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The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrew Lowe

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’s post is a return visit by author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99

Soundtrack by Blanck Mass, Glass Animals, Johan Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Leodoris, Mark Pritchard, Mogwai, UNKLE, YouTube tropical island ambience

Kris Kristofferson came first. At the end. A slow pull-back, with Nobody Wins playing over the scrolling credits.

I’d had the Savages story pinballing around my brain for a while, but hearing Nobody Wins gave me that final scene. It underscored the logic of the story, seeped into the characters and themes. It unspooled the narrative backwards, giving me the focus to go forward.

If some kind director (Shane Meadows or Danny Boyle, please) makes a film of the book, I would insist they pack the soundtrack with the music I used to fuel the writing. Because, for me, music isn’t a lubricant or a catalyst. It’s central to the story of a novel’s creation; as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app, the epiphanies in the supermarket queue, the drafts and redrafts.

I know some writers like silence or white noise or Brahms or Schubert or Eno, but I can’t make it happen like that. I need the mood of the music to match the tone of the scene, and, while I’m at it, I like to transpose the tunes into a fantasy soundtrack of the movie of the book. (Actually, let’s go for Ben Wheatley.) With Savages, that meant the wall-of-sound headrush of Blanck Mass for the final five chapters, Mark Pritchard’s ominous minimalism for the bad blood of the mid-section, and the cataclysmic crunch of Johan Johansson’s The Beast for a pivotal scene that I wanted to read like the slow and pitiless turning of a torture-rack wheel.

Savages is the story of Joel Pearce, a suburban GP who’s looking to shake up his routine. He receives an extravagant gift for his fortieth birthday: a ‘desert island survival experience’ and, despite being a creature of home comforts, he rises to the challenge. Together with four friends, he travels to a remote tropical island in the Philippines for three weeks of indulgence and self-discovery.

It doesn’t go well.

Savages is, I hope, a thriller that plunges the reader into deeper genre waters. I wanted to write something instant and high-concept and broad, but smuggle in plenty of literary layers and contemporary obsessions. (Self-improvement, male identity, ageing, post-hedonism, the blurring of the fake and the real.)

I read plenty of genre thrillers; mostly crime and psychological. When they’re good, they can be very, very good, but when they’re bad, they can feel like dressed-up research or algorithm-friendly templates, hacked out from the walls of the deepest data mines.

Over the last year or so, the most interesting books I’ve read have dabbled with fusion. The author has taken a little from this genre, a dash from that, and moulded their story into a lateral but nourishing whole. I’m thinking of Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (sci-fi romance), Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (one man and his dog and the human condition), Adrian J Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (post-apocalyptic existentialism).

With Savages, I wanted the fusion to come from a tweak to the three-act convention. Act One is character study; family and relationship drama. Act Two is a psychological thriller; mounting tension, known unknowns. Act Three is all-out action thriller, bordering on horror. And it’s all served up with a twist inside a twist which came from that Kris Kristofferson eureka! moment.

I don’t only use music as a writing backdrop; it always seeps into the story when I’m out and about, under headphones. With any writing project, I usually have a signature song that follows me around; something that seems to connect with the story’s ambience and conflict. For Savages, it was Toes by Glass Animals, with its furtive, feline slink and talk of “divine ape-swine”. (The song is a perfect fit for the setting, as it’s clearly inspired by HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.) I also loved the brooding sensuality of Leodoris’s Run, those honking synth stabs hinting at whatever evil lurks deep in the febrile vegetation, and the way its title chimes with one of the book’s recurring ideas: progress, forward momentum, running, the urge to run when there’s nowhere to run to, the limbo between fight and flight. (UNKLE’s Panic Attack helped here, too, as did Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake, a glistening guitar meltdown that I used as pre-writing psyche-up.)

And when I had to glue myself to the writing chair in the middle of a dark and dismal winter, and cook up scenes of heat and light and powdery beaches, I turned to old YouTube, where some kind soul had stuck a static camera under a palm tree and captured an uninterrupted hour of the kind of desktop-background fantasy island described in the book. Outside my window, the North London streets glittered with frost, but in my writing cave, I was transported, tapping away to the sounds of chirping cicadas, rustling palm fronds, cresting waves. The soundtrack helped me to create an authentic bucket-list dreamworld, which I could take great pleasure reshaping into a nightmare.

Andrew Lowe is an author and editor who has written for The Guardian and Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by running, cycling and coaching youth football. Savages is out now in ebook and paperback. Audiobook coming soon. His website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him as @andylowe99

 

 

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‘Music is as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app’ – Andrew Lowe

My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’ll be sharing the Undercover Soundtrack for his latest novel on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Claire Scobie

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 award-winning journalist, travel memoirist, writing coach and novelist Claire Scobie @ClaireScobie

Soundtrack by Bangarra Dance Theatre, AH.FM trance radio, James Blunt, Adele, Govinda, Joi, Handel, various Indian temples

Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel 

A year into writing The Pagoda Tree I went to a performance by Bangarra, Australia’s leading Aboriginal contemporary dance company. Known for hard-hitting stories about dispossession and colonialism, spiritual resonance and mesmerising soundtracks, much of their music has been composed by David Page, one of Australia’s most brilliant and original Aboriginal composers.

And yet, my book is set in India. So why did Bangarra’s Earth & Sky soundtrack have such an impact?

When I first saw the performance in Sydney, where I live, I was just starting to navigate between the two different narratives of my novel: the Indian story largely told by Maya, a girl living in Tamil Nadu in the eighteenth-century and the story of the arrival of the British. Maya is a temple dancer and it is expected that she will become a royal courtesan for the prince himself. The year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change.

On the day of her initiation into the temple, she sees a stranger ‘dressed all in black [wearing] an unusual triangular hat. He was a foreigner. His long hair was dishevelled, his pallid complexion ghostly.’

Maya fears this is a bad omen.

The man is Walter Sutcliffe, an English reverend, who has come to Thanjavur to be a moral guide to the rabble of the English army. Over the coming years their lives will intersect – ultimately with disastrous consequences for her.

From Bangarra to Bharatanatyam and back again

Still, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I didn’t know all of this when I started.

What I did know, though, was that nine-year-old Maya was destined to be a great dancer. Dance is the pulsating rhythm of this book: it is dance that offers Maya an escape when family tragedy strikes, enabling her to flee to the steamy port city of Madras where she meets a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce. Maya dances for the gods as well as men and her dance – Bharatanatyam – is still performed around the world today.

But initially I couldn’t connect to the intricacies of her art form. I watched many dance performances in south India during my research and I bought a stack of Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – videos as a way to understand the moves. It didn’t chime, though, and I sat and stewed in front of the keyboard.

Then I saw Bangarra’s Earth & Sky. In particular I put Weaving Part 2 from the soundtrack on repeat because its simple, rhythmic beat that builds and falls seemed to tap into the young innocence of Maya – and the misguided kindness of my English missionary character, Walter.

Walter was actually the first character who ‘came to me’ when I was visiting Thanjavur. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, in a monsoonal downpour.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Walter even if he was a man of his time. India works her magic on him, though, stripping away his moral Christian prejudices so he can face the demons of his past.

Broken Wing

In the Bangarra performance, there is a dance sequence about the harmful impact of Christian missions in Aboriginal communities, captured in Bible Man, Broken Wing and rising to a pinnacle in the piece Victim.

All helped when I was further into writing Maya’s character and she starts to understand what the arrival of the British is going to mean for her family, community and people. Thanks to Victim, I was able to write the final climactic sequence of the novel.

Victim is like a performance song that combines the eerie sound of footsteps, prison doors locking and unlocking, violent swearing and Aboriginal voices, intercut with the monotone recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Kingdom Come / Thy Will be Done…’

Just re-listening to it now makes my heart beat faster. When I was writing the novel, it helped bring my plot strands together. In fact the entire album of Earth & Sky encapsulates this element of brokenness which I explore.

Getting into the zone

In general when I write, I don’t like music with lyrics as they stop the words that I’m trying to find in my story. Instead I like AH.FM trance radio because there are no ads and the tunes are uplifting and often anthemic. Then, once I’m writing, I tend to switch the music off and work in silence. If I get stuck, the music comes back on again.

As my novel is set against a pretty dramatic backdrop of war, famine and natural disasters, I did enlist some big pop songs to help with writing some scenes. After I’d been working on the book for around two years, I realised I was avoiding writing a particular scene with Maya’s aunt, Sita. I know enough now that if I keep avoiding something, it’s the thing that MUST be written.

It would be a plot spoiler to say what happens to Sita but James Blunt’s No Bravery got me there. Blunt served in the army before turning to song writing and this tune is about how war degrades our humanity and makes monsters of men.

Similarly, Adele’s roaring Rolling in the Deep helped as I was limping towards the end of my novel. I’d seen the last scenes very clearly 18 months before I actually wrote them. Adele’s emotional, piano-thumping beats and feisty lyrics galvanised the words to reach that fever pitch I was looking for.

Daily life in India: my main soundtrack

And then of course, there’s all the Indian music I turned to when I was writing the book in Sydney or London: Govinda’s A Modern Mantra and Joi’s India became favourites. I didn’t need it when I wrote in India because real life there provides its own sound track: temple drums wake you at four o’clock in the morning, then there’s a call to prayer from the minaret, crows cawing, monkeys shrieking, a Bollywood soap opera from the woman’s television next door, political rallies blaring out slogans on loud speakers… and so it goes throughout the day.

Throughout the process, though, the impulse was the same: to find ways into my characters that would reveal their different worlds; to explore and evoke the East and the West.

Except my goal wasn’t to pit these worlds against each other, which is the well-worn narrative we read so often about Raj India. Instead it was seeing how the cultures interlink and where the crossovers are. The future of the British in India wasn’t written in the 1770s and there was still a possibility of exchange between people. And at its heart, that’s what the music helped me discover – that space in-between, in that liminal world of spirit and matter, between love and hate, fear and joy. In the space between the words.

Claire Scobie is an award-winning British journalist and author who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. She has just indie published a new memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, co-authored with her mother Patricia Scobie. Claire runs writing courses in Australia, Asia and the UK, and mentors writers one-on-one. In 2013, she completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel. Her website is here, this is her Facebook page, and you can tweet her as @clairescobie

 

 

 

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‘Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel’ – Claire Scobie

My guest this week might be familiar to you if you follow the Purple Blog. I  featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat high up in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by for her post on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Victoria Dougherty

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 essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty

Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks

I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.

Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.

I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.

And I used to be right there with them.

It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.

I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.

It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).

Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.

Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.

Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.

A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.

And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.

Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.

Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:

He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.

 

Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.

Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).

And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.

These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.

And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.

So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.

Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty 

 

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‘Some of the best lyrical storytelling I’ve ever heard’ – Victoria Dougherty

Pull on your boots. My guest this week had a radical change in music taste when she reached her 30s, and she hopes to convert you too – unless you’re already a fan of country. It started when she moved out of Chicago and found that the sensibilities of country singers were more in tune with her new environment. Not only that, she realised they were wry, witty storytellers, writing about characters complex enough to satisfy any novelist. Soon they were guiding the way her stories developed. So come and join a twangly, poignant chorus of Dolly Parton, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, all on the Undercover Soundtrack of Victoria Dougherty.

But I haven’t said when. I’m hoping to post as usual on Wednesday, but BT have mucked up my broadband and can’t promise they’ll have their wagons in order by then. So Victoria might be a day or two late. But she’s on her way. I guess life slows down when you’re in the country. See you soon.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Gwendolyn Womack

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 supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack

Soundtrack by Phil Thornton, Gerald Jay Markoe, Dead Can Dance, Lana Ross, Caryl James Thompson, Mikael Sapin, Nigel Stanford, James Wood

Music is a wonderful companion while writing. I’ve often found writing to the right song can help deepen a scene, kick start the solution to a problem, or spawn a new idea. Sometimes before I sit down to write, I’ll search for over an hour sampling songs on iTunes, YouTube and the internet to find what I’m looking for. I don’t even know what that is until I’ve heard it. All I know is it has to be the perfect song to evoke the emotional state I’m trying to capture. Does it conjure a specific time or place? create a doorway to a culture? help foster the emotions I want my character to be feeling? —or me to feel as I write? The reason for the song constantly changes.

Once I find the perfect song, sometimes I’ll loop it for days while I’m writing. Looping helps to create a flow so there is no interruption in my train of thought. I’ve also found in general the music needs to be instrumental, otherwise the lyrics become a distraction.

Knowing I would want to share my playlist for my second novel, I kept close track of the songs. The Fortune Teller is a romantic thriller that revolves around an ancient manuscript and the world’s first Tarot cards. The novel alternates between present day and the manuscript’s story, which is both a memoir and a prophecy spanning 2000 years. Because the memoir journeys to different lands and lifetimes as it moves forward in time, the music I chose to listen to changed dramatically as well. When I finished the novel the entire playlist was quite extensive, but I’d like to highlight the songs and albums that were a driving force while I wrote.

For the memoir, which begins in Alexandria, Egypt, I listened to the album Pharaoh by Phil Thornton, which evoked the perfect setting. As I wrote scenes taking place in the secret vaults of the great Library of Alexandria I looped this song: Meditation Music of Ancient Egypt by Gerald Jay Markoe. The song felt like a time machine taking me to those underground chambers.

During the memoir chapters I also wrote a lot to Dead Can Dance, one of my favorite groups. The memoir was written by an ancient seer and she conjures her own magic and mystery as she tells her story. I found Dead Can Dance perfectly tapped into that world. I listened to the album Toward The Within and favored tracks #2 – Persian Love Song, #4 Yulunga, #5 Piece for Solo Flute, and #14 Sanvean for weeks as I wrote her memoir on seeing the future.

I’ve also found film soundtracks can be a wonderful resource to find the perfect instrumental song. A prime example is in the memoir when the story reached Milan in the 1400s, I listened to specific tracks from the soundtrack to Dangerous Beauty. Although the film takes place in 16th-century Venice, the music still helped strike the setting in my mind for that chapter.

When the memoir moved to the Russian Revolution and then onto World War II, I was playing Lana Ross nonstop. Lana Ross was a lucky find on one of my internet hunts. She is a guitar soloist who has an album of Jewish folk music that is exquisite. I also listened to this theme song repeatedly from the documentary The Lady In Number 6, played by Caryl James Thompson. The poignancy of this song just swept me away and captured an essence I was looking for while trying to write about the war. I highly recommend watching the documentary too. It follows the story of the world’s oldest pianist and Holocaust survivor.

For the present day storyline of Semele Cavnow, who is attempting to unravel the mystery behind the ancient manuscript, there were three key albums I listened to: Far Away by Mikael Sapin, Solar Echoes by Nigel Stanford, and Pure Ceremony by James Wood.

Far Away is some of the most heartrending piano music I’ve ever heard and I remember looping it on a long plane ride I took and writing several scenes for Semele. After that I just kept going back to the music for her. There was an emotional aspect that it captured—a sadness, a longing.

For Solar Echoes, I remember my favorite track being Dark Sun, though I am a super fan of Nigel’s and all his songs. But Dark Sun captured the energy of Semele’s quest. The story is ultimately a thriller and Semele is on a journey to find answers, and this song has a driving quality. I listened to it a lot as I wrote the last chapters with Semele traveling across Europe.

And the third album, Pure Ceremony by James Wood, is phenomenal singing drum music. My favorite track was Timebomb which I looped too many times to count as the story’s supernatural elements came to the fore. There is some bending of time in the novel and Timebomb was the song I wrote the majority of those scenes to. (I also thought the title of the song could not have been more appropriate.)

Those are the main pieces to the musical puzzle that helped shaped The Fortune Teller. It’s quite wonderful to look back on the playlist and remember what I wrote to the songs. If I could send each artist a Book Valentine I would.

Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers that explore a spectrum of metaphysical subjects. Her debut novel, The Memory Painter, published by Macmillan/ Picador, was an RWA Prism Award winner and Indie Next Pick. Her second novel is The Fortune Teller. Gwendolyn lives in LA and paints as a hobby. Find out more at her website and watch The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter book trailers on YouTube. Tweet her as @Gwen_Womack

 

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Searching for places, emotions and characters – Gwendolyn Womack

My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Libby O’Loghlin

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 Zürich-based Australian novelist and short story writer Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol), who is one half of ‘Christoph Martin’, a collaborative writing team, with Swiss writer and entrepreneur Christoph Martin Zollinger (@expansionbook).

Soundtrack by Nicky Jam, Benjamin Clementine, David Bowie, Zoe Keating

Before embarking on The Expansion project with Christoph, I hadn’t written fiction collaboratively, apart from working with beta readers and editors. I found the process a fascinating one, in which two minds bring ideas and experiences and skills to the table, and somehow, over time, a new expression of a story is built and honed, and eventually handed over to the world.

The Expansion is a political thriller; a fictional account of a conspiracy around the expansion of the Panama Canal, with storyworlds spanning Panama, Washington, DC, London and Switzerland. It’s the first of a four-part series that interrogates the global political landscape, and asks questions about power and corruption, and the broadly impacting deals and investigations that go on behind closed doors.

Both Christoph and I need silence to write. But our story has a massive scope, and there’s no doubt music has acted as both a useful anchor during the writing process for me, and as a ‘language’ of sorts, as Christoph and I sought to explain to each other the ‘feeling’ or ‘atmosphere’ we wanted to evoke in a certain scene.

Nicky Jam

As part of our research, Christoph and I travelled to Panama in 2015, where we visited the site of the Panama Canal expansion (mind-bustingly enormous), as well as numerous other locations that formed the setting for our story, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As part of that experience, I made sure I ate local foods and listened to local radio, and in fact it was the continuous wallpaper of Spanish-language pop music like Nicky Jam’s El Perdón (which I heard blasting out car windows in downtown Panama) that helped me get pumped and in the mood to write the good-times, party scenes. Or really any scene that contained one of our key characters, Godfredo Roco, who seems to bring the party with him wherever he goes.

Benjamin Clementine

One morning, Christoph turned up to one of our plotting meetings with ‘Condolence’, a song by British artist Benjamin Clementine, on his laptop. We’d been putting together the events around the darkest hours in our protagonist Max’s journey, and I immediately knew from listening to that track where Max’s head and heart were at that moment. The fact that Clementine’s accent is British (he’s from London) was an important anchor for me, because Max is a Brit who winds up in Panama City in a viper’s nest of political corruption and conspiracy between characters from the US, China and Panama. And at the very moment it’s all falling apart for him, he receives news from London that will break his heart and take him to a place he’s been and ‘seen before,’ as Clementine would put it. It’s a pivotal moment, as Max will need to decide whether he has it in him to stand up and fight for his life. (Again.)

What I love about Clementine’s track is that, as it heads for the second verse, it sounds like it’s about to resolve, break into a major key … and then it slips back into a minor key … So you don’t really know which way it’s going to go. And I had the distinct feeling from hearing that track that this was how we should be writing Max. (Metaphoric and literal spoiler: major key resolve after second verse.) Not only that, but the driving rhythm under the lone piano gave us the ‘visual’ of Max, stranded and utterly alone in the hustle and hubbub of downtown Panama City.

David Bowie

I think the Obsessive Creator Award needs to go to Christoph, who was far above the world (on a plane between Panama and Switzerland) when he first had the inspiration for The Expansion series. In a prolonged, one-finger typing frenzy on his iPhone (about six hours straight) he outlined the entire story and fleshed out most of the main characters and their backstories … all to the monotonous hum of the aircraft engine.

And (just to give myself the Obsessive Co-Creator Award) there were times when I was doing a lot of writing on my own, and at those times it was useful to have some musical inspiration. One such instance was when I was spending a lot of time in the headspace of one of our characters, a very tough and disciplined woman who is also terminally ill. That was a challenge for me, and in writing the events before her death, I appreciated David Bowie’s final gift to the world, Black Star, which I had on high rotation in between writing sessions. It’s a pretty discombobulating track—musically, lyrically, and visually (if you watch the video clip)—and I’ve observed that some people find it jarring, and off-putting. But I think, as a writer, you can benefit from staring uncomfortable things in the face. And it makes your writing stronger, too.

One of the most intriguing things about Black Star, for me, is that even though it is thematically quite intense, it has a surprisingly light touch—playful, almost. That was clarifying for me while writing our character; not that our character is necessarily playful or ‘light’—in fact, to the contrary, she’s ruthless and she has regrets—but, having listened to people talk about their own impending death, and having talked with friends whose loved ones have died, I notice there are many interesting preconceptions about what the ‘journey’ towards death will be like, but the actual experience seems to be very different for everyone, and in that sense Bowie’s track inspired me to stay firmly in our character’s head and in her heart as she started her journey towards her demise.

Of course, nobody knows what Bowie was going through in private, but I found the fact that he had written and recorded an entire album while sick and dying compelling. The performance of a lifetime, really. And so we gave our character the performance of her life as she headed into the eye of the storm.

Zoe Keating  

Max […] surveyed the village below. Its narrow, stone streets had been laid hundreds of years before the first growl of a motor, and snow lay thickly on neat, fairy-tale rooftops. Twinkling Christmas lights delineated eaves and chimneys, and wisps of wood smoke hung low in the valley.’

This is the scene in which we first meet Max and his best friend, Godfredo: they’re teenagers, and they’re trudging up the mountainside at night from the tiny, village train station back to their exclusive Alpine boarding school. It’s a moment that forms the prelude to an event that sends their lives spinning off in different directions, and it’s also a moment that stays with them through the ‘dance’ that becomes their long-lasting, if at times mutually exasperating, friendship.

When it comes to writing the Swiss Alps, Zoe Keating is high on my list of inspiration. There’s something about lyrics-less cello that is very spacious, and yet Keating’s arrangements also have a powerful edge to them, and this element acted as a reminder to steer clear of stereotypes: to embed words that defy expectations, and to tell the story with a fresh eye. I put her music on whenever I feel like I might be veering towards ‘tidy’ or ‘cliché’.

On the one hand, The Expansion novel is a genre piece, so we needed to bow to the dramatic, and to the fast pace of a thriller, but we also wanted to take the time to do justice to our story and our characters—after all, it’s a star-crossed love story, too. So part of attaining that balance was to give the prose—the language—an edge, where possible, when the pace was slower. Like embedding the word ‘growl’ in an otherwise peaceful, fairy-tale, twinkly-lights night.

Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol) is an Australian novelist and prize-winning short story writer. Her young adult fiction, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She has lived in the UK, USA and Malaysia, and she now lives with her family in Zürich, Switzerland, where she is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly online publication, and WriteCon writing workshops. You can also connect with Libby on her Facebook Author Page and Goodreads. You can read more about The Expansion four-part series on The Expansion website, and find Christoph Martin on Goodreads and Twitter @expansionbook.

 

 

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‘A language to explain feeling and atmosphere’ – Libby O’Loghlin

My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. Drop by on Wednesday for their Undercover Soundtrack.

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