence and beauty occur. The dance-floor is a cat-walk where every night those anorexic models float past us, beautifully drugged-out and weak and untouchable, forever down the runways of their airport lanes, expressionless in damage through the night-lit clouds with their make-up flashing soft in the lights, like perfection, clad in shreds of lightest silk that conceal the needle-marks. The album Erotica by Madonna was in the mix here, being steeped in this heightened feeling of darkness beneath legendary nightclub fabulousness; yet this album’s world-class attitude and sass are permeated by a simple, universal sense of the sadness and longing that enrich even the wildest pleasures and highest achievements we’re capable of while alive. The title track Erotica is a fine example – as is the track Deeper and Deeper, beneath whose easy hedonistic surface lies a perfect evocation of the natural evanescence of your every past joy and your every future joy.

Conspirator

The Platinum Raven’s conspirator in that tower is a DJ named Amber, whose infernal nature and allure reflect the fact that he happens to be the continuation of Rutger Hauer’s psychopathic character in the film The Hitcher. Soundtrack-wise, however, he’s evoked by what he might spin: late in the main room, Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb; then later still in the VIP room, something from the legendary album Chill Out by The KLF, such as the track 3am Somewhere Out of Beaumont.

Damian West is a gangster whose gauntness of expression indicates much danger and paranoia. The sound of the inside of Damian’s head was well suggested by the colossal charisma of The Fall by Ministry. Another contribution was made by the claustrophobic immensity of that slick little slice of hell, Mama by Genesis.

Angel Deon (in some novellas called Scorpio) is an androgynous creature whose spiteful sleek depraved face radiates decadence and damage from its sharp beauty. He is shadowy, effete, both unhealthy and luminous; his head is a fantastically dark cavern of jagged riches, and musically he’s pure Marc and the Mambas, plus tons of the darker output of Soft Cell and of Marc Almond solo. To locate my creation of Angel, I’d pinpoint somewhere between two stunning Mambas tracks: The Animal in You; and My Former Self.

Leader

Lucan Abayomi is a charismatic gang-leader, drug-dealer and Angel’s boyfriend, whose smile spells trouble, violence, sex and danger. He was partly born from that dubby bass in lots of dubstep from around 2006, redolent of nocturnal high-rise housing estates, lonely concrete spaces and bass speakers booming out of car windows. We can hear part of his origins in two by Kode9 and the Spaceape: Nine Samurai; and Sine.

Shigem Adele is an effusive, flamboyant nightclub host, a lovable and neurotic survivor, whose warmth can illuminate a roomful of people. He was born somewhere between two classic electronic dance tracks: the haunting anguish and defiant beauty of Why? by Bronski Beat; and the iconic sensuality of I Feel Love by Donna Summer.

Kim Somerville is newly in love with Shigem, being quiet, observant and loyal, with a tinge of thoughtful pessimism:

In an absent way he sings along to the lyrics of the track playing quietly on the club’s sound system; and I am struck by his voice, which is clean, vanilla, supple, pure and filled with earnest beauty. It’s a voice of great wholesomeness, picturesquely sad and honest, redolent of goodness – and a little white lie, I think.

That was inspired by the voice of Erasure’s Andy Bell, always to be heard with Vince Clarke’s keyboards, as in the beauty of two representative Erasure tracks: the grandeur and exuberance of Run to the Sun; and the sombre grandeur of Crown of Thorns.

'THE PLATINUM RAVEN AND OTHER NOVELLAS' by Rohan Quine - paperback front coverNarrator

Finally, my narrator Jaymi Peek. Most of the time he’s subtle or elusive in nature, being a humorous clear lens and benign observer. In his broadcasts, though, he becomes a charismatic and empowered face who projects himself addictively into the imaginations of a global audience – the assaultive power of which is suggested in Double Dare by Bauhaus, whose message never dates. (I hereby stake a musical claim: the first 15 sentences of the long paragraph at the bottom of this page, narrated by Jaymi, constitute what must be the most precise verbal description ever written, by anyone silly enough to try it, of the exact sound of the first 40 seconds of Double Dare.) As with the Chocolate Raven’s projection of the Platinum Raven, one of Jaymi’s missions in his wildly varied projections is perhaps to help himself (and us) to transcend all that needs transcending. Echoing the Song to the Siren that I mentioned above for her, I shall therefore end here by returning to that song for Jaymi too – but this time it’s Song to the Siren by Bryan Ferry, from 2010. This is a sound so rarefied by its own expensive exquisiteness that its surface feels laminated and sterilised from all reality, residing forever in some elite suite of perfection above us, with nowhere higher left to go before the air would run out altogether…

Rohan’s novel The Imagination Thief and four novellas – The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong – aim to push imagination and language towards their extremes, to explore and illuminate the beauty, horror and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time. He’s on Twitter at @RohanQuine and has a website www.rohanquine.com

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‘Sadness and longing in the wildest pleasures’ – Rohan Quine

for logoMy guest this week writes urban fiction imbued with magic realism and horror. His characters are drawn directly from soundtracks, from music that expressed their desperation, loneliness, fragility and streetwise sass – Sinead O’Connor to Madonna; Dead Can Dance to Suede and Soft Cell. He is Rohan Quine and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Laura K Cowan

for logo‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’

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 my guest is spiritual fantasy author Laura K. Cowan @laurakcowan

Soundtrack provided by Eduards Grieznis, Brahms

When I first played the Brahms Intermezzi Opus 117 on the piano, I felt a sadness I couldn’t explain. My music teachers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts where I studied each summer in high school told me the first Laura-k-Cowan-headshotintermezzo was a lullaby, sung by a woman to her child after being abandoned by the father. It spoke to me in a way I couldn’t explain, the sadness of the abandonment, the beauty of the piece. I never forgot it. When I quit classical piano performance to return to my secret first love of writing in college, I thought music was over for me. I moved into a phase of my life in which I didn’t know how to reach my dream of being a writer, nor could I go back to the music. I was desperately unhappy, chronically ill even.

Return

Fast forward 10 years, and I was doing it. I had faced the fear and rebuilt myself emotionally, even gone through treatment for childhood trauma that had tied me up in the first place. And then, the intermezzo returned. I was writing a novel called Lone Cypress about a former ballerina named Shana who was running from an abusive marriage and experiencing nightmares and blackouts while trying to figure out if she was possessed. Guess what I found in my research of relevant ballets for her to have performed? The Brahms. The second intermezzo, not the first, but that first lullaby began to weave itself through my story, through my character’s mind. She had been abandoned by her father. And her mother. And her husband. And herself. And the music became not just my soundtrack for this novel but Shana’s own, for a new ballet she wanted to choreograph but couldn’t until she faced her fear.

LoneCypress-BookCoverFrontFrom the past

It’s not uncommon for me to compose short themes on the piano to help me understand the right moods for different pieces of my novels, an undercover soundtrack in its own right, but Lone Cypress is unique in that the music that inspired the story not only helped me with its creation but wove itself through the entire book. With Lone Cypress I learned how to walk away from my own past and into the present. The book will be out in July, and I can already feel a piece of my younger self is putting itself to rest with its publication. That’s what the Brahms is to me: the meeting of the past and present in a resolution more beautiful than I could have written for myself. Through writing this novel with the lullaby woven through it, the Brahms (played here by Eduards Grieznis) finally taught me that the most important thing is to find our way back to ourselves.

Laura K. Cowan writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Her other novels are The Little Seer  and Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection is The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen.Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @LauraKCowan

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‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’ – Laura K Cowan

for logoJohannes Brahms reportedly referred to his third intermezzo for Opus 117 as ‘the lullaby of all my grief’. This week’s guest was studying music in summer school when she first encountered it, and was overwhelmed by its sadness. Life events interrupted her dreams of becoming a musician, but years later, when she was writing a novel about a ballet dancer, her research led her to the Brahms. She remembered the imaginative journey she had taken when she used to play the piece, and now it guided her creation of the main character and her story. She is Laura K Cowan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Yasmin Selena Butt

for logo‘Music is fuel to take me where the characters go’

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 my guest is Yasmin Selena Butt @YasminSelena

Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine-Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie, Garbage, Portishead, The Cure, Interpol, Cocteau Twins, Editors

If I hadn’t have become a novelist with a 36G chest, I would have been a rock star. I’m serious.  You try learning electric guitar when you can’t see the strings, it’s dead tricky. Music is huge for me, HUGE. When I was 15, I made a decision not to live abroad because you couldn’t buy Smash Hits in Pakistan. Music back then was the only thing keeping me alive. It fuelled me. I couldn’t risk losing it.

P1000839CropIt was a huge, creative fuel when penning my debut, Gunshot Glitter.  The title might be familiar to you if you’re a fan of the singer, Jeff Buckley.  If you’re not, it was a bonus track released on his posthumous album Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. I loved the song, and, if I’m honest loved the title more. The song itself is lo-fi, distorted, wobbly but utterly impassioned.

Crime drama morality tale

In my novel, Gunshot Glitter is the name of an infamous London burlesque club. How would I describe the story?  It’s the genre-bending story of an incinerated boy who never quite goes away; a morality tale, broadly a crime drama. I was thrilled it was shortlisted as a self-published read by The Guardian last year, along with the tome of my kind blog host Roz Morris. (Thanks! – Ed)

This year, I hope to give it the launch it deserves. It hasn’t had that yet for good reasons. Last year, I almost died of anaphylactic shock at a club on the launch of the print edition. It was a surreal way to discover you now possess a lethal shellfish and nut allergy. This year I hope to do the novel justice.

While writing it, I used mainly alternative music as a fuel to take me to the places where the characters go, especially Celine, the protagonist. And some of the songs I played also feature in the novel.  When I listened to them, I got so immersed in the music, the songs become little stories within themselves, almost like an operetta with tragedy and pathos in spades running riot in my head. I made two CD compilations ‘Black Glitter’ and ‘Angry Glitter,’ depending on where I needed to go creatively, each featuring 18 songs.  Black Glitter was achingly emotional, gut wrenching and tender.

Angry glitter

Bands featured on Angry Glitter included Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie. Garbage’s Vow from their debut album is amazingly powerful. I played this song literally on repeat when writing some of Celine’s pivotal scenes when she made some of the darkest decisions of her young life. Portishead’s incredibly sexy Strangers ended up featuring in a bittersweet memory for Cornelia:

She had been obsessed with Strangers with its melody full of dark, sexy suggestion. It turned her on. She even choreographed an examination piece to it. Cornelia put it on and, when it kicked in with its sleazy, dark electronic riff, she winced. Now she hated it. It reminded her of all she’d lost. It’s just music, she said fiercely through gritted teeth, ‘just music!’ Music could never punish her like her own guilt could.

The Cure is a band that bonds lovers Anis and Celine. I played Disintegration heavily when writing their more intense scenes. And Interpol’s Narc rears its head in the aftermath of their sex, like a shadow in the background on the wall.  Other songs such as Blind, Dumb Deaf by The Cocteau Twins, was just powerful, no intelligible words as Liz Fraser doesn’t use them, but you can’t help but feel a strong sense of foreboding when you hear it, and, when I was getting inside protagonist’s Cornelia Friend’s twisted head  this track made me think of her.  It made me think of someone splintering on the inside, as did  Editor’s Munich.

GG front cover resized promo(808x1280)There is a darkness, intensity, danger, sorrow, passion and fury that dominates the music that literally leaches out onto the pages. When you have great music, fuelling your fingertips, you’re almost obliged to create an impressive result to justify the privilege of what you’re listening to.

When you read the behemoth or listen to the soundtrack, I’ll let your ears and eyes decide if the fifteen year old girl who grew up to write that novel, made the right call to coming home to grow up in London. I hope you believe that she did.

Yasmin Selena Butt was born and lives in London. She has worked in the Maldives as an English language trainer, freelanced in marketing and been published by The Times as a music writer.  She has also written over a thousand poems, exhibited her fiction and photography and performed her debut reading at Proud Galleries in Camden. She adopted ‘Selena’ as her middle name in 2000, after meeting a concierge who told her the story of the naming of his own daughter, Yasmin Selena. She has since repaid the favour by naming a character in Gunshot Glitter after him. Gunshot Glitter is available from Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords and in print from her website. Tweet her as @YasminSelena

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‘Music is fuel to take me where the characters go’ – Yasmin Selena Butt

for logoMy guest this week swears that if her chest hadn’t obscured her view of her guitar, she’d have been a rock star. Some of her early life decisions were dictated by the need to be connected to music, and when she wrote her crime novel set in a London burlesque club, she had two flavours of playlist – angry and dark. Fiction nearly became reality when she had a near-death experience at her book launch – which I was startled to hear because I remember when her cheerful invitations were circulating on Facebook. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale. She is Yasmin Selena Butt and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Orna Ross

for logo‘Oceans of silence beneath the words’

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 my guest is novelist, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors Orna Ross @OrnaRoss

Soundtrack by Stephen Foster, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson, Rufus Wainwright, Steven and Peter Jones, Cyndi Lauper, The Eagles, Ronald Binge, BBC Shipping Forecast, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy MacCarthy

Music has always been part of my life, mostly as an appreciator. I did play piano for some years but what was more influential in terms of writing — and particularly these two novels I’m going to discuss here — was being brought up in a singing-and-storytelling culture. I grew up in a pub and my own social life, from my teens, centred round the pub where Saturday and Sunday were sing-song nights. Occasionally it was establish-provided entertainment for the punters to consume, but more often it was the customers themselves who created the night. That’s what defines an Irish bar for me and explains why a good one is in demand the world over: on a proper Irish night out, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else’s good time.

ornaTime and place

The tracks that underlie the writing of After The Rising and Before The Fall, my first two novels which I’m just about to reissue in a 2-for-the-price-of-1 special offer this summer, are all songs. What I found in putting together this undercover soundtrack was that it very much isn’t a Desert Island Discs lineup of favourite music. A few of these songs I do love but what unites them is that they convey some of the emotional texture of the novels and of my relationship to the time-and-place in which the novels are set: early 20th century Ireland and late 20th century San Francisco.

These were my first novels, and together they form a linked, cross-generational family murder mystery.  The story opens with a young soldier, lured to dangerous sinking sands during the Irish Civil War of 1922 and this unresolved killing — who did it and why? — is causing chaos for our heroine, Jo Devereux, 50 years on.

At the time of writing, I was living in a very English market town, Knutsford, in Cheshire. I was nostalgic for both Ireland and California and that nostalgia fuelled the books, and this soundtrack is redolent with it too.

One of the first thing that happens Irish people when they emigrate is that they find themselves listening to songs they would never spend time with at home. For me, I’d always avoided ballads and laments that kept alive the sense of loss and grievance that had erupted in 1916 and led to the independence war of 1921 and its aftermath — yet that was the very background that I couldn’t escape when I came to write fiction.

Seeking the truth

‘Hard times!’ my great-aunt who lived with us, used to say whenever conversation came anywhere near that past, a shorthand expression, was always delivered with a shake of the head. The killing of her brother by his best friend in the ‘War of The Brothers’, the Irish Civil War of 1922/3, was the event on which my novels were based (I couldn’t find out the truth of what happened so made up a 500-page story instead).  ‘Hard times!’ was her explanation and excuse and a closing of the door on emotion that just couldn’t be expressed. I think of her whenever I hear this song, Hard Times Come Again No More, (by Stephen Foster, the American writer of Oh! Susanna, and Camptown Races and more than 200 other well-known songs): sung here by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson and Rufus Wainwright.

Kilkelly, Ireland, by Steven and Peter Jones, is another song that reminds me of her. It tells the story of an Irish emigrant to America through a series of letters from his father back in Kilkelly. The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather to his son John, who  was illiterate and dictated the letters to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a friend of John’s before he left. It’s what’s known in Ireland as a lament, (cumha in Irish), part of a web of interwoven customs that ritualised longing and loss — maybe as a result of colonisation, maybe something much older. Its cross-generational tale of emigration is told much more concisely than mine and its rhythm and cadence is just how the older generation spoke when I was growing up, oceans of silence beneath their few words. I can’t listen to it without being deeply moved

The research for the book  showed that ‘The War of the Brothers’ was very much about the sisters too but Jo rejects entirely the weight of this burdensome history. She leaves Ireland for the same reason shared by countless thousands of other Irish women, intending never to return, and once she shakes off her homesickness she finds herself in 1980s San Francisco, where her anthem, like Cyndi Lauper’s, is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and that great gay anthem from the musical La Cage aux Folles, that meant so much at that time to to so many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I Am What I Am, by disco queen Gloria Gaynor.

Identity

I enjoy writing emotional twists and surprises around big themes and in these books the themes are national and sexual identity; family loyalty versus personal autonomy. And gender. We’re all seeded by man and born of woman and we all embody ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. How these play out, in an individual life, and in different societies, is endlessly fascinating to me and fully teased out in these novels.

What Jo finds, of course, is that running away is not the answer. The song that best captures her dilemma, both the dream of a better place…  and the dangers of that dream, is The Eagles’s The Last Resort.  Jo finds she’s not free to go forward until she goes back to Ireland and understands that place that made her.

Shipping forecast

So she does, and settles in a ramshackle shed in the seaside village where she grew up, intending to find out and understand her family history. The books are full of descriptions of the Atlantic Ocean and the song that always surfaces when I think of that sea is Sailing By  by Ronald Binge, the music that cues the BBC’s late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4.  I remember lying in bed listening to it as a child, the strange names — German Bight, Boomer, Dogger Bank,  Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea — and the weather promised — rain, wintry showers, sometimes moderate or poor, becoming good — were poetry to me.

I felt a bit foolish about this until I read one of my favourite Carol Ann Duffy poems, the beautiful Prayer. I was delighted when searching for Sailing By to find this version that also includes a televised shipping forecast from Laurie McMillan as part of an Arena Radio Night in 1993. And has a collection of stunning footage, presumably from BBC archives. Binge’s music is easy listening but underneath its sweetness I sense again that sense of longing felt by all the characters in these books — and that I used to feel myself for the sea in my land-locked days in Knutsford.

Another seafaring and emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues, ties the economic migration that Jo was part of, that of the 1980s with its Green Card Lotteries to  the post famine exodus in the mid-19th century that led to the independence war, not least because it was funded by US dollars.  Those words really capture something about the Irish in America that I want to tease out more in the sequel I’m writing, the third part of this story, In The Hour, set in NYC. Thousands Are Sailing tips its hat to Mr Cohan. It’s actually George M. Cohan, ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’ but for a long time I thought it was Mr Cohen, the great Leonard and I want to include his Bird On A Wire , the three opening and closing lines of which were famously claimed by Kris Kristofferson as his epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as ‘a Bohemian My Way, and that’s why it’s here. After The Rising & Before The Fall share this theme that’s found across all my writing, of ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. That’s what Jo has to learn, that’s what connects her personal and familial quest. Early 20th-century Ireland, late 20th-century San Francisco were connected by the same impulse: the desire to free the human spirit from suppression,

orna coverExcept true freedom can’t be delivered by politics, it’s the terrain of the creative spirit itself. My own political arguments have not been around nation but gender and in this week where we hear of yet another atrocity arising from religious suppression, I am grateful again to a song that celebrates what remains great in Christianity, by going beyond it. One Bright Blue Rose, a piece of pure poetry by a great contemporary songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy (the lyrics are here), sung by Mary Black in her heyday, is full of Christian imagery of the better kind and always brings me beyond anger, back to a truer, better impulse, the one to which I’ve devoted my writing life, not just in these novels, but also in the work for the indie-author movement, and in my current non-fiction series, the Go Creative! Books. That’s how I try, in Cohen’s words, ‘to be free’. And to foster freedom for others.

Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative!books and has been described as ‘one of the 100 most influential people in publishing’ (The Bookseller) for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world’s best self-publishing authors and advisers. Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives,  mostly, in London.  Her amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/ornaross and her website is www.ornaross.com, where you can also sign up for her ‘Behind The Books’ newsletter and advance books and giveaways. Tweet her @OrnaRoss

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