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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’s post is by Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell
Can music make a writer a better writer?
I grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.
When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.
Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.
Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension
When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.
Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.
Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.
Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.
I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.
Listen for the stories
To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.
Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at davenewell.net and on Twitter at @davenewell.
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I’m delighted that this week’s guest has included Olafur Arnalds’s album Living Room Songs in his Soundtrack. I discovered it from another guest here, and it got me like a snakecharmer’s pipe. While I’ve been mainlining it to brainstorm The Mountains Novel, my latest guest has been using it to create an environment of conspiracy, calm and sexual tension for his novel Red Lory. He says he puts music on to act as a metronome, guiding his voice while he concentrates on the sentence formation and world-building. He’s also inspired by the way songwriters pack so much into a tight space, which drives him to make his prose more vibrant and potent. He is literary novelist Dave Newell 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 process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is Andy Harrod @decodingstatic
I constantly surround myself with music and that is where my words come from. Music allows me to connect with and un-censor myself, to release and to be. Which is exactly how Living Room Stories and tearing at thoughts came to be.
Living Room Stories was an experiment, to write to music, namely Ólafur Arnalds’s Living Room Songs. I plugged into the sparse piano of Frysta and sketched a moment of waiting. From then on I danced with Ólafur’s music, which I feel is very emotive; there is a beautiful simplicity to it. Love is key to these stories; without love I fear we are nothing. Ólafur’s songs connect to my heart and on this occasion I decided to dive in, listening to each song for a few hours and with this immersion a life in seven moments was formed. One of the reasons I buy music on vinyl is that I see the packaging, the art, as an extension of the music. Living Room Stories is housed in a 7inch record sleeve, each story on its own card with accompanying image, with a transparent print for the cover. It invites the reader to play with these moments, to invent their own story.
I think of tearing at thoughts as an album. Each piece works separately, but together they layer and resonate the unspoken and the lost. This collection leaves me feeling exposed, in part due to how it was written as separate pieces. Each piece came about from entering a space, where I would immerse myself in my thoughts and feelings, whilst accompanied by music. In that space I was still, and the pieces came out uncensored and are a particular truth. Drawing together the pieces are a set of sentences, the first two were inspired by Coda by HATR Project from Heartbeat Against The Reason. A dark and gorgeous instrumental album that draws me into a place that hisses with noise.
That place of noise is lonely, where fear circles and strangles. Living with Ghosts by Smoke Fairies sums up this place (Strangled by Fear, Twilight), the echoing of slide guitar and plucked strings, the rich haunting voices of youth. Then there is the waking at four-fifty in the morning, sweating as the visuals fades, but the images plague. Dreamscapes interspace (I dreamt, Repeat till Fade) and develop through tearing at thoughts and their reconstruction occurs whilst listening to bands such as Joy Division, the hypnotism of 24 hours seals together scattered images and feelings.
There are pieces where I placed the needle on vinyl and kept repeating. Truth was formed by listening to Soap & Skin’s Lovetune for Vacuum over and over, especially Thanatos, a circling in on words to describe what is lost inside. Mist and Trees required less repeating of the music, it was instead the repeating of a lyric from I’ve Been Unkind by Lanterns on the Lake. When this lyric met a scene of trees in mist, the image of a frightened women was conjured.
Empty Embrace and Rust I are those moments on an album, where I delve deep through screaming guitars, battered dreams and vibrating piano strings echoing, echoing, echoing, until I’ve spat out my disgust at the betrayals. The words at first muffled, trapped behind layers of educational, political and social shadows, till the chorus scream, and we are left alone in a pub cradling our empty drinks, the last to go home as there is still something to say. Think Eels, Polly Scattergood and The National’s High Violet and my favourite Bloodbuzz Ohio as sound-tracking that scene.
tearing at thoughts is infused with the places we tend not to explore and lingers with sadness, in the hope that by entering we may come to change ways of relating, become more authentic and less fearful; and the ending is one of hope and happiness. Where ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós is the only song that can capture the joy of choices available in a loving relationship, but even there our choices may not be fulfilled and as such the ending is also a call to not forget myself, ourselves in our lives.
Andy Harrod is a writer, not out of a desire to tell stories, but a need to understand, to find meaning and connect with self and life. Outside of writing Andy is a trainee person-centred therapist and runs the streets of Lancaster, one day soon the fells of the Lake District. Living Room Stories was Andy’s first release; handmade and Kindle editions are available. tearing at thoughts, a collection of writing, art and photography, is to be published by 79 rat press as part of its NOTHING TO SAY exhibition, available from June 2013. Andy posts stories, photos, art and thoughts at Decoding Static. Say hello to him on Twitter @DecodingStatic.
GIVEAWAY Andy is giving away 1 handmade copy of Living Room Stories and a print of two from tearing at thoughts. To enter leave a comment or tweet the song that represents love for you. Andy will pick his favourite. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Good luck!
79ratpress, Andy Harrod, authors, Ólafur Arnalds, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eels, entertainment, HATR Project, Joy Division, Lanterns on the Lake, literary fiction, literature, Living Room Stories, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Polly Scattergood, Roz Morris, Sigur Ros, Smoke Fairies, Soap & Skin, tearing at thoughts, The National, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, 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'