Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Dwight Okita

‘If I should ever lose her voice, Joni Mitchell can guide me back’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita

Soundtrack by Sara Bareilles, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Queen, Ryuichi Sakamoto

I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.

Wonder and curiosity

I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born.  It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible.  (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)

The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:

A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.

Here is Prospect’s book trailer.

The Hope Store

I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope.  The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.

But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:

Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.

As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell.  But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )

As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.

Crossing With The Light

Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet.  In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.

Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.

Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook

GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.


31 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Dwight Okita

  1. I could never listen to Joni Mitchell until she came out with her newer jazzier huskier work – it’s as if all her life and experiences are caught in her throat now, which I love.

    Your books sound tantalizing and beautiful.

    Unlike you, I must have quiet. I love how our experiences are so different in how we do this thing we love.

    Congrats and good luck with your journeys!

  2. A delight to find another author who finds the essence of his characters in song. I have a story I work on intermittently. At times, it feels so distant, a dream I barely recall and no longer care to remember. I play three songs and my character’s passion arrests me again and takes me away. Music is a powerful muse.

    I’m eager to check out your stories, Dwight! I love works that deal with something more than the mundane, and the perspective of an unborn soul and a store that sells hope are right up my alley.

    Thanks for introducing us, Roz!

    1. Teddi, I know you – of course – from comments you’ve left on Nail Your Novel, but it’s a delight to find out more about your writing habits and literary tastes. I was explaining to a friend the other day about the importance of music to my work. It’s as if I think in confusing images and emotions, and the right music allows me to set that in gel so that I have time to examine it.

      Have you ever read the Bob Shaw sci-fi story Light of Other Days? It features an invention called Slow Glass. Light takes ten years or so to pass through it, meaning it can be used to create very slowly changing views of tranquil places. He uses it to unexpected story effect, of course. Well, music acts like slow glass for my overactive imagination.

      Glad you like the sound of Dwight’s work. I thought he’d fit well on this blog – I adore stories that try to reach a bit further than the everyday.

  3. @katmagendie, I know what you mean. Joni’s huskier voice is sensational and expressive and deeply moving to me. If I could sing, I think my voice would express a similar huskiness. I’m glad you are tantalized by my books. That’s a good word.

    @Roz, don’t get me started on actors that inspire me or we’ll be here all night! And so many movies I’ve loved. Often when I’m writing a new book, I close my eyes and the curtains open and I try to picture how my book/movie will start on the screen. I try to see the whole arc of the book onscreen as a movie.

    @Teddi, that’s cool that music also moves you to conjure your characters. I’m glad Roz has started this series so we can see how other writers use music. I’m totally with you on stories that rise above the everyday. Those are the stories I love to both read and write.

    Thanks for your comments thus far. I suspect in a week or so I will choose one of you to win free copies of Prospect and Crossing.

    1. It has to be Ryuichi Sakamoto. The David Sylvian song was one of my favourites when I was a teenager but I wasn’t familiar with this stripped down version. Lovely to hear it. After cueing up your post I had it in my head all evening.

  4. Yeah, years back I bought the album (!!!) for “Merry Xmas Mr. Lawrence.” I had never heard this stunning version in the music video. It is both more intimate and more huge. Thanks goodness for youtube.

  5. It’s also fun to look at the diverse music artists that were named in previous posts here. Very eclectic.

  6. Music influences everything I create. From a poem, to a scene in a novel, to a painting, the depth of emotion conveyed through the verse of song brings me to another level of being, A state of spiritual calm from where I revel in the delicate beauty of the artistic process.

    There is quite a variety in my own Undercover Soundtrack. From rock to Bossa Nova, Bhangra to Rai, electronica and reggae, my adventurous ears crave diversity. Voices in foreign languages sing melodies of lamentation and jubilation in every corner of my mind. Though the one voice who gives me the greatest inspiration belongs to Iranian-Canadian Azam Ali. She blends electronica with traditional Sufi poetry. Her music is my reminder of all the beauty that exists in this world, despite the horrors of which I read daily in the news. With a message of global unity, peace and understanding, she weaves haunting lyrical tapestries that transcend the barriers religion and ill-informed misconceptions have shoved between our nations like stakes in our hearts. I can only wish to have a similar affect upon society with my words. So I listen to her to try and see if I can grasp that same spark.

    1. Alexandra, this is what I love about using music as inspiration. It’s the lyrics, sounds and melody coming together in one big hit of emotion, there to be replayed again and again and keep us on track.
      I often worry that in talking about music like this it might look disrespectful to the music itself. After all, the musicians didn’t create it to be ‘used’ for something else, or to be second fiddle. But on the other hand, we use music as a soundtrack for our lives anyway – and for creative souls, some of that life is lived in our creations.
      Lovely to have you here – and thanks for commenting!

      1. Thanks for welcoming me, Roz! I’m glad to be here. 🙂

        I wouldn’t say being inspired by music is subjecting the art of it to being ‘used for something else’. Rather, the experience of being inspired by music to write is like adventuring in your favourite piece of clothing. You wear it so that you aren’t naked, and you value its beauty while it is on you. Essentially you are wearing the piece out of necessity, but if it were only for a necessity then why did you take the time to carefully pick it out of your wardrobe on that particular day?

  7. Thanks, the photo is of family. My mom is the identical twin on the left. She passed away a few years ago.

    The poems in my book CROSSING are very diverse. Some titles: “Facing the Mannequin” is an existential moment in a shopping mall. “Notes for a Poem on Being Asian American” was printed in the Norton Introduction to Poetry and to Literature. “When Frank Walks In” about my crush on a straight man. I’ve read poetry on NPR and done poetry videos. One of my poems is on a bronze plaque along the Embarcadero in SF. My book got 10 five star reviews on Amazon and makes a great gift or literary impulse buy. And I’ve had my poems on trains and buses. 🙂

  8. Hi folks, I will choose my favorite post comment written in response to my Undercover Soundtrack on Tuesday, Aug. 21. I’m giving away a softcover copy of my novel PROSPECT OF MY ARRIVAL and softcover of my poetry book CROSSING WITH THE LIGHT to the commenter of my choice.

  9. I want to thank katmagendie, Teddi, Alexandra and Roz for all being part of this lively discussion on the power of music to inspire writers thru our undercover soundtracks. Of course Roz and I are not eligible to win the two books I’m giving away this week. And I truly appreciate the comments of all three posters.

    The poster I’ve chosen as the winner of the books is Alexandra Davidoff.

    Alexandra, I love in your post the eclecticness of your musical tastes, and your obvious passion for writing and music. I will contact you shortly to get an address where I can mail the books. Thanks again everyone for participating! And thanks to Roz for inviting me to be part of this.


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