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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 Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
Soundtrack by Kate Bush, World Order, U2
On January 11, 2018 I will have my book launch party at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, reading excerpts of The Hope Store accompanied by ambient music. The music will be an overt soundtrack, not the undercover soundtrack I am about to describe.
This speculative novel has always been structurally a kind of duet: the chapters of the book alternate between the voices of pessimist Jada who is a customer and optimist Luke who is one of the store’s creators. At times those voices harmonise, are dissonant, or simply collide. How do two characters with different worldviews see the same event, the same story? Are some realities more real than others? And most importantly: what is hope and how do we make more of it? The Hope Store tells the fable of the first store in the world to sell hope over the counter, the creators of this procedure that opens new paths in our brains, and the individual lives that are changed as a result. As often happens, complications ensue.
Jada Upshaw’s character is broken and hope-starved. The music of Kate Bush helped to conjure Jada for me. Bush’s music is dark, witch-like, desperate. In her classic song, Running Up That Hill, we first hear a siren’s call, then propulsive percussion, finally a lyric fragment. The lyric alludes to some deal she is in the process of making and it feels ominous. Coincidentally Jada comes to the store with a deal in mind, an ulterior motive which we will discover later. Her first words on the page are:
My name is Jada Upshaw. I started out as a girl without dreams and grew up to be a woman without a future. Mind you, it’s not a story I’m especially proud to tell, but if I’m at a party and someone asks me what my story is…‘
Luke Nagano’s character has a chequered past but he has reinvented himself, partly through hard work and partly through undergoing a ‘hope installation’. For me, Luke began to manifest on the page with the music of U2’s anthem With or Without You. Bono’s voice and words embody an unshakeable confidence. There is a steady beat, the whine of steel guitars. The music projects a feeling of determination equal to Luke’s commitment to bringing a new kind of healing into the world. His first words, however, start tentatively:
My name is Luke Nagano. I arrived on this planet as a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it. It took me years to learn how to throw my voice out into the world and wait for it to come boomeranging back to me.’
The revolution will be televised
I always pictured that the climax of this book would take place at a townhall meeting hosted by CNN. And that is exactly what I wrote. Toward the end of the novel, it is almost Christmas, almost the new year. The auditorium swirls with opinions articulated by The Enhanced Hopers who bow down at the altar of science — and opinions of The Natural Hopers who believe one should only have the hope you were born with. This latter group hates science and secretly fears it. During this long night, the arguments range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The audience is filled with skeptics, believers, and everything in between. The whole world is watching.
The song that ignited this scene as I was developing it was a Japanese pop tune called World Order by World Order. The words were gibberish to me as they are in Japanese but the passion of the singer coupled with the danceability of the tracks made this scene percolate. As if it was now time for a dance-off between opposing views. And so there is a choir of angry voices echoing through the auditorium, the Japanese pop tune only adding to the chaos. World Order, indeed. (By the way, the music video is quite entertaining as all the band members are choreographed to perfection. The leader of World Order, Genki Sudo, was formerly an MMA fighter who turned his focus to music and dance videos after an injury.)
Hope is the belief that the thing you most want – you can have
Where did this book come from? At some level, this book is a metaphor for my own healing. In years past I’ve battled generalised anxiety disorder which is characterised by relentless dread, debilitating social phobia which at times kept me home-bound, and a relentless moodswing that lasted over two years. In many ways I am both Luke and Jada, the healer and the person who needs to be healed. The shelves of my own unique hope store have been lined with an array of modalities including Buddhist chanting, therapeutic cuddling, and pharmacology. If Nichiren Buddhism has taught me nothing else, it’s that each person at some point must confront their own fundamental darkness — and conquer it, or at least tame it. Failing that, the person is doomed to a life of incessant suffering. To me, every story is about that: A hero coming face to face with that terrifying darkness — whether it resides within him or lurks somewhere outside himself.
When my book launch party finally occurs, I will not read to music that causes a story to happen, but to music that immerses the audience in the experience of the story. Think of children around a campfire late at night, how the flames add light, heat and even danger. Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I loved writing it. Namaste. The hope in me honours the hope in you.
Dwight Okita lives in Chicago where he designs websites and works for a nonprofit. His first novel, The Prospect of My Arrival, was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Tia Chucha Press published his poetry book Crossing with the Light. He is working on a new novel called Every Time We Say Goodbye which is about love, reincarnation and gun control. The Hope Store is available now. Find him at his website and tweet him at @DwightOkita
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, anxiety disorder, Dwight Okita, how authors work, how writers work, Kate Bush, magic realism, music for writing, Nichiren Buddhism, speculative fiction, The Hope Store, U2, undercover soundtrack, World Order, writers and music
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
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
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- 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.
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- 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
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