Posts Tagged bereavement

The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrea Darby

redpianoupdate-3The 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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27

Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives

Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.

Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.

the-undercover-soundtrack-andrea-darby-1The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.

I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.

Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.

Haunting, hopeful

I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.

Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.

Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.

Find their space

While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’

Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.

Duet

I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.

The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:

No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’

She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:

Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’

I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.

the-undercover-soundtrack-andrea-darby-2

I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.

Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.

When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.

andrea-bookIt appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.

But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.

Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Cander

for logo‘Stay close to sounds that make you glad to be alive’

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 novelist, screenplay writer and writing teacher Chris Cander @ChrisCander

Soundtrack by Slaid Cleaves, Miles Davis, Alexander Scriabin

Though I’m a writer of prose, it’s music that seems to me the most transcendent art form. Music casts a collective spell that detaches listeners from the tangible world and encourages a sort of free fall of emotional experience that doesn’t require words to be passionately felt. Yet being so moved beyond words can also inspire the use of them. In each of my novels, music informs some key aspect.

I had only just begun work on Whisper Hollow, which is set in a fictional coal mining town in the early 1900s and follows the intertwining lives of three women, when I heard the song Lydia by Karen Posten and covered by Slaid Cleaves. It’s an Appalachian tale of a widowed woman who has lost two of her loved ones to the coal mines of Virginia. It’s so moody and evocative that it influenced the way I imagined my character Alta, who lost her son, husband, and lover in the fatal mine explosion that divides the book into its two parts. I remember listening to it over and over, letting the sadness seep in until I, too, was grief stricken.

Chris-CanderThough I’ve incorporated music into all my novels, this was the first time that nearly every line of a song impacted the story in some way. In the song, the eponymous Lydia, full of melancholy, sits down one day in the place where she lives alone, and is carried away by the memories of her first-born and his father. Listening to it, I could see Alta sitting alone in her cabin, numb with a similar loss, exactly one month after the accident. That image became the chapter titled November 7, 1950. It was because of these lyrics that she tried smoking the cigarette that her aunt had given her decades before, that she imagined the weeds growing atop the graves of her loved ones, and that she, like the song’s character, never was the same.

But I couldn’t leave Alta to suffer that kind of ache for the rest of her life—and the rest of the book—without something to mitigate it. And so I created the young woman named Lydia whose life parallels Alta’s in some significant ways and whose friendship enables Alta finally to begin to heal.

Two seconds and two-hundred-and-forty pages

In my novel 11 Stories, the story opens on the protagonist Roscoe Jones standing on the roof edge playing Yesterdays (composed by Jerome Kern in 1933) on his trumpet in the style of Miles Davis. He is serenading the newly released spirit of the woman he loved in secret for 50 years; it will be the final few moments of his life.

I’ve always loved Miles Davis for his music and his peculiar temperament, and this piece — which I hear as elegiac and keening, an ode to both love and solitude — was perfect for Roscoe. Normally I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but as I wrote this opening scene, I looped Yesterdays so that the mood of it might land on the page:

Windows opened beneath him and people looked around for the source. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, mingled as it was with the sounds of street traffic and the machinery of urban dwellings. But because the air was dry, “Yesterdays” cut through it more clearly than it otherwise would have, and by the time Roscoe was descending chromatically through the final melodic phrases – G, F C, D E, and E, E, E – there was an audience of fifty people at least, or a hundred, or maybe more.

He held that last E as long as he could, until his breath was nearly gone, and then his soul slammed back into his old body so hard it seemed to jostle him a little, and he became aware of the sound of clapping and even a few whistles which grew louder but didn’t displace the purity of that last E.”

In the next breath, Roscoe falls off that roof, and for the duration of his two-second and 240-page fall, time slows, and Roscoe’s history unfolds in tune with the energy of that final note.

So that you may hear what it is that I see 

In my new book The Weight of a Piano (which my agent will begin shopping this week) music is secondary to the instrument, but there is one piece that plays like a soundtrack to the story and links its two narratives: Alexander Scriabin’s frenetic, colorful Prelude No 14 in E-flat minor. I wanted a piece that might have been a favorite of the Russian concert pianist who first owned the eponymous piano, and was also unusual enough to charge a moment when it is recognized by another character years later.

Whisper-HollowFINAL3There was something serendipitous about this piece that I didn’t realize until after I’d chosen it. One of my characters, the son of the original piano owner, is a photographer who describes his purpose in taking pictures as ‘so that you may hear what it is that I see’. I hadn’t known when I gave him this trait of chromaesthesia (a form of synesthesia in which sounds translate as colors) that Scriabin was also a chromaesthete. Discovering that minor coincidence at a time when I was feeling pessimistic about the novel (it happens more often that I care to admit) gave me a dose of optimism that recurred each time I mentioned the Prelude in the story.

I find it interesting how important and prevalent music is in my books, because the only musical talent I have is the ability to appreciate it. In life and in fiction, I try to follow Hafiz’s recommendation: ‘Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive’.

Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, screenplay writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013. Her most recent novel is Whisper Hollow, published by Other Press. Her website is here, tweet her as @ChrisCander, and find her on Facebook.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Hill

for logo‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’

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 prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH

Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens

My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.

Chris Hill3Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.

The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.

I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.

It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.

But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.

9781910094167I wanted the women in The Pick-Up Artist to be like the subject of 28 Butts, complex and rich with contradictions, the way people are in real life.

I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.

I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.

Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.

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‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’ – Chris Hill

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Christina Banach

for logo‘Is there life after death?’

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 debut YA paranormal novelist Christina Banach @ChristinaBanach

Soundtrack by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Cyndi Lauper, Robbie Williams, Samuel Barber

I find background noise somewhat distracting when I’m working, so my normal practice is to squirrel myself away in my study and write in silence. However this doesn’t mean that music plays no part in my creative process – far from it. Even in the initial stages of brainstorming ideas and exploring characters I find lyrics and melodies filtering through my consciousness and seeping into the story I’m trying to tell. It’s at that point that I compile the playlist that I will listen to, time and again, when I’m not actually writing, that is. Then, as I work through the revisions, shaping my manuscript, this music spools in my mind, helping to deepen character and clarify – and intensify – plot points. This was especially true when I was writing Minty.

005Loss of a twin

Although the book is shot through with humour, Minty is undoubtedly an emotive read, a true emotional roller coaster according to its reviewers. It centres around one of life’s big questions – is there life after death? – and deals with love, loss, friendship and redemption. Above all it is a book about hope. With such weighty themes it is no surprise that much of the music that informed the story is haunting, thought-provoking and stirring.
At the beginning of the book the protagonist, Minty, and her sister, Jess, are ordinary girls who are in love with life. As I grew familiar with their characters one song began to fill my head – Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life.

However, these typical teenagers are also identical twins, girls who are bound by a steadfast bond, one that is jeopardised when Minty drowns during a family trip to the coast. Yet the sisters’ connection isn’t broken, for Minty finds herself trapped between life and death, forced to watch Jess’s spiralling grief.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident Jess is desperate to catch Minty’s last breath (the twins are fascinated with the customs of ancient Rome). My readers tell me this is an intensely emotional scene. It was certainly emotional to write and this is partly due to the song that ran through my mind as I crafted it – Evanescence’s My Last Breath. It speaks to me of Jess’s despair, and Minty’s full appreciation of the situation she is now in.

Jess’s lament

Indeed, Evanescence features highly in the Minty playlist, for it is their songs that influenced the development of Jess and Minty’s character arcs. For instance, My Immortal could have been written specially for this book. It is this song that helped me drill down into Jess’s core and uncover not only the pain she feels now that she has to live without her sister, but also the agony of Minty’s presence still lingering in her mind. It’s Jess’s lament, if you like.
Then there is Bring Me To Life. I tend to think of this as the Minty anthem because, even although it is Minty who is deceased, the twins are both dead to some extent. In their separate, and very different, ways they need to be saved from themselves. Bring Me To Life helped me clarify this.

Why can’t I grasp it? Cos I’m nothing – a shade, a ghost, whatever I want to call it. I am a big fat zero. I should be used to that by now – being in this world but not of it. The thought sickens me. This existence sickens me.

Which brings me to my final Evanescence song, the beautifully haunting, Missing. It is this song that helped me tap into Minty’s pain and confusion at a particular juncture in the story, a plot point that is all the more poignant because it comes hard on the heels of an uplifting episode, featuring Jess and her friends. Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun was the musical inspiration for writing that light-hearted scene.

And yet writing Minty wasn’t purely a full-on Evanescence fest, the music of other artists also wormed their way into my subconscious and aided the creative flow, and I don’t only mean Cyndi Lauper although another of her songs, True Colours, assisted me greatly in pinning down Jess and Minty’s characters.

MINTY - KDPThe funeral

Cue Robbie Williams and Angels. This well-known song  is actually mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, it has a significant role in three of the pivotal moments in the narrative. One of these is Minty’s funeral, a chapter that stood unchanged through drafts one to eight of the revision process. I reckon that this song helped me nail it first time. Another of Robbie’s songs, Nan’s Song, was the soundtrack to one of my favourite scenes in the book, a scene based on something rather mysterious and perplexing that had happened to me many years ago. Listening to the music playing out in my head allowed me to capture that moment and transplant it into Minty’s story.

The ultimate fragment in the soundtrack puzzle is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Several people have told me that Minty is an extremely filmic book, which is interesting because as I wrote it I saw it played out before me as if I were watching a movie on the big screen. This was never truer than when writing the closing scene of the final chapter. For me, it’s a moment of such poignancy, such beauty and high emotion – of hope. Perhaps Barber’s Adagio unleashed something in my psyche that enabled me to create the scene that needed to be written. I don’t know for sure, all I can tell you is that I cried each time I worked on it.
Christina Banach is an ex-head teacher who lives in Scotland, UK, with her husband and their two rescue dogs. Her debut novel, Minty, was the first acquisition of new publishing house Three Hares. She is currently working on her next book, a contemporary ghost story come psychological thriller set in and around the legendary village of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. Find her on Twitter @ChristinaBanach, or on her website, or Pinterest. Cover of Minty by Serafim.com

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‘Is there life after death?’ Christina Banach

for logoMy guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams, Bette Midler, The Hollies and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Nathan Singer

for logo‘Lonely one in this town’

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 guest is musician, playwright, performer and award-winning novelist Nathan Singer @nathansinger1

Soundtrack by Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Wilkins, Mississippi Sheiks, LeRoy Carr, but mostly Nathan Singer

My music and my fiction are often so inextricably linked there is very little separating the two.  The music that I write for my bands is fairly ‘literary’ I suppose … and sometimes I just rip off my own novels for lyrics (gotta do whatcha gotta, and so on). Each of my novels corresponds to a different musical genre: A Prayer for Dawn is a thrash novel, In The Light of You is a punk novel etc. As such I often write — and occasionally record — my own soundtracks for my books to get a sense of tone first and foremost. Today I will be talking through the sounds that inspired/created/were created by my blues novel Chasing the Wolf, my only novel to date whose original soundtrack album was officially released, originally as part of a special limited edition of the book, but now for all to have on its own. So here is the (free) full soundtrack album that I wrote and recorded to accompany Chasing the Wolf called On Through the Night. It’s best to listen along while you’re reading the book.

Nathan Singer headshotBeyond my own original music, though, many masters of the form make direct (and indirect) cameos within the novel, and their music was playing constantly throughout the writing of the book. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Part One – Midnight Creepin’

The song quote that starts Part One is from a song by Rev. Robert Wilkins called That’s No Way to Get Along. It captures the deep well of the main character’s sorrow (as does the Blind Willie song below), and it’s also foreshadowing of what’s to come in the story.

The plot of Chasing the Wolf, in a nutshell, is this; a young white artist named Eli Cooper is living in NYC in the early 2000s with his beautiful African American wife Jessie. Jessie is a dancer. They are an ultra-hip couple. All is going just swell, until Jessie is killed in a tragic backstage accident. Overcome with grief, Eli attempts to commit suicide. He runs off into the night in a bind frenzy, passes out in Central Park … and wakes up in Mississippi 1938. Cue Dark Was The Night, by Blind Willie Johnson.

Once Eli accepts that he is not dreaming, he sets out through the dark of the night to try and make sense of what has happened.

Part Two – Dry Long So

Eli muses that one of his favorite blues legends Robert Johnson would by murdered at a juke house soon. He ponders how cool it would be to go witness it when he realizes that a mysterious young black man he had met some time ago back in NYC was actually the one and only (and long deceased) Howlin’ Wolf (the ‘Wolf’ of the title). He decides he needs to find Howlin’ Wolf in order to get back home. What Eli does not yet know, however, is that both he and Howlin’ Wolf are being followed by group of men in fancy, pinstriped suits that are likely not men at all. They are the hellhounds on your trail that Robert Johnson sang about. (Robert Johnson makes a brief but important cameo in the novel as well, but Eli never meets him.)

(Here I am channeling Robert to the best of my abilities at Morgan Freeman’s blues club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi.)

Part Three – In Devilment

Even though Skip James only gets a passing mention in this novel, his music informed the entire vibe of the novel and I played him constantly during the writing. His music is just so sinister and otherworldly, it provided the perfect ambiance.

In his search for The Wolf, Eli takes up lodging at a boarding house near West Point, Mississippi. To his shock he discovers a beautiful young widow working there named Ella Brown. Ella Brown looks, talks, and by all appearances is his late wife Jessie, even though she doesn’t know Eli at all, and is a bit frightened of him (much to his heartbreak).

Unbeknownst to Eli, Ella and another maid from the boarding house slip out of the house to a juke joint one night to see Howlin’ Wolf. After the show Wolf comes up to Ella and says, desperately:

You gots to tell him come find me, Miss Jessie.

Ella has no idea who ‘Jessie’ is. Out behind the juke house, Ella catches Wolf ‘killing’ a white man (actually one of the hellhounds).

chasingthewolfPart Four – Hellhound on your Trail

There goes Robert Johnson again. And Blood in my eyes for you by Mississippi Sheiks. Eli says:

When I’m upset, blood leaks from my head. When I’m over the edge my gums bust open and my nose bleeds and my eyes get little red polka dots on them.

You’ll have to read the novel to find out why.

Part Five – Lonely One in this Town

Eventually Eli catches up to Wolf. For a moment Eli thinks he sees a way out of his situation and con maybe even get Jessie to come with him. But, as Mr LeRoy Carr says in How Long Blues, the train seems to be gone. Here I am reading/ performing the scene – enjoy!

Nathan Singer is a novelist, playwright, composer, and experimental performing artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novels published by Bleak House Books A Prayer for Dawn, Chasing the Wolf, In the Light of You and the forthcoming sequel to A Prayer for Dawn, Blackchurch Furnace. He is also the lead vocalist, lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the bands Starshaker and The Whiskey Shambles. He is currently at work on two new plays, an opera, and three albums of original music, plus probably some other stuff. His website is here, connect with him on Facebook, or Twitter @nathansinger1

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Claire King

for logo‘Very French; weighed down by heat and melancholy’

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 guest is debut novelist Claire King @ckingwriter

Soundtrack by Erik Satie, Cat Power, Counting Crows, Francis Cabrel

As an author whose days are pulled and split between parenting, work, chores and all the other usual distractions, when it’s time to write I find it really helpful to use sensory prompts to pull me quickly out of my own world and into the story. Visual prompts like photographs help, as do smells, tastes and definitely music.

Claire King 9The Night Rainbow, my debut novel, is set in southern France in the heat of August. It is narrated by five-year-old Pea, and plays out in a very limited environment – her house and the surrounding meadows and hills – but which of course seems much bigger to a child of that age. It also takes place over a surprisingly short span of time. But again, to a child a week can seem like forever. Because of this, I had a relatively small selection of music that I played when I was writing The Night Rainbow that would bring me back to the place, the time and the characters. I always listened to it on headphones, which emphasised the feeling of immersion.

Margot and Pea

The one album that I played over and over was Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes, by Alexandre Tharaud. Of these pieces, Gnossienne 1 for me really captured the feel of the novel. I found this piano music perfectly evocative of the environment I was trying to create – it’s very French, and it seems weighed down by heat and melancholy, yet the delicate notes of the piano evoke the lightness of childish movement. As Pea and Margot made their daily forays down through the peach orchard, over the fence and down past the donkeys to the stream, they were accompanied by this music.

Claude and Pea

Pea’s mother has been struck by tragedy twice in quick succession, having recently lost a baby and her husband. Burdened by grief and isolated from the village, she has retreated into herself. So, left to their own devices, Pea and her little sister run wild in the meadows. This is where they meet Claude, who Pea believes is at least a friend, and possibly a potential new papa. The relationship that develops between them is a cornerstone of the novel. On the one hand it’s an unusual relationship, which from an adult point of view can look rather sinister. But on the other hand, Claude is giving Pea what we, as readers, want to give her – company, food, shelter and kindness. The song that pulled me back to this relationship again and again is Cat Power’s cover of  I Found a Reason.

There is something magical and ethereal about this simple song. I hooked onto the sense of being believed in, of hope and of being saved by someone.  What struck me when I saw the cover for The Night Rainbow that Bloomsbury had designed was that they had somehow picked up on this image I had of Pea running, running, running. (See also the book trailer for another representation of this) and the piano music they chose (independently) to represent the book. A perfect synergy with my intention for the novel.

The-Night-Rainbow-frontMaman

As Pea busies herself trying to take on the role of the adult in her family, her mother is sinking deeper and deeper into desperation. Heavily pregnant, apparently alienated somehow from her own parents and in danger of losing her farmhouse home now that her French husband is dead, Maman is struggling badly. I had to be so careful when writing this character because I wanted readers not to condemn her for being neglectful, but to sympathise with her plight. Her song was Amy Hit the Atmosphere by Counting Crows. I found her desperation in this song, but also a great evocation of that powerful need we have for our mothers, for someone to care for us.

Love

Pea is reminded, towards the end of her story, of a moment between her mother and father dancing. The song they dance to is Je t’aimais, je t’aime et je t’aimerai by Francis Cabrel.

This song is in French, and I’ve not found a translation of the lyrics on the web that I’m completely happy with, but here’s one example.

This song was important to me because in amongst its many beautiful images, it captures the naivety of childhood, the messiness and the regrets of adulthood and amongst all that the essence of enduring, abiding love, that I wanted for my characters. Ultimately isn’t it what we all want for our children and for ourselves?

Claire King works and writes in southern France – where she lives in a shabby stone house in the middle of nowhere with her husband and their two young daughters. Her first novel – The Night Rainbow – is now out from Bloomsbury. Find her at her website and on Twitter @ckingwriter

GIVEAWAY Claire is excited to give away a print copy of The Night Rainbow to a commenter here. Bonus entries if you share on Facebook, Twitter, Google + and elsewhere (one entry per medium). Don’t forget to come here and tell me in the comments where you’ve shared it as I might not know!

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