Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is YA fantasy author John Dutton @JohnBDutton
Creating a work of art is usually stochastic; a combination of logical planning and inspired randomness. A novelist needs to wobble across this stochastic tightrope from blank page to finished text.
Original, unexpected ideas come from a variety of sources. Dreams, alcohol and drugs fueled writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William S. Boroughs. As for myself (and in the words of the great Meat Loaf) two out of three ain’t bad. The odd pint of Guinness has certainly helped my out of writer’s rut. And so have the even pints. Of course I would never take drugs as they are illegal, but fortunately dreaming is still allowed. I’m currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels like everyone else, and I even woke up one morning with the title of the second novel, Starley’s Rust, in my head.
But there’s another way to get those creative juices flowing, and that’s music. Either melody or lyrics can be inspirational. When I needed to write the introduction of a major character in book one of the trilogy, I was driving one morning with my iPod set to random. A song came on (I honestly don’t remember which one) but it may have been Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. Suddenly the idea came to me to write this character introduction.
The Friday I met Aranara was a cold, cold day. My hometown of Lancaster, Wisconsin is in some kind of microclimate and we rarely got snow, even in the middle of winter, so I wasn’t expecting the betrayal that lurked in the air that early October in New York City.
When I wrote this atmospheric paragraph it was the middle of summer, so it was directly inspired by the song I was listening to. But my aural surroundings have to be just right for it to help my writing. I often write in a particular café here in Montreal where the music is good (in other words, I enjoy the songs they play) and not too loud. When I go to a café closer to home for various reasons I’m quickly reminded how hard it is to get this balance right by the annoying FM pap that blasts every good idea out of my mind before it can reach the keyboard.
Atmosphere for nowhere
Sometimes an entire album can create an atmosphere in your mind that helps you get inside the head of a character you are writing. This was the case for me when I wrote my (as yet unproduced) screenplay Rd 2 Nowhere. Originally inspired by the title of an amazingly atmospheric 1985 hit by the Talking Heads, this movie features a teenage girl who is uprooted from her Montreal home when her mother dies, finding herself in a medium-sized town where nothing much seems to happen. Of course, things do happen! The main character, Jen, is overtaken by grief-fueled ennui, and takes to hanging out with a bunch of kids at a makeshift skate park where an unfinished highway ends abruptly at a river. Her mental state and attitude towards others was perfectly reflected by the music of Arcade Fire’s albums Funeral and The Suburbs. As Jen’s mind found ways to escape her dull everyday reality (her everydull realiday?) I was listening to songs like Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels) from Funeral and The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). It’s not necessarily easy for a male writer in his 40s to get inside the head of a teenage girl, so I’m forever grateful to the helping hand my muse received from my local heroes.
I’m clearly more influenced by the lyrics of rock and pop songs than by classical or jazz music. It’s amazing how a random word in a song can trigger a chain reaction of mental associations.
Start making sense
Sometimes you’re writing something and you hear a song that you can actually incorporate into your work. One of my novels is called The New Sense. It’s an epistemology-themed epistolary mystery (which might explain its failure to attract readers as effectively as a YA fantasy) and one of the main characters claims to have, yes, a new sense that other humans don’t possess. I originally published the novel in the form of a blog, posting it ‘live’ in serial fashion every day or so. Since it deals with the issue of how we know what we think we know to be true, it was very important for me to make the blog as believable as possible. I must have accomplished this, because the fictional writer of the blog soon began to receive emails from real people who thought that she was also real and her story true.
I decided to continue the fiction-reality mashup by creating fictional emails from made-up people to post alongside the real ones. And that’s when I heard the Blondie song (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. It contains a line about a person using an extra sense when playing cards. My character actually funds his lifestyle by using his sense to win at cards in the Montreal casino, so I used this line in a fictional reader email.
And sometimes music can be simply a source of fun that gets the mind working and creative juices flowing. I’ve been a fan of both the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who and popular pop-rock combo The Beatles since I was very young. My commercial writing self has recently been hired to write the new Cirque du Soleil website and I’ve been researching their shows, including one called The Beatles LOVE that is performed permanently in Las Vegas. My sudden re-immersion in the Fab Four’s music combined with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary clearly sparked something in a strange corner of my mind, because I came up with the idea to create a Dalek-Beatles mixtape (the Daleks being the Doctor’s arch enemies).
For a day or two I had a permanent semi-smile on my face as I re-imagined Beatles classics as performed by evil Daleks. The resulting mix tape insert card is here for your enjoyment. You may then exterminate it from your mind if you like.
After graduating from film school in London, John emigrated to Montreal in 1987, where he still lives with his two young children and their even younger goldfish. He spent over a decade as a music TV director before moving into the advertising industry as an award-winning copywriter and translator. In parallel to his corporate work, John has written novels, short stories, blogs, screenplays and a stage play. He is currently writing a trilogy of young adult novels under the pen name JB Dutton, the first of which, Silent Symmetry, was published in early 2013 and features neither vampires, zombies nor wizards. John speaks four languages and has been married three times in three different countries in three different decades. Find his blog here, get his Facebook page here, and tweet him as @johnbdutton