Posts Tagged The 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 guest is Clare Flynn @ClareFly
Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys, Pussycat Dolls
When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.
When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.
Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.
The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”
I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.
Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.
Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.
When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.
Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:
Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”
Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.
I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.
I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.
I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”
And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.
The passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.
Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”
The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.
Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.
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 guest is Huffington Post blogger and satirical thriller author Naomi Elana Zener @satiricalmama
Soundtrack by Vivaldi, Rolling Stones, Eagles, Chumbawumba, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Bob Marley, Starship, Rick Astley, Grieg, Sarah Bareilles
Her career is circling the drain. Her almost marital apartment is empty. The fiancé is Decamped Dude, off on a lovers’ jaunt with his best man. And, Joely is alone tracking the remnants of her life as though the shark from Jaws is following her every move ready to engulf what’s left of her in one fell swoop.
Music is to my writing as oxygen is to my breathing. One cannot exist without the other. Certainly, there are moments of silence, but generally when I write anything, including Deathbed Dimes, often the staccato sounds emanating from the dancing keyboard punctuates Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing on a loop, as I build the world and characters with whom I live inside my head until they find their way onto the page.
Having grown up in a classical music and opera loving household, and being a lawyer by day, writing with the melodic sounds of the piano, violin, wind and other string instruments wafting through the air was symbiotic to my process of creating the law firm world — quite a WASPy one in fact—in which Joely toiled day and night during her grueling 80-hour work weeks. It was when her world fell apart cataclysmically that the soundtrack of her life and mine changed. Gone were the soothing tones.
Joely is a character trying to find a way to happiness, which for her is defined by career success, a romantic marriage, and wonderful friendships. Having been jilted at the altar, looked over for partnership at her law firm, and displaced geographically from her two best friends, Ethan Berg and Coco Hirohito — her surrogate family to replace the one she knows she has to return to in Los Angeles—who are both on the West Coast, Joely is staring eye-to-eye with the nadir of her life. To accompany her downward emotional spiral, my writing was dispatched to the tune of You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones) and carried through on the wings of thematically similar music, most notably The Eagles’ Hotel California. When I write, I tend to listen to certain songs on repeat. I’m an extremely focused person—the antithesis of having ADD—such that when I’m concentrating on or writing something, my laser-like tunnel vision works best listening to the music that evokes the creative spirit from within.
To return my heroine to that from whence she came: Beverly Hills, to live with her Oscar-winning aging screen siren mother, Sylvia, and her D-list philandering director father, Armand, I had to fill my head with fight music. To don her war paint and gear up for battle—more like war since her parents’ selfish desires for their daughter have little to do with what Joely wants for herself—I listened to a cacophony of sounds, including the theme song from Rocky Balboa, Chumbawamba’s I Get Knocked Down (Tubthumping), AC/DC’s Back in Black, and Guns N Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle. Down, but not out, Joely was able to hop drunkedly on her return flight to Los Angeles for the fight of her life.
Joely’s reunion with her respective chosen and birth families, her return to the practice of law on her own terms, and her quest for personal fulfillment was written to a musical mish mash. The emotional roller coaster ride of having her heart pulled in three directions—the fiancé who left her, the married mentor, and her best friend for whose love she’s willfully blind—was written to a myriad of tonalities, ranging from Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us, and to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up — yes, I’m a child of the 80s—but to name a few. The legal warpath was written to the echoed sounds of the battle songs I listened to in order to prepare Joely for her return to Los Angeles. Brief moments of serenity were hallmarked by my return to listening to classical music, with Edvard Grieg’s Morning marking a quintessential awakening for Joely.
In the end, the moment in which Joely and I jointly discovered that we would find a way for her to ‘have it all’—career, love, marriage, success—the song playing on the radio by happenstance was Sarah Bareilles’s Love Song. Both mine and Joely’s heads were proverbially ‘under water’ prior to that moment — I was unsure whether it would be realistic for a woman to have it all, as I was struggling with a similar shared female experience in my own life. When Bareilles’ song blared through my radio, and eventually through that of Joely’s car stereo as she drove along the PCH highway in Los Angeles, it underscored the revelatory moment for when I realised how Joely’s story would end. Or, rather begin again.
Naomi Elana Zener is the author of both Deathbed Dimes and satire fiction, which is posted on her blog Satirical Mama. Her vociferous blogging has been read and appreciated by industry bigwigs such as Giller Prize winner Dr Vincent Lam and New York Times best-selling author and journalist Paula Froelich. Naomi blogs for Huffington Post and her articles have been published by Kveller, Absrd Comedy, and Erica Ehm’s Yummy Mummy Club. She’s currently working on her sophomore novel. You can connect with her on her website or on Twitter @satiricalmama.
My guest this week is writing about a character trying to find her way to happiness. Love and career have not gone as planned, and the protagonist ends up living with her parents in Los Angeles – a cue for a feisty, fighting soundtrack of Guns n Roses and Chumbawumba, and a story where relationships, family and pseudofamilies are key. And it’s the first time AC/DC has appeared on an Undercover Soundtrack, would you believe. She is Huffington Post blogger Naomi Elana Zener 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 guest is MFA graduate Mark Richard Beaulieu @MarkRBeaulieu
Soundtrack by Chris Isaak, Elmer Bernstein, David Darling, Alan Silvestri, CocoRosie, Hildegard von Bingen, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, Maurice Moncozet, Maurice Jarre, Natacha Atlas, Ibrahim Maalouf, Prokofiev, Steven Price, David Motion, Eric Satie, Gabriel Yared, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult, Trevor Morris, The Ting Tings, Beethoven, Handel
O, let me tell you – writing about the 12th century, you had better be listening to music. And if you are writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one must attend troubadours, trobars as my friends call them. When I understood their music, I arrived at the joy of Eleanor and what she heard.
The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor Code series. In the beginning there is passion. Modern trobar, singer-songwriter Chris Isaak’s Blue Spanish Sky underscores my writing of a 13-year-old girl’s experience of love and sorrow for a father’s sudden death far away. I replayed this theme to write of Eleanor at age 76 lying by his Spanish grave, six novels later. Establishing emotions of a medieval daughter and father who only had each other were reinforced by playing Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird, David Darling’s Children in Cello Blue, and Alan Silvestri’s Contact end credit.
The musical innovation of the 12th century was trobars composing emotions into personal songs. In The Young Life two female trobars sing to Princess Eleanor to comfort her grief after her father’s death. I wrote inspired while listening to the lament of CocoRosie singing Smokey Taboo. In performance they paint their faces in protest not sentiment, a thing that trobars used to do. I wrote this in, as Eleanor both laments the uncertain murder of her father, and protests the occupation of Aquitaine by France. CocoRosie’s haunting singing mixes a girl child’s voice with operatic glissandos like the chants of Hildegard von Bingen. As the story goes, Queen Eleanor meets Hildegard the visionary abbess crossing the Rhein. Hildegard’s soaring forest songs played in the background as I wrote of French and German pilgrim camps.
Songs with words are difficult to write by, even when voiced in another language. Sometimes I search for weeks to find the perfect music to write a section. To write my scenes for medieval children dancing in rain, a rafting solace on the Loire, and Irene’s watercourse way in Byzantium I found the unique ambient composer Laraaji. His Day of Radiance, or Cave in England played on a hand-built Harry Partch-like zither brought me the words of rain falling in color and reflecting water.
In another book of the series, The Journey East, I drafted the scene of Eleanor’s strange abduction while she slept, then rewrote it listening to Jon Hassell’s Clairvoyance. His restrained horn gave me words to describe the prelude to dreams and danger. To really get at the trobar experience a historical novelist must hear them perform on period instruments, with the force of the 12th century tongue – Occitan (OXSE-tah). Just as I imagine Queen Eleanor did. I have listened to dozens of troubadour performances, but contemporary performer Maurice Moncozet performing (translated) Rings coming in fountains, helped me imagine Queen Eleanor and her court on blankets before the song’s original medieval composer Jaufre Rudel the Prince of Blaye. Maurice’s vivid interpretation of the 12th century trobar Peire Vidal inspired writing a deeply emotional performance in the Louvre gardens. Translating and getting to know the strange Occitan singing begat a finer writing of emotion and improved dialogue.
Traveling is exciting in the mideast. Eleanor first seemed to fit with Maurice Jarre’s First Entrance to the Desert in his Lawrence of Arabia score, but ultimately an Arabic-inspired court, feast scenes, and trade in the Antioch bazaar benefited from Natacha Atlas with Shubra. Finally Peter Gabriel’s Passion evokes the rooftops and gardens of the Holy Land. Ibrahim Maalouf with his eastern-western cornet was behind a few out-of-control medieval wedding feasts.
Medieval battle in a Holy War. Please no swelling hero music. Crusaders out of supply and desperate required the sparse crudeness of Prokofiev’s The Battle On The Ice: April 5, 1242, and the entire film score of Alexander Nevsky. Supplying ominous violent scenes in empty winter also fit well with Steven Price’s Gravity.
All phases of love and sex are key. The alluring Eleanor inventing court rituals finds sublime kisses in David Motion’s Orlando film score. The art of fine love-making is evoked by Roland Pöntinen playing Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 3. Lovers shift mood in Gabriel Yared’s sexy Betty Blue. Nino Rota’s 1968 Prologue to Romeo and Juliet keeps me in a frame of mind when I am editing teenage Henri Angevin falling head-over-heels for Eleanor Capet. Their families are at war when they exchange their first spark, just like the famous star-crossed lovers.
Romance is contrasted with two Lolita stories that must go further than Nabakov’s book. Eleanor’s 12-year-old sister’s imbroglio and Henri’s later seduction of a 13-year-old nymphette were set in motion by a sympathetic listening to Ennio Morricone’s Lolita Love Theme. To write of courtesans without a code where sex is all about power relied on My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult’s Dirty Little Secrets. The tense energy of sons rebelling against Henri after his elite guards murder Archbishop Thomas Becket, a reformer of a corrupt church, fit Trevor Morris’s The Borgias score.
Chaos writing. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I actually play music when I am conceiving a character in stress. Shocked by a death and having to take action in a state of confusion, young Eleanor is written against the loud energetic Ting Tings’ Shut Up and Let Me Go.
The innovation of personal love songs intense with human emotion is a key to the 12th century. Only our generation has ever heard the infinite music of the world. A thousand troubadours came into existence, a jumping point into our era filled with the boundless music of our emotions.
Mark Richard Beaulieu grew up in Heidelberg, New York City, Texas and California, receiving an MFA from UC Davis and a BFA from Trinity University in San Antonio. He is an energetic writer, fluent on the 12th century life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a collected painter, photographer, and innovative software technologist. He lives in Escondido with his wife and pets. The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor code series. Mark can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, on his website, and on Twitter @MarkRBeaulieu
My guest this week has an epic sequence of novels, and an epic musical background for them. They span the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine – but if you were expecting a purely medieval soundtrack, think again. There are, of course, some historically appropriate pieces, but also a host of unusual tracks from Chris Isaak, Jon Hassell, Ennio Morricone and Peter Gabriel. This post is a musical epic all of its own, and listening to the choices brought me many new gems. One of them, CocoRosie’s Smokey Taboo, I liked so much that I found an excuse to shoehorn it into my radio show (here, in case you’re interested, though that episode is currently in production). Anyway, the author is Mark Richard Beaulieu, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack. Bring a packed lunch.
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 guest is award-winning YA author and creative writing tutor Kerry Drewery @KerryDrewery
Soundtrack by Radiohead, The Streets, The White Stripes
Music has always been an important part of my life. Growing up the television was never on until after teatime, yet the radio always was. Born in the ’70s, I remember singing along to my parent’s new Blondie album, going to Radio One roadshows in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, and listening to chart run-downs on hurried Tuesday lunch-times in school (as it was then).
My brother’s music choices of heavy metal would pound through the house, and perhaps had some influence on my turn from a Buck’s Fizz and Duran Duran fan to teenage goth listening to bands such as The Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cult – I listened for the lyrics, but even more so the mood.
My goth years are waaay behind me now and I’ll listen to any genre, yet it’s still the feel and the mood of the music that’s more important to me rather than the lyrics, and that’s mostly how it affects and ties in with my writing.
Unfortunately I’m not one of those writers who can listen to music as they work (I wish I was!) because I find my brain latches onto the lyrics and instead of thinking about what’s happening in my novel, I start singing along, much to the disgust of anyone in earshot.
However, when I leave the computer at the end of the day, when I go for a run, when I’m in the car or reluctantly doing housework, or even when I’m planning, the music will go on and the volume will go up. If I’m listening on my iPod, I’ll find myself skipping through tracks to find the ‘right’ one – ‘right’ being whatever provides the correct mood.
I was doing this when writing A Brighter Fear, and latched onto Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. It reminded me of the novel; it made me feel the mood of it. The track begins very quietly, Thom Yorke’s voice lilting with some melancholy accompanied by acoustic guitar, yet as it progresses a crescendo builds, his voice more forceful, higher and with electric guitar, before fading away again.
For me this mirrors the bombing scenes in the novel – the quiet and calm beforehand, slowly building as fear spreads throughout the communities, then the sounds of planes overhead, followed by the bombs exploding around them sending rubble, bricks, homes to pieces, before finally the dust settles, the planes disappear and calm, quiet, returns.
It was never the lyrics, but on listening now, I’m aware of the repetition of a phrase talking about being worn out by what’s happening, which is exactly the mood of my character struggling to survive this.
Another song that helped me to write A Brighter Fear, but in a different way, was The Streets, Dry Your Eyes. Although this again gives the perfect mood and places me as a writer in exactly the right frame of mind, it’s far more about the lyrics – and for a very particular scene where two characters who’ve become supportive friends, are forced to part.
The whole song is a story of a girl breaking up with a boy, and the lyrics are very directional, telling how he moves his hands towards her to touch her face, or how she turns away but takes one last look back, and this allow you, the listener, to see exactly the scene the writer intended. I encourage you to listen, to close your eyes and let the picture form in your head of precisely what’s happening between this distraught couple. That’s what I wanted to do with the scene I was writing – I wanted my reader to see it as I saw it in my head; this showed me how effectively it can be done.
I could bleat on all day about tracks that have affected, helped and supported me as a writer, but I think they’d fall under the same category as these – putting my head in the right mood, or showing me how well something can be done. To finish on one that is different, though, and takes me to my second novel – A Dream of Lights…
This novel saw my character going through some tough times in North Korea, and there were days when the research got to me (I discovered some truly shocking things), and there were times when stepping away at the end of the day and leaving it in my office rather than letting those things stay in my head, was difficult. This track though, with the volume high and my eyes closed, would melt all that away on its guitar; it helped me smile at the end of the day or face the next chapter afresh. I love it…The White Stripes, Ball and Biscuit.
Kerry Drewery is a YA writer of the novels A Brighter Fear and A Dream of Lights (published by HarperCollins). A Brighter Fear is about a teen growing up in Baghdad when war breaks out in 2003, and was short-listed for the Leeds Book Award. A Dream of Lights follows a teenage girl in North Korea as she discovers the truth about her country and struggles to survive with her family. It was awarded Highly Commended at the North East Teen Book Awards and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Kerry lives between the countryside and the sea in the north of England in a house full of books, films and dogs. She’s a Patron of Reading, creative writing tutor and co-organiser of UKYAX. She’s currently walking around with tape over her mouth as she has news of her new novel but isn’t supposed to tell yet… She’s repped by Jane Willis at United Agents. Find her on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter @KerryDrewery
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 guest is fiction editor and creative writing teacher Tawnysha Greene @TawnyshaGreene
Soundtrack by Harold Arlen, EY Harburg, Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Michael Nyman, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
My narrator is hard of hearing like myself, so many of the scenes including music in A House Made of Stars are ones in which the music is felt rather than heard. For example, the narrator’s cousin earns a part in The Wizard of Oz, and as she practises her songs in her room, the narrator and her deaf sister watch, hands placed on the stereo to feel the rise and fall of the music.
Similarly, as I wrote these scenes, I played Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg on my laptop and turned the music up loud, so that I could close my eyes and listen with my hands to feel the same notes the characters in my novel did. This way, I could be closer to my narrator, a girl who struggles through poverty and abuse and who wishes for a better life for her and her family.
While writing the majority of A House Made of Stars, the music I listened to was usually instrumental. One of my favorite musical collections was The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2), and guided by these songs, my novel began to take shape. The following individual songs from this compilation were especially helpful — Comptine d’un autre été by Yann Tiersen, I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi, and The Promise by Michael Nyman. The quickness of these pieces, especially The Promise and the way the notes would domino into one another helped me with the pacing of my novel, because I wanted each scene to tumble into the next so that the story’s momentum would be constantly moving forward as the narrator and her family’s situation become more and more dire.
However, in some cases, it was necessary for me to slow down the scene and concentrate on smaller details. My narrator is very observant and what she lacks in hearing, she compensates in what she sees and understands. The song Childhood by Alexandre Desplat played on repeat while I wrote these scenes, and the way the song is composed is appropriate for the realisations the narrator makes during these instances — Childhood is slow with distinct piano keys forcefully played one at a time in a way that causes each note to be almost jarring. Similarly, during the moments in which I chose to listen to this song, the narrator makes discoveries about her family — read in a diary hidden underneath the stairs and glimpsed through the wooden slats of a bedroom closet — moments that are jarring for her as well.
Regardless of the scene, music served as a catalyst for the general mood of A House Made of Stars, and towards the end when I wrote the last act in which the narrator and her family are homeless and starving, I listened to Hans Zimmer’s To Zucchabar. The duduk’s haunting melody is accompanied by isolated drum beats in the background, an interesting progression from the pronounced notes of Childhood, because these notes are more subdued and allow the duduk’s voice-like melody to take center stage. The music is appropriate for this final leg of my narrator’s journey, because she, too, is finally finding her voice and speaking for herself and her family against all odds.
When I wrote the last scene, I did not play just a single song. I played all of them. The compilation of The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2) sounded in the background as I wrapped up the story with my narrator looking up into the night sky. By then, she was all those songs. She was the drum beats, the piano notes, and the duduk’s melody as she reached for the stars and made them her own.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others. A House Made of Stars is her first novel. Find her on Twitter @TawnyshaGreene, on her website and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Tawnysha is excited to sponsor a giveaway of A House Full of Stars. To enter, simply share this post – and then comment here to let us know. The more platforms you share on, the more entries.
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 guest is Edinburgh Festival Award nominee Rebecca Mascull @RebeccaMascull
Soundtrack by Chopin, the Raconteurs, Mychael Danna
I’ve always had a soundtrack in my writing life. I’m a classically trained pianist and often think in notation, often find my fingers running up and down the table in old scales and moments from piano pieces, often find I’ve had Chopin running through my head all afternoon. It’s just the way my brain works. Having said that, the funny thing is, I cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I just can’t do it. I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a musician, that listening to music becomes an active rather than a passive pastime, and means that if trying to actively engaged in something creative, like writing a first draft, my brain can’t split itself in two and live the music and create the prose at the same time. I often think of music as architecture – the notation itself looking like rows of bricks on the page building into a structure in a particular style – classical, romantic, or whatever. And writing is like that too – the words the bricks, the sentences and paragraphs the walls building up into the mansion or the castle – the novel.
So, I don’t listen to music while I’m working. But curiously enough each of my two published novels has had a particular piece of music that has influenced them, become a catalyst for them and become a kind of ‘undercover soundtrack’ for each, as your series so cleverly names it.
The novel is about a deaf-blind girl living in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm in Kent, who is released from the prison of having no form of communication by meeting a hop-picker who teaches her the manual alphabet. So, I hear you cry, what on earth could this song possibly have to do with this novel??
Well, before I started the first draft, while it was still just an idea percolating in my head, I thought I might set this novel in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I thought the teacher who opens up the world to my deaf-blind girl might be an English woman come over to America. There was going to be a romance for the girl. Then I heard the song Old Enough, or more precisely, I saw it. My partner showed it to me on TV and I was transfixed. I loved the video set in the studio, with all these great musicians just strumming around then coming together to create this great song. I had also just started to learn the violin around that time, so loved watching the fiddle player do his stuff too. And there was something about the lyrics, this idea of a young woman thinking she’s old enough to do things, and this older, wiser voice slowing her down. It even says that she never speaks, which of course was so apt for my deaf-blind girl who is mute.
But the real hook for me and why it spoke to me about this book was that the song encapsulated for me the central romance of the book, between my deaf-blind heroine and her teacher’s brother. Without giving too much away, that song I imagined playing in my head during every scene they had together, and of course, I discovered, he too played the violin and taught her about sound by holding the instrument and feelings its vibrations.
Later I had a change of heart. I felt that the war must come later, as I wanted the teacher’s brother to go to war and so we were back to England, late Victorian/early Edwardian and the Boer War. We were in Kent now, but the song stayed with me.
In my second novel, a similar thing happened i.e. a soundtrack came to me that ostensibly had nothing to do with the setting or time of the novel. Song of the Sea Maid begins in 1730s London, and then travels to Portugal and Menorca in the 1750s. I bought a CD of C18th Portuguese ballads, which was lovely, and listened to a few Portuguese fado songs, but found out they were developed a bit too late for my setting. Around that time, I saw Life of Pi at the cinema. Wow. What an experience. Such a stunning film. Yet what stayed with me as much as the gorgeous visuals was the lush and beautiful music. I ordered the CD and listened to it in the car with my (at the time) seven-year-old daughter Poppy. Though I knew she was too young to watch the film (she’d find it too sad), she loved the music (by Mychael Danna) and so did I. I became quite obsessed with this particular track, Skinny Vegetarian Boy.
The story of Pi of course is dominated by the sea. At the cinema, the ocean fills the screen for much of the action and being in the dark surrounded by water as far as the eye could see filled my mind whenever I thought of Pi. The story of Sea Maid takes my heroine across the ocean with a certain young argumentative and reactionary sea captain to deal with. She studies islands and develops theories about ocean-going ancient cultures. The sea filled this story too. And every time I sat down to write, whenever I was with her paddling in the Mediterranean or gazing across the Atlantic at distant storms, I had the Life of Pi running through my head, and always first, that one track, its soaring Indian flute completely out of place for my eighteenth-century heroine yet somehow it went deeper than that and expressed something out of range, just beyond your reach.
It’s that atmosphere I need when I’m writing, trying to express the inexpressible. And that’s why Walter Pater said: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It’s that abstract beauty I’m trying to reach. I’m doing my best in my own small way. And music helps me get there.
Rebecca Mascull is the author of two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton. Her first, The Visitors, was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award. Song of the Sea Maid is her latest release. Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Find her on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter @RebeccaMascull.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably just seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull 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 guest is Myfanwy Collins @MyfanwyCollins
Soundtrack by Jessica Lea Mayfield
Before she was fully formed on the page, I knew who I wanted Laney to be. She would be 15, tall and gangly, with a face that would not seem immediately beautiful to the young world but an astute adult would know how she would bloom fiercely and beautifully one day. Laney would not be an obvious intellectual, but she would think long and hard in an emotional way. People would often say to her, ‘You think too much’, a sentence she would find curious and staggeringly ridiculous. Yes, she does think a lot but what’s wrong with thinking? It’s safer to live in your head than it is to live out in the world anyway. Laney knows that more than anyone. After all, she has just lost everything. Her home. Her brother. Her mother. And her sense of self.
And yet, she carries on and continues to seek connections in all things and to try to not only understand her own miserable situation but that of the human condition at large. In short, I wanted her to be a young woman like Jessica Lea Mayfield. Deep, thoughtful, emotionally advanced, quirkily beautiful. Strong but not in a way that is obvious. Rather, I wanted her to have a quiet, poignant strength born from sadness, from desire, and, ultimately, from her ability to empathise.
Mayfield embodies all of these qualities in her voice and also within the songs she writes. And the more I listened to her music, the more Laney became the sort of young woman Mayfield is. The first time I knew of Mayfield was when I listened to the Avett Brothers cover her song For Today. Like so many of her songs, this is a song of contradiction. A song about a romantic relationship in which the singer pretends she does not love this person. Maybe she feels like she is a relationship fuck-up or that the other person is or that they both are. Maybe she believes she doesn’t deserve love or that her beloved’s love is false. Regardless, she pushes this love away, eventually, because she says it has stifled her. She will accept it, though, in this one moment. She will accept it for this day.
In this song, as in so many of Mayfield’s songs, there is a keen understanding for romantic love—an understanding beyond her years (she recorded her first album, White Lies, when she was 15) and, frankly, beyond the understanding that many middle-aged people (including me) are able to access. She witnesses the world in a way that is both stunningly youthful and staggeringly aged. Like Laney, Mayfield’s eyes are wide open and innocent, but her heart has seen some serious shit and she is on this earth to share her knowledge.
It wasn’t until I saw a video of Mayfield singing an acoustic version of a new song in the kitchen of Seth Avett, that I truly saw Laney. The song, Seein* Starz, is about an overwhelming, impossible love. This is not unlike the love that Laney has for Marshall. There is something about the strength of Mayfield’s voice in the acoustic, kitchen, version and how it is unmarred by the shaky, nearly fragile quality it also possesses. It is that tenderness she exhibits, the raw woundedness of her song and singing that struck me as so akin to who I wanted Laney to be. Like Mayfield, I wanted Laney to send her voice out into the world with vulnerability and strength. Qualities that should be antithetical but which, I believe, are actually able to exist within the same person at once.
Mayfield’s voice and her songs, then, are all about containing and managing contradiction. Just as Laney is all about protecting her heart while at the same time learning how to open up to love and face her fears. Learning that even though she feels entirely weak, she is actually fully undaunted. Like Mayfield pushing back out into the waters of love again and again despite the possibility for pain, Laney pushes forward, paddling her canoe into an uncertain future. Fearless.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of three books—a collection of short fiction, a novel, and her latest, a young adult novel, The Book of Laney, published by Lacewing Books. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review. Echolocation, her debut novel,was published by Engine Books in March 2012. A collection of her short fiction, I am Holding Your Hand, was published by PANK Little Books in August 2012. Her website is here, her blog is here, you can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter (@MyfanwyCollins), Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads and Google+.