The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 SD Mayes @authormayes
Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt
Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter. Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.
We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.
Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.
Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.
One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead. But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.
Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’
In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.
Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.
Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.
Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.
‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…
The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?
Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.
Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.
Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.
It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.
SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.
Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you’ll meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 classical oboist turned memoirist Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler
Soundtrack by Mendelssohn, Wagner, Elliott Carter, Keith Jarrett
I have always approached listening to music as an activity with dedicated purpose. When I YouTube the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, recorded in 1949 by the great Russian violinist David Oistrahk, I sit quietly. I listen intently. Whereas many use listening to music as an aural inspiration to enrich a meaningful calling such as writing, I can only view music as a powerful life force which has had profound implications for me. Because music was, for over 25 years, my profession. My memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, tells of my experiences as a professional oboist in New York City during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, in which I attempt to unpack what it takes to be a hardworking classical musician. Juxtaposed to this, my personal narrative as a damaged young woman sings in opposition, accompanied by all the dangerous life choices I made. Ultimately, discovering and then performing music actually saved my life.
I was eager to write about events that elicited exceptional results, both professional and personal, both beautiful and awful. What does being on stage at Carnegie Hall really feel like; what must a musician endure to maintain excellence; what happens when things go very wrong in a concert; and what transpires when music takes over and musicians surrender to the sway of something more powerful than themselves? But also, how might writing about the music I love tell my readers something important about me in a way that further illuminates the personal narrative of my life. All this.
When something is a forever thing, such as music, it is natural to want to be enveloped by these wonderfully organized sounds and use music as a companion to almost any activity. When writing my book, my challenge was not to decide which music might inspire me and then coax out my best work. Rather, my task was to mentally catalogue all the music I’d ever played; all the musicians with whom I’d performed; all the teachers who taught me everything and very little; all the conductors I’d dismissed because they knew nothing, or revered because they understood absolutely everything; all the concerts that changed my life, or humbled me and brought me to my knees. I had to think deeply to remember, and also dredge up what I longed to forget.
Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner will always represent a song of prescience and possibility. Performing this music in a church in New York City literally gave me the courage to wrench myself from a violent husband. This profound composition, written for the birth of Wagner’s son, touched within me a place of naïve clarity. During the concert, I became aware that my current life would need to change. This notion – an urgent imperative, actually – washed over me while I was playing the oboe. Somehow, I was able to glean the realization only through music.
When one cannot do something, there is always the option to give up if results are not reached in a reasonable time frame. But for a musician, nothing creates more urgency to succeed than a concert engagement. When I was invited to perform the Oboe Concerto by American Composer Elliott Carter, I took this difficult music into my hands, practised it, lived it, hated it, and cried a lot. All because I couldn’t play the thing. Not even close. Panic quickly set in because I was certain I’d finally be identified as the fraud any artist deeply believes themselves to be. Trying to play Carter’s music is how I became bedfellows with pure, endless failure. I’d turn over during fitful sleep and kiss this devil on the lips. Finally, after many months the music showed me the way. I ultimately mastered it and thereby found my love for it. More importantly, I learned to not allow any difficulty to dictate my future. That music lesson was a life changer.
Rock-star jazz musicians are not always odd, or unapproachable, or just too big for their britches. Sometimes they are just the nicest people on the planet. And sometimes they hire a random oboist (you) to premiere and record their oboe concerto, solely on the basis of hearing a tape of your playing. That piece is played often on classical radio stations for years and years to come. And sometimes that is a boost you badly need, because many times you are facing the next impossible piece of music. And it makes you very humble and grateful because you’ve learned that music is the great equalizer among musicians. There is no low or high; no strata of fame. No. When musicians collaborate, music is simply the smartest thing in the room. And yes, thank you, Keith Jarrett.
Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves. It is always a willing and available companion. Because when music resonates, those sounds remain in the universe forever. Sound never fully dissipates. We know this because scientists are now listening to noise that originated over a million years ago. No other art form – not visual, not drama, not dance, not even writing – can claim this distinction of eternity. Simply put, there is not a person on Earth who hasn’t connected deeply, in some way and at some time, with music. It is an aural glue to feelings, memories and hope.
Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for 25 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in LitHub, PANK, Psychology Today Magazine, Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here and you can tweet her as @MarciaAButler
My guest this week has written a memoir of life as an international concert oboist, juxtaposed with a parallel narrative of a precarious and troubled personal life. I first came across her on The Literary Hub, where she wrote about how she left the very worst experience of all out of that book. It was so haunting that I contacted her and asked if there was any way she could write a piece for this series. She has, and the result is a trip through music that has helped her remember, or dredge up the times she preferred to forget, and moments when music helped her make life choices because of the clarity and discipline of playing. Stop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Marcia Butler.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 debut novelist Leslie Welch @Leslie_Welch
Soundtrack by Dave Bielanko, Christine Smith, Chris Rattie, Gus Smith, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, The Temper Trap, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Imagine Dragons
‘We’re recording these old songs at a church in Millheim. You should stop by.’
Intrigued by the invitation, my husband and I made the 22-mile drive from our hotel in State College to the post-industrial town. Back then, Millheim was growing into the unlikely heart of a serious music scene in Central Pennsylvania. That visit would eventually work its way into a novel I didn’t know I was going to write.
Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith (of Marah fame) had enlisted our friend Chris Rattie to play drums on Mountain Minstrelsy—a collection of old mountain songs they had resurrected with new music. Given the people involved, I expected the session to be different, but we walked into an all-out revolt against modern recording. Recording based on intuition instead of algorithms. My internal monologue alternated between, ‘This is so freaking cool’ and ‘How can this possibly work?’
A tangle of cords, amps, and a giant mixing board crowded the back of the sanctuary where greeters used to welcome people to worship. Mics were set up wherever there was good, natural reverb. Not a computer in sight.
Two towheaded boys chased each other through the pews in loops around us as we checked out the set-up.
‘Who are the kids?’ I asked.
‘The taller one is our fiddle player,’ Chris said. ‘Hey, Gus! Come over and play something.’
Eight-year-old Gus scooped up his fiddle and ripped out a quick melody that sucked me into a serious religious moment. The kind of experience that makes you doubt you could ever be good at anything in your life. That’s what happens when you experience a prodigy in person. Here’s Gus Smith.
Gus, undoubtedly used to these impromptu performances, gave us a look that asked if that was enough of a demo. Before our claps faded into the narthex, he was back to the business of chasing his brother around the church.
While the idea for my novel The Goodbyes wouldn’t come for a few months, I collected plenty of inspiration at that session. Fast forward to November of 2014.
Searching for a Soundtrack
With an idea begging for a blank document and a NaNoWriMo deadline, I sat down to write. Since the story was about Webb Turner, a rock star who races through a blizzard to possibly say a final ‘goodbye’ to the girl who inspired his songs, I packed my writing playlist with songs I thought Webb might write. Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and The Temper Trap dominated the two-hour loop. But when I pressed ‘play’, I found myself skipping each track after a few seconds.
I switched over to my music library, hoping the universe would step in. Song after song, nothing kept me writing for more than a sentence until I skipped my way to the one thing I would have never chosen—Tibetan Monks chanting. Yes, really. I didn’t care what it was, it shifted me into the zone. I tapped out a chapter or two on the train ride home.
When I wasn’t writing, I listened to popular music from the 90s and early 2000s. Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Kanye West and Nickelback transported me back to the spirit of that time. These songs play in the background of a lot of scenes in the book. They’re important to the characters, too.
I finished the first draft in a month. Once I had let it rest for a few weeks, I started the slow and painful process of editing. It wasn’t long before I realised that I needed more than ‘Oms’ to paint the flesh onto the bones of the story. My filmmaker husband suggested listening to movie soundtracks for some momentum. I quickly discovered that these epic melodies, swelling and crashing without apology, are gold for writers who want to add drama to key scenes. The Great Expectations soundtrack hit an especially sweet spot for me.
When it comes to creating a writing playlist, what works for one book might not work for the next. My current manuscript likes The Lightning Strike by Snow Patrol and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. It’s a nice change, but in the end, the most important thing is finding anything that inspires me to keep moving until I can punch out the two best words in a writer’s journey: The End.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Leslie Welch spent most of her youth concocting elaborate stories. Her high school English teacher encouraged her to turn these creative lies into creative fiction. Today, Leslie writes at least 1000 words a day on DC Metro orange line trains. She co-wrote her first book in Harrisburg hotel rooms and diners with her best friend, and in 2016 she released her first solo novel, The Goodbyes, published by Blue Moon. When she’s not off exploring the world, Leslie lives in a house full of laughter outside of Washington, DC, with her soulmate, two cats, two dogs, two fish, and a teenager. Find her website here and tweet her as @Leslie_Welch
My guest this week began her novel as a NaNoWriMo project, appropriately enough for this time of year. But its true seeds were at a gig in the late 1990s where the show was stolen by an eight-year-old fiddle player. Years later, the author sat down to power through a manuscript idea for NaNoWriMo. She used songs of the 90s and early 2000s to take her mind back to the night with the fiddle player, but nothing would make the words flow until an album of Tibetan chants popped up on her music library. She found the zone. She is Leslie Welch and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 writing teacher, award-winning novelist and piano tutor Kris Faatz @kfaatz925
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Air Supply, John Mayer, Van Morrison
The first seeds of my novel To Love A Stranger came into my head in the fall of 2007. At the time, I had recently finished my grad studies in piano performance, gotten married, and started working professionally as a piano teacher. I’d written almost no fiction since high school, about 10 years earlier, and had never tried – or thought seriously about trying – to write a novel.
Stranger came out of the backstage world of the classical symphony. My two main characters, Sam and Jeannette, are a conductor and a pianist, respectively. They and their story woke up in my imagination because I had fallen in love with that particular piece of the music world, where people come together to create huge living pieces of art. Some of my favorite classical music, for solo piano and for symphony, ended up in Stranger, because I wanted to share the experience of hearing and being part of those works with readers. During the first months of writing the novel, though, I listened to very different music.
When I started the project, I had a starry-eyed idea that writing a book would take a few months and then we’d be off to publication. Pretty soon, I realized I had let myself in for worlds of trouble. I was in love with Sam, my primary character. He was clear and alive in my mind, and his story – about love and loss, and isolation and condemnation because of the person he was – felt urgent and real. I wanted to get it onto the page, but quickly realised I didn’t have the skills I needed. Frustration set in even as I tasted, for the first time, the exhilaration of a story that wanted to take root and climb for the sky.
Music pushed me along. First, I needed to anchor myself in Sam’s time and place. He was born in the early 1960s, and Stranger was ultimately set in the late 1980s, while I was born in 1979 and needed some way to touch a past I hadn’t experienced. One of the first tunes I listened to for inspiration was Bob Dylan’s Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard any Dylan before, but the tune quickly wrapped itself around my imagination. As I listened to Dylan sing, I felt myself reaching back and linking hands with people in the first crowds that thronged to hear him. I felt the energy of that time and understood why Dylan’s audiences fell in love with his candid, wistful lyrics. For a heartbeat or two, I was part of the generation that had claimed him as its voice.
From that early tune, I moved to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, and did my best to wear out my husband’s copy of it during the first year of working on Stranger. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go wasn’t just a time-anchor: it drew me a picture of a central relationship in Sam’s life, a love he had held and then felt compelled to let go. I listened to the tune over and over, caught the mood, cried over it, and did my best to put what I saw and felt on the page, as imperfect as it had to be.
“Gil,” Sam said, “listen.” He had to say something before it was too late, if only he could find the words… “I married her, but…” There it was, the simplest thing in the world. “I love you. Always. You know that, don’t you?” I never stopped loving you. I never should have left. I’m so sorry, Gil.’
I was disappointed not to be able to find a link to this tune as it’s performed on the Blood on the Tracks album. If you’ve never listened to the album, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Songs like Lonesome, about love and loss and missing the one who was gone, kept me focused as I stumbled along, trying to write the story that felt more urgent to me every day. I went to the Rolling Stones’s High Tide and Green Grass album and played Tell Me You’re Coming Back To Me over and over in my car as I drove to piano lessons. The song told me everything I needed to know about Gil, the man Sam had loved, and how Gil felt after the relationship ended. Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing At All filled the same function (as cheesy as the song sounds now to this 80s child’s ears). The thread about Sam and Gil helped pull me back into the story every time I got frustrated again with my limitations as a writer.
Stranger took far more than a few months to see through to completion. When the book was released in May, it had been almost a decade from start to finish. During those years, I realized that I wanted to be a writer even more than I wanted to be a musician, and I learned the writing craft pretty much from scratch. By the end of that journey, almost any music I heard anywhere was about Stranger in some way, or about the need for courage and persistence. As I wrap up these memories, I have to mention John Mayer’s Say (What You Need To Say) and Van Morrison’s Queen of the Slipstream, neither of which has to do with Stranger’s story, but both of which kept me writing when I didn’t want to.
Ultimately, To Love A Stranger exists because of music. The story could not have existed, or made it into the world, without the melodies that fill it and the tunes that carried me along when I needed them.
Kris Faatz’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Reed, Digging Through the Fat, and other journals. Her debut novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was released May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). She has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a fellowship recipient at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, and is a pianist and a teacher of creative writing. Visit her online at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter @kfaatz925
My guest this week had quite an epic journey to write her novel. It began with her experience of music as a graduate student, which made her want to write about the romantic and artistic relationship between a pianist and a conductor. She began to listen to more music to imagine the characters, imagining that within a few months she’d have it done, but the more she wrote, the more craft she realised she had to learn. This will be a familiar situation to all of us who’ve fallen for a story idea and then struggled to do it justice. Certain songs became talismans – Bob Dylan, Air Supply and the Rolling Stones – keeping her in contact with her original purpose and the characters who were so strong in her mind. Ten years on and her persistence has paid off: the novel is published by Blue Moon and has earned a prestigious award. She is Kris Faatz and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.