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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.
It 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.
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.
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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My 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.
authors, burlesque, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Facebook, Gunshot Glitter, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-death experience, playlist for writers, rock star, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yasmin Selena Butt
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.
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.
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.
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,
Except 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.
After The Rising, Alliance of Independent Authors, authors, BBC Shipping Forecast, Before The Fall, California, Carol Ann Duffy, Cheshire, contemporary fiction, Cyndi Lauper, Desert Island Discs, drama, early 20th century Ireland, Emmylou Harris, entertainment, family loyalty, family murder mystery, gender, George M. Cohan, Ireland, Irish Civil War, Jimmy MacCarthy, Karen Matheson, Knutsford, La Cage Aux Folles, Leonard Cohen, LGBTQ, literary fiction, literary novels, Mary Black, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, national identity, Orna Ross, personal autonomy, playlist for writers, Rod Paterson, Ronald Binge, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, San Francisco, sexual identity, Shipping Forecast, Stephen Foster, Steven and Peter Jones, The Eagles, The Pogues, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, War of The Brothers, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week says her first novels were fuelled by nostalgia and the past. She wrote them while living in a small market town in England, and harking back to her former homes in California and Ireland. Her soundtrack connects her back to those places and their people. Traditional emigrant songs that remind her of stoic characters in her family, while the gay anthem of La Cage Aux Folles is symbolic of friends in the LBGTQ community and her themes of loyalty and personal autonomy. There’s also a special place for the BBC shipping forecast, which she used to listen to in bed as a child, finding poetry in its strange names. She is Orna Ross – and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Alliance of Independent Authors, authors, BBC, BBC Shipping Forecast, California, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Ireland, La Cage Aux Folles, LBGTQ, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Orna Ross, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Shipping Forecast, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
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 publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran
Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.
I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.
My latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.
Pleasure and pain
That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).
You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.
Strength is weakness
I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?
Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.
The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.
Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.
One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.
Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.
Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.
We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!
Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.
David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.
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My guest this week says music has always been a companion to his writing. He drafted his first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while travelling the world, and now he turns to music to settle into the writing mood. In his fiction he likes to explore the bittersweet, the unresolved, the questions, the dark side of a strength, and draws inspiration from the songwriters and performers who can break your heart in three minutes flat – while fitting the shape of a tune. He is David Gaughran and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 Wayne Clark @Wayne_Clark_1
Soundtrack by Johnny Hodges, Sly and The Family Stone, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie), Frank Sinatra, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Hubbard, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin
As an adolescent with dysfunctional parents, Kit, the protagonist in he & She, had already found an escape in jazz, especially ballads, the cathedral where the hymnal is full of lonely, sad songs from the Great American Song Book (Where Do You Go by Frank Sinatra, Skylark by Aretha Franklin, Body and Soul by Freddie Hubbard). Before he has had any experience in life, Kit equates adult life with these emotions. Experiencing them while listening makes him a grown man, liberated from parents and adolescence.
As Kit ages, he is alone most of the time in his small New York apartment. He is an alcoholic who watches life from the outside. He works at home as a translator and practises alto sax when he thinks no one is listening. As he did as a youth, he spends more time daydreaming about life than living it.
Cold, grey backdrop
I am a music lover and profoundly amateur musician, but I’ve long known that I must treat music with kid gloves because it tends to take over my mood instantly. The right-wrong piece of background music at the dinner table can take me right out of the conversation. For that reason, I never start a writing session with music on. However, early on while writing he & She I chanced upon a YouTube video of a piece I knew well, a Billy Strayhorn composition called Day Dream, played by Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It’s not really a video but a succession of black and white photographs of New York streets, strangely devoid for the most part of people. Against that grey, cold backdrop, the wistfulness of Hodges’s playing absolutely nailed for me the way Kit looked at his world.
Realising that, I used Day Dream on several occasions while writing – not so much to help me describe periods when he felt particularly lonely or empty but to apply a patina of disconnect to his experiencing of external situations. He could be telling himself everything was all right, be it about work or a girlfriend, but something was always missing.
Because I found Day Dream useful, I ended up breaking my no-music rule when writing the early sections involving Kit’s best and only friend, his neighbor, LeBron, a professional bass player. LeBron agrees to pass on some of his skills to Kit, and to do that he teaches him to play sax riffs from classic R&B pieces. The possibility of becoming a real musician is exciting to Kit, a dream come true, and I dug up several recordings that Kit would have been thrilled to have taken part in as a sax player. I used these several times while writing to capture his excitement. LeBron the bass player would have chosen these because of the powerful precision of the horn and rhythm sections. These recordings included ones by Sly and The Family Stone (You Can Make It If You Try), Curtis Mayfield (You Can’t Say Nothing) and The Temptations (Papa Was a Rollin’Stone).
As Kit turns 50, he is running on empty and desperate about his life. He tells himself all he wants is to feel truly alive one more time. By chance, he spots an image on the Internet, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dominatrix. He becomes determined to meet her, and when he does he becomes obsessed. From their first encounter on, he feels joy he’s never felt. Can a man that age feel in love the way a young man, even a teenager, would? That’s what I wanted Kit to feel. I found this tricky to write because I didn’t want him to appear a complete fool. He knows it’s an impossible situation, her being half his age, and him being no longer even capable of having sex, but it feels too good to run away from. This will sound terribly obvious, but I used a song by Wilson Picket to convince me Kit could indeed feel love that way. It’s a Bobby Womack song called I’m In Love. Picket sings that being in love makes him feel like a boy with a brand new toy on Christmas morning. There’s nothing schmaltzy whatsoever about this recording. I was convinced.
There were other pieces that I didn’t listen to while actually writing but, because we never stop writing in our minds, a couple of pieces by Charlie Parker (Parker’s Mood) and Parker with Dizzy Gillespie performing Ko-Ko ended up suggesting dialogue between Kit and LeBron, as did the lyrics by Lambert, Hendriks and Ross for Nothin’s the Same As It Used to Be.
I have to say that using music to help create words is a two-sided coin. The music can take over your writer’s metronome for the good, for a while, but it can also take your writing on a perhaps unwanted side trip. Like anything fragile, handle with care.
Wayne Clark is the author of he & She. Find him at http://www.wayne-clark.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, Facebook, Twitter as @Wayne_Clark_1, Goodreads, The Independent Author Network, and LinkedIn
Aretha Franklin, authors, background music, Charlie Parker, contemporary fiction, Curtis Mayfield, Desert Island Discs, Dizzy Gillespie), drama, Duke Ellington, entertainment, Frank Sinatra, Freddie Hubbard, he & She, jazz, Johnny Hodges, Lambert Hendriks, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, literary fiction, literary novels, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, saxophone, Sly and The Family Stone, The Temptations, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wayne Clark, Wilson Pickett, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week says he has to treat music with kid gloves. If he’s sitting at a dinner party and music is playing, he’s likely to get so distracted that he zones out of the real room. This is a familiar scenario to me too. And he’s definitely a writer who has found himself piecing together a novel from many of these moments of surprised distraction – where a track heard by chance perfectly fits the story problem his mind is mulling over. His novel is the story of a disillusioned man learning the way to feel alive once more, his name is Wayne Clark, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, dinner party, drama, entertainment, he & She, literary fiction, literary novel, literary novels, literature, love, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wayne Clark, writers, writing, writing to music
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 Steven A McKay @SA_McKay
Music has been a big part of my life ever since I was a teenager and I discovered hard rock and heavy metal. Now, more than 20 years later I still have music playing constantly, from the moment I get into the car for work in the morning to when I go to bed at night with my earphones in and Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play turned up loud.
Obviously then, music would be heavily involved in the creation of my two novels, Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven which are my take on the Robin Hood legend. All the familiar characters are there: Little John, Will Scarlet, Sir Richard-at-Lee etc but, in setting the books in early 14th century Yorkshire rather than 12th century Nottingham and telling it using a modern, adult style, I’d like to think I’ve taken a fresh new approach to what is a well-known legend. Music has played a massive part in that process.
For me, it’s not as simple as sticking on an Iron Maiden CD and sitting down to fire off a couple of thousand words. Sure, Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Def Leppard etc are all bands I love but the problem is I’m also a lead guitarist with a rudimentary skill in drumming and bass playing and for a while I was also singing when my band-mate and I got together with acoustic guitars to jam Led Zeppelin and the like. So, if I sit down to write with a hard rock or traditional metal song on, the writing goes out the window because I end up tapping my feet, singing along in my head and, eventually, I’ll just get up and plug in one of my guitars to pretend I’m Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Yes, in front of the mirror!
Waterfalls and white noise
Many people like to meditate to the sounds of waterfalls or waves or soft rain – white noise basically. It allows the mind to focus and blocks out any distractions from the outside world. When I write my books I like to try and capture a similar, almost ritualistic state of mind, where I can lose myself completely in the scenes I’m creating. A song like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me or Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills, as much as I like them, have such strong melodies, big choruses and are just so damn catchy that they’re completely useless for this purpose.
That’s where something a little more extreme comes in. Black metal. My novels are both set in the early 14th century, and a lot of black metal bands come from Scandinavia, where they try to recapture the essence of those Dark Medieval Times (a Satyricon album title). The music, to most listeners, is just noise. There’s little, if any melody, the drumming is often ludicrously fast and the vocals are akin to tortured screams. Lovely! That’s just what I need – you’re not likely to find yourself tapping your feet or trying to sing along to something like Havenless by Enslaved. But when you’re writing a scene about outlaws in the forests of Yorkshire sitting around a camp-fire at night, drinking ale and telling tales there’s nothing better than this song to help you invoke just the right atmosphere.
Similarly, my novels have a lot of (hopefully not gratuitous) violence in them, from one-on-one duels to the death to full-scale battles. Playing something like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name just isn’t going to do it, right? But Slaying the Prophets ov Isa (closer to death metal than black metal) by Behemoth will:
Crafting a novel isn’t all about the writing though. Certain songs, and the artist’s live performance of them, often strike a chord within us that eventually comes out in a scene. In Wolf’s Head a couple of my characters performed while pretending to be strolling minstrels. Anyone that knows me will understand exactly where that idea came from: Jethro Tull and, in particular the song Minstrel In The Gallery. Something about Tull’s music just reeks of “merry olde England” (despite the fact Ian Anderson is, like me, a Scotsman) and, while I can’t write while listening to them for the reasons described above, I DO get many of my best ideas for plot-lines while listening to them, since I have them playing in the background for most of my days.
While I’m on the subject of Tull I should mention another great folk-rock band with a flair for music inspired by the middle-ages: Fairport Convention. On their 1969 album Liege and Lief they recorded a version of the traditional song Matty Groves. I lifted the name and used it for one of the characters in my books. A reader asked if it was the same person. Maybe it is…
That’s the creating and actual writing out of the way then – what about editing and, indeed, this piece you’re reading now? Well, editing and blog writing requires much less of a shift in consciousness: there’s no need to completely lose yourself within what you’re doing. No need to allow your muse to wholly consume you. For that reason, I can listen to things with a little more groove, a little more melody and maybe even a few hooks. Like Death’s Pull the Plug, which is what I’m listening to right now (probably best not to sing along though).
Being a musician myself has come in handy when creating video trailers for my books. For Wolf’s Head I used a piece I wrote on the mandolin while The Wolf and the Raven features an Iron Maiden knock-off I wrote in my head pounding the streets of Glasgow as a meter reader. Thank you for reading (and listening)!
Steven A McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree he decided to follow a lifelong ambition and write a novel. He plays lead/acoustic guitars (and occasional bass/vocals) in a heavy metal band. He is the author of Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, which reached number 1 in Amazon’s War category. Find him on Twitter as @SA_McKay and connect with him on Facebook and his website.
GIVEAWAY Steven is offering a signed copy of Wolf’s Head to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
14th century, acoustic guitars, authors, Behemoth, Black metal, death, Def Leppard, Desert Island Discs, drama, Enslaved, entertainment, Fairport Convention, fantasy, guitar, heavy metal, heavy metal band, heavy metal guitar, Jethro Tull, male writers, merry men, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Robin Hood, Roz Morris, Scandinavian black metal, Sheriff of Nottingham, Steven A McKay, the Robin Hood legends, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Wolf and the Raven, undercover soundtrack, Wolf's Head, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week writes reimaginings of the Robin Hood legends. He uses music to conjure the atmosphere but says he has to avoid anything that’s too tuneful or he’ll pick up his guitar instead. He admits his choice of Scandinavian black metal is a challenging listen – but finds the fast drumming, screaming vocals and glowering noise is exactly right to shift him away from the 21st century and into a time of outlaws, campfires and battles. He is Steven A McKay and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
14th century, authors, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, guitar, heavy metal, heavy metal guitar, male writers, merry men, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Robin Hood, Roz Morris, Scandinavian black metal, Sheriff of Nottingham, Steven A McKay, the Robin Hood legends, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Wolf and the Raven, undercover soundtrack, Wolf's Head, writers, writing, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'