The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello @isabelcostello
Soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black M, Jane Birkin featuring Serge Gainsbourg, The Goo Goo Dolls, Paolo Nutini
Music has been a big inspiration in the writing of Paris Mon Amour although I never listen to it whilst working. I love these tracks for the great sound and vocals, of course, but what I most admire in my favourite singer-songwriters (they tend to be both) is their gift for telling a story and evoking a mood in three or four minutes. The economy and intensity that come from stripping back to the essentials is something I aspire to as a novelist.
If I could only listen to one artist it would be Springsteen. He has amazing range and to me he embodies ‘goodness’, a key motif in my novel despite the characters’ numerous misdemeanours. In The River, he captures something I’m very susceptible to: the beauty in sadness (or even ugliness), as he re-lives bittersweet memories. Back story gets bad press in fiction but it’s extremely important – the key is to give it the emotional clout of the present, and this song shows how. I’m on Fire expresses passion in a mellow and understated way; my book is about a married woman of 40 whose life is upended by ‘bad desire’. In these situations, you either rein it in or find yourself the (not) proud owner of a melodrama.
I love Pink Floyd and it’s perhaps fortunate that I can’t elaborate on the many ways in which Comfortably Numb resonated both in the story of Paris Mon Amour (some will be apparent) but above all in the creative process, which coincided with a turbulent phase in my own life. It’s always the aim to leave the characters and the reader in a different place to where they started and in this case, the writer too.
Whilst we’re on the deep stuff, Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of the few songs mentioned in the text – there’s a California connection – but again, it was very relevant to getting to the psychological core of the characters. It’s a very intelligent song: a complex questioning of what lies under the visible surface, something that fascinates me about people and places. In the book everyone’s hiding something from each other, and often themselves.
And that’s not all they’re doing. The song that spoke to me on this was On s’fait du mal (We keep hurting each other) by Parisian rapper Black M, which I discovered thanks to my teenage sons. There’s a touching openness to this tale of remorse in which he acknowledges causing pain to those closest to him, something my characters know all about. I’m moved by emotional honesty wherever I encounter it. Writing this book has made me less guarded and listening to this song played a part in that.
But for all this openness, as you’d expect of a book involving an affair, a lot goes on behind closed doors. I don’t need to get psyched up to write my sex scenes, which rarely get edited; all I need is to imagine my way into character and into the moment. Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime (moi non plus), featuring Serge Gainsbourg has become a bit of a parody – they do ham it up – but it always makes me smile and there’s plenty worth channelling: Gainsbourg has the ultimate sexy voice, the melody is languorous, the lyrics sensual yet remarkably direct, which is both characteristically French and the way I like it.
Paris Mon Amour is definitely a love story as opposed to a romance novel, but it’s still the first time I fully unleashed my inner romantic, knowing if I didn’t feel it, nobody else would. To this end I often listened to Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, which is the most heartrendingly beautiful expression of love I’ve come across. It makes me feel a weird mixture of euphoria and devastation, both of which I needed to capture. Again there’s that sense of vulnerability, where in falling for someone you surrender part of yourself you won’t ever get back, and of the most intimate connection possible between two people, which is never ‘just sex’, as Alexandra discovers to her cost.
If her lover Jean-Luc had been a more typical 23-year-old guy, she would never have ended up in such a mess. He may not have been interested in her either. But just as some people notch up decades learning nothing, others aren’t limited by their lack of life experience. (I couldn’t have written this book any earlier.) My final song, Last Request by Paolo Nutini, is stunning but painful to listen to. It barely seems possible that he was only 19 when he wrote it 10 years ago – it helped me uncover the character of Jean-Luc, which only fully emerged in the later stages, and to explore in depth what he and Alexandra had together. It’s a great feeling when you find the missing piece.
Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer who lives in north London. Her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was released in June 2016 in digital (Canelo) and audiobook (Audible). Isabel’s work has been shortlisted in the Asham Award, the Short Fiction Journal Prize and the inaugural Room to Write competition judged by Pat Barker. She hosts the Literary Sofa blog, where you can find her selection of recommended Summer Reads 2016, and was recently longlisted for Best Reviewer in the Saboteur Awards 2016. She can often be found talking about books on Twitter @isabelcostello.