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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), Rysa Walker @RysaWalker
I write in a house with two frequently noisy kids and a dog that seems to have missed the memo about golden retrievers being a quiet breed. Music is my writing cave in the midst of that chaos. I have several carefully trained Pandora channels that keep me supplied with background music, either instrumentals or songs with lyrics I know so well that they cannot possibly distract me. Instrumental covers of indie rock songs, by groups like The Section Quartet, along with albums I know by heart, like One Man’s Trash by now-defunct 1990s band The Jody Grind — these are the tunes that keep me company on days when I’m editing or revising. While I don’t exactly hate those tasks, they are often tedious and if presented with any plausible excuse, my mind will stray. If I listen to anything with lyrics I don’t know, a phrase will catch my ear, then I have to google it, and then I click on something else that’s bright and shiny. Several hours later, I’m shaking my head trying to figure out where the time went.
On days when I need to actually create something new, however, music isn’t just a cave that shuts out the world. On those days, music is my TARDIS. The right song can evoke memories of events and emotions from my own past, and even take me to times and places I could never actually visit and that’s a vital tool when you write about time traveling historians. Sometimes I use period music to help set the mood while I’m writing, but songs from the era also shine light on the customs, social issues, and pop culture of an era, so it’s always part of my research.
The last third of Timebound, the first book in my Chronos Files series, is set at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The Expo was home to the first Ferris wheel, which stood 264 feet high and could carry 60 people in each of the 36 passenger cars. One of those cars was set aside to carry a full band that played songs like Sousa’s Gladiator March as the wheel rotated. A bit farther down the Midway, a Broadway producer named Sol Bloom picked out this iconic tune while an exotic dancer billed as Little Egypt prepared to go on stage. Visitors to the Exposition and the cafes surrounding the fair were also witness to the early work of ragtime great Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Rag would take the world by storm a few years later. A few recordings from the early 1890s are available online, like this very early rendition of Daisy, Daisy, but they’re all rather hard on the ears, so I relied heavily on covers by later artists. I won’t claim that any of those songs from the 1890s is in heavy rotation on my iPod, but they definitely helped me get a feel for the era.
Music is also vital for helping me manage another type of time travel. Timebound is written from the perspective of Kate, who is 17. When I was 17, many moons ago, I existed on a steady diet of pop music and could name every song in the Top 40 most weeks. Thankfully, Kate is not autobiographical. She’s more inclined toward indie artists. This is a very good thing, because otherwise I don’t think we could hang out together. If I’m writing about Kate’s everyday life — school, friends, family — tunes by The Fratellis, Vampire Weekend, and The Shins help me climb inside her head.
There’s one last song I have to mention because I play it every few days—Borrowed Time by A Fine Frenzy. I stumbled upon her album One Cell in the Sea when I was writing the second draft of Timebound, back when it was still called Time’s Twisted Arrow. I love the entire album, but I’m deeply in debt to her for this particular song. The voice, the lyrics and the music all combine magically to pull me into Kate’s reality every time I play Borrowed Time.
Rysa Walker is the author of Timebound, the first book in The Chronos Files series. She grew up on a cattle ranch in the Deep South where the options for entertainment were talking to cows and reading books. On the rare occasion that she gained control of the television, she watched Star Trek and imagined living in the future, on distant planets, or at least in a town big enough to have a stop light. When not writing, she teaches history and government in North Carolina, where she shares an office with her husband, who heroically pays the mortgage each month, and a golden retriever named Lucy. She still doesn’t get control of the TV very often, thanks to two sports-obsessed kids. Find her website here, find the Chronos Files blog here, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@RysaWalker).
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I am so delighted my guest this week writes to music. She’s the winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) with a story of genetically enabled time travel, death threats and romance. She says music is her writing cave and time machine, shutting out the modern chaos of family life, rewinding her to times in her own past and conjuring up periods like the 1893 Columbian Exposition. She is Rysa Walker and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack to Timebound.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.
Wonder and curiosity
I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born. It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible. (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)
The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:
A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.
The Hope Store
I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope. The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.
But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:
Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.
As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell. But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )
As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.
Crossing With The Light
Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet. In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.
Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.
Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook
GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.
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My guest this week says he needs the noise and bustle of life to help him settle to writing. No silent writer retreats for him. Songs are special talismans for his central characters, providing the innocent wonder of an embryo examining the world before he’ s born, the numbness and gravitas of a girl who has lost all hope. He’s a poet, too, and some of his key pieces have a secret counterpart in the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto. He is Dwight Okita, his novel The Prospect of My Arrival was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008, and he’ll be here on Wednesday talking about Undercover Soundtracks
2008, ABNA, Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Dwight Okita, entertainment, literary fiction, literature, male writers, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Roz Morris, science fiction, soft science fiction, The Prospect of My Arrival, The Undercover Soundtrack, writing
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'