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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 it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….
Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.
That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.
My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.
A life steeped in music
My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch). But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:
Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.
I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.
Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.
One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has
a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.
The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind. Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.
Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’
What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.
Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.
Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.
Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)
The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)
WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by historical novelist VR Christensen @VRChristensen
As a historical fiction writer, music is very important in my creation process. Music is a part of that necessary atmosphere, so key to any good novel, but particularly in one that asks you to step out of your current reality and to step into that of a past, that which might have existed, if…
I’m a huge fan of the BBC literary adaptations (some might say I’m obsessed with them). That’s the sort of thing, on paper, at least, that I’m trying to create. That there should be a score, a soundtrack, if you will, is only natural. But more than that, it’s often necessary.
Although it’s not usually very difficult for me to step into the past, (I spend so much time there in my head, after all) it isn’t always a piece of cake. Neither is it easy to convey what I see and hear and feel onto paper, making it as vivid for the reader as it is for myself. Music plays an essential role, for instance, in the conveying of character emotions, in outlining conflicts, and, at times, in magnifying them just enough that I can examine them in depth, like a screen shot, a virtual moment in time, allowing me to feel what my characters are feeling, and to spell it out in their own language.
It’s easy enough to tell you what my characters are feeling. That’s not enough. I want you to feel it too. Music helps me to do that.
So what pieces have been most valuable to me in this endeavor? In truth, I have a couple of standbys. These are favourite pieces, that, no matter what I’m stuck on, or what is preoccupying my thoughts, I’m instantly drawn into that place and time where I need to be in my writing, in that imaginary world I’ve created, and which I need to convey as realistically to my readers as it appears to me.
Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Op 84 is the one piece of music that defines Cry of the Peacock (the first book I wrote, the second to be published, in October 2012) Listening to this piece, one can easily imagine a vast country estate in England, a young woman walking across the Hampshire Downs, having just come from visiting the poor labourers. Just over the hill emerges the great estate. And you can feel her envy of it, her admiration of it, and her resentment, too. And then, as the story unfolds, and the music with it, so much is revealed, through the haunting intensity, the sorrow, the anger, the lilting sounds of a happiness…just out of reach. It’s a fantastic piece, and totally takes me to that place I need to be.
Boy and girl
Another piece I like to listen to, particularly during the key ‘boy loses girl’ (or can’t quite get her) sequences of a story, is another Beethoven piece, Moonlight Sonata, Op 27 mvt. 2. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear this, it still gives me the chills, makes me want to weep. The longing portrayed in the hesitating movements of the one hand, and the constant rhythmic undulations of the other… It’s breathtaking.
As much as I would have liked to, copyright issues prevented me from being able to use either song in my book trailers. Fortunately there are some really generous and talented artists out there who both record and compose music that works well. For my debut novel Of Moths and Butterflies I used a piece by a fellow named Aaron Dunn called Sonata no. 1. It had just the right mood, and the tempo of it created an interesting opportunity to present the analogy; an insect collection, which represents a woman trapped in an arranged marriage.
Both original and well known pieces can be found at Kevin Macleod’s website, where I found the piece I used for the trailer for Cry of the Peacock. It’s no Egmont, but it still has that haunting minor key feeling I think evokes the atmosphere of the book.
Music is timeless. Like symbols written on a piece of paper, which, when taken in their entirety create a written story, so is music. I think it’s miraculous, in a way. A bit of necessary luxury.
VR Christensen write neo-Victorian historical fiction. Her debut novel, Of Moths & Butterflies has spent the last six weeks on the bestseller charts in various categories on Amazon.com and is published by Captive Press. Her second novel, Cry of the Peacock, will be released in October of this year. She is also the author of a novella, Blind, another historical piece with a paranormal twist. VR is a member of Historical Fiction Authors Co-operative, Past Times Books, Authors Anon and Literary Underground, all of which aim to ensure that the publishing revolution now upon us produces some of the finest work available to the reading public–and makes it available. She tweets as @VRChristensen
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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.
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 2011-2021. 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'