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Posts Tagged Bruce Springsteen
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 my guest is novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello @isabelcostello
Soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black M, Jane Birkin featuring Serge Gainsbourg, The Goo Goo Dolls, Paolo Nutini
Music has been a big inspiration in the writing of Paris Mon Amour although I never listen to it whilst working. I love these tracks for the great sound and vocals, of course, but what I most admire in my favourite singer-songwriters (they tend to be both) is their gift for telling a story and evoking a mood in three or four minutes. The economy and intensity that come from stripping back to the essentials is something I aspire to as a novelist.
If I could only listen to one artist it would be Springsteen. He has amazing range and to me he embodies ‘goodness’, a key motif in my novel despite the characters’ numerous misdemeanours. In The River, he captures something I’m very susceptible to: the beauty in sadness (or even ugliness), as he re-lives bittersweet memories. Back story gets bad press in fiction but it’s extremely important – the key is to give it the emotional clout of the present, and this song shows how. I’m on Fire expresses passion in a mellow and understated way; my book is about a married woman of 40 whose life is upended by ‘bad desire’. In these situations, you either rein it in or find yourself the (not) proud owner of a melodrama.
I love Pink Floyd and it’s perhaps fortunate that I can’t elaborate on the many ways in which Comfortably Numb resonated both in the story of Paris Mon Amour (some will be apparent) but above all in the creative process, which coincided with a turbulent phase in my own life. It’s always the aim to leave the characters and the reader in a different place to where they started and in this case, the writer too.
Whilst we’re on the deep stuff, Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of the few songs mentioned in the text – there’s a California connection – but again, it was very relevant to getting to the psychological core of the characters. It’s a very intelligent song: a complex questioning of what lies under the visible surface, something that fascinates me about people and places. In the book everyone’s hiding something from each other, and often themselves.
And that’s not all they’re doing. The song that spoke to me on this was On s’fait du mal (We keep hurting each other) by Parisian rapper Black M, which I discovered thanks to my teenage sons. There’s a touching openness to this tale of remorse in which he acknowledges causing pain to those closest to him, something my characters know all about. I’m moved by emotional honesty wherever I encounter it. Writing this book has made me less guarded and listening to this song played a part in that.
But for all this openness, as you’d expect of a book involving an affair, a lot goes on behind closed doors. I don’t need to get psyched up to write my sex scenes, which rarely get edited; all I need is to imagine my way into character and into the moment. Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime (moi non plus), featuring Serge Gainsbourg has become a bit of a parody – they do ham it up – but it always makes me smile and there’s plenty worth channelling: Gainsbourg has the ultimate sexy voice, the melody is languorous, the lyrics sensual yet remarkably direct, which is both characteristically French and the way I like it.
Paris Mon Amour is definitely a love story as opposed to a romance novel, but it’s still the first time I fully unleashed my inner romantic, knowing if I didn’t feel it, nobody else would. To this end I often listened to Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, which is the most heartrendingly beautiful expression of love I’ve come across. It makes me feel a weird mixture of euphoria and devastation, both of which I needed to capture. Again there’s that sense of vulnerability, where in falling for someone you surrender part of yourself you won’t ever get back, and of the most intimate connection possible between two people, which is never ‘just sex’, as Alexandra discovers to her cost.
If her lover Jean-Luc had been a more typical 23-year-old guy, she would never have ended up in such a mess. He may not have been interested in her either. But just as some people notch up decades learning nothing, others aren’t limited by their lack of life experience. (I couldn’t have written this book any earlier.) My final song, Last Request by Paolo Nutini, is stunning but painful to listen to. It barely seems possible that he was only 19 when he wrote it 10 years ago – it helped me uncover the character of Jean-Luc, which only fully emerged in the later stages, and to explore in depth what he and Alexandra had together. It’s a great feeling when you find the missing piece.
Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer who lives in north London. Her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was released in June 2016 in digital (Canelo) and audiobook (Audible). Isabel’s work has been shortlisted in the Asham Award, the Short Fiction Journal Prize and the inaugural Room to Write competition judged by Pat Barker. She hosts the Literary Sofa blog, where you can find her selection of recommended Summer Reads 2016, and was recently longlisted for Best Reviewer in the Saboteur Awards 2016. She can often be found talking about books on Twitter @isabelcostello.
Asham Award, Black M, Bruce Springsteen, California, Canelo, contemporary fiction, Isabel Costello, Jane Birkin, Literary Sofa blog, music for writers, Paolo Nutini, Paris, Paris Mon Amour, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, romance, Serge Gainsbourg, Short Fiction Journal Prize, The Goo Goo Dolls, women authors, writers and music, writing with music
Who changes in the course of a novel? We hope the characters do. Sometimes the author does too. My guest this week feels that writing her novel became an act of emotional honesty that left her in a new place. Music was a constant companion – a mix of Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Parisian-themed works too. She is novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack for Paris Mon Amour.
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 my guest is GD Harper
Soundtrack by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tangerine Dream, JS Bach, Wagner, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Billie Holiday
In 1974, I saved up my paper-round money and bought a turntable. David Bowie burst into my monochrome life like a rainbow, daring me to be different. Aladdin Sane was the first album I bought, and every track seemed to be a coded message telling me there was no such thing as normal, there was no need to conform, that we had to be true to who we really were. Jean Genie filled my mind with surrealistic, decadent imagery, although on Cracked Actor a 27-year-old Bowie singing to a 16-year-old schoolboy about how fundamentally sleazy is a 50 year-old man brings a smile to my face today.
But it was Bob Dylan who set out the agenda by which I’ve lived my life. It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) told me if I wasn’t always busy being born, then I’d soon be busy dying. I’ve spent my life reinventing myself, in appearance, in career, in lifestyle, in geography. It’s what keeps me alive. Curiosity is a muscle that needs exercise to stop atrophy setting in.
And so to my novel, Love’s Long Road. I was 55 years old, had sold my business and finally in my life had a financial breathing space to take the risk of another reinvention, to become what I always wanted to be, a writer. My novel is set in the 1970s, of course. There’s never a time in your life like the one when the music in the charts is being written for your generation. It was an era I could write about with passion, and, with a little prompting from Wikipedia, from experience.
Lyrics had inspired me to start on this journey, but to write I needed to find music to fill my mind but not fight the words I was trying to get out. So thank you, Ian Rankin. He did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his writing process and revealed the secret of his productivity: Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, whose vast, formless swirling soundscapes formed the perfect sonic background to my brainstorming and planning as the story took shape. I invested in the 4 CD boxed set, and loaded it into a multi-disc CD cartridge. I’d play it over and over again, never tiring of its astonishing ability to sooth and refresh my addled brain.
Bach and Wagner helped me raise my game when I was trying to be a bit cerebral when writing more literary prose, although I did feel a bit of a heel in the way I used Wagner in the book. The suave, sophisticated baddie in the tale quotes Frederick Nietzsche, has two Doberman Pinschers called Lucifer and Satan, and generally does all the things that scream out at you ‘run away, run away’ (which of course my heroine doesn’t do). So I had him listening to Wagner, even being a real Wagner buff, playing on all these Nazi connotations. Nothing could be more different from the ugliness of fascism than the beauty of Wagner’s music and I’m a bit ashamed of myself that in my own small way I’ve perpetuated a negative stereotype.
Legacy of Bowie
My main character was a 22-year-old woman, and I wrote the story from her perspective in the first person, a legacy of Bowie daring me from all these years ago. And as I started to write the story, the 70s setting started to grow in importance, becoming almost a character in the novel in its own right. The characters pored over the lyric sleeves of albums trying to decipher their meaning; there were parties, with blue lights and joss sticks and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon providing the soundtrack to mass snogging sessions. Clare Torry’s vocals on The Great Gig in the Sky 15 minutes 42 seconds after the thudding heartbeat opening on side one always seemed perfectly timed.
My character had to keep escaping from jeopardy and reinventing herself, so It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) spoke to her as well. And my faith in the corporate music world was boosted when I approached Dylan’s publishing company to quote his lyrics in my book and after they’d read the excerpts that feature Dylan’s lyrics, they became fantastically helpful and supportive in me securing the rights to do that.
As the story progressed, music continued to shape the writing. If I needed a burst of energy to complement Tangerine Dream’s calming influence, some early-period Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen would do the trick. And at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, some of my favourite lines in the novel came when listening to lyrics. A seedy bar in the book, where
cigarette smoke hung in the air like a blue fug, the colour of missed chances and broken dreams’
was written as Springsteen was singing in the background of broken heroes and their last chances in life on Born to Run.
And my description of a character as
having sprouted into a tall, gangly explosion of energy, jumping about like an oversized grasshopper
suddenly materialised while listening to Jarvis Cocker singing Common People.
Perhaps the most powerful and harrowing part of the book is in the later stages, which deals with taking heroin and the lifestyle that goes with it. Writing in the first person, I felt I had to show my character initially embracing this destructive lifestyle, but it is a very challenging topic to write about, being mindful of the responsibilities of in any way glamourising or condoning drug abuse. It is still a bit of a literary taboo to describe the narcotic effect of heroin and I found as I wrote about my character’s descent into an opiate hell my writing became more metaphorical in nature. I let songs like Lou Reed’s Heroin or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit send goose bumps down my spine as I wrote this part of the book. I hope I’ve captured in some small way both the temptation and the danger of drugs as powerfully as these songs have done.
As I finished the novel and it went off for proof reading, I was, of course, shocked and devastated by David Bowie’s death. This is a blog about music but I can’t help but finish without paying tribute to not just Bowie’s musical genius but also to how his spoken word can be an inspiration. As I sat down to start my next book, I thought about what I’ve learned writing this one, about what to write, who to write it for, what people want to hear. And I saw this clip someone posted on Facebook today, with Bowie’s thoughts on the creative process. He says ‘Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.’
Good advice, David. Thank you.
Glyn Harper spent his career working in marketing for multinational corporations around the globe before setting up his own media and marketing consultancy in 1999. After selling the business in 2012, Glyn trekked the ‘Great Himalayan Trail’ in six months, becoming the first British man to cross the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route. On his return Glyn started writing, being placed third in the Lightship Prize for new authors in 2014. Glyn’s hobbies include music, photography and writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Facebook and his website. Love’s Long Road is his first novel.
1970s, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, drug addiction, drug misuse, Frederick Nietzsche, GD Harper, German electronica, Glyn Harper, JS Bach, Lightship Prize for new authors, Lou Reed, Love's Long Road, music for writers, music for writing fiction, Pink Floyd, Pulp, Scotland, Tangerine Dream, tartan noir, undercover soundtrack, Van Morrison, Velvet Underground, Wagner
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 author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles
All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.
My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.
On my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.
My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.
Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.
The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.
Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.
As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.
It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.
Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.
Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.
A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’
Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’
I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’
That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.
Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.
After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.
Music also helps me get ideas.
When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.
Listening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.
Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.
The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.
Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.
Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.
America, authors, Beatles, Ben Cartright, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Cartright, David Rovics, Deer Tick, Desert Island Discs, drama, dystopia, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, entertainment, folk, folk-punk, Hank Williams, Jay Calhoun, Joe Blake, Johnny High-Fives, Lee Green, main character, male writers, Montag Press, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-future, playlist for writers, post-apocalyptic, Press Black, protest singer, protest songs, punk, Roz Morris, The Drive-By Truckers, The Ramones, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thelonious Monk, They Live, Tom Waits, Trevor Richardson, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 horror and thriller writer Will Overby @Will_Overby
I have never understood how anyone can write in total silence. Call me crazy, but there’s something about writing to music that frees up the flow of thought, that takes my mind to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit, that presents me with sudden, surprising inspiration.
I first noticed this back in 1984. I had just graduated high school and I was working on what would turn out to be my first completed novel, August. That summer I purchased Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and listened to it most days when I was writing. As the weeks went by, I quickly realized that it was becoming a soundtrack of sorts to the book. Songs like Downbound Train and I’m On Fire helped me add a particularly gritty feel to the character of Brian DeCanto and gave him a depth I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
This was a revelation. Subsequent stories and novels continued to have soundtracks, including a never-to-be-published young adult novel inspired completely by the music of U2. Back in the day I would make mix tapes to play while writing. I still have a couple of those tapes, and it’s really interesting to go back now and see what inspired me 15 and 20 years ago. Nowadays I just cue up a playlist on my computer, and I can add and delete selections at my whim.
While writing this post I’m listening to the music I used for inspiration while working on my novel The Island. In this story two friends, Sarah and Amy, travel to a Caribbean island for a getaway but end up being caught up in a vodou cult complete with zombie rituals and mysterious disappearances. There is also a touch of romance, as Amy falls for a local tour-boat operator, David.
When first developing this book, I would often listen to the type of music I imagined the characters would enjoy. Sarah and her fiancé, for instance, are into big band music, so much of her characterization involved immersing myself in songs like Goody Goody by Benny Goodman. David, on the other hand, collects vinyl records and is especially fond of 50s jazz; John Coltrane seems to be his favorite for reflection, but as his and Amy’s love affair blossomed, I found myself drawn to sultry numbers by Julie London like I’m in the Mood for Love to accentuate their growing sexual attraction.
When it came to the meat of the book, I relied on instrumental pieces – both modern classical and film soundtracks – for inspiration. The zombie ritual near the end of the book, for example, is set to Kryzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia – a creepier piece of music I’ve never heard; you can almost feel skeletal fingers closing in around your throat as the pizzicato strings play a frenetic path up and down the scale. Likewise, his The Dream of Jacob was sometimes set to repeat when I needed a feel of dread and unease. For scenes early in the book when Sarah is having hallucinations and nightmares, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano wonderfully portrays the outward appearance of calm while panic and horror gnaw inside.
No music was a greater inspiration, though, than Brett Rosenberg’s soundtrack to the 2006 film, Half Light. While the more horrific music seemed to mirror some of the Penderecki pieces to great effect, the quieter more melodic passages were fantastic in helping me round out the character of Sarah. The heart-rending solo violin selection Girl in the Storm, for example, perfectly captures Sarah’s sense of loss and loneliness.
For those of us writers who use it, music can be a great motivator. I know if I’m having trouble getting in the mood of the story I can turn on the book’s playlist and the thoughts start flowing again. If you happen to be one of those who can’t write with the distraction of music, I urge you to try listening to some pieces to set your mood before you write. You may just be surprised at what springs into your mind. And onto your page.
Will Overby has spent 30 years in the boardrooms and glass offices of retail banking. Between dodging mergers and drafting policies he publishes novels. He and his wife live far from the corporate world in rural western Kentucky. They have two grown children, a dog, and a menagerie of cats. A graduate of Indiana University, Will is an avid Hoosiers football fan. Connect with Will on his website, www.willoverby.com, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
authors, Benny Goodman, Brett Rosenberg, Bruce Springsteen, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, friends, Gyorgy Ligeti, horror, horror novels, how to write a horror novel, how to write a thriller novel, how to write a zombie novel, I’m On Fire, inspiration, Julie London, Kryzysztof Penderecki, male writers, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, soundtracks, The Dream, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller novels, thrillers, U2, undercover soundtrack, vodou, voodoo, Will Overby, writers, writing, writing to music, zombie novels, zombies
I’m finding it so curious to see how many novelists in this series are inspired by Bruce Springsteen. He’s probably not the kind of artiste people would imagine if you mentioned using music as a muse to write, but he’s behind so many characters and character dilemmas. My guest this week has compiled writing soundtracks ever since he was at school, and still keeps mixtapes from that time. He revisits them occasionally out of amused curiosity, and says that Springsteen gave his characters a gritty humanity he couldn’t otherwise have found. Decades on, he’s using soundtracks just as much as ever – sometimes not to write, but to fill himself with the book’s mood before he sits down at the keyboard. He is Will Overby and he’ll be here with his Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
authors, Bruce Springsteen, characters, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Springsteen, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Will Overby, writers, writing, writing to music, zombies
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 Denise Kahn @DKpolyglot
My very first memory of life was the sound of my mother’s glorious voice singing to me, most likely a Brahms lullaby. I’m convinced that is why music always has a delicious way of creeping into my writing, and becomes one of the most important elements. I find that music is almost synonymous with being in a state of trance, and that is how I become when I write. I get very focused, and live the scenes with my characters. As each mise en scène blooms music envelopes my mind with a melisma, or a melody that already exists.
I wrote my book Peace of Music for my son, so that he could have the story of his ancestral family. It became a novel (much more fun that way) as I could take a few liberties, such as the scenes in China’s 13th century Song (what else?) Dynasty. One of the scenes is of a blind potter who is commissioned by Quan Yin, his Goddess, to make a special vase, but he doesn’t know how. Chinese Gugin music was the key to the scene.
…From the back of See-Fu’s house a soft melody rang out. It came from Lotus Blossom’s room. Her long delicate fingers plucked her qin. Her performance was ethereal See-Fu thought, a combination of earth’s gentleness and mysteries of the night. Every once in a while Lotus Blossom accompanied the harmonics with a song, an ancient love poem. See-Fu felt his entire body mellow as his daughter’s voice reminded him of birds, and the melody painted the portrait of nature’s beauty where they had collected his ingredients. He smiled triumphantly and delicately touched the statue of his Goddess. He now knew. He remembered Quan Yin’s guidance: “When the music is played, your heart will be your eyes.”
While about 10 percent is fiction (like China), the rest is fact, and since the characters/family members were opera singers and concert pianists I thought their stories would make a good novel. My tag line is ‘Spreading the Power of Music through Words’, and in this book music proves how it can unite and keep people together and strong, especially in difficult circumstances. Throughout the book, music is the glue that keeps this family saga together. One of my favorite scenes takes place on Christmas Eve during WWI, the true ‘silent night’ of that horrific war. The only sounds were that of soldiers, from both sides, singing Christmas carols together, all started by two brilliant tenors, one German, the other French.
The second book that I published was Split-Second Lifetime. I was visiting some friends in New Mexico. We went to see some Native American dancers and I was mesmerized by their throat singing—a very unique form of song. I did some research, and found that the only other people that sing that way are the indigenous people of Tuva, in eastern Siberia. I also saw this attractive woman, in jeans and jacket, standing very regal. As I watched her she suddenly morphed into an elegant mountain lioness. And then I saw the entire story, frame by frame, as if playing on an old moviola, all of it surrounded by the music in the background. This is what came out of that moment in time:
The main protagonist (Jebby) is an ethnomusicologist, who roams the world recording indigenous music. On a plane to her next destination she meets her seat mate (Dodi), who seems to trigger past life memories from the old American Southwest. As they travel through Uzbekistan, Jebby realizes that in a past lifetime they were man and wife as members of the Hopi tribe. As she encounters some magnificent musicians each one seems to give her a new ‘clue’, or vision, into that past life.
The book is filled with scenes of music and musicians: Nana Mouskouri at the Royal Albert Hall in London; an Uzbek, with a horrible English accent, trying to imitate Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, while traveling in the middle of a desert; traditional and modern Uzbek music; and even elements of Rumi in a Dervish ceremony.
I journey with the protagonists on their voyage, as they discover the beauty of other cultures and their musical traditions. It is food for my passion and my senses, as it travels down to my fingers on the keyboard.
Denise Kahn spent 20 years in Europe because of her father, who was with the US Diplomatic Corps, and her mother who was an opera singer. She worked mainly as a simultaneous interpreter and translator as she is a linguist and speaks several languages, five of which are fluent. Because of her exposure to people of different nations her writing includes many foreign settings and cultures. She is a proud mother of a gallant Marine who served in Iraq, and among the members of her household is Louie the cat, so named because of his clawing love of Louis XV and XVI furniture, and surely thinks he must have been a fearless Marine in one of his former lives. Her books are here, her website is here and you can find her on Twitter as @DKpolyglot
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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 award-winning crime writer Terrence McCauley @tmccauley_nyc
People who know me or have read my work may be surprised by how much music influences my writing. I don’t listen to music when I write or even edit, but at other times, a chance song on the radio or browsing the musical selection on my phone can help spark an idea for a scene or an entire story line.
The best examples are the novels I’ve written. The first – Prohibition – is a crime novel set in 1930 with an opening scene of the protagonist stalking someone through the cold, lonely streets of New York City. One could be forgiven for believing that scene was inspired by any number of noir movies – of which I am a huge fan – but in this case, they’d be wrong. The opening scene was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Murder Incorporated. When I heard that song for the first time, the drum beats that open the song reminded me of footsteps echoing on an empty street as someone is fleeing for their life. The sax sounded like car horns blaring past the unfortunate man now on the run.
The ending of the novel (which I won’t give away here) was inspired by 3 Doors Down’s Love Me When I’m Gone, a mournful tune that fit the ending of the book rather nicely.
Hard luck cases
My novella Fight Card: Against the Ropes is a prequel to Prohibition and details the protagonist’s boxing career before he became a mob enforcer. The protagonist – Quinn – has always had his own soundtrack in my mind that was different from the over all soundtrack of whatever story in which he appears. In Against The Ropes, Quinn’s soundtrack comes to the fore: Everlast’s What It’s Like is a song about hard luck hard cases, a description that fits the Quinn character nicely. The ending of the book, where Quinn accepts the inevitable end of his boxing career and agrees to become an enforcer for the very men who have ruined his career, was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The crafty, patient villainy of the song seemed appropriate for Quinn’s acquiescence of a life of crime.
The third book I have out now, Slow Burn by Noir Nation Books, is also set in 1930s New York, but the protagonist is a police detective named Charlie Doherty. He’s a corrupt, impure Tammany Hall hack and a man whose life is on a downward spiral. His wife left him, his career is ending in ignominy and he’s running out of reasons to get up in the morning. The melancholy, yet strong song Better than Me by Hinder suited Doherty well and I wrote the story with that tune in mind. Some people who have read Slow Burn think Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head inspired the ending. But I thought of a more triumphant, slightly cocky song. How You Like Me Now by The Heavy worked best and it gave me inspiration for the ending scenes.
Music doesn’t only influence the beginning and ends of my books. I also draw inspiration from music for other types of scenes I write. For more sentimental scenes, I listen to the theme from The Shawshank Redemption soundtrack or Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard from the Gladiator soundtrack. The Band Perry’s If I Die Young inspired me to write a few scenes for a western I’m working on now called The Devil’s Cut.
My work tends to have a lot of violence and action, and music plays a role in my crafting of those scenes as well. House of Pain’s Jump Around as well as Rob Zombie’s Super Charger Heaven have hard, edgy, fast-moving tempos that get the juices flowing and help me create scenes that pop.
Terrence P. McCauley is an award winning crime writer. His latest novel, Slow Burn, is currently available in e-book format from Noir Nation Books on Amazon. His other books Prohibition, published by Airship 27, and Fight Card: Against the Ropes (Fight Card Books) are also available on Amazon. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter @tmccauley_nyc and Facebook.
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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 journalist and award-winning debut novelist Terri Giuliano Long @TGLong
Dave and I are in the car on our way home from dinner. He puts a Bruce Springsteen CD in the player, Greetings From Asbury Park. The song Growin’ Up strikes a nerve, and I ask him to hit replay. I listen to the song over and over. The song is still playing when we pull into the driveway 30 minutes later. In this song, I see Leah – a 16-year-old girl, pushing boundaries, horrifying the adults all around her. She’s just a kid, flying high, full of imagination and life, yearning for independence, trying to make her way in the world.
Dave and I have four daughters. As I’m writing the novel, they’re all teens, and I see Leah from a mother’s perspective. I love her, but she frightens me. This song opens a door, shows me another side of her. I see tremendous energy and vulnerability so deep and true that it brings tears to my eyes. I try to integrate this new understanding into her scenes, but it’s not until late in the novel, after she’s run away from home, that it pays off.
When I wrote In Leah’s Wake, songs—like Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, Robbie Robertson’s Showdown at Big Sky and Tom Petty’s Face in the Crowd provided the emotional connection I needed to define certain scenes. The novel opens with Leah’s parents, Zoe and Will, playing poker—a metaphor I didn’t notice until the second draft, when I realized how much parenting teens resembles a poker game. Tupelo Honey spins on the player. After a spat, Will leaves the table and replaces the sweet love song with Zoe’s favorite song, Showdown at Big Sky. That night, alone, waiting for Leah, he listens to A Face In The Crowd, a haunting song that speaks to his profound loneliness, as he sits by the window, imagining the unthinkable horror that may have befallen his child.
Often, the instrumentals, the sound, the tone—the emotional energy—of a song put me into the scene. Paranoid Android, from Okay Computer by Radiohead, I’m On Fire, by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Stardog Champion, from Stardog Champion by Mother Love Bone, I Loves You Porgy from Porgy and Bess, by Keith Jarrett on the CD The Melody At Night With You, and Misguided Angel from The Trinity Session by the Cowboy Junkies—all set an emotional stage for a scene I was working on.
In the lyric
Occasionally, the lyrics spoke to me, as was the case with Madonna’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, from the film Evita, released in 1996, a few years before I began In Leah’s Wake. Early in the book, Zoe is in the car, on her way home from work. She’s thinking about Leah, all the changes that have occurred of late. Leah’s behavior drives her out of her mind. She also feels guilty, selfish for putting her own needs and desires ahead of her family. ‘I love you,’ Madonna sings, echoing Zoe’s feelings. ‘And I hope you love me.’
The best writing moments occurred when – as with Growin’ Up – a song moved me emotionally and its lyrics gave me insight. Our house at the time was wired for sound. One morning, when I stepped out of the shower, Oasis’s Champagne Supernova from What’s the Story? Morning Glory, was playing. I was working on a pivotal scene: Leah’s 12-year-old sister, Justine, asks for a cigarette and Leah, hesitant at first, sees her sister as her equal for the first time and allows her to smoke. The song’s textured ethereal feel, for me, mirrored Leah’s state of mind. The lyrics, about getting high, people changing, felt right. The metaphor gave me psychological clarity, a window into Leah’s heart.
As I progressed through draft after draft, music, which had initially inspired me, took on a defining role in the book. Scenes where the characters were listening to music began to different feel from scenes that were virtually silent, except for the dialogue. To me, those silent scenes feel stark, and emotionally raw. Maybe that’s why they so often end with an argument or a crucial event that, to one of the characters, represents catastrophic change.
Without music, In Leah’s Wake would be a very different book. How do you identify with music? When you read a book, do you relate to songs or find them a distraction?
Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and feature articles for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. In Leah’s Wake is her debut novel, winner of the Coffee Time Reviewer Recommend Award, the Book Bundlz 2011 Book Pick, the Book Bundlz Book Club Favorite, 2012 – First Place and nominated for the Global eBook award. For more information, find her on her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.
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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 Matthew Dicks
At the heart of Unexpectedly, Milo is a road trip. The protagonist, Milo Slade, heads south in search of a woman who may or may not be alive, and since music has always played a large role in every road trip that I have ever taken, I felt like it should play a role in this book as well.
Savants and self-awareness
I wanted the choice of music to say something about Milo as a person, and so I enlisted the help of my wife, who is a near savant when it comes to music, to help me choose the playlist. Milo first begins by burning a CD with the type of classic road trip music that you might hear in a movie. He is a movie buff, and in many ways, he views himself as a character within a film, so includes songs like Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run on his playlist.
He doesn’t necessarily like this music, but it is what he thinks he is supposed to play, which is in many ways Milo’s problem. He has spent his life pretending to be the person he thinks he is supposed to be instead of the oddball that he truly is.
Unlike a film, where a three-minute song can fill an entire road trip montage, Milo is surprised to discover that his carefully constructed playlist runs out before he is even able to leave the state of Connecticut.
Milo then turns to music that he likes but is too embarrassed to play around his soon-to-be ex-wife. Bands like Supertramp, Wham! and Abba enter the rotation, and it was these choices of bands to which my wife assisted me. I wanted music that a certain breed of men might like but would rarely admit to liking. Not the toughest guys in the world, but not exactly wimps either. Catchy tunes that an average guy like Milo might enjoy. The guilty pleasures of the everyman.
It was also important that Milo kept his love for this kind of music hidden from his wife. While Milo’s wife, Christine, is not the nicest of people, Milo is at least partially to blame for the failure of his marriage because of the number of secrets he has kept from his wife. She knows nothing about his obsessive-compulsive nature, and this has required Milo to construct an elaborate and secretive life from her, undoubtedly causing barriers in their relationship.
In fact, music plays a large role in this secret life as well. As an obsessive-compulsive, one of Milo’s compulsions is to sing the German karaoke version of the 1980s hit 99 Luftballons by Nena to an audience. When the demand strikes, Milo’s mind cannot be put at ease until he takes the stage and performs the song. As he prepares for his road trip south, he makes sure to have a copy of the 99 Luftballons karaoke CD in the event the compulsion strikes.
Karaoke bars tend not to have this song on hand.
The song originally chosen for this compulsion was The Hokey Pokey. Milo’s compulsions often involve escalation and eventual release, and I liked the way The Hokey Pokey followed this model, adding one body part at a time until the dancer is permitted to truly hokey pokey. But my agent wisely steered me away from this song, thinking it a little too over-the-top and silly to be realistic. The more obscure but still well known song like 99 Luftballons worked well, especially when I decided to use the German version of the song, which was actually popular in the United States for quite a while. It added to Milo’s oddity, and the fact that he was required to sing the German version further emphasized how little control he had over these compulsions.
The song ends up playing a key role at the end of the novel, though that came as a bit of a surprise. It was one of those writes-itself moments, and I ended up loving the scene. The novel has been optioned for film, and as the process grinds along slowly but surely, I am hoping that the writers, producers and director decide to keep 99 Luftballons as Milo’s song of choice. It’s the song that plays in the back of my mind whenever I think about Milo and his story.
Matthew Dicks is not one for long, crafted sentences, preferring the stylings of Vonnegut over those of Saramago. He is an author whose works, to date, include the novels Something Missing, Unexpectedly Milo, and the as yet unpublished Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend; a blog; and a number of Op Ed pieces, all of which, at some level or another, tend to examine the outcomes of the quirky and/or rebellious individual when forced up against staid society; however, to say that he is an author is an understatement, for this husband and father from Newington, CT, who has faced a number of near-death experiences, lived in his car, and been tried for a crime that he did not commit, is also an acclaimed elementary teacher who has received the Teacher of the Year Award, is the co-owner of a DJ business, and still wishes that he could beat some of his friends at golf.
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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.
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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.
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