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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir
Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel
In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.
When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.
I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.
For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).
When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’
The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.
And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.
He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’
And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.
A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.
Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.
7 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Wyl Menmuir”
Very nice essay on your writing and musicology. I like how you start with sea shanties, well supported by your original song choices. Sometimes places are characters in themselves that need some seducing to evoke their richness. In the constellation of Hawley+Smoke Fairies, McLeod, Andy Othling and William Basinski(!!!) exist the instrumentals of Mark Knopfler for ‘Local Hero’ a story about a seaside town. Also the entire album ‘Acadie’ by Daniel Lanois. I entreat you to one song, The Fisherman’s Daughter
I always thought Clair de Lune unique until you paired it with Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. I never realized there were so many common phrasings. How cool, thanks.
Enjoyed the plunk of banjo and the siren in Muerto Country.
Good luck with your writing. – mrb
Thanks again Roz for another delve into the musical underground.
I knew you’d like this one, Mark. Thanks for stopping by.
You have a national treasure with this blog, Roz. Glad you are so well-connected with the creative folk about the globe! I learn something here with everyone.
My failure, Wyl. I meant to include the link to The Fisherman’s Daughter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOXVL1INq28
Thank you for the kind words and the link to The Fisherman’s Daughter, Mark – lovely stuff. And I know what you mean about Local Hero. Happy writing, Wyl
And thank you for a lovely post, Wyl.