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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 award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner @karenberner
Soundtrack by Icicle Works, Peter Gabriel, The Indigo Girls, The Doors, The 5th Dimension, Bach, Phil Collins
I was a singer way before I was a writer. Nothing on a grand scale, although I was asked to try out for the Lyric Opera children’s chorus, which I turned down because I hated opera and didn’t recognize the value of the musical education I would have received. What did I know? I was only ten. I settled for local variety shows, high school musicals, and choirs. Wise? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t have discovered writing.
Only natural then that music helped me create the Bibliophiles series, which revolves around members of a classics book club. Not your typical series, each book stars one or two of the book club members and tells their stories. Tragedy. Coming of Age. Romance. You never know what you’re going to get.
Small and helpless
The first is A Whisper to a Scream, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as the title of an Icicle Works song from the 80s. Most people think A Whisper to a Scream is a mystery novel, but if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it’s really about feeling small and ‘ever helpless’ in the face of a greater force, which is exactly what the book is about.
Overwhelmed stay-at-home mother of two Sarah Anderson feels adrift in a sea of diapers, Legos, and school projects. Her workaholic husband is never home, and she longs for just 10 minutes to herself to reclaim the person she was pre-kids. When she finally gets out of the house and joins a classics book club, she meets Annie Jacobs, a public relations executive. Annie’s infertility treatments send her spiraling out of control. What starts as a mere notion, a small whisper of the promise of motherhood, consumes her, whipping her into a frenzy.
The song’s happy dance beat underscores the need to surrender to circumstance, something both Sarah and Annie eventually do at the end.
Tell me Y
Having never written from a male perspective, I was worried Annie’s husband John could easily become a stereotype. After all, who do you think of when a couple is dealing with fertility issues? Not the guy.
When John sensed his marriage was coming undone, I’d listen to Peter Gabriel’s tender, yet melancholy Blood of Eden, which perfectly captured what John felt as his wife spun out of control in a vortex of hormones, emotion, and deep craving that he cannot understand. He missed the intimacy of their life before sex became mechanical.
Was this guy married to Annie too? He tipped his glass to Peter Gabriel, comrade in misery.’
A Whisper to a Scream
Several years ago, I bought the Indigo Girls album Rite of Passage. One track is Galileo, which talks about reincarnation and how many times must we go around until we finally get this life thing right. But instead of reincarnation, I envisioned a young woman who kept reinventing herself from location to location. That became Until My Soul Gets It Right, about another classics book club member, Catherine Elbert.
She was a fraud. Had been for years.’
Until My Soul Gets It Right
I’d wanted the final book in the series to be a love story. Opposites attracting is always fun, so why not bring together fastidious Anglophile computer programmer Thaddeus Mumblegarden IV and the free-spirited daughter of Hippies Spring Pearson in A Groovy Kind of Love?
The chance to delve into the 60s and the Pearsons’ background was too much fun to resist. Only a small child when the Hippies embarked on their psychedelic journey, I was drawn to their sense of freedom, something I had never felt growing up as an only child.
Every day while writing Spring’s childhood, the velvety smooth vocals of Jim Morrison in The Doors’ classic Light My Fire showed me a window to their world and explored quintessential sixties sounds. I mean, does anyone use an organ like that anymore? Aquarius belted out by the 5th Dimension and originally from the musical Hair signified pure freedom. Anything was possible if you opened your mind and let the sunshine in. That bass line underscores the funkiness of the dance. You can’t help but move.
That’s how I felt about the Pearsons. Sure, they might be potheads who left their eleven-year-old daughter in charge of their juice bar, but you can’t help but like them.
In contrast, Thaddeus’s family is traditional, and he, himself, is more formal. The Brandenburg Concertos played on repeat while writing his chapters. They helped me focus on structure and complexity. While driving, Thaddeus puts on the local classical music radio station hoping for Handel or a medieval madrigal.
Instead one of John Cage’s twentieth-century avant garde sonatas accosted him, which he immediately turned off with disgust. Better no music than that trash!’
A Groovy Kind of Love
Music helps my imagination find its sense of time and place. It’s almost hypnotic. As soon as one of my inspiration songs plays, I’m back in the 60s with the Pearsons, bouncing from coast to coast with Catherine, or drinking scotch with John. I really cannot write without it.
Karen Wojcik Berner writes contemporary women’s fiction, including the Bibliophiles series. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, and Fresh Fiction. She is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. When not writing, she can be found on the sidelines of her youngest’s football or lacrosse games, discussing the Celts with the oldest, or snuggling into a favorite reading chair with a good book and some tea. Find her on Goodreads, Facebook, her blog, Google +, and Twitter @karenberner
It was hard to choose a quote to introduce this week’s Undercover Soundtrack. Jennifer Scoullar’s novel about Australia’s Brumby horses and the people who live among them has a soundtrack of many moods – from the intensely spiritual to the raucously rocking. She has also dedicated Brumby’s Run to causes that protect wild horses. In the end, ‘fragile but powerful’ seems the best way to do it justice. Join me here on Wednesday for her Undercover Soundtrack
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by literary novelist Corwin Ericson
It’s cold and I realize once again my ancient refrigerator is noisier than a truck. The fire in my wood stove has dwindled to embers; I recall it had been tocking and sizzling like a banshee. The well pump comes on too often; I should fix that. I don’t think my laptop has a fan, but something’s whirring inside. I have a headache; it amplifies my tinnitus. My leg is asleep. My nose is drippy.
That’s what my successful day of writing sounds like. It’s easy to ignore the household sounds – I have plenty of practice, but the music I chose was supposed to complement the writing, or at least keep me company as I worked, yet it has been forgotten. These are the jewel cases: the Dracula soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by Kronos Quartet. Low Symphony, the Bowie album as composed by Glass. Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. Divination’s Dead Slow, composed by Bill Laswell.
Crescendo and reconsider
I remember hearing the first part of Dracula. I like how it matches my own compositional pace–moves forward, forward, reaches a small crescendo, reconsiders, starts over with some variations, and moves forward again. But I don’t recall even hearing the clacking of my CD changer announcing the next disc.
All of these recordings were chosen to induce me to stay in my chair and write. And to be ignored. I don’t want to listen to insipid music, but having ignored the music means I have been concentrating well, maybe even writing productively. Now I’ve fed the stove and I’m standing over it feeling sore and peevish. It’s too smokey. This is ‘la petite mort’ of the workday of writing. I am full of regret and lassitude. I have wasted my day, my life. Later after I warm up, I’ll try it all over again, but fail, since I have to seduce myself into concentration, and I’m not going to fall for that trick again. I want a cigarette, a drink, a nap, and then someone to bring me supper.
Estonindian black metal dub
Now I’m inventing a genre of music, something for Waldena, a whale hunter from Estonindia, to blast from her boat, the “Hammer Maiden”:
This was Estonindian black metal dub. Music for wounded bears as they shrugged off tranquilizer darts. A genre so conclusively suicide-inducing, blue-ribbon Congressional panels were afraid to listen to it. If Francis Scott Key had been a ninth-century raider whose head was still throbbing and clanging from an ax-blow to the helmet, standing with one hand braced on the dragon prow of his longship watching his enemies’ tarred warships burn in an uncanny blue bituminous haze, while unseen galley slaves chanting the stroke rumbled the ship from below, he may have closed his eyes, thought of Ragnarok, and composed an anthem like this.
To write this, I am listening to the Danish band Apocalyptica’s Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, Amon Amarth’s With Oden on Our Side, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Mieskuoro Huutajat – that’s the Finnish Screaming Men choir. Putting these together does not equal Estonindian black metal dub, but it gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales. I stand in my living room imagining I’m on the prow of a Viking ship that has a motor with enough horsepower to launch it into orbit.
This time I’m feeling larkier. Music from the Penguin Cafe by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a good choice. I am trying to write about yoiking. I had been trying to listen to someone yoik about a bear in the Arctic night via my dial-up modem. This is impossible, and over the half-hour I gave to this fruitless experiment, I heard what sounded like someone dying very slowly of the hiccups. Even when I finally hear yoiking properly, it still resists description. It’s an improvisational, non-musical vocalization that has no beginning or end. It is, perhaps, cousins with yodeling and throat singing. My cat used to find all of these forms very stimulating when I attempted them. He would join in, claw me, and then flee outside. I yoik and write best when I am alone. Thank you, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, for putting my caterwauling in perspective. The absurd ongoingness of novel-writing seems amusing this dark evening.
Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell. He lives in western Massachusetts and works as a writer, editor, and professor.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by prolific YA novelist Nicola Morgan @nicolamorgan
Music and I have an odd relationship. If I say “There was no music in my life until I was eleven”, you’ll think I’m being melodramatic or metaphorical. No. My extremely unusual childhood was full of amazing freedoms, but no music. Or rather, we didn’t listen to it at home, ever, and since home was school, I didn’t listen to it at all. There was a school choir and I sang in it, but that, being for chapel, was somewhat narrow in its tastes. Anyway, it wasn’t till I went to boarding-school that music appeared, and by then I lacked the musical parts of my brain. (Confirmed when I tried to learn the oboe as an adult.)
Yet, if I’m writing fiction, there must be music. And I’m pedantic about the choice. It has to be just right for that piece of writing. Once I find the album, I play it over and over. And over. Sometimes I have to play it through headphones because my family shout, “NOOOO!”
A kick in the heart
It’s not background music. It’s not just to block out the real world – though it must do this, too. But it must be more invasive. It needs to kick me in the heart, make me sing – sometimes literally. It needs to take me to a place where fiction dwells and worlds can be created.
What music? The word my family use to describe the music I write fiction to is “anthemic”. They will suggest a new band or album and say to me, “You could write to that.” It must have powerful melody, rhythm and emotion, in both the music and the words. And there must be words. I think as well there must be colour. And music with colour – an aspect of synaesthesia – is something that’s hugely a theme of Mondays are Red.
Losing my religion – in yellow
So, exactly what is on my Undercover Soundtrack? When I was writing The Passionflower Massacre (Hodder, 2005) it was R.E.M., mostly Around the Sun, though in fact I quite wanted to call the book Losing My Religion. R.E.M.’s music is rich and golden, warm and vibrant, mysterious and with odd meaning. And The Passionflower Massacre is a book like that. I think the book is more yellow, more summery than R.E.M., though, but the Around the Sun track is perfect.
Sleepwalking (Hodder 2004) was Sting. Sting and the Police are cold, thin blue, the wail of a heartless future. That’s how Sleepwalking feels to me. The Highwayman’s Footsteps (Walker 2007) was Franz Ferdinand, rich with reds and blues and excitement; The Highwayman’s Curse (2008) was Franz Ferdinand again and The Kaiser Chiefs, harsh, cruel, jangly, angry, steel grey and blood red with the horror of religious hatred.
Wasted was a strange mixture: Belle and Sebastian, Muse (Uprising – love it!) and Beautiful South. With smatterings of REM again. It’s not a violent book, more thoughtful, and if it had a colour it would be an impossible blue lilac disappearing at all its edges. (For your interest, the main character is a girl with music-colour synaesthesia.)
Everything I want for a dark book
And the novel I’ve just finished, Brutal Eyes, is pure Coldplay – mostly Viva la Vida but with the recent revisions written to Mylo Xyloto, especially the phenomenal Us Against the World and Every Teardrop is a Waterfall. Those two songs are everything I want in music for a dark book. You can hear every rasp of Chris Martin’s breath, every squeak of finger on string. You can hear his eyes close, his shoulders move. It has enormous emotional heart. I’d like to hope it lends some of that to the book. Funnily, Brutal Eyes doesn’t have a colour for me.
What did I write Write to be Published to? Nothing! I couldn’t possibly write non-fiction while listening to music!
Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author, with around 90 published titles, and a growing list of self-published titles. She is well-known to aspiring writers for the honest advice on her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! and a book – Write to be Published – published by Snowbooks. Notable works include her famously gruesome novel Fleshmarket; the Aventis shortlisted Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed; and Wasted, which was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and won or was shortlisted for many awards. Mondays are Red was originally published in 2002 and Nicola has now created a new edition for ebook format, including some extra material such as creative writing by school pupils. This time, she is publishing it herself, with the help of her agent. Follow her on Twitter @nicolamorgan
The print edition is now on sale at Amazon – USD$14.95.
The individual episodes will always be available, but the special launch price will end on 15 October. Until then, you can grab them for 0.99c, and after that they will each be at the full price of USD$2.99. The complete book on Kindle is USD $9.99.
So if you want to complete the collection at the special launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice now.