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 by Leonora Meriel @leonora_meriel
Soundtrack by JS Bach, Debussy, Sofia Rotaru, Rodnya Ensemble, Ukrainian Folk Choir, Emil Krupnik
The Woman Behind the Waterfall is the story of three generations of women in a Ukrainian village. The mother, Lyuda, cannot escape the belief that she has got everything wrong in her life, and yet her seven-year-old daughter Angela challenges that belief every day. The novel covers choices and mistakes and consequences and childhood, set against the background of a Ukrainian springtime.
The writing of the novel happened in several different ways. Some I wrote as pure emotion. Some came from images I held of the Ukrainian countryside, and I wrote as a painter, working to describe the landscape with all the sensory elements, just as I had experienced it at the time. Other parts I wrote with mental purpose, seeking a way to portray an aspect of Ukrainian life in a scene that carried the story forward.
These internal and external methods of writing demanded their own music, and I developed a set of pieces that would take me to the places where I could create what was demanding to be written.
The piece of music which was listened to the most is the well known and loved Cantata 147 by Bach: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. I am not a musician, and yet this music seems to me utterly perfect. The notes and melody are so contained and precise. They hold their beauty and passion with such poise that for me, it amplifies the love and grief and heartbreak that I hear in them, and that guided me to write the character of Lyuda, who struggles to lift herself out of her sadness for the sake of her daughter, and is constantly drawn back into her guilt and self-blame.
In my second novel, The Unity Game, a speculative sci-fi tale set in Manhattan, a distant planet and the afterlife, I tried to express this idea, when one of the characters finds himself in a garden, shortly after his death:
It was as if he were listening to the most exquisite piece of music which had never been written, but was being played, somehow, because the notes, in their creation, had contained the possibility of that music within them.’
My other classical muse was Debussy. The Ukraine I set out to portray in The Woman Behind the Waterfall was the rich countryside of western Ukraine in the regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Bukovyna and the pre-Carpathians. These areas are breathtakingly beautiful and lush. They are wild and untameable and terrifyingly fertile. They are more green than you could imagine was possible and in spring, everything is growing around you from the famous ‘chorniy zemlya’ – black earth. I found that Debussy’s passionate, wild yet dream-like music reflected these scenes for me. They are sensual and surreal and beautiful, just like the spring countryside, where every sense is filled and filled – intense smells, animal and village sounds all around, colour everywhere, the heat on skin.
For my ‘mental purpose’ writing, I listened to Ukrainian folk music to write about the three generations of women, and about life in the Ukrainian village. The joy and fun of the music and focus on nature reminded me of how Ukrainians love to party – to drink, dance, laugh, sing – and this is significant in my novel as Lyuda, the mother, has trapped herself in a private world of depression away from all this happiness.
The song Chervona Ruta, sung here by Sofia Rotaru, refers to a legend which is featured in The Woman Behind the Waterfall – the night of Ivan Kupala. On this midsummer celebration, unmarried girls go through rituals to predict and attract their future husbands, including leaping over village fires and plaiting their hair in special ways. According to legend, the ‘ruta’ or rue flower, which is usually yellow, turns red for a short time on the night of Ivan Kupala, and any girl who finds the red flower will be happy in her love.
‘Shanson’ music helped me to tap into the male characters in the novel, especially when I had to write about their choices and how they would approach a situation. Shanson can be described as Soviet prison music, and usually involves one or two men growling into a microphone with a guitar, accordion and sometimes drums to accompany them. Every taxi driver in Ukraine listens to Shanson UA and it goes perfectly with driving in a country where life is hard and unpredictable. It is angry and heart-breaking and rough and cruel. Here is an example of a Ukrainian artist Emil Krupnik singing Murka.
Ukraine has an incredibly interesting culture. If any readers have been tempted by this piece, I would urge them to go and visit this wonderful and always surprising country. If time and money are limited, you could read about the western part in The Woman Behind the Waterfall.
Leonora Meriel grew up in London and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh and Queen’s University, Ontario. She worked at the United Nations in New York, and then for a law firm. In 2003 she moved to Kyiv, where she founded Ukraine’s largest internet company. She learned to speak Ukrainian and Russian, witnessed two revolutions and got to know an extraordinary country at a key period of its development. In 2008, she returned to her dream of being a writer, and completed The Woman Behind the Waterfall, set in a village in western Ukraine, published in 2016. Her second book, The Unity Game was released in May 2017. Find her on her website, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter as @leonora_meriel
When I invited this week’s guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her Undercover Soundtrack 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’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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.