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My guest this week grew up on classical music. Childhood piano lessons inspired her latest novel, Feral Youth, about the relationship between a troubled teenager and a piano teacher. One pivotal scene came while she was listening to Wagner; the surging music seemed to insist she create a dramatic bonding moment between her two principals. She herself is no stranger to drama; she made her name with a semi-autobiographical novel about life in London’s Square Mile, then famously went indie because her publisher, HarperCollins, tried to brand her books as chick-lit. She is Polly Courtney and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 my guest is award-winning fantasy author (and classically trained pianist) Melissa McPhail@MelissaGMcPhail
Soundtrack by Riverdance
Music and writing have ever been mated in my soul. As a child, I began writing fiction in the same year I took my first piano lesson, and as an adolescent, I reached to express the inexpressible with my first musical composition only weeks before the computer started calling my name at odd hours of the night. One creative effort cannot be wakened without drawing upon the other. They are soulmates, and I am mated to them equally.
In me, they support each other as soulmates should. When the creative juices of one endeavor begin to run dry, turning to the other will rejuvenate that lacklustre flesh. Oddly enough, time spent trilling fingers across a keyboard that produces music is not so different from the cathartic rhythms of one that forms letters on a screen. They both seem to reach into the same place in my soul and draw forth that spark of inspiration that results in bountiful self-expression.
Frank Zappa said: ‘Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance is sculpted into something.’ I believe this is true not merely of performance but of music overall — when music plays, something is created. We cannot see it in the air, yet music forms images in our minds, emotions in our hearts. It invokes memories and stirs the creative spirit into action. That sculpture is pushed forth, formless until it is collected by the imagination of the listener and channeled into something new.
Because I spent an eternity writing my epic fantasy, Cephrael’s Hand (in my mind, over a million words spent in pursuit of a single novel qualifies as an eternity), a number of songs have sculpted the series, but one album did more to fuel this effort than any other – Bill Whelan’s Riverdance.
Battles, mystery, enchantment
This album seemed to contain all of the driving, pulsing energy of violent battle scenes and tragic misadventures mixed among the mystery of enchanted forests and the thrumming chill of icy, windswept passes. It speaks a story of uncertain heroes, of unrequited love, of tears shed for ages lost and of the wistful echo of loved ones vanished or vanquished. Cephrael’s Hand travels to all of these lands and spaces of the heart. It’s a tale of two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of a great battle, neither knowing the other is alive. It’s the story of a traitor who works in exile to save the race he’s sworn to protect, and of a blessed race facing extinction – along with the realm itself. It’s the story of nations battling for the ideals they believe in, and of individuals striving to find an ideal to shape themselves around.
From song to scene
More than once, a particular song inspired a scene. Marta’s Dance/The Russian Dervish played heavily into the twisting, spinning fighting style of my Whisper Lords, with their daggered gloves and slashed cloaks, and Cloudsong/Riverdance, especially the instrumental section with its melody both wistful and joyous, somehow encapsulates the feeling of the relationship between the Healer Alyneri and her childhood love, Prince Ean.
The Countess Cathleen still brings to mind a particular dance I envisioned between two characters. Sadly, their paths never crossed in the final version of the story, but the lovely motions they made still dazzle in the realm of my imagination any time I hear the song. Who knows? Someday, in some future book, they may actually join in this dance together.
That is the beauty of music. Its ephemeral sculptures make an indelible imprint on our consciousness. Even if this imprint is never fashioned into something corporeal, still, it remains in the vast repository of inspiration, just waiting for its time to shine.
Melissa McPhail is the author of the award-winning epic fantasy Cephrael’s Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth , the newly released second book in her series published by Outskirts Press, A Pattern of Shadow and Light. In addition to her writing, Melissa is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations, and she seeks with her novels to explore the facets of good and evil, nobility, honor, courage and self-sacrifice in all their many shades. Find her on her website and on Twitter as @melissagmcphail
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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 post is by award-winning novelist and incorrigible genre hopper @GGVandagriff GG Vandagriff
Right next to my love of writing is my love of music. In fact, as I look at my novels, I find that music is inescapably woven through them. I take my literary cues from the music I listen to.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major was the inspiration behind my women’s fiction: Pieces of Paris. My heroine, Annalisse, is stuck in the Missouri Ozarks with her quixotic husband who thinks he has found the Garden of Eden. However, she grew up on a farm and knows that a farm is just a farm. She is overcome by PTSD and finds herself immersed in flashbacks of another life her husband knows nothing about.
Before that life ended tragically (thus causing her to bury the memories deeply), she was a concert pianist (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Chopin’s etudes figure here). More importantly, she was passionately in love with a brilliant violinist consumed by the Tchaikovsky.
In creating that character, I also became consumed – both with him and with that amazingly complex composition. I played it as I wrote, and Jules became one of my most memorable characters. The concerto is vastly yearning, longing for resolution. Jules’s character development traced the concerto’s. In the same way, as I wrote this book during my 25-year apprenticeship, I was yearning for the completion that only writing could give me. I was stretching, as the violinist stretches in this composition. It was plainly the soundtrack for my literary life.
In my most recent book, The Only Way to Paradise, a tale of four women who find hope and healing in Italy, two of my ‘crazy ladies’ are violinists. Arthritis has stricken Georgia, ending her career as a violin sensation. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was her signature piece, and she played it ‘like silk’. As I wrote of Georgia and her memories, I played the concerto as my soundtrack. When she thinks she wants to end her life, she hears through her window in Florence, the sound of the Dvorak violin concerto played by an anonymous virtuoso. The Slavic melody of the music echoes her mood, but saves her life. The violinist turns out to be one of her companions, whom she undertakes to mentor.
It is one of life’s great ironies that I understand music, but cannot play a note, nor even read it! However, I cannot live without it. Now, as I write a frothy romance, I am listening to a lot of Bach and Puccini Arias. Except for the duel scene—that is accompanied by Shostakovich’s uber-dramatic Fifth Symphony!
GG Vandagriff is the author of 12 books and an inveterate genre hopper. She has a series of five mysteries, two suspense novels, one award-winning historical epic, two novels of women’s fiction, and two non-fiction. She is also a journalist, writing for an on-line magazine and Deseret News. Educated at Stanford, she studied music at Stanford-in-Austria. Her latest book is another genre hop into romance, The Duke’s Undoing. Find her on Twitter, her website and her blog.
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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.
- 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 2011-2021. 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'