Posts Tagged The Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Kerry Drewery

for logo‘The planes, the explosions, the dust, the calm’

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.

Kerry DreweryLong time ago

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.

Two people

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.

DreamofLightscvr (1)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

 

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Tawnysha Greene

for logo‘Close your eyes and listen with your hands’

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.

Tawnysha Greene Author PhotoSimilarly, 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.

AHOUSEMADEOFSTARS_front_coverWhen 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rebecca Mascull

for logo‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’

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 mascull006means 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.

Firstly, The Visitors, my debut novel. The song I will always associate with this book is Old Enough by the Raconteurs, the version featuring Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe.

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.

SongOfTheSea_HB_finalhiresThe 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.

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‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’ – Rebecca Mascull

for logoIf 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Myfanwy Collins

for logo‘Tenderness, fragility, an understanding beyond her years’

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.

myfanwyLaney is lost.

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.

book-of-laneyMayfield’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+.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrew Lowe

for logo‘Music that seeps beneath your skin, then grows’

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 author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99

Soundtrack by Burial, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Magazine, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros, The xx.

That was his tragedy. He didn’t yet know that fear was more powerful than love.’

The Ghost is a novel about violence. At its centre is an act of extreme violence, perpetrated by three children. The book tells the story of how the consequences trickle down through time; a slow-acting psychological poison which engulfs the three children in adulthood.

I wrote it as a crescendo: smouldering beginning, gathering middle, explosive ending.

Andrew LoweI didn’t completely throw away the structure rulebook. I understand that continuous intensity will exhaust the reader, and so there are dropouts of release, spikes of hypertension, recurring motifs and anchoring asides.

In other words, I wanted it to feel like a lot of the music I love – the kind that steals over you, seeps beneath your skin and then grips and grows and grows.

Soundscape to landscape

Music is as vital a part of my life as light or air. I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘background’ music in film or television. My favourite filmmakers bake it into the centre of the drama – as commentary to underscore the action, as soundscape to emphasise landscape. They also use the absence of music to wrongfoot the viewer into relaxing. (Is there anything less shocking than a jump scene telegraphed by a rising note and announced with a jarring chord?)

Music informs my writing in a similar way. It’s not there on the page, but it’s always present in my plotting brain and typing fingers.

When I’m not at my desk, I play out the scenes – particularly the set-pieces – on an internal cinema, soundtracking them with music in my headphones. Almost every story peak in The Ghost was conceived in this way; the events were enhanced by a vivid awareness of the sound which surrounded them.

I suppose it’s a form of creative synaesthesia. Before I write a word, most of my moments are steeped in distinct aural flavours. I find it difficult to write a significant sequence before seasoning its mood with music in this way.

Two timelines

The book follows two separate timelines in the life of lead character Dorian Cook: his impoverished childhood in early 1970s industrial England, and his working life as an adult film critic in modern-day London. As the present-day Cook realises he is being held to account for his actions as a child, the past timeline builds up to the inciting event itself.

The house carried an unholy chill that flowed deep through its foundations – a vaporous spectre of cold that first stirred in late August and had the place comprehensively haunted by December.’

For the austere 70s chapters, I favoured songs which seemed to define Cook’s world: corporal punishment, factory discharge, municipal menace. The clamour and whisper of Joy Division’s Heart and Soul; the inner-city palpitations of Burial’s Loner; and the slouching panic of Nine Inch Nails’s Corona Radiata, with its sense of impending reckoning which mirrors the book’s recurring first line:

Something was coming up the stairs.’

Two key sections in the past timeline take place during the notorious UK heatwave of 1976. At the time, I remember sweltering with a strawberry Mini Milk as my tiny portable radio squeaked out Minnie Ripperton’s ever-lovely Loving You and Mungo Jerry’s lascivious In The Summertime. But for the story I was telling, I needed Sketch For Summer by The Durutti Column, with its synthetic birdsong and rebounding guitar – a song that always evokes the invincibility of childhood summers, and Larkin’s mighty line about ‘the strength and pain of being young’.

In the present day, two songs defined Cook’s marital and mental collapse: Missing by The xx – a hushed and horrified dissection of a crumbling relationship; and, as the threat from his past grows ever mortal and Cook is forced to plot a counterattack, Magazine’s The Light Pours Out Of Me sets the death-defying scene.

So, The Ghost is a novel about violence. The story is triggered by violence and it ends with violence – although not, I hope, of the sort the reader is expecting. The final sequence – a queasy kind of closure – was linked to Sigur Ros’s monolithic Festival, a song which emerges, ever so delicately, with a lone Icelandic voice keening beneath overlapping string notes. It hovers like a hummingbird, and then drops hard into a midsection of martial drumming, before lulling and at last detonating in a starburst of choral harmonies. It briefly, unbelievably, ramps up one more level before collapsing into a single voice again, this time whistling the melody.

ghostIt doesn’t give me The Chills; it gives me The Glow – a surge of whiskey-warmth. I must have heard it a hundred times and I still get it, around eight minutes in, as if something in the song is hardwired into me.

Fellow writers talk of how their characters ‘take over’ and dictate the narrative. Others claim the muse descends in a certain place, or country. For me, it’s music that guides me through, defining the lifts and rifts of the characters’ inner lives and choreographing their actions in bold, movie-like rhythms.

The Ghost has been described as a ‘dark’ book, but I hope some of my musical motivation pokes through to reveal the more complex qualities I was reaching for – redemption, restoration, courage, euphoria, enduring connection. These are all qualities I find in the music I love, which in turn rouses my writing.

Andrew Lowe is an author, editor and journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames, and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by cycling and coaching youth football. The Ghost is his first novel, but it won’t be his last. Find him on his website, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Twitter @andylowe99

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Louisa Treger

for logoMusic and love transform your internal landscape

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 Louisa Treger @louisatreger

Soundtrack by Hozier, Amy Winehouse, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms

Before pursuing a career as a writer, I was a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Music was fantastic training for being an author because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Music was, and still is, a huge part of my life. It informs every word I write.
Many authors listen to music while they are working, but I can’t. For me, music is too powerful; it’s like a magnet, drawing all my attention to it. It shuts out the words. I listen to music in my car, while walking the dog, or doing chores at home.

Louisa TregerMusic lifts us into a different realm. It allows us to enter a place where our emotions can flow freely, in a way that transcends ordinary experience. Yet although music expresses things that go deeper than words, I find that it inspires words. Music expresses states of feeling that I want to capture verbally. At first, these are dim and half formed in my mind; I am fumbling my way towards them. Listening to music is a catalyst, helping me put emotions into words.

Music was fundamental to the writing of my debut novel, The Lodger.

It’s a biographical novel about the little-known author, Dorothy Richardson, who was a literary pioneer and something of a cult figure in her day. She wrote stream of consciousness before anyone else and was considered Virginia Woolf’s equal, but somehow, she got forgotten by history.

At the start of my novel, Dorothy is existing just above the poverty line, working as a dentist’s secretary and living in a shabby boarding house in Bloomsbury. She receives an invitation to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer hovering on the brink of fame. Dorothy doesn’t recognise his name: HG Wells, or Bertie, as his friends call him.

Bertie Wells appears unexceptional at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval…

Tormented about betraying Jane, yet unable to draw back, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with him. Then a new boarder arrives at the house – striking Veronica Leslie-Jones – and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie… Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.

A song that helped me capture the mood and tone of both love affairs in my book is From Eden by Hozier. This is a very powerful song: tragedy and rapture rubbing shoulders. It reaches into your soul, pulls it out and throws it on the ground. It’s about people who are damaged by their pasts, who are flawed and cynical, yet have found something incredibly precious in each other.

Dorothy had fallen; she was living in sin; betraying Jane … The hunger she felt for Bertie was all-consuming; it obliterated everything else, even her guilt.

Loss and longing

There is a great deal of loss in The Lodger, and I looked to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black for inspiration. I think it’s one of the best breakup albums of all time. Amy sings about the kind of love that goes so deep inside you, it transforms your internal landscape and marks you forever. And her voice: smoky and ancient, expressing more loss and longing, more pain and despair than one person can bear in a lifetime. It speaks to me.

Often, it seemed as though a part of her still existed continuously in the past. Lived with Veronica; the two of them lying eternally in each other’s arms, belonging together, as in the early days.

Music did more than help me identify states of feeling. There are many parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, colour, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or to make a single voice stand out. Listening to classical chamber music – especially by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms – taught me about all of them. Chamber music is pure and precise, yet at the same time, it’s a real dialogue between characters. There are too many wonderful works to list individually, so here are three of my favourites: Mozart String Quintet in G minor KV 516; Schubert String Quintet in C major D 956; Brahms String Sextet G major opus 36.

the lodger - louisa tregerFinally, The Lodger is a novel about writers and writing. Great music is sublime in the way writers strive for sublime prose; it soars above the humdrum of everyday life, transforming it. It’s what Dorothy Richardson and H.G. Wells tried to do with words:

When you are in the right mood, words appear faster than speech or even thought; your pen follows them as quickly as your hand can move it across the page, and sometimes, the most exquisite phrases spill out. It’s hard to explain what a wonderful feeling it is; it smoothes out all the creases in your mind, and completely revives you. And you see life with such clarity…

This is what I am striving for too – and constantly feeling I am falling short of it. As Wells says in my novel: Will I ever get the things I want to say properly said?

Louisa Treger began her career as a classical violinist and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, gaining a PhD in English at University College London. Married with three children and a dog, she lives in London. She spends as much time as she can in South Africa, where she supports a feeding scheme for underprivileged children living in shacks in the desolate Kurland Village in the Western Cape, where 70% of adults are unemployed. The Lodger is her first novel and is published by Thomas Dunne Books. Find her on Facebook, her website and on Twitter @louisatreger.

GIVEAWAY Louisa has offered to give away two print copies of The Lodger. To enter, comment here. Extra entries if you share the post on social media, but we might not know you have unless you let us know in a comment – so remember to come back and confess your good sharing deeds.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Garry Craig Powell

for logo‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’

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 award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell

Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles

Garry may 2012 014 (2)Under the glitter

Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)

As for the music:

…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’

Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.

A novel in stories

Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.

A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:

Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’

Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.

Pretentious, overblown

Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.

Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:

Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’

Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.

Chopin and chopsticks

In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:

How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’

The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?

StoningtheDevil400Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:

Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’

I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.

Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.

 

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‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’ – Garry Craig Powell

for logoMy guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Cander

for logo‘Stay close to sounds that make you glad to be alive’

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, screenplay writer and writing teacher Chris Cander @ChrisCander

Soundtrack by Slaid Cleaves, Miles Davis, Alexander Scriabin

Though I’m a writer of prose, it’s music that seems to me the most transcendent art form. Music casts a collective spell that detaches listeners from the tangible world and encourages a sort of free fall of emotional experience that doesn’t require words to be passionately felt. Yet being so moved beyond words can also inspire the use of them. In each of my novels, music informs some key aspect.

I had only just begun work on Whisper Hollow, which is set in a fictional coal mining town in the early 1900s and follows the intertwining lives of three women, when I heard the song Lydia by Karen Posten and covered by Slaid Cleaves. It’s an Appalachian tale of a widowed woman who has lost two of her loved ones to the coal mines of Virginia. It’s so moody and evocative that it influenced the way I imagined my character Alta, who lost her son, husband, and lover in the fatal mine explosion that divides the book into its two parts. I remember listening to it over and over, letting the sadness seep in until I, too, was grief stricken.

Chris-CanderThough I’ve incorporated music into all my novels, this was the first time that nearly every line of a song impacted the story in some way. In the song, the eponymous Lydia, full of melancholy, sits down one day in the place where she lives alone, and is carried away by the memories of her first-born and his father. Listening to it, I could see Alta sitting alone in her cabin, numb with a similar loss, exactly one month after the accident. That image became the chapter titled November 7, 1950. It was because of these lyrics that she tried smoking the cigarette that her aunt had given her decades before, that she imagined the weeds growing atop the graves of her loved ones, and that she, like the song’s character, never was the same.

But I couldn’t leave Alta to suffer that kind of ache for the rest of her life—and the rest of the book—without something to mitigate it. And so I created the young woman named Lydia whose life parallels Alta’s in some significant ways and whose friendship enables Alta finally to begin to heal.

Two seconds and two-hundred-and-forty pages

In my novel 11 Stories, the story opens on the protagonist Roscoe Jones standing on the roof edge playing Yesterdays (composed by Jerome Kern in 1933) on his trumpet in the style of Miles Davis. He is serenading the newly released spirit of the woman he loved in secret for 50 years; it will be the final few moments of his life.

I’ve always loved Miles Davis for his music and his peculiar temperament, and this piece — which I hear as elegiac and keening, an ode to both love and solitude — was perfect for Roscoe. Normally I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but as I wrote this opening scene, I looped Yesterdays so that the mood of it might land on the page:

Windows opened beneath him and people looked around for the source. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, mingled as it was with the sounds of street traffic and the machinery of urban dwellings. But because the air was dry, “Yesterdays” cut through it more clearly than it otherwise would have, and by the time Roscoe was descending chromatically through the final melodic phrases – G, F C, D E, and E, E, E – there was an audience of fifty people at least, or a hundred, or maybe more.

He held that last E as long as he could, until his breath was nearly gone, and then his soul slammed back into his old body so hard it seemed to jostle him a little, and he became aware of the sound of clapping and even a few whistles which grew louder but didn’t displace the purity of that last E.”

In the next breath, Roscoe falls off that roof, and for the duration of his two-second and 240-page fall, time slows, and Roscoe’s history unfolds in tune with the energy of that final note.

So that you may hear what it is that I see 

In my new book The Weight of a Piano (which my agent will begin shopping this week) music is secondary to the instrument, but there is one piece that plays like a soundtrack to the story and links its two narratives: Alexander Scriabin’s frenetic, colorful Prelude No 14 in E-flat minor. I wanted a piece that might have been a favorite of the Russian concert pianist who first owned the eponymous piano, and was also unusual enough to charge a moment when it is recognized by another character years later.

Whisper-HollowFINAL3There was something serendipitous about this piece that I didn’t realize until after I’d chosen it. One of my characters, the son of the original piano owner, is a photographer who describes his purpose in taking pictures as ‘so that you may hear what it is that I see’. I hadn’t known when I gave him this trait of chromaesthesia (a form of synesthesia in which sounds translate as colors) that Scriabin was also a chromaesthete. Discovering that minor coincidence at a time when I was feeling pessimistic about the novel (it happens more often that I care to admit) gave me a dose of optimism that recurred each time I mentioned the Prelude in the story.

I find it interesting how important and prevalent music is in my books, because the only musical talent I have is the ability to appreciate it. In life and in fiction, I try to follow Hafiz’s recommendation: ‘Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive’.

Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, screenplay writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013. Her most recent novel is Whisper Hollow, published by Other Press. Her website is here, tweet her as @ChrisCander, and find her on Facebook.

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