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 SD Mayes @authormayes
Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt
Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter. Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.
We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.
Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.
Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.
One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead. But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.
Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’
In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.
Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.
Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.
Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.
‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…
The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?
Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.
Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.
Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.
It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.
SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.