‘Oceans of silence beneath the words’
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 novelist, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors Orna Ross @OrnaRoss
Soundtrack by Stephen Foster, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson, Rufus Wainwright, Steven and Peter Jones, Cyndi Lauper, The Eagles, Ronald Binge, BBC Shipping Forecast, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy MacCarthy
Music has always been part of my life, mostly as an appreciator. I did play piano for some years but what was more influential in terms of writing — and particularly these two novels I’m going to discuss here — was being brought up in a singing-and-storytelling culture. I grew up in a pub and my own social life, from my teens, centred round the pub where Saturday and Sunday were sing-song nights. Occasionally it was establish-provided entertainment for the punters to consume, but more often it was the customers themselves who created the night. That’s what defines an Irish bar for me and explains why a good one is in demand the world over: on a proper Irish night out, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else’s good time.
The tracks that underlie the writing of After The Rising and Before The Fall, my first two novels which I’m just about to reissue in a 2-for-the-price-of-1 special offer this summer, are all songs. What I found in putting together this undercover soundtrack was that it very much isn’t a Desert Island Discs lineup of favourite music. A few of these songs I do love but what unites them is that they convey some of the emotional texture of the novels and of my relationship to the time-and-place in which the novels are set: early 20th century Ireland and late 20th century San Francisco.
These were my first novels, and together they form a linked, cross-generational family murder mystery. The story opens with a young soldier, lured to dangerous sinking sands during the Irish Civil War of 1922 and this unresolved killing — who did it and why? — is causing chaos for our heroine, Jo Devereux, 50 years on.
At the time of writing, I was living in a very English market town, Knutsford, in Cheshire. I was nostalgic for both Ireland and California and that nostalgia fuelled the books, and this soundtrack is redolent with it too.
One of the first thing that happens Irish people when they emigrate is that they find themselves listening to songs they would never spend time with at home. For me, I’d always avoided ballads and laments that kept alive the sense of loss and grievance that had erupted in 1916 and led to the independence war of 1921 and its aftermath — yet that was the very background that I couldn’t escape when I came to write fiction.
Seeking the truth
‘Hard times!’ my great-aunt who lived with us, used to say whenever conversation came anywhere near that past, a shorthand expression, was always delivered with a shake of the head. The killing of her brother by his best friend in the ‘War of The Brothers’, the Irish Civil War of 1922/3, was the event on which my novels were based (I couldn’t find out the truth of what happened so made up a 500-page story instead). ‘Hard times!’ was her explanation and excuse and a closing of the door on emotion that just couldn’t be expressed. I think of her whenever I hear this song, Hard Times Come Again No More, (by Stephen Foster, the American writer of Oh! Susanna, and Camptown Races and more than 200 other well-known songs): sung here by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson and Rufus Wainwright.
Kilkelly, Ireland, by Steven and Peter Jones, is another song that reminds me of her. It tells the story of an Irish emigrant to America through a series of letters from his father back in Kilkelly. The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather to his son John, who was illiterate and dictated the letters to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a friend of John’s before he left. It’s what’s known in Ireland as a lament, (cumha in Irish), part of a web of interwoven customs that ritualised longing and loss — maybe as a result of colonisation, maybe something much older. Its cross-generational tale of emigration is told much more concisely than mine and its rhythm and cadence is just how the older generation spoke when I was growing up, oceans of silence beneath their few words. I can’t listen to it without being deeply moved
The research for the book showed that ‘The War of the Brothers’ was very much about the sisters too but Jo rejects entirely the weight of this burdensome history. She leaves Ireland for the same reason shared by countless thousands of other Irish women, intending never to return, and once she shakes off her homesickness she finds herself in 1980s San Francisco, where her anthem, like Cyndi Lauper’s, is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and that great gay anthem from the musical La Cage aux Folles, that meant so much at that time to to so many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I Am What I Am, by disco queen Gloria Gaynor.
I enjoy writing emotional twists and surprises around big themes and in these books the themes are national and sexual identity; family loyalty versus personal autonomy. And gender. We’re all seeded by man and born of woman and we all embody ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. How these play out, in an individual life, and in different societies, is endlessly fascinating to me and fully teased out in these novels.
What Jo finds, of course, is that running away is not the answer. The song that best captures her dilemma, both the dream of a better place… and the dangers of that dream, is The Eagles’s The Last Resort. Jo finds she’s not free to go forward until she goes back to Ireland and understands that place that made her.
So she does, and settles in a ramshackle shed in the seaside village where she grew up, intending to find out and understand her family history. The books are full of descriptions of the Atlantic Ocean and the song that always surfaces when I think of that sea is Sailing By by Ronald Binge, the music that cues the BBC’s late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4. I remember lying in bed listening to it as a child, the strange names — German Bight, Boomer, Dogger Bank, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea — and the weather promised — rain, wintry showers, sometimes moderate or poor, becoming good — were poetry to me.
I felt a bit foolish about this until I read one of my favourite Carol Ann Duffy poems, the beautiful Prayer. I was delighted when searching for Sailing By to find this version that also includes a televised shipping forecast from Laurie McMillan as part of an Arena Radio Night in 1993. And has a collection of stunning footage, presumably from BBC archives. Binge’s music is easy listening but underneath its sweetness I sense again that sense of longing felt by all the characters in these books — and that I used to feel myself for the sea in my land-locked days in Knutsford.
Another seafaring and emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues, ties the economic migration that Jo was part of, that of the 1980s with its Green Card Lotteries to the post famine exodus in the mid-19th century that led to the independence war, not least because it was funded by US dollars. Those words really capture something about the Irish in America that I want to tease out more in the sequel I’m writing, the third part of this story, In The Hour, set in NYC. Thousands Are Sailing tips its hat to Mr Cohan. It’s actually George M. Cohan, ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’ but for a long time I thought it was Mr Cohen, the great Leonard and I want to include his Bird On A Wire , the three opening and closing lines of which were famously claimed by Kris Kristofferson as his epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as ‘a Bohemian My Way, and that’s why it’s here. After The Rising & Before The Fall share this theme that’s found across all my writing, of ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. That’s what Jo has to learn, that’s what connects her personal and familial quest. Early 20th-century Ireland, late 20th-century San Francisco were connected by the same impulse: the desire to free the human spirit from suppression,
Except true freedom can’t be delivered by politics, it’s the terrain of the creative spirit itself. My own political arguments have not been around nation but gender and in this week where we hear of yet another atrocity arising from religious suppression, I am grateful again to a song that celebrates what remains great in Christianity, by going beyond it. One Bright Blue Rose, a piece of pure poetry by a great contemporary songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy (the lyrics are here), sung by Mary Black in her heyday, is full of Christian imagery of the better kind and always brings me beyond anger, back to a truer, better impulse, the one to which I’ve devoted my writing life, not just in these novels, but also in the work for the indie-author movement, and in my current non-fiction series, the Go Creative! Books. That’s how I try, in Cohen’s words, ‘to be free’. And to foster freedom for others.
Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative!books and has been described as ‘one of the 100 most influential people in publishing’ (The Bookseller) for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world’s best self-publishing authors and advisers. Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives, mostly, in London. Her amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/ornaross and her website is www.ornaross.com, where you can also sign up for her ‘Behind The Books’ newsletter and advance books and giveaways. Tweet her @OrnaRoss.