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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 my guest is medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.
1920s, Adele, Alice Degan, authors, classical, comedy, comedy of manners, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, False Doctrine, fantasy, folk, invocation, jazz, jazz music, Loreena McKennitt, Maddy Prior, medieval literature, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, romance, Roz Morris, Sarah Slean, soundtrack, Squirrel Nut Zippers, supernatural, supernatural romance, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.
1020s, Alice Degan, authors, classical, comedy, comedy of manners, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, folk, jazz, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, romance, Roz Morris, soundtrack, supernatural, supernatural romance, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 my guest is painter, singer-songwriter, humorist, mystery/suspense and time travel novelist Natalie Buske Thomas @writernbt
Soundtrack by Enya
Grandpa Smiles is an oil painting picture book about how Grandpa watches over a boy throughout his life, though he can be with him only in spirit. My father lost his battle to cancer when he was 37 years old. I told my son that my dad was a cardinal in the tree, watching him laugh and play. Grandpa Smiles is a sweet timeless story: family is forever, love lives on. But how could I communicate the beauty of loss in so few words when my heart had so much to say?
My Undercover Soundtrack for the writing and painting of this project was Enya, and only Enya. Nothing else would do! As you can probably imagine, it’s hard for me not to get pulled into the music when I paint. My paintbrush tends to ‘dance’ to the beat, so there were a few Enya songs that I couldn’t listen to because the music was too distracting. But if I didn’t play the songs that made it into my ‘loop’ I froze!
Music to grieve by
One illustration combines two oil paintings onto one page. The boy (a painting created for the book) looks at a picture of his grandpa (a painting created previously). The picture of Grandpa is an oil painting of my parents’ wedding day. Dad is wearing his military dress uniform, he was leaving soon for the Vietnam War. The painting was featured in a gallery exhibit called ‘Touched by War’. My dad has been gone a long time now, over 25 years. My mom is gone now too. I didn’t realise how overwhelming it would be to paint a portrait of their young selves in their wedding clothes. I was doing fine until I painted their eyes, that was when I lost myself in Enya’s It’s in the Rain.
Beauty in pain
Sometimes the art came to me first and other times the words did. I needed a seasonal picture, so I looked through my son’s photo box for inspiration. I found a picture of my son jumping in a pile of leaves on our old hobby farm. The property was a beautiful five-acre parcel that my husband and I built into a home for our young family of five, but we had to sell it seven years later, when layoffs and pay cuts hit my husband’s company hard. Around this same time, my mother had passed. It was time to move on. We left behind the land where our children played. As I painted the image of my son playing in the leaves, my heart was breaking. My little boy was now a young man. Where had the time gone? (Only Time, says Enya.) But through the color of my paints, he is forever that child who laughed in the leaves. No matter where he goes, his moment of joy in the leaves lives forever. (On my Way Home)
Love lives on
One of my favorite pictures in the book says ‘The child leaps’, followed by ‘Grandpa helps’ on the next page. I painted an image of my son in his Superman costume with his arm outstretched, his fist pumped, and his eyes sparkling. Grandpa is portrayed as the face in the wind that lifts his cape so that my son can fly. (Hope has a Place.)
Grandpa Smiles was meant to be a heartwarming story, nothing more. My career as an oil painter was exhausting. I didn’t want to do gallery exhibits anymore. I already had a career as a novelist, why was I running myself ragged? What if I combined my art with my writing? It was meant to be that simple. But watching my son’s face when he saw the book for the first time was like witnessing him receiving a message from heaven. Later, I brought a few copies with me at the Doctor Who convention in Minneapolis. I expected to sign my time travel fiction, but people were more interested in Grandpa Smiles. Strangers flipped through the book in front of me and became emotional – I had no idea that my book could touch people like this. Besides strangers, my dad’s family was moved to tears. My aunt asked me to send a gift copy to a family friend I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. This family friend sent me a handwritten thank-you note. In the note she mentioned that the painting of my parents was very recognisable. I didn’t realize how important it was that I capture my parents’ likeness until I read her words. A project that had a simple concept, simple words, and simple pictures turned out to be anything but simple.
Natalie Buske Thomas is an oil painter, singer/songwriter, humorist and the author of over a dozen books. She is currently working on her first album Painting my Songs that will combine her music, writing, and art into one project. Watch Natalie paint, try one of her Serena Wilcox books for free, or learn the secrets to her success in her new book Nice Authors Finish Last. Find her on Twitter @writernbt
authors, Desert Island Discs, Doctor Who, Doctor Who convention Minneapolis, drama, entertainment, Enya, family, Grandpa, Grandpa Smiles, grandparents, grieving, loss, love, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Natalie Buske Thomas, oil painting, oil paintings, parents, personal project, picture book, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing from grief, writing from loss, writing to music
My guest this week is writing about a very personal project – a book of oil paintings that contain a story where a young boy is watched by his grandfather. She was inspired by her memories of her father who died tragically young, and she struggled to do him justice in a medium that allowed her so few words. Her guide was the music of Enya, and certain signature tracks carried the emotions she was looking for as she painted and wrote – love, loss, the swift march of time, letting go and still loving. She is Natalie Buske Thomas and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Enya, family, Grandpa Smiles, grandparents, grieving, loss, love, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Natalie Buske Thomas, oil paintings, parents, personal project, picture book, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing from grief, writing from loss, writing to music
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 my guest is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Dolly Parton
Music is at the heart of my most recent novel – as you might expect from its title The Piano Player’s Son and the image of a piano on the front cover! Music is often a force for unity, as in the songs of the First World War or the Last Night of the Proms, but in The Piano Player’s Son, it soon emerges as also a divisive, destructive force. The piece which gave me inspiration for the complexities of the relationships in the novel is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
I love this piece, especially the first movement, but the more I listened to it while I was writing, the more I was pulled in different emotional directions: romantic and compelling, on the one hand, haunting and dark on the other. The piece seems to have the capacity to inspire thoughts of love and beauty, leading the German critic, Ludwig Rellstab, to identify it with moonlight flickering across Lake Lucerne, hence its popular title. But its eerie, unsettling quality also means it is sometimes chosen as the soundtrack in horror movies. In the film Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven, it is used to powerful but painful effect in relationship to the composer’s deafness. And this emotional dichotomy is exactly what I wanted to capture in the novel.
The book explores family dynamics in the wake of a death. Each of the four grown-up children deals with their father, Henry’s, death in a different way. Isabel and George share their father’s love of music, particularly the piano and appear to have been closest to him. The day after Henry’s death, Isabel listens to George playing the Moonlight Sonata:
It was one of their father’s favourites and the music filled her head. She held a tea cloth to her face, forcing the thick towelling material against her lips. Why couldn’t her fingers tempt such sounds of exquisite melancholy as George’s?
Despite their shared love of the piece, and grief at their father’s death, sibling rivalry underlies Isabel’s response.
The other brother and sister, Rick and Grace, are excluded from this musical bond. Rick blames the emotional distance he’s always felt from his father on his inability to master the piano:
It was ridiculous that he’d spent so much time craving his father’s attention when all it would have taken was a few plinkety plonks on the piano.
After Henry’s death, Rick vows to learn. All his problems will disappear if only ‘he could learn to play the Moonlight fucking Sonata’. The choice of language is deliberate with Rick – even at the moment of vowing to learn, and therefore becoming closer to Henry – denigrating his father’s favourite piece.
The Piano Player’s Son is also about inheritance and I chose Henry’s piano as the focus for the enduring war between Rick and George. Both brothers claim it as theirs, Rick as the eldest son, George as the one who shared his father’s passion for music. I didn’t want the dispute to relate to money, but to be about something of personal and emotional significance – in this case, each brother seems to be claiming their worth in their father’s eyes. I chose a piano because, like books, it is a thing of beauty which furnishes a room, but which also has the power within it to feed the mind and soul.
While he is waiting for his father’s piano to arrive, Rick buys a second-hand one and starts having lessons, but his progress is painfully slow. When he tells his teacher that he wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, she informs him he’s nowhere near ready for that.
Rick thought of his father’s stubby fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have been a piano player,’ he used to say, ‘not with these fingers.’ And yet, here Rick was, a piano player’s son, and he’d never master the instrument.
The piano and the Moonlight sonata encapsulate all that was wrong with his relationship with his father.
References to classical music enhance the novel – Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, Bach, all play a part. But when Rick chooses a piece of music that sums up his relationship with his darling American wife, Deanna, he turns his back on his father’s beloved classical pieces and instead it’s Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream that sums up the closeness and joy of their relationship. I love Dolly Parton – there is something inspirational in her continuing love of singing and her passion for music.
But I have to finish with the key piece for my novel, the Moonlight sonata. Although I’ve concentrated on the first movement, the three movements together convey something of the story structure, building towards the final, furious movement. The Moonlight Sonata helped me explore the emotional complexity of the novel to such an extent that I had to include it at my launch. I managed to persuade my husband to play the first movement, and you could feel the emotion in the room as he played.
If you’d like to listen to another version of the Moonlight sonata, here’s Daniel Barenboim.
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Unravelling, published in 2010, has won three awards, and her second novel The Piano Player’s Son,. Her website is here and you can also connect with her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Lindsay is giving away one paperback copy of The Piano Player’s Son. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!
authors, Beethoven, central character, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Dolly Parton, drama, entertainment, Gary Oldman as Beethoven, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, literary novels, Moonlight, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, relationship, Roz Morris, The Moonlight Sonata, The Piano Player, The Piano Player's Son, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction competition, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Beethoven, central character, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, literary novels, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Piano Player's Son, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 my guest is fashion writer, stylist and author Amanya Maloba @Amanya_M
Soundtrack by Erykah Badu, Tyler The Creator, Peter Tosh, Outkast, Shabazz Palaces, Q-Tip, Florence + the Machine
I’m a notorious lone wolf — I spend most of the day alone. I’m also an avid people-watcher and work best surrounded by movement and chaos. How do I reconcile these traits? People repellents, also known as large headphones, large sunglasses, and an unwavering jawline. These allow me the ability to situate myself in bustling environments and maintain my inner solitude and concentration, without the distractions of small talk. This also means that most of my day is characterized by a continuous flow of music, affecting my disposition and writing. Most of the vignettes in my collection, Harvest, were written as direct results of the combination of the thoughts circulating in my mind with a lyric or mood from one of the many songs I listen to. Though Harvest emerged as a unified collection, the music that inspired it is far from cohesive.
Harvest follows a young girl, Sukari, as she navigates through different spaces and times, learning about herself through her past, present, and future worlds. I wrote many of the pieces while living abroad in London and traveling throughout Europe, so this sense of transience is one that I’m intimate with. Traveling has always brought me comfort knowing that I get to escape from one place and step into the unknown adventures of a new place. Conversely, constant movement generates a certain sense of anxiety, between wondering if my physical self will be safe in the new place, if my soul will be over or under stimulated, and, of course, the dread that arises when your heart longs for someone thousands of miles away and wondering if they feel the same about you. Window Seat by Erykah Badu conveys the simultaneous comfort and anxiety that comes from wanting to escape, and begs the question whether the constant movement comes from a place of bravery or cowardice. I like to think it’s a bit of both, and like Badu’s voice, the prospect of leaving is at once haunting and mystical.
One of my favorite pieces in Harvest, Dinner is Served (Karibu), is also the most honest and unapologetic. My intention was to write it in such a way that, depending on how much you identify with the protagonist, you’ll either feel like someone is preaching your truth or feel uncomfortable in recognising your role as the perpetrator.
I will kill you with every bite you take, but you will continue to eat because I am the finest cuisine you’ve ever had. I will be your last meal. Dinner is served.
Yonkers by Tyler The Creator echoes the same unapologetic declaration of self between the minimalism of the beat and the (arguably) shocking lyrics. Though I don’t co-sign all of the lyrics, the idea of making people who so desperately want to consume you, your aesthetic, and your culture uncomfortable is one that I do support. The beat of Yonkers along with Tyler’s vocal delivery make you want to nod your head and enjoy the song, however this is nearly impossible if you’re actually listening to the lyrics. This is something that I wanted to achieve with Dinner is Served (Karibu), and to some extent, Harvest as a whole. As a writer I feel no obligation to entertain — I’m not here to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy. My job is convey the truth to the best of my ability regardless of whether the reader feels hurt in facing it.
Another one of my favorite vignettes is Complaints from Five Guests of Heaven. The piece is comprised of five different complaints from guests staying at the mythical hotel. Each of room numbers corresponds to the assassination dates of radical thinkers and activists that I admire. I chose to have these people issue complaints that are in keeping with the manner in which they were killed or their beliefs to show that though many people admire them posthumously, their theories and legacies are largely still being disrespected, making it impossible for them to rest in peace. Mystic Man by Peter Tosh is a song not only referenced in the piece, but is also applicable to the nature of any truly great person. The notion of being rooted at once in the past, present, and future expresses the fluidity of time and also the power of thinking beyond the constricting notions of time. Even though these people were physically murdered (directly or indirectly) for their philosophies, their words and power are still present, confirming Tosh’s conviction that he’s a man of the future.
Another theme that runs throughout Harvest is encountering and navigating young love. I’ve never been a fan of corny ballads or depressing love songs, movies, or books — I don’t find the two lovers coming together in the rain cathartic or applicable to any type of love I’ve ever known or witnessed. Prototype by OutKast and A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer) by Shabazz Palaces are two love songs that I can fully get behind. Both speak to the nuances of love rather than some grand notion and both manage to be sensual and sexual without falling into the trap of misogyny. Life is Better by my favorite MC, Q-Tip, manages to beautifully blend romantic and artistic love through the lyrics and blur the distinction between musical styles through its production and composition. The way one type of love illuminates another is true in my own experience and is evident in pieces such as Beignets and Trumpets (I): Visitor, where food, music, and romance are all swirled together with the same sensuality.
Originally the title for Harvest was going to be What the Harvest Gave Me, a nod to one of my favorite Frida Kahlo paintings, What the Water Gave Me. Florence + The Machine has a song by the same name, which is also in part inspired by Virginia Woolf’s suicide. The idea of killing off one version of oneself, in Virginia Woolf’s case wading into water with stones in her pockets, and stepping into another confirms the power of reinvention that Sukari finds with each place she steps into.
Amanya Maloba is a fashion writer, stylist, and author. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago. Her fashion writing and photography has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post, Refinery29, and CollegeFashionista. Amanya has also participated in style campaigns with Finish Line and eBay. Harvest, published in July 2014 by Vine Leaves Press, is Amanya’s first collection of fiction. Amanya’s style and writing is influenced by her Kenyan heritage as well as her time living in London and miscellaneous travels. Find her on her website and on Twitter @Amanya_M
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My guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Amanya Maloba, authors, constant flow, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fiction collection, Florence + the Machine, Harvest, headphones, literary fiction, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, short fiction, short stories, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vine Leaves Press, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 my guest is biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber
Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster
I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.
In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.
Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.
Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.
Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.
This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.
I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins
The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.
I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.
Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.
Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.
Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).
My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.
When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.
Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.
Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks. The Centauress is her second novel. Find her on Twitter @kathyferber
GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you! The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August
artists, authors, Ben Webster, Catherine Cookson, Cosmopolitan fiction prize, Croatia, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Europe, exile, Fay Weldon Award, folk, folk music, folk songs, Gilad Atzmon, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, hermaphrodite, historical fiction, Homeland War, Homeland War Lenka, intersex, Istria, Istrian folk songs, Italy, jazz, Kathleen Jones, Kaštela, literary fiction, literary novels, Middlesex, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, opera, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, sculptors, Slovenia, The Centauress, The central character, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tuscan folk songs, undercover soundtrack, WH Smith bestseller, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yugoslavia, Zenobia
My guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Croatia, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Europe, exile, folk, hermaphrodite, historical fiction, intersex, Istria, Italy, jazz, Kathleen Jones, literary fiction, literary novels, Middlesex, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, opera, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Slovenia, The Centauress, The central character, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yugoslavia
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'