Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Tabitha Suzuma

for logo‘My debut novel was born out of my lifelong obsession with music’

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 guest is multi-award-winning young adult novelist Tabitha Suzuma @tabithasuzuma 

Soundtrack by Rachmaninoff, Shin Suzuma, Bomfunk MC, Eminem, Charlotte Church, Lea Salonga, Mozart, Katherine Jenkins, Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Philip Glass, Gabriel Faure, Amy Winehouse, Garbage, Lana Del Rey, Paloma Faith, Marilyn Manson, Gabriel Yared, Christopher Duffley

The music came before the idea, before the very first book, before the whole career. I was working as a school teacher and spending most of my salary on tickets to concerts at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls. My debut novel, A Note of Madness (2006), was born out of my lifelong obsession with music, mainly classical, and in particular Rachmaninov. The novel is about Flynn, a teenage piano prodigy who falls prey to bipolar disorder as he struggles to master the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. So the piece, as well as my own struggles with the illness, inspired the whole book. I have always loved music and used to skip lessons at school to sneak into the music room where I started teaching myself the piano. My brother, concert pianist Shin Suzuma, was born when I was 14 and started picking out tunes on my keyboard before he could even walk. I was determined he should have every opportunity to become the concert pianist that I felt he was destined to be, so began teaching him. Today he is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and embarking on this very career.

Tabitha Suzuma author photoThe sequel to A Note of Madness came a couple of years later. A Voice in the Distance (2008) was dedicated to my brother, mainly because his music room was above my study, so he provided me with a live soundtrack to my book. He was learning the equally ambitious Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto at the time, a piece which features prominently in the book, and shortly after finishing it, I finally got to see my brother perform the piece with his university orchestra. The two books also feature Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler and Eminem, which I would listen to when writing Flynn’s manic episodes. His girlfriend, Jennah, is a singer and performs Summertime (performed here by Charlotte Church, On My Own (performed by Lea Salonga) , and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum (sung by Katherine Jenkins) – three of my favourite songs that I listened to on repeat.

So music and writing, for me, have always been irrevocably entwined. The first thing I do every night when I sit down to write is sort out my playlist. My last book, Forbidden (2010), is a tragic love story about an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Because of its subject matter, it was a harsh, frightening and lonely book to write. It wasn’t a plot I could discuss with family or friends, I had no idea if it would ever be accepted for publication, I was teaching by day and writing by night, so it was very intense. I was often in tears, and a combination of severe clinical depression, stress, insomnia and sleep deprivation led me to having breakdown soon after finishing it. The music I wrote it to reflects both the tone of the book and my state of mind at the time. Lemon Incest and Charlotte Forever by the late Serge Gainsbourg and his then teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg are both songs about father-daughter incest, and understandably created a great deal of controversy and anger when they were released in the mid-eighties. Philip Glass’s amazing soundtrack to my favourite movie The Hours was also permanently on my playlist, along with Faure’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem, which I listened to throughout writing the extremely painful final chapters of the book.

FORBIDDEN by Tabitha SuzumaTough, controversial and haunting

After Forbidden, I was forced to take a break from writing for health reasons, but have finally finished writing my sixth book, Hurt, out this September. It was an equally tough book to write, dealing with a similarly difficult, controversial and painful subject matter. I wrote it to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, Only Happy When it Rains by Garbage, Born to Die by Lana Del Rey, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Play On by Paloma Faith, and a very haunting cover of The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. These songs helped me get into the detached, heavy-hearted and depressed moods of Mathéo: a talented, privileged teenager who on the surface appears to have it all but deep down, harbours a terrible secret that threatens his life as he knows it, as well as the relationship he has with the only girl he has ever loved. It is one of the harsher, grittier and more difficult books I have written, and the soundtracks to the films Sylvia and Never Let Me Go also helped me reach the levels of distress experienced by Mathéo as he battles with his secret, his past, the consequence of his actions, and ultimately attempts to achieve forgiveness and absolution.

I am about to start writing my book for 2014. I can’t say what it is about yet, but I can say that it will be written to the soundtrack of the heart-wrenching voice of 11-year-old Christopher Duffley, and in particular his rendition of the song Open the Eyes of my Heart which I have already started listening to on repeat.

Tabitha Suzuma is an award-winning author of six books. Her most recent, Hurt, is due to be released in September 2013. Her last book, Forbidden, a controversial and hard-hitting book about sibling incest, was translated into six languages and won the Premio Speciale Cariparma for European Literature Award as well as being nominated for a number of others. She has won the Young Minds Book Award and the Stockport Book Award. Her books have been shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, the Catalyst Book Award, the Stockport Book Award, the Jugendliteraturpreis Book Award and nominated for the Waterstone’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal. For more, visit www.tabithasuzuma.com, add her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/tabitha.suzuma, or find her on Twitter: @TabithaSuzuma

GIVEAWAY: Tabitha has signed print editions on offer for the three most interesting comments. If you enjoy her post, let her know here!

65 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Tabitha Suzuma

  1. I didn’t know how much Tabitha, one of my favourite writers, was influenced by music and I’m very happy about that because I really can understand what music is able to do! I’m a singer and I use music to express my feelings, most of the time, and to express what words can’t express. Music helps you use your fantasy, helps you to escape from reality for a while and, above al,l helps you to feel better. I’m so proud of Tabitha. I’m her Italian biggest fan! Her book “Forbidden” touched me very deeply and I really can’t wait to read “Hurt”.

  2. Music is such an integral part of my writing process. I find myself discovering new bands just to get into the head of a character. When i hear a song in a shop or on tv i am instantly back in a characters mind. Tabithas post reminded me how important that soundtrack is and how it stays with us.

  3. I must start out by saying Brava to you Tabitha on writing such a moving, personal and beautiful piece! I truly love your music choices and especially feel a kinship with the Rachmaninoff works. I’m a classical pianist and singer-songwriter and Rachmaninoff is very dear to my heart. I’m also moved by your relationship with your brother and your teaching him piano. I, too, am close with my brother Seth who wears the many hats of Broadway radio host, novelist, classical pianist, playwright, actor, comic and producer. I’m listening right now to your brother Shin perform Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2! He’s a brilliant pianist, has wonderful technique and plays with such expressive emotion. How swell to meet you on Roz’s blog and I’m looking forward to reading your novels.

    1. Thanks Beth for your kind words.
      Great to meet you too.
      My lil’ brother Shin is the pride of my life – I’m glad you like his playing! I first discovered he was musical when I was playing the Moonlight Sonata and hit a wrong note and he began to cry. I carried on playing until he calmed down, then deliberately made another mistake, and he started crying again! He was three months old.

          1. Roz you are a great matchmaker for Tabitha and I… A wonderful author/musician teaming up with a singer-songwriter who loves composing music for their novels and their book-trailers. It would be a thrill to write music for Tabitha!

  4. Have you ever listened to a magnificent composition and as it goes through the crescendo you feel the need to pause it? It’s too overwhelming but you continue on because for some reason you need to feel that pain right between your eyebrows, the chills across your back. This is exactly what reading a Tabitha Suzuma book is like. Tabitha’s books are truly like a piece of music itself. The way she marvelously constructs a plot is like a piano piece, tones of light, shade and pure darkness and always ending with that reverberating last note that fades to a lengthy silence, where you stare at nothing and feel absolutely everything.

  5. I remember “Freestyler” being played almost on a loop when I worked in Fleet. Happy days 🙂 Along with Wildchild’s “Renegade Master” and Espiritu’s “Conquistador”, those are my favourite dance tracks of the 90’s / early 00’s 🙂

  6. A really interesting set of choices. It’s funny how different songs mean different things and create different moods. I have ‘Only Happy When It Rains by Garbage’ on my writing playlist as a mood improver! I associate it with their gigs, everyone jumping up and down, full of energy and lyrics laden with irony. Lana Del Rey is definitely on my ‘depressed’ list along with Tori Amos.

    1. Thank for your comment, Peter.
      Yes, that is interesting. I associate ‘Only Happy When it Rains’ with one of my all-time favourite books, and in particular with this clip of the movie!

  7. You have such diverse and amazing taste in music. I love how you use music to put yourself in the state of mind of your characters and I find it amazing that you have captured the very essence of the song you have chosen in your books. You seem to have such a love of music and what you said about your brother and you teaching him is beautiful. I really love your taste in music. Although I do have one question. Once you have successfully put yourself into the dark and distressed states of mind isn’t it really difficult for you to let go of those feelings?

    1. Yes, very. That’s why I tend to write in bursts. Once I’m in the right ‘mood’ I keep going for as long as I can. But then I need to take a break and try to regain some kind of equilibrium so as not to go crazy/ier. 🙂

      1. Tabitha, your honesty about this was one of the things that made your post so powerful. Many of us go to dark places in our novels, but we need to make sure we can climb out of them again. It’s not always easy.
        Tabitha, one thing I’d be curious to know is this: when you’ve finished the novel, how long is it before you feel you’ve got it out of your system? I find an intense story has a half-life afterwards.

        1. I’m not sure I ever get any novel I write fully out of my system. I don’t mean to sound precious. But all the characters continue to live in my mind and the kind of stories I write (usually quite intense and/or depressing) always linger. Or maybe it’s that I haven’t had time for them to fully leave me as I’ve only been writing 7 years. I don’t know… I do know that the breakdown I went through after finishing ‘Forbidden’ lasted about 6 months and felt like a type of grieving.

  8. It is an interesting blog entry and mixture of different music genres. Tabitha is a great writer, especially because she is not afraid of telling “unconventional” stories, which, for some people, are truth. It’s necessary to tell these stories for those who don’t know what is like to have a problem like this. Her love for music is palpable and inspiring.
    Music is an important part of everybody’s life. Music inspires. Music lightens up. Music helps. And music can save someone’s life.
    Music tells people’s stories, like every author does. Together, a writer and his/her favorite songs can create something beautiful.
    As it is shown in A Note of Madness, music can also drive you crazy. Therefore, you have to open up your heart, accept the good things that music can offer you, and learn how to use them to help yourself and others.

  9. hey Tabitha 🙂 i absolutely love your books, especially forbidden and from where i stand; they fit right into my category of books that leave me sitting immobile and just thinking about for hours after i complete them (i read a LOT of books, and only few make this category!) im not an author, but i do love listening to music while i do my homework and study, etc (im not sure if this is good or not but i dont mind :D) i love deep, slow songs especially and some of my favourites are “fix you” by coldplay, “hero”+”how you remind me” by Nickleback, “You found me” by The Fray, “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, “Not afraid” by Eminem, and “Wires” by Athlete.
    I dont know if any of these will give you inspiration, but they are my top songs, especially if i’m in my sitting-staring-out-the-window-in silence-brooding mood 🙂
    Cant wait for your new books!

      1. I find it really interesting to read about the music that has inspired writers, especially of the works that I have read and adored. For instance I’ve never found a deep connection with Eminem’s music, but now knowing that it was a part of the writing process for Flynn’s manic episodes I realize that it fits perfectly. So not only does music inspire, but a writer can really reinvent a song or a story can be interlaced with these musical interpretations. Brilliant!

  10. It’s an interesting blog entry and mix of different genres. It’s true. Music is an important part of people’s lives. To me, music is an inspiration. Music makes you dance when you’re happy. Music helps you when you’re sad. And music can save someone’s life.
    Music is a powerful tool for a writer. Music tells people’s stories, like a book does. Together, a writer and his/her favorite songs can create something beautiful. And this is what Tabitha Suzuma does. She is a great writer, who is not afraid of telling “unconventional” stories, which, for someone, are reality. She also shows us what happens when music becomes an obsession.
    I think music can do a lot of things. It tells different stories, and delivers a message. It’s only up to us to interpret its message and use it to help ourselves or others.

  11. Have you ever listened to a magnificent composition and as it goes through the crescendo you feel the need to pause it? It’s too overwhelming but you continue on because for some reason you need to feel that pain right between your eyebrows, the chills across your back. This is exactly what reading a Tabitha Suzuma book is like. Tabitha’s books are truly like a piece of music itself. The way she marvelously constructs a plot is like a piano piece, tones of light, shade and pure darkness and always ending with that reverberating last note that fades to a lengthy silence, where you stare at nothing and feel absolutely everything.

  12. Thanks for informing us about the songs that have influenced you to all the books that you’ve and will written. I’m looking into it to hear all the songs!

  13. Hi Tabitha

    One of my online friends is a big fan of yours, and I’ve read several reviews of your books on his site, for example:


    So it was great to read this and get an insight into your process. I can only imagine how harrowing it must have been to write Forbidden, both in terms of inhabiting the characters’ world and also worrying about how it would be received. Mozart’s and Faure’s Requiems are both beautiful and haunting pieces that I’ve listened to myself while writing. It’s amazing to see the diversity of musical influences here, too. They give me an idea of what to expect when I read the books. Really insightful post! I’ll tell Vishy about it – he’ll be very interested 🙂

    1. Thanks Andrew. Vishy is an online friend of mine too – always so supportive of my books. I fell in love with Mozart’s Requiem when I first saw the movie ‘Amadeus’ when I was 10. That was a big turning point in my life. Classical music never felt or sounded the same to me again after that – it’s still my favourite movie of all time (along with ‘The Hours’)!
      I first discovered Faure’s Requiem through my first love – when I was 12! He was a choirboy called Aled Jones (very famous at the time in the UK) and I went to one of his concerts in which he was performing the requiem. So, yeah, these are pieces that date way back to my childhood! 🙂

      1. Tabitha, I adore the film Amadeus. Just the name gives me the shivers – the title alone is genius. I’m also a big fan of Peter Shaffer’s other plays. He taps into the idea of seeking gods and godlike experiences – not always through music, but always with characters who are tortured and disappointed with themselves.
        I remember Aled Jones! With your musical connections did you know him? Many years ago I had a singing teacher who was studying at the Royal College of Music at the same time as Aled. She was always trying to beat him in the end-of-year exams. Now he’s a radio personality.

      2. You have such wonderful stories behind the music, Tabitha. I remember Aled Jones – he was VERY famous back then. We’re walking in the air…. 🙂

        I’ve always loved those two pieces of music, but don’t have such interesting stories behind them. Putting a CD into a CD player kind of pales in comparison to dating Aled Jones!

  14. Huh. I’ve read forbidden and a note of madness just last year. I loved both. Its controversial, its different from other books. I felt like they’re only to be read by open minded people because others won’t understand. I often wondered what inspired these books and how an author came up with it. Thank you for this blog I can now understand a bit how you wrote such great books:) I bought multiple copies of forbidden and shared them to my family in the Philippines. They were as intrigued as I was.

  15. An inspiring collection, and an amazing portrait of your inner life, Tabitha, such courage to go to the places you do. I am envious of your fearlessness and freedom. I have listened to all the pieces but equally to your reading on your very attractive website. What is left to say? Marvellous. Roz you are likewise reflected in this!

      1. Oh gosh, yes!
        I suffer from chronic insomnia – sometimes I’m awake for two or three nights in a row – but when I do sleep the ONLY way I can is by listening to music. When it stops, I often wake up, so I usually leave the playlist on repeat and wake up to the same music still playing in the morning! 😀

          1. I haven’t, at least not that I’ve noticed, but I have a lot of nightmares and often wake up from one only to fall back into it again. I don’t think that’s the fault of the music though.
            One thing I do have is lots of dreams about music. I either dream that my brother is playing some concerto, and I vividly hear the music, but sometimes I dream of music I’ve never heard before but when I wake up can never remember it well enough to write it down – which is a bit frustrating!

  16. Wow, I’m really impressed by your honesty. I can’t wait to read Hurt now, coz the way you’ve described the link between your writing progress and the music you listen to…wow.

  17. Forbidden is one of my all-time favourite books, it is beautifully written, so emotive and unforgettable. Despite the subject matter it is a true love story and will remain with me for a very long time. Reading and music are two of the most important parts of my life and reading the playlists that you have suggested only enhance the story. Thanks for your honest thoughts.

  18. Words and music are so integrally connected and some of my favourite songs have both haunting melodies and powerful lyrics, the sort of music that gets you deep in the gut, especially in the early hours of the morning. My current favourite are Beneath You’re Beautiful by Labrinth http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqIxCtEveG8 and Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v_4O44sfjM so it’s not surprising that music plays such an important part in your writing and why the emotion in the novels is so real and well conveyed. Just as you lose yourself in music, you lose yourself in the characters of a novel. It’s why I read – an escapism from my own life into someone else’s experiences.

    I do find the contrasts in your choices of music, depending on the character’s mood/state of mind/situation fascinating and what you use for the highs/lows and chaotic.

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading all your books and look forward to Hurt

  19. Thanks for sharing thoughts on the music that inspires you to write, Tabitha. Some of us, your readers and fans, know a little bit about your music interests, especially music that you love listening to while you write. But it was wonderful to read in this post about how it all started. I liked very much what you said about spending most of your salary in buying tickets for concerts at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival halls. I used to buy books with my salary like that. It was wonderful to know that Rachmaninoff’s Third and Second Piano concertos inspired you to write the two novels about Flynn and Jennah. While reading your post, I was waiting to hear about the usual suspect, Philip Glass’ music from ‘The Hours’, and I was so happy to find it there. It was also fascinating to know that Shin cried when you hit the wrong note while playing the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, when he was three months old. He is a born genius. Thanks for your wonderful post. I will bookmark this post and try to listen to some of the music and songs that are new to me.

  20. Thank you all for your lovely, helpful and interesting comments. It was almost impossible to choose but after much reflection, I would like to offer a signed book to the following three people:

    BETH RUDETSKY (comment #5)

    PHILIPPA REES (comment #46)

    ANDREW BLACKMAN (comment #39)

    Please email me at tabithasuzuma@gmail.com with:
    Your choice of book. See my website http://www.tabithasuzuma.com for a full list. (Please note that HURT is not available till the summer)
    Your name (as you would like it to appear in the book)
    Your full postal address (with line breaks, as it should appear on the envelope)

    Thank you again and congratulations!

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