Posts Tagged Amy Winehouse
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 NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt @leavittnovelist
Soundtrack by the Smiths, the Beatles, Crowded House, Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones
My novel Cruel Beautiful World was written over a period of four years, with lots of tears, struggles, millions of pages, and I know for a fact, millions of songs. I admit that I listened to the same music over and over to get the emotional tone right. And I never could have silence when I wrote because the music both relaxed and inspired me.
You might think that because the novel is set in 1969 and 1970 that I listened to the period’s rock and roll back then—kind of dippy hits like Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), but actually, I didn’t. Hey, I grew up in the 70s and I didn’t want my own experiences leaking too much into my narrative. I wanted my characters to claim their own lives and their own music. And I wanted to create their world for them.
Every day when I sat down to write, I would listen to The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. To me, the lyrics are so very ‘cruel beautiful world-ish’ on their own. The song is narrated by a man in pain. He knows that yes, there is this hope, this light, even as he’s thinking about what a privilege it would be if a truck ran over him and the person he loves – death by Mack Truck. It always got me in just the right mood.
Some days, writing snags and I need a beat to propel me through it. Usually those songs have nothing to do with what I am writing, I just feel as if my heart is beating along with the musical beat. When I was writing the tortured, tangled relationships in the books, I listened to The Beatles Rubber Soul , that bright shiny sound, the beat that kept propelling me forward. I didn’t listen to the lyrics (if I had, I would have been derailed) but the music acted as a pulse.
When I had to write the most wrenching scene of my novel, where a death occurs, something I had put off for months, I had to be really tender with myself, but I also had to brace myself so I would go deep, so I wouldn’t pull back from what was important. That was when I listened to Those You’ve Known . What makes this song more meaningful and heartbreaking for me was my actor son was in a production of Spring Awakening, and he sang that song as Moritz. I wept listening to that song when I saw him onstage, and I wept while I was writing, but I got the scene done exactly as I wanted it to be.
Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House captures the feeling, the longing my characters have for one another–and my own internal longing which never seems to ebb. Listening to this song is like taking a vitamin for my writing. Back to Black by Amy Winehouse does the same thing for me because of its bluesy, smoky sound.
While I was thinking of my work as a whole, trying to categorize this unwieldy novel, my son was sprawled on a chair in the living room, avidly listening to this gorgeous song and I said, ‘What’s that? Who’s that?’ He looked up at me. ‘Group Love,’ he said. ‘Cruel and Beautiful World.’ I knew immediately that without the ‘and’ it would be the perfect title because it’s sort of my world view. Yes, things fall apart, hearts rip open, but there is love, too, and beauty and art and fresh Insomnia cookies.
The day I finished my novel and sent it off to my agent, I cried. And then I put on Tom Jones’s Country album, because that was the one I played every day when I was pregnant with my son Max. I sang along to it, feeling soothed. I used to put my headphones on my belly so my son could listen in, too.
I knew I was birthing something.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow and the critically acclaimed Cruel Beautiful World, which launched in paperback on 8 August. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and People, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as private clients. She was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, in NYC’s unofficial sixth borough, Hoboken, near their actor son, who lives in Brooklyn. Right now, she’s listening to lots of Benny King. You can find her on her website, Twitter (@leavittnovelist), Facebook, Instagram (carolineleavitt) and Litsy (Carolineleavitt)
My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’ll be on the Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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’s post is by Louisa Treger @louisatreger
Soundtrack by Hozier, Amy Winehouse, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms
Before pursuing a career as a writer, I was a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. Music was fantastic training for being an author because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Music was, and still is, a huge part of my life. It informs every word I write.
Many authors listen to music while they are working, but I can’t. For me, music is too powerful; it’s like a magnet, drawing all my attention to it. It shuts out the words. I listen to music in my car, while walking the dog, or doing chores at home.
Music lifts us into a different realm. It allows us to enter a place where our emotions can flow freely, in a way that transcends ordinary experience. Yet although music expresses things that go deeper than words, I find that it inspires words. Music expresses states of feeling that I want to capture verbally. At first, these are dim and half formed in my mind; I am fumbling my way towards them. Listening to music is a catalyst, helping me put emotions into words.
Music was fundamental to the writing of my debut novel, The Lodger.
It’s a biographical novel about the little-known author, Dorothy Richardson, who was a literary pioneer and something of a cult figure in her day. She wrote stream of consciousness before anyone else and was considered Virginia Woolf’s equal, but somehow, she got forgotten by history.
At the start of my novel, Dorothy is existing just above the poverty line, working as a dentist’s secretary and living in a shabby boarding house in Bloomsbury. She receives an invitation to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer hovering on the brink of fame. Dorothy doesn’t recognise his name: HG Wells, or Bertie, as his friends call him.
Bertie Wells appears unexceptional at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval…
Tormented about betraying Jane, yet unable to draw back, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with him. Then a new boarder arrives at the house – striking Veronica Leslie-Jones – and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie… Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
A song that helped me capture the mood and tone of both love affairs in my book is From Eden by Hozier. This is a very powerful song: tragedy and rapture rubbing shoulders. It reaches into your soul, pulls it out and throws it on the ground. It’s about people who are damaged by their pasts, who are flawed and cynical, yet have found something incredibly precious in each other.
Dorothy had fallen; she was living in sin; betraying Jane … The hunger she felt for Bertie was all-consuming; it obliterated everything else, even her guilt.
Loss and longing
There is a great deal of loss in The Lodger, and I looked to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black for inspiration. I think it’s one of the best breakup albums of all time. Amy sings about the kind of love that goes so deep inside you, it transforms your internal landscape and marks you forever. And her voice: smoky and ancient, expressing more loss and longing, more pain and despair than one person can bear in a lifetime. It speaks to me.
Often, it seemed as though a part of her still existed continuously in the past. Lived with Veronica; the two of them lying eternally in each other’s arms, belonging together, as in the early days.
Music did more than help me identify states of feeling. There are many parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, colour, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or to make a single voice stand out. Listening to classical chamber music – especially by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms – taught me about all of them. Chamber music is pure and precise, yet at the same time, it’s a real dialogue between characters. There are too many wonderful works to list individually, so here are three of my favourites: Mozart String Quintet in G minor KV 516; Schubert String Quintet in C major D 956; Brahms String Sextet G major opus 36.
Finally, The Lodger is a novel about writers and writing. Great music is sublime in the way writers strive for sublime prose; it soars above the humdrum of everyday life, transforming it. It’s what Dorothy Richardson and H.G. Wells tried to do with words:
When you are in the right mood, words appear faster than speech or even thought; your pen follows them as quickly as your hand can move it across the page, and sometimes, the most exquisite phrases spill out. It’s hard to explain what a wonderful feeling it is; it smoothes out all the creases in your mind, and completely revives you. And you see life with such clarity…
This is what I am striving for too – and constantly feeling I am falling short of it. As Wells says in my novel: Will I ever get the things I want to say properly said?
Louisa Treger began her career as a classical violinist and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, gaining a PhD in English at University College London. Married with three children and a dog, she lives in London. She spends as much time as she can in South Africa, where she supports a feeding scheme for underprivileged children living in shacks in the desolate Kurland Village in the Western Cape, where 70% of adults are unemployed. The Lodger is her first novel and is published by Thomas Dunne Books. Find her on Facebook, her website and on Twitter @louisatreger.
GIVEAWAY Louisa has offered to give away two print copies of The Lodger. To enter, comment here. Extra entries if you share the post on social media, but we might not know you have unless you let us know in a comment – so remember to come back and confess your good sharing deeds.