‘Music is the undertow to what I am writing’
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 wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes as Deborah Swift @swiftstory)
Soundtrack by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lena Horne, Kate Bush, George Gershwin, Larry Adler, Alison Moyet, Purcell, Led Zeppelin, Rachmaninoff, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler
Music has always been the mirror of my moods, how I am feeling is externalized by the music I play, so it is fortunate that I have eclectic tastes. When writing I prefer silence, but as I type I am aware of the echo of the music from moments before; it still hums inside me, the undertow to what I am writing.
The edge of longing
I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.
I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 , which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.
Conjuring the past
In the novel both protagonists, Rhoda and her fiancé Peter, mourn the loss of their familiar life to the outbreak of war. I found myself listening to old recordings to conjure the atmosphere of the past. My mother used to love Lena Horne’s The Man I Love (1941), and the crackling of the LP, the sudden silence when it ends, with just the needle bumping round on the record, seemed to say almost as much as the actual music. When I am working I use Youtube to plug myself into the mood of what I am writing, searching out tracks of the era I am working on. Kate Bush’s recording of the same song with Larry Adler on harmonica really spoke to me. The wailing quality of the harmonica seemed to embody Rhoda’s search for the man she loves, which is both Peter, who is missing, and the longing which is somehow not attached to any one man in particular. It is the same longing that makes me want to write, the stretching out towards a feeling I can’t name.
The story is set in WWII, but it is not about heroes. Rhoda’s fiancé Peter spends the whole war in a prisoner of war camp. But what drives the book is his intense friendships with the other men, and the fact that and he and Rhoda survive on memories of each other. Death stalks the captive prisoners and the music I listened to a lot during this phase of writing consisted of elegies to the dead. Alison Moyet’s great natural voice singing Dido’s Lament by Purcell strips away the artifice of opera to make us think nakedly about memory and how we will be remembered.
Writing historical fiction is an awkward relationship between honouring and dishonouring our relationship with the past. Gallows humour is an essential part of survival, both for Peter in the book, and for me as a writer, and I loved the recycling of an old English folk tune in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, especially the ultimate twist, when the hangman (death itself) is hanged on the gallows pole.
I like listening to the layers in music, and Gallows Pole is one piece that repays that sort of listening. That sudden mandolin! I like to pick out individual layers and will often listen over and over to the same piece, following different musical parts. I do this in the novel too; write following different narrative threads. In Past Encounters it is just two, Rhoda and Peter, in my other novels it has been more. When I edit, I do this too, follow different lines of the narrative.
Strangely, although Rhoda’s story is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, I found the Rachmaninoff score too strident and brash for the subtle feeling I needed. The Rachmaninoff score is heavy on the piano. As Nick Cave says, ‘The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of – when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.’
So the intimacy and loss I was after is there in the guitar of Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan. It is a track that was never completed from his album Infidels, and is therefore more poignant because it was almost lost. It is raw and unproduced – you can almost hear a coat button scratching on the top of the guitar as he sings of the loss of not just one blues singer, but of the loss of a whole era of blues singers. Of course really it is Mark Knopfler on guitar, not Dylan, but the impression of one man and a guitar remains. Music is like writing, a world of mirrors and illusion.
Davina Blake also writes seventeenth century novels as Deborah Swift. She lives in the North of England in a small village close to the mountains and the sea, a fact which encourages her to go out and get the fresh air that every writer needs. Past Encounters is her fifth novel, but the first published as an independent author. Tweet her as @swiftstory. Find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Davina is excited to be giving away three ebook copies of Past Encounters to commenters here. Extra entries if you share the post on Twitter, G+, Linked In, Tumblr, Facebook, Ello or anywhere else you frequent. Breathe on a bus window and write it inside a love-heart. Just remember to say in your comment here that you’ve done it!