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 Birgitte Rasine @Birgitte_Rasine
When I was in middle school, I remember proudly thinking I would be one of the world’s few teenagers completely unaffected by rock-n-roll.
That was, thankfully, a nanoblip in my life.
I live and breathe music. I’m trying to be really good in this lifetime so that in the next one I get to go on stage and sing. In this lifetime, I’m a writer. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating music—on the contrary – as I said in this post on Joe Bunting’s The Write Practice. In all of my literary career, I have not written a single story or book without piping the raw power of song through my veins.
I should cacao
My latest work, a historical fiction novel for young readers about the story of cacao, was written with a playlist you’re not likely to see anywhere else. What could Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil, and Manish Vyas possibly have in common?
They all flow directly into the marrow of the soul, through the ancestral stem of the brain. They all color the fierce romance (as I also said on The Write Practice) that is human existence. That, and they’re the musical backbone of my novel.
Set in contemporary Guatemala, the story is about a young American boy and his bee researcher dad and mum visiting an ecological research station (also known as a forest garden). There, our protagonist meets an enigmatic Maya girl his own age who introduces him to the wonders and mysteries of the rainforest, of growing and making chocolate… and an ancient cacao tree that neither one of them will ever forget. Intertwined into the narrative is a wild blend of Mesoamerican mythology, botanical and natural science facts, and flights of fantasy that make history soar to life.
Because my characters spend so much time in the jungle and the cacao grove, I needed the musical expression of the soul of the rainforest, of ancient plants and the cycles of life and death. I needed to be able to write passages like
He could see eyes everywhere; he could hear the breathing of a million different animals, birds, and insects; he could feel the living rhythms of the rainforest shifting from the energies of the day to those of the night. Nervous but thrilled to the marrow of his soul, he could feel all of his senses open up like the wide petals of an orchid: his skin electrified at the slightest brush of a leaf or wing of a passing insect, his pupils dilated to capture the luminescent pollen of the moon and stars filtering through the canopy, his ears tuned to the full range of chirps, clicks, sighs, drips, footsteps, and scratches, of the slitherings of scaled bodies, the flutterings of wings small and large, the stalkings of silent claws through the undergrowth. Body and soul surrendered to the jungle, and fear had to take a back seat.
For all of his hi-tech gear, Max felt completely naked in the darkness of the jungle.
A thousand plays
With the exception of the three Cirque du Soleil tracks, which only came in at the end of the book, I played the soundtrack over and over and OVER again while I wrote, probably a thousand times. I listened to them individually looped or in certain groupings, at certain points in the narrative. Lana Del Rey’s warm amber ballads stood by the characters during times of tension and uncertainty, supporting them in their deepest emotions, their rawest moments. For passages describing the rainforest, the cacao grove, and other physical surroundings, the instrumental pieces (Manish Vyas, Desert Dwellers, Professor Trance, Kimba Arem) painted a rich sensual background. Whenever I had to stay in a certain emotional state, I’d loop a song until the scene was done.
As inevitably happens, repetition paired with alignment creates active memory. Just as your body embeds certain movements into muscle memory when you practise a dance number, so your mind instantly drops you into the world you’ve taught it to associate with a certain song. For a writer, that’s gold. You don’t need a specific setting to write. You don’t need a certain time of day. You don’t need your lucky necklace or those sexy boots. None of that. All you need is your music and your mind. I wrote in cafés, on my sofa, in my bed, at the pool, in my car (parked, no worries!).
Riding the intense wave of concentration these songs swelled for me, I completed the novel, from initial research to final manuscript, in about six months, despite the constant and unavoidable forced pauses in writing courtesy of my toddler, clients, domestic responsibilities, and sleep. During the holidays, I endured two weeks of an excruciating sinus infection — but I soldiered on, writing each day, Manish Vyas et al flexing my pain and fatigue into a near trance-like state of focus.
At the end, when I was on the last chapter, my brain needed a break. Yet I couldn’t take a break—I needed to deliver the book to my publisher; I was already past my original deadline. One night, my family tucked blissfully into bed, I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of drifting away from my MS Word manuscript and onto the web pages of Cirque du Soleil. I’d gotten tickets to Amaluna with my daughter and stumbled across the soundtrack to Totem, another Cirque show we’d gone to see a few years prior. The throbbing native American rhythms of Onta and Kunda Tayé soaked into my veins, pumping the critical end of the storyline with new vigour.
But there are two other songs that carry the very DNA of the storyline, that I haven’t revealed yet. A book has to stay quiet and sacred until the day of its birth. And so it is with its primary songs. Stay tuned…
Birgitte Rasine is the author of numerous works, including The Serpent and the Jaguar, Verse in Arabic, Confession and The Seventh Crane. Her upcoming novel about the history of chocolate will be released by new educational publisher Zoozil (check them out on Facebook and Twitter) later this year. Be the first to know when it’s out — and what the novel’s two headline songs are: sign up for Birgitte’s eletter, The Muse. Aside from wishing she were an opera singer, Birgitte did actually lend her body — if not her voice — to music: she has danced flamenco, tango, salsa, the swing, the waltz and the hustle to name a few of her faves. She can still tear up the floor if she can manage to get away on an evening. You can follow Birgitte on Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. Or you can just become blissfully lost in her online visual soundtrack, er, website.