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’s post is by Louisa Treger @louisatreger
Soundtrack by Hozier, Amy Winehouse, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms
Before pursuing a career as a writer, I was a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Music was fantastic training for being an author because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Music was, and still is, a huge part of my life. It informs every word I write.
Many authors listen to music while they are working, but I can’t. For me, music is too powerful; it’s like a magnet, drawing all my attention to it. It shuts out the words. I listen to music in my car, while walking the dog, or doing chores at home.
Music lifts us into a different realm. It allows us to enter a place where our emotions can flow freely, in a way that transcends ordinary experience. Yet although music expresses things that go deeper than words, I find that it inspires words. Music expresses states of feeling that I want to capture verbally. At first, these are dim and half formed in my mind; I am fumbling my way towards them. Listening to music is a catalyst, helping me put emotions into words.
Music was fundamental to the writing of my debut novel, The Lodger.
It’s a biographical novel about the little-known author, Dorothy Richardson, who was a literary pioneer and something of a cult figure in her day. She wrote stream of consciousness before anyone else and was considered Virginia Woolf’s equal, but somehow, she got forgotten by history.
At the start of my novel, Dorothy is existing just above the poverty line, working as a dentist’s secretary and living in a shabby boarding house in Bloomsbury. She receives an invitation to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer hovering on the brink of fame. Dorothy doesn’t recognise his name: HG Wells, or Bertie, as his friends call him.
Bertie Wells appears unexceptional at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval…
Tormented about betraying Jane, yet unable to draw back, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with him. Then a new boarder arrives at the house – striking Veronica Leslie-Jones – and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie… Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
A song that helped me capture the mood and tone of both love affairs in my book is From Eden by Hozier. This is a very powerful song: tragedy and rapture rubbing shoulders. It reaches into your soul, pulls it out and throws it on the ground. It’s about people who are damaged by their pasts, who are flawed and cynical, yet have found something incredibly precious in each other.
Dorothy had fallen; she was living in sin; betraying Jane … The hunger she felt for Bertie was all-consuming; it obliterated everything else, even her guilt.
Loss and longing
There is a great deal of loss in The Lodger, and I looked to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black for inspiration. I think it’s one of the best breakup albums of all time. Amy sings about the kind of love that goes so deep inside you, it transforms your internal landscape and marks you forever. And her voice: smoky and ancient, expressing more loss and longing, more pain and despair than one person can bear in a lifetime. It speaks to me.
Often, it seemed as though a part of her still existed continuously in the past. Lived with Veronica; the two of them lying eternally in each other’s arms, belonging together, as in the early days.
Music did more than help me identify states of feeling. There are many parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, colour, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or to make a single voice stand out. Listening to classical chamber music – especially by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms – taught me about all of them. Chamber music is pure and precise, yet at the same time, it’s a real dialogue between characters. There are too many wonderful works to list individually, so here are three of my favourites: Mozart String Quintet in G minor KV 516; Schubert String Quintet in C major D 956; Brahms String Sextet G major opus 36.
Finally, The Lodger is a novel about writers and writing. Great music is sublime in the way writers strive for sublime prose; it soars above the humdrum of everyday life, transforming it. It’s what Dorothy Richardson and H.G. Wells tried to do with words:
When you are in the right mood, words appear faster than speech or even thought; your pen follows them as quickly as your hand can move it across the page, and sometimes, the most exquisite phrases spill out. It’s hard to explain what a wonderful feeling it is; it smoothes out all the creases in your mind, and completely revives you. And you see life with such clarity…
This is what I am striving for too – and constantly feeling I am falling short of it. As Wells says in my novel: Will I ever get the things I want to say properly said?
Louisa Treger began her career as a classical violinist and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, gaining a PhD in English at University College London. Married with three children and a dog, she lives in London. She spends as much time as she can in South Africa, where she supports a feeding scheme for underprivileged children living in shacks in the desolate Kurland Village in the Western Cape, where 70% of adults are unemployed. The Lodger is her first novel and is published by Thomas Dunne Books. Find her on Facebook, her website and on Twitter @louisatreger.
GIVEAWAY Louisa has offered to give away two print copies of The Lodger. To enter, comment here. Extra entries if you share the post on social media, but we might not know you have unless you let us know in a comment – so remember to come back and confess your good sharing deeds.