Posts Tagged The Undercover Soundtrack
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow
Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar
I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.
I first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.
The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.
In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.
David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.
During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.
My guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Scott D Southard @SDSouthard
Soundtrack by Fiona Apple
Music can be like little time capsules. For some, they may return you to younger days, for me they return me to books. Whenever I take on a project, my creative psyche demands that I find the right soundtrack for it. And if I don’t, I might as well kiss that creative spirit goodbye. They flounder, gasping and dying like a fish out of water.
When I began work on my novel Permanent Spring Showers I knew I was doing something a little odd. It was a book very loosely based on a screenplay I had written years earlier, but this was going to be a very different work, not an easy adaptation. Also, I was going to present it chapter by chapter on my site. I liked to call it then a book in real time since you could enjoy the book and witness the creation of it as well. Yet, it was even more than that. Since I wasn’t bogging myself down in thoughts of sales, agents, and publishers, I was opening the door for sheer possibility. I could do anything, only limited by my own imagination.
It was so creatively exhilarating to throw off the shackles that so many of us feel when creating. And, adding in the danger that I could screw it up at any moment (for everyone to see) was just as thrilling. I was playing with literary fire. Luckily, I never felt alone in the flames.
The Muse Behind the Story
Around the time I began work on my little literary experiment, Fiona Apple had released her CD The Idler Wheel…. It’s a different kind of CD for Apple, losing her big production feel that she used to have working with Jon Brion, now simply just a piano and drums. And sometimes the piano is only keeping tempo to her singing. This put her lyrics and voice solely in the front. It gives the album almost the feeling of a therapy session as Apple deals with her demons and frustrations in each song. When she screams, she screams from her soul. You would have to be a cold person indeed not to feel it.
Permanent Spring Showers begins with an affair, a betrayal.
After discovering her husband’s affair, Dr Rebecca Stanley-Wilson has one of her own. The problem is her drunken one-night stand was with an upcoming painter named Vince. That evening inspires one of the greatest works of art, capturing the world’s attention by storm. The book is about each of the people tied to that painting and that spring of its creation. Some are lovers, some are writers, all are a little broken.
Characters breathing in the songs
I see my characters throughout Apple’s CD. Putting on the CD, doesn’t just take me back to when I was writing the work, it reintroduces me to old friends.
Let me give you an example. One character is an experimental author named Jenn Gane. Her dream is to make a new literary genre, and to accomplish that she needs an unsuspecting victim/character. Poor Steve doesn’t realise how much his life and heart is being manipulated by Jenn. Jenn is the song Daredevil with lyrics about taking from others and not worrying at all about the consequences, especially to the other individual
What about the pure creative energy of Vince? For me that is the vibe of the last song Hot Knife. In the song Apple seems to sing about obsession, but the song grows and grows as her voice multiples into different personalities almost all overcome by passions. I like to imagine that is what it is like in Vince’s head when he is creating, with the unrelenting beat of the timpani driving him forever forward.
And listen to that piano line in Left Alone. That right there is the mind of the character of Steve captured in song. In Steve’s story, he came home to find his girlfriend had moved out, leaving the apartment a mess and no note. Finding her and discovering why she left is Steve’s main focus and until it happens he is almost in a panic just like the song. Lost in hopeless and anxious energy.
I could go on and on… The fact is I needed this CD, my book demanded it, and I was lucky to find it.
I used to dream of the idea of collaborating on a novel with a musician, having a CD to accompany the work, both complementing each other. The funny thing is with Permanent Spring Showers, I seemed to have accomplished that with Fiona Apple. She just has no idea I did. My dream is that someday she will discover the book (and she won’t mind).
Fiona Apple seems to demand your attention throughout her CD, definitely making an album that is never merely background noise. Her heart is in every song, soaring and breaking. I like to think that each of my characters do that as well in Permanent Spring Showers.
Scott D. Southard is the author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, Megan, 3 Days in Rome and Me Stuff. His eclectic writing has also found its way into radio, as Scott was the creator of the radio comedy series The Dante Experience. The production was honored with the Golden Headset Award for Best MultiCast Audio and the Silver Ogle Award for Best Fantasy Audio Production. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. Scott can be found on the internet via his writing blog The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. He even shares original fiction on the site. Scott is also the fiction book reviewer for WKAR’s daily radio show Current State.
My guest this week is making a return appearance to the series. Last time he wrote about how he’d driven his wife bonkers by playing certain albums that evoked the souls of his characters. This poor spouse will surely be donning the earplugs again as his musical choice for his current novel is a striking album by Fiona Apple, which consists of drums, close-up vocals and percussive piano. He describes the pieces as having the feel of a therapy session, all raw emotion and obsession – and perfect for his characters who are all connected by an act of betrayal. He is Scott D Southard and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 novelist, radio dramatist and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and Wolfblood creator Debbie Moon @DebbieBMoon
Soundtrack by Gustavo Dudamel, Michael Giacchino, Gustav Holst, George Butterworth
Music is important when I’m in the early stages of creating a screen story – it helps me establish the mood of scenes, create character, and finalise the tone of the wider world of the story. At the moment, I’m working on an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution – think Indiana Jones meets Doctor Zhivago! – and capturing exactly the right tone is going to be crucial.
So what am I listening to for this as-yet-untitled project, and why?
Our protagonist, Zoyah, is first described like this:
She’s been called a thief, a spy, a witch and an adventuress, but that barely scratches the surface. If the word had been invented yet, she’d probably call herself a superhero.’
Europe in 1917 is still very much a man’s world, but Zoyah knows how to use that to her advantage. So the piece of music that most remind me of her is Gustavo Dudamel’s Danzon No 2 from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
Not the the right historical period or the right continent, but it feels like her – daring, playful, and smarter than you first think.
The Revolution will be musicalised
Sometimes the best music for writing screenplays to is film scores. After all, they’re all about mood too. To capture the chaos and the sense of hope and joy that the Revolution brought to Russia, I spent a lot of time listening to historic recordings by the Red Army Choir.
But my favourite piece to evoke the ‘new’ Russia is still the punningly-named Kremlin With Anticipation from Michael Giacchino’s music to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
When Zoyah and her sidekick Sebi are recruited by the communist secret police to tackle a supernatural threat, I imagine them being marched into the awe-inspiring, intimidating palace of the Kremlin to the strains of something like this…
Things are always worse than the protagonist thinks
The thing that surprised me most while researching this project was the discovery that the Revolution was far from clear-cut. Rival left-wingers struggled for control in the halls of power and in the fields and factories – on top of civil war between ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’, with the outcome far from certain in a nation exhausted by the First World War.
As Zoyah and Sebi return to the countryside they grew up in and see the devastation hunger, war and anti-capitalist purges have wrought, I resort to my collection of English string music – perhaps the Nocturne from Holst’s A Moorside Suite. It’s both beautiful and sad in that way that folk music often is, capturing the charm and the harshness of rural life the world over.
But no good action-adventure is complete without magic and the supernatural! Zoyah and Sebi have been tasked to recover a specific object that was lost during the Revolution, one that – whether the rationalist Reds believe it or not – is vital to the continued existence of Russia. As they pursue it across the war-torn country, they start to get glimpses of the mastermind behind the theft – who may or may not be a mythical bogeyman known as Koschei…
Koschei is a tough character to convey on paper, or in music – part dark wizard, part dirty old man, comical and yet immensely dangerous.
Thanks to a classical music radio station, I stumbled across a great album of Chinese piano music, and the way it references classical piano while still being very much its own things seems perfect for Koschei. I’ll go for Red Lilies Crimson And Bright, perhaps, as played by Yin Chengzong.
Everyone has a weakness
No dramatic character is worth writing about unless they have a weakness or a flaw – because a flaw needs to be overcome, and that means change. As we know from our own lives, changing who you are is the most difficult thing in the world, and that’s why we admire characters who overcome their weaknesses to survive and thrive.
Developing Zoyah’s character flaw, I was thinking about Indiana Jones, who, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, goes from not believing in the supernatural to realising the Ark’s power and treating it with respect, thus surviving where the villains do not.
Zoyah is the opposite of Dr Jones – she believes so passionately in the supernatural that her the ‘real’ world is slightly unreal. As long-suffering Sebi puts it when he finally snaps:
These are real people feeling real hunger, real cold, real pain, and I don’t think you even see them. All that’s real to you is the tantalizing glint of magic just out of reach.’
Until Zoyah resets her priorities – including facing up to the unresolved feelings she and Sebi have for one another – she’s never going to be able to stop the bad guy and save Russia. And this calls for some romantic music! It’s back to early 20th Century English music for George Butterworth’s The Banks Of Green Willow, a lyrical triumph from a composer killed in battle about the time the film is set, and perfect for a realisation of true love just before the big all-action finale…
Debbie Moon is a BAFTA-winning writer for film and television. She’s the creator of the children’s supernatural series Wolfblood, which shows in almost 40 countries around the world, and has a number of film and television projects in development. She has also written a novel, Falling, short stories, and a radio play. Her blog is here and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @DebbieBMoon
My guest this week is a master of many storytelling disciplines – including screenwriting and radio as well as prose fiction. She’s currently writing an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution, with a decidedly spooky twist. Her soundtrack includes Holst, the romantic 20th century composer George Butterworth and a haunting, melancholy piano piece she discovered on an album of Chinese composers. Best known for creating the TV series Wolfblood, she is Debbie Moon and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative 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 prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH
Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens
My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.
Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.
The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.
I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.
It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.
But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.
I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.
I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.
Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.
My guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.