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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by US National Book Award winner William Alexander @williealex
Both of my novels, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, are set in the same city and unfold at the very same time. They also share a soundtrack. The first is about a goblin theatre troupe. The second is about a girl who loses her shadow and becomes a musician.
First let me tell you a bit about this shared setting. Zombay is a playfully broken place, its pieces repurposed and cobbled together. The noise of and voice of this city clanks and clamors. One single bridge — the Fiddleway — connects two halves of the city (barely), and various musicians play at all hours to keep that bridge from falling over.
Luce Strumgut the sailor explains how and why in Ghoulish Song:
“You can shape music to reshape the world, just as words do in charms and curses. Sailors learned that first.” Luce proudly tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “We sang chanties to the rhythm of oar and hoisted sail. It’s madness to trust your own weight to a bit of bark adrift on water. It’s only ever possible to face up to that madness with a song. So we made the music necessary to hold a barge together—or a bridge. The madness of the bridge, of walking and living and building whole houses high above the River, is only possible with many songs. You can hold anything together with the proper tune—or you can tear it apart.”
Two albums in particular helped me map out my city and hold it together.
First I used Real Gone by Tom Waits. I often started a writing session with Hoist that Rag. It’s a working song, a sailor’s song, and it has an urgency and a clanking, jangling rhythm that I found especially useful.
Once Tom forced me awake and growled at me until I started working the album would fade into background noise. That’s no criticism of its quality. All of Real Gone rewards close listening, but the songs didn’t seem to mind humming and muttering between themselves while I mostly ignored them and went about my writing business. There’s one track I couldn’t ever ignore, though: How’s it gonna end? Every time it came up I would write faster. Tom needed to know the ending, and so did I.
Lyrics can be distracting, though, and the stories told and hinted at in the rest of How’s it Gonna End don’t really match up with the stories I was working on. The other album I had set to endless repeat was Zoe Keating’s Into the Trees—an absolutely gorgeous album, played by a single cellist looping and accompanying herself. Keating composes ideal soundtracks for dark fairy tales. You can stream the tracks from her site, but pay particular attention to Optimist.
Take a moment to imagine both Tom Waits and Zoe Keating guest-starring on The Muppet Show. That sense of unsettling playfulness is pretty much what I was aiming for. If I hit the mark, then I owe it to those two musicians.
William Alexander won the US National Book Award for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that, too. Will studied theatre and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He lives in the Twin Cities, right in the middle of the States. Find him online at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter under @williealex.
Brief hiatus: The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break and will be back in two weeks’ time on 13 November. See you then!
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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 multi-genre novelist and indie publisher Devon Flaherty @devtflaherty
Soundtrack by Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morissette, Gungor, Passion, Tom Waits, She & Him, The Sing Team, Adele, Waterdeep, Glen Hansard, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Brothers and Sisters, The City Harmonic, Trouvere, Lowland Hum, Over The Rhine, Putumayo, Belinda Carlisle
I have to admit, ever since I started staying at home with babies/small children, my interaction with music has been different. Not only do I have to put up with terrible kid music (with the exception of BNL’s Snacktime) and avoid music I formerly loved with questionable lyrics or themes, but I also have the occupational challenge of keeping my ears open, all the time, listening for a breach of boundary, a breaking glass, a sibling fight. Most of the writing of my recently published book, Benevolent, has taken place in this music vacuum—stealing moments of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill while driving alone to a friend’s home.
But this has been a really big month for me. On section two of my next novel, The Family Elephant’s Jewels, my husband has graduated nursing school, my son has been registered for kindergarten, and mommy has been given — by the appreciative husband — an iPod Nano! Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead without my Discman, but an iPod seemed a little extraneous with my loveable cling-ons. And now? It’s truly wonderful.
Last night, while listening to Gungor’s Dry Bones and folding clothes (and doing air pumps and some orchestra conducting), I saw the vision for my much-needed book trailer. The music just flowed through me. And I don’t know about you, but when I get really carried away with a song, visions break out like fireworks on my inner retina, making music videos of my creativity, my thought-life. Which is why, for me, music is such an integral part of the writing process.
I have been known to say, in recent interviews, that my ideas often come from moments in life when something small and extraordinary jumps out at me. I can’t begin to count, even during my music-starved twenties, the times that that small and extraordinary moment was fueled by music. My future fantasy trilogy Spin was almost completely born out of the song White Flag by Passion (which is kid-friendly). I have a whole story built around Tom Waits’s A Little Drop of Poison (which happens to be on the Shrek soundtrack).
Oh for Bose
So now that I am planning long hours lost behind noise-cancelling headphones — and the eventual transfer to a Bose stereo that I can blast when I am the only one home ‘working’ — I plan on creating the townscapes of The Family Elephant’s Jewels with the juice-flowing inspiration of all my latest (and greatest) favorite bands: She & Him, Sing Team, Adele, Waterdeep, Glen Hansard, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Brothers and Sisters, The City Harmonic, Trouvere, Lowland Hum, and many others, many as yet undiscovered by me.
The truth is, that even without music playing all the time (which it had for the first twenty-five years of my life), music was still inspiring me as I wrote Benevolent. It’s evident when I reach out and bring in a very specific piece of music, even in the prose. Gaby is listening to Over the Rhine’s Good Dog, Bad Dog as she rumbles bus-bound through Jerusalem, thinking about her romantic attachments. Putumayo’s Gypsy Groove lilts on the air during a disastrous scene near the end of the book (no spoilers!), but I had to change the title (Mali to Memphis) due to time differences. Heck, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth was the song that got me in the whole 80s and 90s mood to begin with. And let’s not forget the one I made up (because that’s how story and legend often convey):
And The Queen and her lover
ran for cover
Holding each other tight.
While the tall story man
and his evil war band
Chased down the beautiful knight.
Where have all the heroes gone?
I want a stately red-headed queen
to make love to angels
and wield a sure sword
And Jaden to save the day,
Oh-oh Jaden to save the day.
I like to bring my readers all the way into a story, and that means engaging all the senses, if possible. They are seeing a dingy 1980s dining room, eating chicken, smelling old carpet, feeling a chink in porcelain under their fingertip and the roughness of a tuxedo jacket against their arm, listening to—what? Besides Nadine yammering on? Besides the humming of the fridge and the clink of silverware? In Gaby’s opening scene, I have music everywhere: being rudely interrupted, then bursting out again, ‘in the foreground and background and off the walls,’ Stellar crooning obnoxiously to Bette Midler.
And I like to be immersed, myself, into life. I like to see, feel, smell, taste, and hear when I walk through the woods, when I take my husband on a date, when I read a book, and definitely, most definitely, when I write it.
Devon Flaherty is a writer in Durham, North Carolina. Originally from metropolitan Detroit, she is a mother, a wife, a hobby yogi, photographer, painter, and foodie. She has been writing seriously since her very earliest brushes with literature, and has published articles, poems, and photography in literary journals and magazines. She received a bachelors in philosophy and was an assistant editor, freelancer, and blogger, until she founded a publishing company, Owl and Zebra Press, and launched her novelist career with Benevolent. Follow her on Twitter @devtflaherty, at her blog The Starving Artist, or by signing up for her E-Newsletter. You can buy Benevolent here (or plenty of other places).
GIVEAWAY Devon is giving away a signed copy of Benevolent and also a copy of She & Him’s new CD, which Devon says is the kind of music her protagonists would be listening to today. You can enter both these giveaways via the links on Rafflecopter. For the signed copy of Benevolent go here, and for the She & Him CD go here. (And she’d probably appreciate it all the more if you also share the post!)
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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 multi-award-winning author and New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M Valente @catvalente
Soundtrack by Carl Sagan featuring Symphony of Science, Loreen, Ke$ha, Milla Jovovich, Yann Tiersen, Florence + the Machine, Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists, Anais Mitchell, Orenda Fink, Anna Ternheim, Pogo, Sufjan Stevens, Nobuo Uematsu, Tom Waits, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Bird, Circus Contraption, Antje Duvekot, The Innocence Mission, Rilo Kiley, Jason Webley, Neutral Milk Hotel, DJ Earworm, Ru Paul, Lady Gaga, S.J. Tucker
Exeunt on a leopard
Music and Fairyland go hand in hand. I can’t write without music – it’s an intimate part of my process. So often I start a novel by making a playlist for it, songs that say something about the subject and have a beat conducive to writing. Anything too aggressive and I get distracted, too soft and gentle and I get sleepy. There’s very much a sweet spot to find! With the Fairyland novels, the playlist is called Exeunt on a Leopard and it evolves with every book.
Fairyland is a novel about travel and magic, about growing up, about figuring out the world is a more complicated place than you thought. It’s whimsical but it has a bite. A lot of the songs I like to listen to seem like they could be sung in the voice of my protagonist, September, who is carried away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind (who rides a Leopard) and finds her way to Fairyland, a kingdom full of wyverns, witches, marauding herds of wild bicycles, and a very wicked Marquess who has inflicted some very human cruelties on the magical world. Fairyland is both an adventure story and a prodding—sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp—of the whole tradition of children’s literature. So I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy – all stories about fairies have a little melancholy in them.
Song to start the muse
I start out every writing day with Symphony of Science’s gorgeous song A Glorious Dawn. It makes me feel so optimistic about the world! After that, the heavy hitters are Florence + the Machine’s new album Ceremonials, Mumford and Sons’s Sigh No More, The Decemberists’ Her Majesty and Picaresque, Anais Mitchell’s folklore opera Hadestown, Orenda Fink’s Invisible Ones, Anna Ternheim, especially Shoreline, which seemed to be just written for September, Pogo’s Alice songs, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and Michigan albums, Nobuo Uematsu’s phenomenal soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Tom Waits’s sad and sweet musical version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America, Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated album Wicked Girls, the title track of which actually makes a quick, subtle cameo in the climactic scene of the novel, Andrew Bird’s Scythian Empire, Circus Contraption’s melancholy carnival album Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, Antje Duvekot’s Black Annis, Yann Tiersen’s fabulous music wherever I find it, The Innocence Mission for a little early 90s awesomeness, Rilo Kiley, Milla Jovovich’s surprisingly lovely song Clock, Jason Webley’s Ways to Love, Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers and In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
When writing scenes heavy on action, I will admit with only a little blushing that I like some cheesy club pop music – DJ Earworm’s mashups that remind you how meaning can be so fluid, Ru Paul’s Glamazon, Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album, Ke$ha’s Tik Tok (there’s a strong clock theme in Fairyland!) and I’m completely in love with Loreen’s Eurovision winner Euphoria as I’m working on the third book in the Fairyland series. Sometimes the silly stuff makes me feel free to be ridiculous and whimsical in my work–not everything has to be serious and elegant all the time. This is an important lesson for a fantasy writer, I think.
Finally, I can’t talk about Fairyland and music without mentioning S.J. Tucker. She’s an extraordinary singer, and I have her last two albums Sirens and Mischief on a loop when working. But she’s also done three albums based on my books, and a fourth, based on Fairyland, will be coming out soon. So I listen to September’s Rhyme and Wonders quite a bit–they remind me what I mean to say with my books, and why I started this whole crazy business to begin with.
Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award and the Lambda Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat. She blogs at yuki-onna.livejournal.com and tweets @catvalente
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'