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 Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh @ThereseWalsh
Soundtrack by Robert Plant, Alison Krauss
I haven’t been shy in admitting that I wrote much of my second novel, The Moon Sisters, in a state of fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish the draft, that I didn’t have a second book in me, that I’d fail despite — or because of — a two-book contract. But a duo of songs helped root me to characters in my story, and whenever I needed to be reminded that these characters deserved for their tale to be told, I brought up this particular music.
Both songs are from an album featuring Robert Plant and Alison Krauss called Raising Sand. The album is laced with conflicting ideas that somehow work; it’s there even in the notion that rocker Plant and bluegrass star Krauss might make music together. But there’s also balance and ingenuity with the merging of their unique approaches; and if this music lives at the edges, then it fits all the better with my lives-at-the-edges novel and its characters.
A gypsy quirk
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, sung by Krauss, is the first song that spoke to me, with a gypsy quirk and haunting melody. Its bluegrass spirit complements the setting of the book, West Virginia, where you might indeed hear the bright pluck of a banjo marry with the darker sound of a tensely bowed violin.
This was the perfect anthem for Olivia Moon, who sets off by foot at the beginning of The Moon Sisters to find a will-o-the-wisp light in order to fulfill her dead mother’s dreams. She’ll wander and hop a train and sleep under the stars, stretching personal boundaries that are already plenty different from those around her—especially her sister, Jazz, who has the opposite of a gypsy’s spirit and would rather be in control and safe and left to herself, thankyouverymuch.
It wasn’t just the sound of the music that summoned up Olivia Moon for me; the lyrics were spot on, too. Mmm, don’t you love the poetic weirdness of this? I do. Music, summoned from somewhere unknown. Secrets. The sound of hope. Olivia Moon loves this song. I would venture to say that it’s her favorite. She sways out of time with the music because she’s pondering the sound of hope, even the taste of it. She has synesthesia, a condition whereby her sensory areas are jumbled. She can tell you about coloured letters and the look of a song up above your head, or the way the sun smells like her mother. (She probably won’t want to talk about why she stared at the sun after her mother died and why she’s lacking her central vision, but maybe you’ll pull it out of her before the end of the book.)
The second song that spoke to me, sung by Plant, is called Nothin and immediately called to mind an essential character: a train-hopping drifter named Hobbs. Hobbs hasn’t had an easy life, and this song’s driving blend of eff-you electric guitar, down-home-and-dirty fiddle, and what-ya-gonna-do-about-it tambourine speaks to that. It evokes a damaged person, and if you were to stick a label on Hobbs you might choose that word — damaged. He’d notice that and pat you on the back for your smarts, then send you on your way without hearing an argument.
Motherless Hobbs nodded whenever this song played, and wasn’t one to condemn Olivia’s staring at the sun either, maybe because he understood that bit in the second-to-last verse about how being born is going blind.
The tune itself is dark and uncomfortable and winding, like a train, and feels too personal yet I never could turn away from it. Listening to it helped me to stick with the story, which was just as dark and uncomfortable and winding, and made it just as impossible to turn away from it.
Thank you, Roz, for the chance to share the sound behind the story.
Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is published by Crown (Random House). She’s the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction. You can learn more about her and her books on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Therese is giving away a print copy of The Moon Sisters to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)