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 returning for an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke
When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.
When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.
All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.
I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.
Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.
But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.
But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.
The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.
But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.
And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.
And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.
I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.
(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).
If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.
I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.
I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.
For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.
In particular, I remember a moment of revelation – a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.
It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.
Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.
The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.
I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.
I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.
Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.
But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.
It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.
The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller
‘A voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and a pained familial past’ – Philip Miller
My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 MG/YA novelist and vignettist Theresa Milstein @theresamilstein
Soundtrack by Coldplay, Madonna, Seal, Nik Kershaw, the Smiths, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure, Colin Hay, Seatbelts, Arcade Fire
My new collection of vignettes, Time & Circumstance, was written over the span of five years, so many songs influenced its creation. I honored this connection when I named the two sections of the book. The first section, filled with prose pieces, Tempo Adagio, evokes a slower pace. The second section, filled with poetry, Tempo Allegro, evokes a brisk pace. I couldn’t imagine this collection coming together without musical influence.
Coldplay’s song Violet Hill inspired my early flash fiction piece Violet’s Hill. The darker sound and the first lyrics about a bleak December and his plea during the melody set the right mood for the story of unrequited love. I originally wrote the piece for an anthology, 100 RPM: 100 Stories Inspired by Music.
For the short story Injustices, a stalker is watching a woman dancing in the apartment across the alley as he imagines her listening to Madonna. I heard the song Like a Prayer because it has the right tempo for someone getting ready for work in the morning. Although it’s different than the music I usually listen to, the song helped me pictured the scene more vividly.
When I wrote the story Left-Behind about death and Birthday about a miscarriage I experienced, I listened to Seal’s 1994 album, especially the song, Don’t Cry. A few songs are about mourning, which helped me deal with the feelings of loss.
The poem 1986 brought back my days as a punk girl hanging in New York City. Because I mention the movie Pretty in Pink, I thought about the soundtrack’s influence on me. Two songs from the soundtrack I especially connected with are Wouldn’t it Be Good by Nik Kershaw and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths. I was an angst-ridden teen.
Steam Punk is about a caustic relationship. To get in the mood for that, I listened to one of my favorite songs, A Forest by The Cure because of the strong beat and mood.
I recalled my first years of marriage when I wrote First Apartment. Grunge was big then, and I especially loved Smashing Pumpkins. Their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness played when I wrote it. My favorite song from that album is 1979. It was a coming of age into adolescence song for songwriter and singer, Billy Corgan, and here I am using it as a coming of age into adulthood song for me in the 90s. We’re both experiencing nostalgia.
I actually credit the song Waiting for My Real Life to Begin by Colin Hay for the Revision poem, which humorously portrays writer’s block. In a moment when I was feeling particularly down about my work and thought I’d never become published, I listened to his song over and over.
The song Measure is about my son practising his sax. When he joined jazz band, he always warmed up with the same tune. One day, it struck me how much he’d improved. The song started as an intrusion into our home, and then became pleasant background. When he goes off to college, I will miss it. I don’t have a clip of him practising, but I do have Tank by the Seatbelts.
The last song in the collection that inspired me was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire from the album The Suburbs for the poem Boundaries. I wrote it in response to the hateful political rhetoric I’d been hearing to contrast it with my experience working with immigrant children in a school and also compared it with my children’s experience living in a suburb. For me, the song symbolizes the destruction of the west. It became the perfect background for the feelings I needed to express.
The back cover of Time & Circumstance states: ‘the unrelenting passage of time connects the vignettes’. Reviewing my song choices as a soundtrack, I have a strong sense of nostalgia tying the collection together. It was nice to relive some of my favorite teen songs when writing some of these pieces. I also appreciate the tone of the songs reflecting the many poignant moments throughout the collection.
Theresa Milstein writes middle grade and YA, but poetry is her secret passion. Her vignette collection, Time & Circumstance, is published by Vine Leaves Press. She lives near Boston Massachusetts with her husband, two children, a dog-like cat, and a cat-like dog. For her day job, she works as a special education teacher in a public school, which gives her ample opportunity to observe teens and tweens in their natural habitat. Find her website here, contact her on Facebook, or tweet her @theresamilstein.
My guest this week has just published a collection of vignettes. They’re linked by a sense of time passing, anniversaries both happy and sad, and nostalgia. Music was the way to capture and preserve the essential moments and personal memories she wanted to examine, so the soundtrack was a soundtrack to her life too. She is Theresa Milstein and she’ll be here on Wednesday.
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 historical fiction and contemporary romantic novelist Nicole Evelina @nicoleevelina
Soundtrack by Sting, Fever Ray, The Civil Wars, Black Veil Brides
Every one of my books has a theme song/album – music without which the book never would have been written.
Capturing the essence of a legend
The theme song to the Guinevere’s Tale trilogy is “ Thousand Years by Sting. This song came out just weeks after I began writing Daughter of Destiny, the first book in the series. There is something about the cyclical sound of the melody that calls to mind reincarnation, the thousands of versions and re-tellings Arthurian legend has gone through over the ages. It also evokes to me the changing nature of the characters as artists reinvent them to fit their time. In the prologue to the book, Guinevere explains that not a single version you’ve heard has been right; she is going to set the record straight in the trilogy by telling the true story of her life. In so doing she can reclaim her name and her dignity from years of slander and abuse.
Plunging into the mind of a killer
The sequel, Camelot’s Queen, has one of the longest playlists of any of my books, most songs aligning with or inspiriting certain scenes. But the most influential album was the soundtrack to the movie Red Riding Hood, specifically the songs by Fever Ray, The Wolf and Keep the Streets Empty for Me. I listened to that soundtrack over and over while I wrote the section of the book dealing with Guinevere’s kidnapping by Malegant – one of the most detailed and longest parts of the book, and also my favorite. There is something feral about this music – wild, dangerous and dark – that fit perfectly with evil in Malegant’s soul. For Guinevere, the experience was the ultimate nightmare, not just for any woman, but especially for a priestess and queen. By his vile actions, Malegant stripped her of her power and her dignity, and unknowingly changed the course of her life – and that of all of Camelot. Scenes of such dark subject matter and import need equally powerful music. It doesn’t hurt that these songs could well have been used for a Samhain ritual, the event during which Guinevere’s torment begins.
Longing for an unknown love
My contemporary romantic comedy, Been Searching for You, actually came about because of a song. In November 2012, my best friend introduced me to the song To Whom it May Concern by The Civil Wars. Knowing I’m a die-hard romantic still looking for my soul mate, she thought I’d be able to relate to the lyrics about missing and waiting for someone you’ve never met, but you are certain is out there. Oh boy, did I. That song is actually why Annabeth writes letters to her soul mate on her birthday each year in the book.
As I got to know more of The Civil Wars’ music, I fell in love with a second song, Dust to Dust. It feels to me very much like a bookend to To Whom it May Concern. To me, it’s the song for when the two lovers who hadn’t met yet in To Whom It May Concern have gotten together, overcome their struggles and realised they finally found one another. So I challenged myself to write a story that began with the words ‘To whom it may concern’ and ended with the words ‘dust to dust’. That book is Been Searching for You.
Remembering a forgotten historical heroine
Not many people would put a metal song and a feministic manifesto at the top of their influences for writing biographical historical fiction about the first woman to run for President in the United States in 1872 – but I think we’ve already established I’m not normal. In the End by Black Veil Brides is my song explaining the urgency I felt to write Madame Presidentess, the story of Victoria Woodhull, a nearly forgotten, but crucial, figure of the American suffrage movement. There’s a line that asks who will tell the story of a person’s life. I was that person for Victoria. I also loved the theme of not being afraid to die and leaving something behind for future generations, both of which Victoria would very much be in agreement with. As a spiritualist, for her death and life were one, and I have a feeling she’s still not done doing her work here on earth – or at least not until her name is in the history books where it belongs.
Victoria’s theme song is Woman (Oh Mama) by Joy Williams (formerly of The Civil Wars). It chronicles woman’s roles throughout history – caregiver, life bringer, helpmeet and victim – how she has been seen by men – from Madonna to whore and back again – and the identities she has reclaimed to be her own – goddess and fabric of the universe. Victoria was a very strong woman, who by her own admission was years beyond her time, so I know she would proudly sing this song and declare herself strong and free.
Nicole Evelina is a multi-award winning historical fiction and contemporary romantic comedy author from St. Louis, Missouri. Her debut novel, Daughter of Destiny, was named Book of the Year by Chanticleer reviews. She’s now at work on her first non-fiction book, tracing the evolution of Guinevere over the last 1,000 years of literature, and is also finishing the final book in her Guinevere’s Tale trilogy, Mistress of Legend, which will be published later this year. Learn more about her at nicoleevelina.com or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.
I had a hard time this week picking just one pull quote to represent my guest’s work. She’s a writer of two halves – historical romantic fiction and contemporary romance. And she’s now also venturing into biographical historical fiction as well. The common thread is always music. A song by Sting that evoked for her a sense of an untold angle for the Arthurian legend. Or a friend who recommended music by The Civil Wars that gave her the opening and closing lines of a modern romance. What could be more fitting with Valentine’s just around the corner? Drop by tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of Nicole Evelina.
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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27
Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives
Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.
Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.
The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.
I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.
Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.
I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.
Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.
Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.
Find their space
While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’
Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.
I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.
The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:
No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’
She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:
Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’
I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.
I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.
Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.
When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.
It appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.
But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.
Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27
My guest this week is a musician as much as a writer – she teaches piano, and she says that playing is the closest she ever gets to a state of mindfulness. Her debut novel was sparked by the uncanny conjunction of a magazine article and a piece of music. The former was a piece about a couple who had signed up to have their bodies cryonically preserved after their deaths, in the hope that they would be reawakened and reuinited. And the latter? A haunting, icy piece of music by Ennio Morricone that seemed to urge her to write a story about a couple who sign up for preservation, and the tragic situation that ensues. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Andrea Darby, and her novel The Husband Who Refused To Die.
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.
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.