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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 guest is novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska @czerkawska
There’s no denying that The Physic Garden is a sad story. In mid 1800s Glasgow, an elderly man called William Lang looks back on his youth, when he worked as a gardener at the Old College of Glasgow University and became friends with one of the professors. This is a novel about friendship and betrayal, about trying to make sense of events in your past. It may not quite be about forgiveness but it is certainly a book about resolution and the getting of wisdom, no matter how painful that process might be. It is also a story about learning: about life and human nature as well as practical skills. It’s about loving and losing, about the paths we follow and the paths we regret not following, and whether we can ever reconcile the two.
Not surprisingly, I listened to plenty of traditional Scottish music while I was working. There’s a song which actually figures in the book. I call it Waly Waly but some people will know it as The Water Is Wide or even the Glenlyon Lament. Like most traditional songs, it crops up all over the place and in many different versions. It’s a desperately sad, 350-year old song about loving and losing, a song that would have been old even when my characters were talking about it.
‘Tis not the frost that freezes fell,
Nor blawing snaw’s inclemencie,
Tis not sic cauld that makes me cry;
But my love’s heart grown cauld to me.’
The version I listened to as I was writing was an old track by The Corries, a duo I was very fond of when I was young. This version seemed to me to echo most precisely the voice in which I ‘heard’ it sung in the novel.
With that single exception, however, the musician who provided the Undercover Soundtrack to The Physic Garden, whether singing the songs of Robert Burns or his own compositions, was Dougie Maclean. Let me begin with a song just about everyone will know. A contemporary composition, this still manages to evoke many of the feelings in the novel, and I don’t just mean the essential Scottishness of it. This is a song about ‘telling old stories, singing songs’, about friendship and change, about finding your place in the world, about resolution and action. It is, of course, Caledonia: but you’ll also find versions of it on various CDs and to purchase online.
There are a million recordings of the songs of Robert Burns and I’ve listened to a lot of them over the years. But it was still MacLean’s simple, beautiful, unfussy performances I went back to time and time again when I was writing The Physic Garden. Here’s one I listened to all the time: it seemed to evoke the very essence – the ‘voice’ – of William Lang, a song about love, about green and growing things, about the cares which beset us on all sides, above all, perhaps, a loving song about women.
But if I had to choose the song that could truly be said to have inspired The Physic Garden, it would have to be Scythe Song. You’ll find it on a fabulous CD called Riof. This quirky YouTube recording (there are tech problems in the middle) is a fine example of Maclean’s lovely laid-back performance. But listen to the words. I’ve used this song in creative writing classes as a perfect example of a poem and song rolled into one. It’s deceptively simple and it’s immense. Everything about it somehow fed into The Physic Garden: the relationship of a little girl with her father and of a son with his own father, the need to learn about life, the practical ways of holding and feeling, moving and judging and then, at last, you might ‘know what I know’. Even down to the Icarus imagery, which somehow found its way into the novel. This song always makes me feel exactly the way I felt when I was writing the novel.
There’s one more recording I want to mention – a reading, rather than a song – and it’s this one: Robert Burns’s Lassie wi’ the Lintwhite Locks. I’ve worked with this actor, Liam Brennan, on many productions. He’s from Ayrshire and his accent and interpretation of this Burns poem are exactly right. One of the characters in The Physic Garden is, indeed, a ‘lassie wi the lintwhite locks’. Did I have Burns’s lassie in mind when first I thought of Jenny Caddas, taking her swarm of bees? Well, maybe so!
Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction although many of her seven published novels (so far) are contemporary stories. The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, The Physic Garden, was recently published on Kindle. Her other novels, Bird of Passage, The Amber Heart and Ice Dancing, are also available on Amazon Kindle. Catherine’s website and blog are here, she also blogs at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books and she tweets as @Czerkawska
GIVEAWAY Catherine is excited to give away a rare print copy of her prizewinning novel The Curiosity Cabinet to a commenter here. Extra entries if you tweet, Facebook, Google or write the link on the sky in jet vapour (but remember to mention it in a comment here so we know!) This is a rare edition, now unavailable, so it’s a real collector’s item.
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The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary novelist and playwright Catherine Czerkawska
Music is such an intimate part of the creative process for me that it’s not often I’m tempted to reveal it, unless it figures in the work itself. My plays have accompanying music but the public and private soundtracks only occasionally coincide. With a novel, music helps me to tease out characters, situations and stories, but everything goes through many versions. The first draft of my new novel, Bird of Passage, was written so long ago that the story seems like a completely different entity now.
The change in the book or the change to the music?
It would be hard for me to say which came first: the change in the book or the change to the music of the book. That early story focused on Kirsty Galbreath and her relationship with a young Irish farm worker, Finn O’Malley. But at some point, I realised that my flawed hero was a cipher about whom I knew very little. The late Luke Kelly was my constant companion, musically, when I embarked on the re-drafts. Many years ago, I saw him in person, walking down a Dublin Street, and I still find his voice inspirational. In listening obsessively to his solo songs, particularly Will You Come to the Bower and Raglan Road, I began to recognise what I had known subconsciously: I had neglected the Irish dimension to the story.
In the 1960s, Finn and poor, vulnerable Francis had been sent from Ireland to work at the Scottish potato harvest. But why? What had happened to them? My grandmother was Irish and her favourite songs had been a part my childhood. They may seem a little sentimental to our ears now, but whenever John McCormack came on the wireless, singing Bantry Bay or the uncanny She Moved Through the Fair, the whole house was hushed. When I went back to these songs, they triggered long-buried memories, not just of my own childhood, which was safe and happy, but of overheard adult conversations about other people’s sad secrets.
Francis stood up and sang, his voice wavery at first but growing in confidence:
The winter it is past, and the summer’s come at last,
and the little birds they sing in the trees.
Their little hearts are glad, but mine is very sad,
for my true love is far away from me…
Francis had a sweet voice and he sang well, but in a traditional style, his voice dipping under and over the notes, embellishing them in a dozen ways. The men and women fell silent. There could not be one of them who had not heard it before, many times. It was a song of youth and heartbreak and hurts that could never be repaired.
There were songs which leapt the barrier to become part of the story and The Curragh of Kildare was one of them. There are countless good versions although I still prefer Christy Moore’s.
No need to know what the words mean
But even listening to this, I was aware that I was avoiding the heart of the matter. And so, I began to hunt for another form of traditional Irish singing. I knew it existed beyond the confines of the safe, gentle versions which make the normal playlists. My great-grandfather – so I’m told – sang like this. I’d heard others singing like this, fragmentary contributions to pub sessions. It was then I came upon Liam Ó’Maonlaí.
There are few singers who can give you so much insight into the weight of Irish history. You don’t need to know what the words mean. All you need to do is listen to this uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound, part of an unbroken tradition of attempting to circumscribe raw emotion within the confines of a human voice. It was this voice, whether in the extraordinary Woodstock performance or the gentler Lord’s Prayer, which finally allowed me to engage with what had happened to Finn and Francis, and to consider what a terrible place their world might once have been, turning my earlier story into something much darker.
I’m not sure even now that I’m finished with this book. Francis’s sorrow is part of Finn’s sorrow too; it will colour the whole of his life – and Kirsty’s life as well. I’m still not sure that the darkness is dark enough.
Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright, both for the stage and for BBC Radio 4. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction and – as an unashamed ‘mid-list’ author – is joyfully embracing the digital revolution. The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, Bird of Passage, is available on Kindle and The Amber Heart, the first in a trilogy of novels based on her Polish family history, is scheduled for Spring 2012. She blogs at Wordarts and is on Twitter as @czerkawska
authors, Bird of Passage, Catherine Czerkawska, Christy Moore, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Irish folk music, John McCormack, Liam Ó'Maonlaí, literary fiction, literary novels, Luke Kelly, music, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, playlists for writers, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
‘Which came first? The change in the book or the change to the music of the book?’ When novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska embarked on a search for the truth of her characters, she found it in raw, traditional Irish folk songs. Bird of Passage is the novel, and Catherine will be my guest on The Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday
- 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 2011-2019. 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'