The Undercover Soundtrack – Matthew Dicks

‘I wanted music that a certain breed of men might like but would rarely admit to liking’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary novelist Matthew Dicks

Soundtrack by Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Supertramp, Wham!, Abba, Nena

At the heart of Unexpectedly, Milo is a road trip.  The protagonist, Milo Slade, heads south in search of a woman who may or may not be alive, and since music has always played a large role in every road trip that I have ever taken, I felt like it should play a role in this book as well.

Savants and self-awareness

I wanted the choice of music to say something about Milo as a person, and so I enlisted the help of my wife, who is a near savant when it comes to music, to help me choose the playlist.  Milo first begins by burning a CD with the type of classic road trip music that you might hear in a movie.  He is a movie buff, and in many ways, he views himself as a character within a film, so includes songs like Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run on his playlist.

He doesn’t necessarily like this music, but it is what he thinks he is supposed to play, which is in many ways Milo’s problem.  He has spent his life pretending to be the person he thinks he is supposed to be instead of the oddball that he truly is.

Unlike a film, where a three-minute song can fill an entire road trip montage, Milo is surprised to discover that his carefully constructed playlist runs out before he is even able to leave the state of Connecticut.

Guilty pleasures

Milo then turns to music that he likes but is too embarrassed to play around his soon-to-be ex-wife.  Bands like Supertramp, Wham! and Abba enter the rotation, and it was these choices of bands to which my wife assisted me.  I wanted music that a certain breed of men might like but would rarely admit to liking.  Not the toughest guys in the world, but not exactly wimps either.  Catchy tunes that an average guy like Milo might enjoy.  The guilty pleasures of the everyman.

It was also important that Milo kept his love for this kind of music hidden from his wife.  While Milo’s wife, Christine, is not the nicest of people, Milo is at least partially to blame for the failure of his marriage because of the number of secrets he has kept from his wife.  She knows nothing about his obsessive-compulsive nature, and this has required Milo to construct an elaborate and secretive life from her, undoubtedly causing barriers in their relationship.

In fact, music plays a large role in this secret life as well.  As an obsessive-compulsive, one of Milo’s compulsions is to sing the German karaoke version of the 1980s hit 99 Luftballons by Nena to an audience.  When the demand strikes, Milo’s mind cannot be put at ease until he takes the stage and performs the song.  As he prepares for his road trip south, he makes sure to have a copy of the 99 Luftballons karaoke CD in the event the compulsion strikes.

Karaoke bars tend not to have this song on hand.

The song originally chosen for this compulsion was The Hokey Pokey.  Milo’s compulsions often involve escalation and eventual release, and I liked the way The Hokey Pokey followed this model, adding one body part at a time until the dancer is permitted to truly hokey pokey.  But my agent wisely steered me away from this song, thinking it a little too over-the-top and silly to be realistic.  The more obscure but still well known song like 99 Luftballons worked well, especially when I decided to use the German version of the song, which was actually popular in the United States for quite a while.  It added to Milo’s oddity, and the fact that he was required to sing the German version further emphasized how little control he had over these compulsions.

The song ends up playing a key role at the end of the novel, though that came as a bit of a surprise.  It was one of those writes-itself moments, and I ended up loving the scene.  The novel has been optioned for film, and as the process grinds along slowly but surely, I am hoping that the writers, producers and director decide to keep 99 Luftballons as Milo’s song of choice.  It’s the song that plays in the back of my mind whenever I think about Milo and his story.

Matthew Dicks is not one for long, crafted sentences, preferring the stylings of Vonnegut over those of Saramago. He is an author whose works, to date, include the novels Something Missing, Unexpectedly Milo, and the as yet unpublished Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend; a blog; and a number of Op Ed pieces, all of which, at some level or another, tend to examine the outcomes of the quirky and/or rebellious individual when forced up against staid society; however, to say that he is an author is an understatement, for this husband and father from Newington, CT, who has faced a number of near-death experiences, lived in his car, and been tried for a crime that he did not commit, is also an acclaimed elementary teacher who has received the Teacher of the Year Award, is the co-owner of a DJ business, and still wishes that he could beat some of his friends at golf.

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  1. #1 by Erika Marks on January 4, 2012 - 1:19 am

    Matthew, you had me at “road trip”–not to mention that I am a, ahem, fan of many of the songs in that rotation you discussed.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of using a song to illuminate a character’s pattern of behavior…UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO is now on my TBR pile. Congratulations on your success–and how thrilling that the novel has been optioned for film! (Roz, any chance we might see you in it?)

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 4, 2012 - 8:21 am

      Hi Erika! It’s on my TBR pile too – and I see nothing wrong with the ‘real’ Milo’s playlist either!
      If they make the movie in the UK, perhaps I’ll be allowed to be a grinning redhead in the background!

    • #3 by Matthew Dicks on January 4, 2012 - 11:33 am

      Thanks, Erika! Hope you enjoy the book! And I’m sure Milo would be happy to hear that you enjoy his guilty-pleasure music, too!

      My next book, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, actually publishes in the UK in March, about six months before it publishes here in the states, though it is relatively bereft of any musical references (I think).

  2. #4 by Mike on January 4, 2012 - 3:04 am

    Sounds like a great book – just put on hold at my local library.

  3. #6 by Mike on January 4, 2012 - 3:56 pm

    I was thinking (instead of writing of course) and wondering how one would do an e-book version of this book, with links to sound clips setting up each scene, and maybe even images of key characters and locations. This would make an ebook more than just a print copy on a computer screen. Does that add to a writer’s ability to stimulate the imagination, or is it a cop-out for them, meaning less attention needed to their choice of words? Or does it restrict the reader’s imagination?
    If I buy an e-book like this – and my imagination is taking different paths, via the embedded links – should I be able to modify the ebook with my own links? This would be like adding margin notes to my paper copy of a book – but much more. To take it even further – would a writer then sometimes licence approved versions that had been redone, like licencing someone to redo a song? If DJ’s can sample and blend commercial music into layers in a mashup, could that be done with words on a page?

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 4, 2012 - 4:30 pm

      Ah, the ‘extra value’ that ebooks could offer? My gut feeling (which may be totally different from Matthew’s) is that novels are designed to let all the words do the work. Perhaps it’s less of a problem with pictures than with music – after all, in nonfiction we almost expect a bunch of snaps in the middle.

      With music I can see two objections. One is that we all read at different speeds; the beat of the prose in the reader’s mind may not match the tempo of a music piece. The second – even more practical – is that getting permissions and paying the necessary fees is a headache and expensive.

      Or maybe I’m just a Luddite. But back to (1) briefly – some regulars here cue up the soundtracks and listen to them as they read the posts!

  1. ‘Music that certain men might like but rarely admit to’ – Matthew Dicks « Nail Your Novel

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