‘Music prepares me to face a blank page’
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 media doctor and award-winning writer Carol Cooper @DrCarolCooper
Soundtrack by The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Compay Segundo, John Williams and BBC Proms, Miloš Karadaglić , Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
While music isn’t always playing while I write, I sometimes need it to get into the right frame of mind to face a blank page. For me, The Beatles are creative Viagra. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t my favourite album, but its invigorating opening track makes it the one I find most conducive to spilling out words. Though Taxman from Revolver is pretty damn good. Then there’s Back in the USSR from the White Album and Come Together on Abbey Road… OK, so the Fab Four were pretty hot at opening tracks, and they followed up pretty well too.
Some music evokes specific characters in my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. Geoff, Laure, Sanjay and the others are in their mid-to-late-30s so they’d be very familiar with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Preoccupied with his own cancer, Sanjay enjoys listening to artistes who are dead (like Hillel Slovak from the Chilis).
They found a taxi. Geoff glanced at Laure in the half-light. Her face was hard to read, but her warm fingers were interlinked with his. Unprompted, the driver ranted about immigration, or possibly lenient judges. Geoff lost the thread halfway through, but the gist was that the cabbie thought the country was going to hell in a handcart, and everything the government did was tantamount to throwing away all they’d ever fought for during two world wars.
Anything is possible
I find the Chilis incredibly alive, and love them for their offbeat rhythm and their beautifully bonkers lyrics where anything is possible. My favourite album is By the Way. No wonder I found my novel taking strange new directions. The characters did things I hadn’t intended, like jumping into bed with people they shouldn’t. Sanjay’s cancer didn’t progress quite how I’d foreseen either, though maybe as a doctor I should be used to that.
As can happen when visiting Cuba, I felt totally immersed in music, especially son, on a trip to Havana a few years ago. There was live music on almost every corner of Habana Vieja. Many artists have recorded El Cuarto de Tula, but the late Compay Segundo’s version is my favourite. The tune is catchy and the lyrics suggestive. It’s a song is about a young woman’s bedroom being on fire, and it makes a great spur to writing sizzling sex scenes.
Geoff squeezed Laure’s hand experimentally. She squeezed back. He closed in for a kiss as the cab went over a speed bump. They kissed at length as the cabbie went on about not trusting any politician as far as he could spit.
Sometimes lyrics get in way of finding the right words, and I might need an instrumental piece. Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of my favourites. Evocative and imaginative, it never fails to put me in the mood for writing. My soundtrack includes a John Williams rendition, but I’ve recently heard the young Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić and I can’t wait for his interpretation on his new album Aranjuez. While I’m no expert in classical music, I’ve never known anyone make a guitar sing as he does. Sheer magic.
For those that don’t know, qawwali is the musical version of devotional poetry practised in Sufi Islam. The beat is endless and hypnotic, the lyrics ethereal and repeated. Although the characters in One Night at the Jacaranda aren’t particularly religious – and after all this is a novel about dating – they do have a basic creed which I think qawwali eloquently captures. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is said to be the king of qawwali. Listening to his album Rapture helps unpeel their spiritual layers of my characters, and imbue them with just the right amount of faith and hope.
As a student, Carol Cooper used to write music reviews, which got her into the best gigs in Cambridge. Carol is now a family doctor in London and a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her latest book One Night at the Jacaranda is a raunchy romantic novel with a heart-rending medical strand. It comes after a string of non-fiction health titles and an award-winning textbook of medicine, co-authored with colleagues from Imperial College Medical School where she teaches. She is now working on a sequel to her novel, taking some of her favourite characters into new territory. Her blog is Pills and Pillow-Talk and she’s on Twitter as @DrCarolCooper.