Posts Tagged writing

The Undercover Soundtrack – Alison Layland

for logoInto the warzone

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 writer and translator Alison Layland @AlisonLayland

Soundtrack by Steven R Smith, Aiko Shimada, PJ Harvey, Colin Stetson, Laurie Anderson, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dark Patrick, Darko Rundek, Smoke Fairies, Beth Orton

Music is an essential part of my writing process. I pick up on atmospheres, and fragments of lyrics that suggest an idea, character or situation (not always in the way the artist intended!), and build up a playlist for almost everything I write. I rarely listen to music when actually writing, but my playlist influences my work, and a copy to play in the car or while working keeps me in the zone.

smlDSC_3422A great inspiration, and music I definitely can and do play while writing, comes from Steven R. Smith. His music, mainly instrumental, captures my imagination, and the range of atmospheres he creates match so many of my moods. He records under various names/personas, and when working on Someone Else’s Conflict I found his Hala Strana records particularly appropriate as the Eastern and Central European influences helped me to tap into the Croatian backstory to the novel. I was also delighted when he agreed to let me use an extract from one of the Hala Strana tunes, Wedding of the Blind, for my book trailer.

Stories from a dark place

In Someone Else’s Conflict, Jay is an itinerant storyteller and busker, leading a self-imposed nomadic lifestyle and using his stories as a way of escaping from his memories and past. Stories by Aiko Shimada is that world of escapism through stories. What Jay is concealing is involvement in the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and the guilt that still haunts him. Scenes from the war are shown in flashbacks and, as I’m fortunate not to have experienced any kind of war zone first-hand, I used music as the vehicle to take myself there. PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake told me it was possible and throughout the time I was writing the novel I had the first line of The Words That Maketh Murder going round in my head, as similar thoughts must have plagued Jay.

Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s amazing album New History Warfare Vol. 2 immersed me in all kinds of dark places and provided the perfect atmosphere both for the war scenes and the effects they had on the characters, in particular The Stars in his Head with its menacing driving pulse and swirling loops, and the chaos and displacement of A Dream of Water with guest vocals from Laurie Anderson. My fictional war zone was further intensified by the beauty and terror of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Mladic.

The haunting Ivases Lament by Dark Patrick not only suggested to me the feel of loss, tragedy and anger, but also had personal associations with my characters though a loose connection with its title – Ivan was Jay’s friend who was killed in the Croatian war and his son, Vinko, now a teenager and immigrant searching for identity, is central to the novel. The song brought out all the edginess of their relationship.

As I’m a linguist, it was more or less inevitable that, during my research into the Balkan conflicts, I would be moved to learn the language, especially as a personal way of gaining an insight into the feel and culture of the region. Music also features in my language-learning process, and I made some wonderful discoveries from that part of the world. My favourite so far has been Darko Rundek, in the context of writing the novel especially since a number of his songs deal with the conflict and its aftermath. When I first heard Ista Slika (The Same Picture) – before I saw the video, worked out the lyrics and fully appreciated the tragedy of what the song is about – I simply thought it was a lovely song. When I looked into it more deeply and discovered that it was about the war and that the refrain, roughly translated, means ‘whatever your way in the world in your crazy head you see the same picture’ it became a kind of theme tune for the novel. My own reaction epitomised the way Jay hides his own dark side from the world.

SEC A LaylandLove and redemption

The novel is certainly not all darkness, and my playlist helped me keep me grounded in this, too. An essential thread is the developing friendship and love between Jay and Marilyn, the artist he meets who helps him come to terms with his past and has to decide whether to stand by him as things start to go wrong. Several songs from the Smoke Fairies’ Low Light and Trees album became part of their relationship in my mind, especially Summer Fades with its strong feel of the other person’s past. For a long time, Marilyn is understandably not sure of Jay; she is finding her feet after a difficult previous relationship and is unsure how much to trust him, despite his charismatic and outwardly friendly nature. In one of those serendipitous moments of musical discovery, I was initially drawn to Beth Orton’s Magpie because it reflects the imagery of one of Jay’s stories, and soon found it gave me a real feel for Marilyn’s inner strength.

The ending of the novel evolved as I approached it, but I always knew it would have a positive feel – though just how positive, I wasn’t sure. And so we return to the music of Steven R. Smith. The title and soaring atmosphere of To Rise and Move On says it all.

Alison Layland is a writer and translator, originally from Bradford and now living in the beautiful Welsh mountains with her family. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, originally inspired by her passion for storytelling, tells of trust, love and the need to belong, moving from the peaceful Yorkshire Dales to the horrors of the Croatian conflict of the 1990s and its aftermath. It is published by Honno and was a Lovereading.co.uk Debut of the Month in January 2015. Alison can be found at her website. She tweets as @AlisonLayland and is a member of The Prime Writers @ThePrimeWriters

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Louise Marley

for logo‘The distraction of silence’

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 romantic comedy and romantic suspense writer Louise Marley @LouiseMarley

Soundtrack by Robbie Williams, Alesha Dixon, Pulp, Little Boots, Eliza Doolittle, Damian Marley

I’ve always been good at blocking out any distracting noise, whether I’m writing or reading. The distraction of silence is another matter, particularly if I’ve become stuck writing a scene, but I’ve learned to work around this by playing music.

Louise MarleyIt took me a while to realise the music I chose influenced my writing. I was listening to whatever was in the charts, but the music didn’t always fit the scene I was trying to create and would sometimes take me right out of it. So I got into the habit of creating playlists.

Nemesis, my most recent novel, starts with a flashback to 1998. Natalie is 15 and furious because her parents have forbidden her to go to the carnival. So she’s watching from her bedroom window, hoping to see enough to pretend she was there. Instead she spots her sister, Sarah, sneaking out to meet a man waiting in the shadows. It’s the last time Natalie will see Sarah alive. A quick way for me to take the reader back to 1998 was to reference Robbie William’s Let Me Entertain You, but the song is also about rebellion and infidelity, and these became Sarah’s motivations for running away.

Music also helps me develop my characters by providing them their own ‘theme tune’. Natalie’s became Knockdown by Alesha Dixon. This song, as the title suggests, is about a girl realising that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to pick yourself up and carry on. Natalie’s mother neglects her, her father is a violent bully and her sister was murdered. Despite all this Natalie works hard, educates herself and now has a successful career as a thriller writer. She feels it’s the perfect time to finally find out who killed her sister – by using herself as bait.

Understandably Natalie’s boyfriend, Simon, thinks she’s insane to put herself in such a dangerous situation. His character was inspired by Common People by Pulp (the song is also playing when they first meet, back in 1998). The track is really about a rich girl who wants to play at being poor but I twisted the meaning to create Simon, who is one of those people who is never happy with his own life. He hates being one of the ‘common people’. He wants to be rich and successful, and he blames everyone else for the fact he isn’t. Simon is jealous of Natalie’s friend because she lives in a castle, he hates another character because he got the job he wanted, and he’s even bitter about Natalie having the more successful career:

Look at everything you’ve achieved, all those books you’ve sold, the millions you’ve made. But while you’re living up here in your ivory tower, do you ever consider the rest of us? Do you ever think about what it must be like to be me, stuck at that bloody school forever and never progressing, all because of my relationship with you?’

As well as ‘theme tunes’, music helps me work out the characters’ relationships to each other. Remedy by Little Boots, with its line about dancing with the enemy, inspired the relationship between Natalie and Bryn – the man the police suspect of killing Sarah. Bryn’s cousin disappeared the same time Sarah died and he’s convinced the two incidents are connected. Natalie can’t make up her mind as to whether she thinks he’s guilty or innocent.

Despite the police warning her off, Natalie agrees to work with Bryn but, as they follow up one false lead after another, the body of another young woman is found in identical circumstances to Sarah. Natalie is devastated.

She was so small, so slight – so young. I was the one who started this. It should have been me.’

The Undercover Soundtrack - distraction of silenceNatalie has spent years trying to bring her sister’s murderer to justice. She’s so used to bouncing back from all those knockdowns she hardly notices them anymore, but this is one knockdown there’s no getting up from. Go Home by Eliza Doolittle, about a girl who is in denial about being in trouble, helped me get into Natalie’s head at this point, revealing why she feels she has to finally give up on this obsession.

Natalie might have given up on her sister’s murderer but unfortunately he hasn’t given up on her.

There was no one there; of course there wasn’t. The front door had remained locked and the chain was even in place. She was spooking herself.

Then the music started.’

I don’t mention the track by name but inside my head it was All Night by Damian Marley, about a man exasperated by his girlfriend. I had the idea that anyone would feel freaked out by music echoing throughout an empty apartment in the middle of the night, wouldn’t they?

Unless they were a writer, in which case it might just kick-start their imagination.

Louise Marley writes romantic comedy and romantic suspense, and sometimes she mixes the two. She lives in Wales, surrounded by fields of sheep, and has a beautiful view of Snowdon from her window. Her first published novel was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was a finalist in Poolbeg’s ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition. She has also written articles for the Irish press and short stories for UK women’s magazines such as Take a Break and My Weekly. Nemesis is available here. Her website is here, her blog is here. She tweets as @LouiseMarley.

 

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Guy Mankowski

for logo‘Armour and post-punk lullabies’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow

Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar

I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.

Guy MankowskiI first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.

The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.

Aural utopias

In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.

David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.

How I Left the National Grid - Book ImageBrutalist surfaces

During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.

Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Audrina Lane

for logo‘Music for looking into the past’

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 Audrina Lane @AudrinaLane

Soundtrack by Berlin, Wham!, Rick Astley, Robin Beck, George Michael, Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes, Patrick Swayze

As I started 2013 and my 40th birthday I started to think about what I still wanted to do with my life, call it a mid-life crisis bucket list. It was a time to look back into my past from an 80s adolescence to my life today and wonder if I had made the right choices. Music has always been my life blood from watching Top of the Pops in the 70s and wanting to be a dancer in Hot Gossip, right through to the fact that I always have music on in the office, house, car and headphones. Wherever I was working on my novel the music was there.

IMG_0086So on my bucket list I wanted to write a book, my first attempt at this was in 1992 after suffering my first break-up. It was called Take my Breath Away and straight away you can see that the song by Berlin was my starting point. The mood and lyrics of the song a haunting epitaph to lost love. Afraid of rejection of my teenage romance novel I shelved it.

Happily in February 2013 I found the manuscript and set to work to achieve my dream. The title of my novel is a song Where did your heart go? By Wham, its poignant lyrics and soulful vibe pointed me in the direction my story was going to take. With the local radio station on I decided to bring my idea from 1992 into the present and include music that I loved from the 80s. By setting my novel in 2013 my main character Stephanie Eden, widow, single mother and local radio station DJ is 40 years old. She grew up and experienced love for the first time in 1988. The song that made me remember my first love was First Time by Robin Beck. I listened to this track constantly as the lyrics evoke that breathless yearning when you are hit by love. I needed the music of the era to awaken my memories.

Stephanie’s daughter Charlotte is 16 in 2013 and just experiencing her own break-up. Stephanie remembers her diary from 1988 from when she was 16 and about to embark on her first relationship. Handing the diary to Charlotte she lets her read about how first love was in 1988 compared to 2013. My favourite scene is Stephanie’s first kiss with Lifeguard James, unexpected and beneath the water in the local swimming pool where they met.

I felt his lips on mine, soft and firm against the liquid coolness of the water. We were suspended in a timeless moment’

Stephanie yearns to be a DJ so for every romantic event in her relationship a song comes to mind and for this kiss it was Whenever you need somebody by Rick Astley. Upbeat and hopeful like my character feelings.

You feel for Stephanie when she realises that James is moving away. I needed a song to express the yearning and desperation she feels and I listened to A different corner by George Michael, the lyrics and piano on the track highlighting her yearning and the decision she made that led her to James in the first place. Stephanie has never moved on from her first love, despite her short marriage and the birth of her daughter. James has kept appearing in her memories every time she hears a song from the past. How many of us have experienced the same thing when you hear a certain song?

Music was such a powerful memory tool and one that I could never silence no matter the pain it bought.’

Charlotte loves music, influenced by her mum’s career and also her own dreams of becoming a dancer. I hope you are all seeing the parallel’s in my own ambitions?? At a dance competition Charlotte meets Mitchell and with a shared love of the film Dirty Dancing they re-create the iconic dance to the song I’ve had the time of my life, it becomes the first song of their relationship.

She could almost hear the music in her head, just louder than the beating of her heart as they moved together in perfect synchronicity.’

BOOK COVER 2The book follows both characters through their sexual awakening and each of these scenes was easier to write with a song playing for the characters. For Stephanie and James I found it in the beautiful lyrics of George Michael’s Father Figure, for Charlotte and Mitchell with She’s like the wind by Patrick Swayze. As Stephanie watches her daughter falling in love she wonders if she should give love one more try?

In a way the soundtrack of my teenage years became those of the characters I was bringing to life and recreated that magical feeling of first love.

Audrina Lane lives in Herefordshire with her partner and two dogs. She works full time for the Herefordshire Library service which means she is surrounded by books every day. Where Did Your Heart Go? was released in July 2013 and her second book, Un-Break my Heart, was released in December 2014. She is currently working on the third. Find her on Facebook, Twitter @AudrinaLane and her website.

 

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‘Music for looking into the past’ – Audrina Lane

for logoMy guest this week brings a real blast of the 1980s, with a bright red emphasis on romance (I guess it’s that time of year). She drew on the soundtrack of her adolescent years to create the love-torn characters in her novel, and the heart of the story beats to George Michael, Berlin and Patrick Swayze. She is Audrina Lane and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Suzie Grogan

for logo‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’

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 Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb

Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues

An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for author picBritain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.

Gentle despair

The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.

Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide

The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.

He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.

Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.

Wilfred Owen

Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:

Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.

The question

Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in shellthe mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?

We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.

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‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – Suzie Grogan

for logoMy guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Jake Kerr

for logo‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’

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 science fiction author Jake Kerr @jakedfw

Soundtrack by Crosby, Stills and Nash

Jake-Ellen Datlow pic-fullWhen I was 10 years old I had two passions in my life: Music and reading. I was never that good at producing music, so I did the next best thing–gathering up all the 45 RPM records I could, stacking them on my cheap plastic phonograph player, grabbing a laundry clip, and then pretending I was a DJ. Similarly, I wasn’t very good at writing, so I would write reviews and commentary about the books I read. I would discuss what I liked about the stories, what the writer did well, and all the things that I didn’t like and how he or she had failed. I would type these up on sheets of paper, staple them together, and then collect them in a drawer.

I wasn’t really a DJ, and I wasn’t really a literary critic. And I definitely wasn’t a musician or a writer.

Such is how dreams are born.

At the age of 27 I was hired to move to Los Angeles to write a column about music and the radio industry. I told all my friends: ‘I’m not really a DJ playing music, and I’m not really a writer or writing about stories, but I have achieved this amazing thing of merging my two dreams into one: I’m writing about music and DJs.’

It took about six years before I realized that this wasn’t really my dream. Music wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was part of who I was. I lived through music, where it would provide me with solace, understanding, and escape. But I didn’t want to actually create it or write about it. I experienced it. It was me. But I needed more from books. I did want to create. I did want to write the books, to tell the stories.

Such is how dreams are formed.

So I live the dream, and I write the stories. But make no mistake: The music is still there. Sometimes it is the soundtrack to what I’m writing, inspiring me even as it sets the tone and attitude of the words forming in my mind. Sometimes it is the source of the scene I’m writing, providing me with raw material that I never would have experienced otherwise. And sometimes it is the story. But the role of music in my dream is always there.

The song is the story

This is happening right now. I am writing a story for the third volume of Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’ Apocalypse Triptych. As I began thinking of the story I wanted to write, the song Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash was playing, and I immediately realized that this particular song was the story. There are lines in that song that are both heartbreaking and yet oddly hopeful. The more I thought about it, the more it integrated with my ideas for this apocalyptic story. It didn’t just set the tone of the story; it was the story.

So I put the song on repeat and started writing. The song, with its gentle rhythms and bittersweet lyrics took me exactly where I wanted to be for my story. The melancholy, the hope, the dream, the freedom—it was all there.

TB SoL ebook cover 100 dpiIt’s odd. For various rights reasons I couldn’t actually include the song in the story. As a result, no one who reads the story will know of its importance. This is common. For many of us, certainly me, while there is not always this explicit a connection between the music and the words on the page, some kind of connection is always there, and it is powerful. I somehow knew it when I was 10. It just took me many years to understand how to put the pieces together.

After 15 years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr’s first published story, The Old Equations, was nominated for the Nebula Award from Science Fiction Writers of America and shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year’s best collections. A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters. His debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, an adventure story for teen and pre-teen readers was released in 2014. Find him on Facebook, on his website, find more about Tommy Black here, and tweet him as @jakedfw.

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‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – Jake Kerr

for logoMy guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack: Sarah Yaw

for logo‘Music as a space to make sense of life’

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 author Sarah Yaw @SarahYawWrites

Soundtrack by Alexis Zoumbas, Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you’ve ever spent time with kids, you know that they play out whatever event has dominated their recent life. They need the space to do this, to find peace after a new experience. This is how they register and assign meaning to the things they encounter. This is how they create the map of what they know and how they learn to respond to new events in more sophisticated ways. They have context and reference for what occurs. And when life throws them a curve, they play it out and add that curve to their map. In the event of a, b and c, d can also occur. It soothes them. Life becomes known and thus less threatening. Watching my children play recently, I thought how stories and music do this for me. They give me a place to work through experiences so that I can make sense of my own life. Stories and music, in other words, are my play.

YawGet to the heart

In the mountains of northern Greece, there is a religious festival held each year. People attend the festival to cleanse themselves of mourning and rejoice in the fact that they are still alive. This is literal. The person seeking healing will sit in the middle of the sound. The music is played at them. It’s a vibrational experience as well as a melodic one, they say. The music, its vibrations and its intensity, can get into places that words can’t. It helps wash the person free of sadness and loss. Then the music shifts to joy. It becomes a celebration of the life that remains. Follow this link and scroll down to listen to Alexis Zoumbas play Epirotiko Mirologi and you’ll understand how this music gets to the heart.

When I was a very little girl, it was my habit to fall asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to my father play music. He toured the world with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and his own band The Everyman Band, among others. Here he is playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1975 Coney Island Baby. My parents divorced soon after this. I had no words then to work out my grief; I was too young for the kind of play I watched my children doing recently, but I had all that music, and in that way that music can, it got into me, into my places that needed soothing.

Very internal

What I love about music is that it touches everyone who can hear it and while it is an individual experience—the mourner in Greece is on her knees, wiping out something very internal, very personal—all who surround her are connected by the sound and the experience. There was constant live music in both my parents’ homes when I was growing up. Someone was singing or picking up an instrument and filling my space with vibration. When I was old enough, I chose the clarinet and became Woody Herman’s youngest fan (and the world’s biggest dork). The clarinet is a reed instrument. Controlling the vibration to make pleasing sounds was how I spent my youth. I was an only child. Done alone, play was not as fulfilling as music; music was heard by others, shared and, therefore, not lonely. I excelled as a musician because it was my birthright and because it was all I had. I wasn’t a reader. I rehearsed music for hours on end. It cleaned out my head. It calmed me. I went to it the way a swimmer goes to water, the way a yogi is called to asana, the way a runner seeks a path. Then, I developed tendonitis; I couldn’t play.

In college, the instructor of my women writers course said: ‘You can take an exam or you can write in the voice of one of the authors we read this semester’. It was the word ‘voice’ that caught my ear. Voice is musical. I may not have been much of a reader or have been all that good at spelling and punctuation, but I understood sound. So I wrote what I heard and this relief came over me. There was all this blocked up teenage, young-adult stuff that had built up since losing music—my sense of belonging, my value, was I lovable? —that I hadn’t been able to move and it started to move and I had once again found the relief of music. And this idea of voice was why. The sound of words, rhythm, dynamic, all of this mimicked the irresistible tension and release of music. The narrative gave me a place where I could explore paths, work through what it meant to be me.

Silence

In You Are Free To Go, my first novel, I wrote about a prison. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d chosen to write about a musicless place. Right before I started writing the book, my marriage to a musician had ended and so did the music. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by silence. I wrote about a prisoner who was mourning the loss of his friend; I wrote about a town where people wall themselves off from one another; I wrote a narrative with one moment of music: The characters are in a bar, coming together, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is playing. What else? I can’t know the deep forces that drive us to our subjects, but still I have never been alone like I was when I began writing this book, nor as sad.

YouAreFreetoGo-webA friend of mine recently organised the first musical performance in decades in the prison that inspired You Are Free To Go. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performers and said, ‘I haven’t heard live music in twenty-eight years’. My friend, who had just read how the Nazis brought the prisoners their instruments each day so they could perform for each other, said: ‘I think we can do a little better than the Nazis’.

In You Are Free To Go, a condemned man’s death affects countless lives at all strata of society. Yet, none of the story’s characters, in the prison or outside the walls, are given the relief that music could provide to help connect them to each other, soothe their grief, and help them contemplate the ubiquitous desire to understand how we belong in a world that is fundamentally unknowable. And in retrospect, that makes sense. Writing this story, the music was gone from my life when I needed it most. What I had was this book, the joy of writing it, so I used it to make sense of all that silence around me.

Sarah Yaw’s novel (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College. She fell asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to the music of Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and the Everyman Band. She lives in Central New York. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter @SarahYawWrites

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