‘It’s never a bad thing to let the reader feel a bit uneasy’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer Jonathan Pinnock @jonpinnock
Soundtrack by Richard Thompson, The Adverts, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Asha Bhosle
I very rarely listen to music when I’m writing because it seems to play havoc with the creative bits in my brain, so with one exception – which we’ll come to later – none of the music that inspired the stories in “Dot Dash” was actually in the background when they were being written.
That said, there is a lot of music lurking behind Dot Dash. A couple of the stories were inspired by two of my favourite Richard Thompson songs: The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife by The Great Valerio, and Piss and Patchouli by Beeswing. The Great Valerio wasn’t a direct influence, I guess, but I think it planted in my mind the idea that a tightrope walker – or indeed a tightrope-walking couple – could make for a powerful metaphor as well as being able to induce a sense of vertigo in the reader. It’s never a bad thing to make the reader feel a bit uneasy, and if you’re going to stage an argument, halfway across Niagara Falls is as good a place as any.
Beeswing – one of the most poignant songs ever written – has a closer relationship to my story, in that both are about a relationship with a self-destructive free spirit, and the choices to make between settling down and cutting loose. In the end, I gave John Martyn a namecheck in the story rather than Richard Thompson himself, probably because Thompson’s still a bit of a geek’s idea of a folk singer. I remember spotting a reference to him in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and thinking to myself that it was absolutely spot on.
The first full-length story in the book, Convalescence, owes a lot to Gary Gilmore’s Eyes by The Adverts, taking the premise of that song – what if you were given the eyes of a serial killer? – just a little bit further. The wonderful thing about punk was that it not only gave anyone permission to pick up a guitar and play, but that it also gave them permission to write a song about almost anything and this is an excellent example of that.
There’s one story in the book, Unfinished Symphony, that is actually about a piece of music – a beautiful, minimalistic piece deriving from nature that reduces an audience to tears. The problem is that the piece I’ve described in the story could never really exist! However, I think the composer that comes closest is probably Einojuhani Rautavaara, who wrote the extraordinary Cantus Arcticus, a concerto for Birds and Orchestra.
The one time that I did specifically listen to a piece of music for inspiration was when I was writing Mr Nathwani’s Haiku, when I wanted – somewhat presumptuously – to locate an Asian voice. So I put on a wonderful Asha Bhosle compilation, The Golden Voice of Bollywood, and by the time the CD had finished playing, I had the bare bones of the story down.
Jonathan Pinnock leads a dual life. In one half, he runs a software development company. In the other he is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His Scott Prize-winning short story collection Dot Dash is published by Salt. His novel, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens is published by Proxima Books. Find him on Twitter at @jonpinnock and on his website and blog.
19 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Jonathan Pinnock”
Gifts of both Beeswing and the sublime Cantus Arcticus more than a body can bear! Thank you both.
Hi Philippa! Aren’t they a delight? I keep reading Beeswing as Bee-swing, and love the mental double-take it gives me. And the idea of a concerto for birds and orchestra… and then what Jonathan did with it.
You’re very welcome, Philippa! And Roz, I’ve now got an image in my head of a bee in a tiny swing in a tiny bee playground. There’s probably a story there.
Beeswing. Music of the hive mind.
It’s okay to make the reader ucomfortable as long as we don’t drive them off. I don’t listen to anything when I write, it influences my mood. Having a good tonal memory helps me play my own version of an iTune track and orchestrate my own story.
Hello Julie! I used to think I couldn’t write if I could hear music. Then I had to write a book set in the hot, sultry landscape of south India – and a piece of music transported me there. From then, I became firmly addicted to music as a writing aid. But there are plenty of writers I approach who find it too distracting.
I think my problem is that I’m too suggestible where music is concerned, so I’ll only use it if I have a very specific need.
Songs sit behind most of my flash fiction but I find listening when writing quite distracting too.
Hello Peter! You said you were looking forward to Jonathan’s track – thanks for leaving your calling card. I understand what you mean, but in fact I find the distraction is a positive effect rather than negative.
In flash specifically, once I’ve got the idea of what I’m going to write, I’m looking to get the whole thing done in one session i.e. writing and a first edit, often writing to a specific word count which is typically <500words. There's enough going on in my head.
Most of the time I'll have music or the TV on the background.
A small world! Thanks for the introduction to The Adverts, great song. Whilst Richard and Linda Thompson are folk experts. I am opposite to you where music plays an important part in unlocking my creativity, it is interesting to hearing of it playing havoc your creative thoughts. Cheers
Hi Andy! I welcome the havoc that music plays with my creativity. It’s like giving oneself over to a spirit.
Of course, Andy is a wonderful example of what can happen when you do allow music to influence you! “Living Room Stories” is a perfect companion piece to Olafur Arnalds’ “Living Room Songs”.
I loved that piece too. Andy had a wonderful line: ‘music allows me to uncensor’.
There were several great lines in here, advice to a new girl on the block like me. I also can’t write with music in the background, at least, not consistently. Sometimes I write because OF the music in the background.
The greatest soundtrack/music for my writing and inspiration is daily life moving around me. I do my best writing while cooking dinner.
Ah Katie, you’re another hands-free keyboard-free writer! I think I do some of my best writing in my head. Everything flows so easily…. thanks for visiting and commenting!
I, too, do a lot of writing in my head, although sometimes it doesn’t realise crystalise until I sit at the keyboard. That’s the point at which I know when something’s going to work, and it’s also the point at which unexpected other things tend to emerge.