Posts Tagged Andrew Lowe
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.
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 author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Burial, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Magazine, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros, The xx.
That was his tragedy. He didn’t yet know that fear was more powerful than love.’
The Ghost is a novel about violence. At its centre is an act of extreme violence, perpetrated by three children. The book tells the story of how the consequences trickle down through time; a slow-acting psychological poison which engulfs the three children in adulthood.
I wrote it as a crescendo: smouldering beginning, gathering middle, explosive ending.
I didn’t completely throw away the structure rulebook. I understand that continuous intensity will exhaust the reader, and so there are dropouts of release, spikes of hypertension, recurring motifs and anchoring asides.
In other words, I wanted it to feel like a lot of the music I love – the kind that steals over you, seeps beneath your skin and then grips and grows and grows.
Soundscape to landscape
Music is as vital a part of my life as light or air. I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘background’ music in film or television. My favourite filmmakers bake it into the centre of the drama – as commentary to underscore the action, as soundscape to emphasise landscape. They also use the absence of music to wrongfoot the viewer into relaxing. (Is there anything less shocking than a jump scene telegraphed by a rising note and announced with a jarring chord?)
Music informs my writing in a similar way. It’s not there on the page, but it’s always present in my plotting brain and typing fingers.
When I’m not at my desk, I play out the scenes – particularly the set-pieces – on an internal cinema, soundtracking them with music in my headphones. Almost every story peak in The Ghost was conceived in this way; the events were enhanced by a vivid awareness of the sound which surrounded them.
I suppose it’s a form of creative synaesthesia. Before I write a word, most of my moments are steeped in distinct aural flavours. I find it difficult to write a significant sequence before seasoning its mood with music in this way.
The book follows two separate timelines in the life of lead character Dorian Cook: his impoverished childhood in early 1970s industrial England, and his working life as an adult film critic in modern-day London. As the present-day Cook realises he is being held to account for his actions as a child, the past timeline builds up to the inciting event itself.
The house carried an unholy chill that flowed deep through its foundations – a vaporous spectre of cold that first stirred in late August and had the place comprehensively haunted by December.’
For the austere 70s chapters, I favoured songs which seemed to define Cook’s world: corporal punishment, factory discharge, municipal menace. The clamour and whisper of Joy Division’s Heart and Soul; the inner-city palpitations of Burial’s Loner; and the slouching panic of Nine Inch Nails’s Corona Radiata, with its sense of impending reckoning which mirrors the book’s recurring first line:
Something was coming up the stairs.’
Two key sections in the past timeline take place during the notorious UK heatwave of 1976. At the time, I remember sweltering with a strawberry Mini Milk as my tiny portable radio squeaked out Minnie Ripperton’s ever-lovely Loving You and Mungo Jerry’s lascivious In The Summertime. But for the story I was telling, I needed Sketch For Summer by The Durutti Column, with its synthetic birdsong and rebounding guitar – a song that always evokes the invincibility of childhood summers, and Larkin’s mighty line about ‘the strength and pain of being young’.
In the present day, two songs defined Cook’s marital and mental collapse: Missing by The xx – a hushed and horrified dissection of a crumbling relationship; and, as the threat from his past grows ever mortal and Cook is forced to plot a counterattack, Magazine’s The Light Pours Out Of Me sets the death-defying scene.
So, The Ghost is a novel about violence. The story is triggered by violence and it ends with violence – although not, I hope, of the sort the reader is expecting. The final sequence – a queasy kind of closure – was linked to Sigur Ros’s monolithic Festival, a song which emerges, ever so delicately, with a lone Icelandic voice keening beneath overlapping string notes. It hovers like a hummingbird, and then drops hard into a midsection of martial drumming, before lulling and at last detonating in a starburst of choral harmonies. It briefly, unbelievably, ramps up one more level before collapsing into a single voice again, this time whistling the melody.
It doesn’t give me The Chills; it gives me The Glow – a surge of whiskey-warmth. I must have heard it a hundred times and I still get it, around eight minutes in, as if something in the song is hardwired into me.
Fellow writers talk of how their characters ‘take over’ and dictate the narrative. Others claim the muse descends in a certain place, or country. For me, it’s music that guides me through, defining the lifts and rifts of the characters’ inner lives and choreographing their actions in bold, movie-like rhythms.
The Ghost has been described as a ‘dark’ book, but I hope some of my musical motivation pokes through to reveal the more complex qualities I was reaching for – redemption, restoration, courage, euphoria, enduring connection. These are all qualities I find in the music I love, which in turn rouses my writing.
Andrew Lowe is an author, editor and journalist who has written for The Guardian and The 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 cycling and coaching youth football. The Ghost is his first novel, but it won’t be his last. Find him on his website, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Twitter @andylowe99
My guest this week is a sometime musician – and as a result he’s another writer who finds that music is not a background but his master. His novel is a hard-edged story about a childhood event whose consequences are poisoning the characters many years later, and the soundtrack is a double-barrelled mix for the past and present timelines. Expect 1970s grit and modern-day anguish – with a dose of catharsis from Sigur Ros. He is Andrew Lowe and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.