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 Mary Vensel White @mvw888
At the time I began work on The Qualities of Wood, I had just moved to Chicago. I was entranced and completely inspired by the big city— the smells, the sights, the sounds. On a warm day, everyone flocked to the public parks, those small parcels of grass and trees amidst the steel buildings and concrete. I began to wonder why we’re drawn to natural settings, and my character Vivian’s journey from city to country began with this thought. The sounds around us can be a type of music, an enveloping aspect of our setting. Whenever I begin to write something, the atmosphere is always important and music plays a big part. The background music of the city: the rush of wind, cars braking and starting again, a lone saxophone, water rippling, voices everywhere, rising and falling.
An ancient music of sounds and silence
In the novel, Vivian and her husband Nowell have decided to take a break from city life. They move to his late grandmother’s house in the country to prepare it for sale. The natural environment, the different types of sounds, the music of nature—all becomes a very sensory experience for Vivian. The skies stretch, limitless, and the land flows to the horizon in soft rises. She’s never been able to see that far; her head begins to clear. Childhood rushes back. She can see herself, hear the live things around her. It is a soothing combination of sounds and silence, its own music (Deep Forest – Sweet Lullaby )
In the evenings, Vivian’s energy level peaked again and her sense of hearing sharpened. She heard crickets under the house and outside, the green, thick-veined leaves flapping, one against the other in the breeze. When a small branch snapped and fell, the other branches gently guided its descent.
These rhythms, the almost ancient sound of this music, always made me think about the vastness of nature, and I’d return to this piece whenever I needed to remind myself of Vivian’s impressions of her new surroundings.
In the small town, there has been a death and as Vivian becomes enmeshed in the mystery of what has happened, secrets begin to emerge. Town gossip flourishes; cracks appear in her marriage. Above all, she searches within herself for answers. Late in the novel, Vivian attends a festival. I grew up in a smallish town and every year, we had a ‘Fair and Alfalfa Festival’. These events are very much a part of Americana; anyone who has attended a county fair knows what to expect. Lots of food on sticks, a beer garden with a long line, local rock or country bands. And it seems like the music played is usually a generation behind and always includes certain songs everyone, young and old, knows the lyrics to.
The band played an old favorite, a song about a woman leaving a man. Swaying to the music, Vivian and Lonnie sung the lyrics in wavering, unpolished voices. Colored streaks came out in the evening sky, like water that had soaked through paper.
Vivian has a freeing moment, a loosening of inhibitions cued by the familiar music. I imagine the band in that small American town played songs like these – Rock n’Me by The Steve Miller Band, Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
These easy-going tunes with their emphasis on good times and living in the moment are songs that make you want to forget daily responsibilities and remember your youth. Listening to these songs infused my writing with the feelings of freedom Vivian experienced on that vivid night.
The novel, I hope, has an empowering message, as Vivian learns about herself and begins to appreciate her own strength and gifts. I’d like to think the story ends with a folk music feel, with strong female voices and an uplifting melody. The characters leave the stage to a strident guitar and assured singing, rather like Indigo Girls’ Closer to Fine.
Mary Vensel White was born in Los Angeles and raised in Lancaster, California. She graduated from the University of Denver and completed an MA in English at DePaul University in Chicago. She lives in southern California with her husband and four children. The Qualities of Wood is her first novel and was released on January 31, 2012 by HarperCollins. Find her blog and contact her in a variety of ways through her website and Twitter @mvw888.