Posts Tagged contemporary fiction
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 book blogger, prolific short story writer and Polari prize nominee Anne Goodwin @annecdotist
Soundtrack by Jack Strachey, Faure, Grieg, The Dubliners, Mendelssohn, Karl Jenkins, Leonard Cohen, Terry Jacks, Country Joe McDonald, Jim Reeves, Eddie & The Hot Rods
Sugar and Snails is a mid-life coming-of-age story about a woman who has kept her past identity secret for all her adult life. The contemporary strand is set in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2004 from which my protagonist, Diana, looks back on her childhood in the 1960s and 70s in a North Derbyshire mining town, with a few weeks in Cairo at the age of 15.
Despite giving Diana some aspects of my own biography, I found it challenging in places to evoke the emotional atmosphere of her childhood. I had my memories, and the internet, but music proved a powerful tool in enabling me to delve that bit deeper.
In an early scene, Diana remembers dancing alone, aged about three and perhaps the last time she was at ease in her body. As it’s a long time since I was three, I listened to the music she’d undoubtedly have heard on the radio at home with her mother: the theme tunes from Housewives’ Choice (In Party Mood composed by Jack Strachey) and Listen with Mother (The Berceuse from Faure’s Dolly Suite Op.56). It was also helpful to listen to the music I’ve been told I danced along to as a toddler: In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
Although Working Man by The Dubliners isn’t about Derbyshire, it helped evoke the culture of the close-knit mining community in which Diana grew up. Ave Maria of Lourdes perfectly brought to mind her Catholic background; albeit slightly disappointingly since there’s so much better Christian choral music I’d have preferred to have in my head.
Diana’s difficulty navigating the physical and psychological changes of adolescence is central to the novel. I thought I remembered mine a little too well but, once again, music brought me closer to that amalgam of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia. Almost anything in a minor key would have served the purpose, but one I kept coming back to was Mendelssohn’s violin Concerto in E minor. At the time of writing my novel, I was also addicted to Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man (I’ve picked out the gorgeous Benedictus with the poignant cello solo), which not only put me in the right frame of mind, but served as a reminder that, for baby boomers like me and Diana, other people’s wars never seemed so far away. (As the piece also includes the Islamic call to prayer, it served a double purpose in conjuring up her auditory experience of Cairo.)
One of the key relationships in the novel is that between Diana and her father, Leonard. His character and his parenting decisions, such as they are, have been shaped by his own late adolescent experience as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. Like the biblical Abraham, brought to mind for me by Leonard Cohen singing The Story of Isaac, he sees his children more as offshoots of himself than as people in their own right.
While the Second World War impacted on her parents’ generation, Diana and her contemporaries watch in horror and fascination as, across the Atlantic, boys only a few years older are conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Country Joe McDonald’s Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die captures that period perfectly but I was surprised, watching the video, how young the hippies look to me now while, at the same time, they connect me to a younger girl to whom they appeared quite grown-up, and both exciting and terrifying in their rebellion. This fed into a scene in which Diana recalls her mother mistaking some long-haired boys for girls.
Aged 15 in 1974, Diana makes a life-changing decision. The early 70s hasn’t produced the best pop music, but no doubt she’d have had the transistor radio tuned to Radio One that summer. Morbidly inclined since early childhood (I suppose she might have been a Goth had she been born later), I had her listening to a song that leached nostalgia from that era, Seasons in The Sun by Terry Jacks.
I began to write Sugar and Snails in 2008, only four years later than when the contemporary strand of the novel is set. So, while music wasn’t necessary to transport me back to 2004, some of my casual listening did have a bearing on my decisions about the plot. The romance storyline, in early drafts dispatched in a rather disastrous one night stand, loomed larger in the final version, partly thanks to my penchant for the kind of sentimental songs Diana’s mother might have listened to, such as I Love You Because sung by Jim Reeves. But, although I was clear Sugar and Snails wouldn’t be a novel in which the woman is saved by the man, I wasn’t sure how far I was going to take her along the road to self-acceptance. You’ll have to read the novel to find out to what extent she’s able to overcome her demons, but I did enjoy listening to Eddie and The Hot Rods sing Do anything you wanna do while I thought it through. Given the long journey to publication, it’s an anthem to motivate any writer to follow her dreams.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel Sugar and Snails was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and longlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 60 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist. In honour of its first birthday, Sugar and Snails is available in Kindle format at only £0.99 or equivalent until 31 July 2016.
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on Wednesday to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
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.
My guest this week spent 16 years as a rock journalist, interviewing stars and trying to understand what their music was trying to say. When he started to write his first novel, music took on a fresh role – no longer the endpoint, it was now the beginning. The book is the story of a man looking back on an intense love affair, and the music is an aural journey of the character’s obsession, his unstable serenity that could turn dark, his complex sense of comfort in the prison of his memories. Dan Gennoe will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Burial, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Magazine, Nine Inch Nails, Sigur Ros, The xx.
That was his tragedy. He didn’t yet know that fear was more powerful than love.’
The Ghost is a novel about violence. At its centre is an act of extreme violence, perpetrated by three children. The book tells the story of how the consequences trickle down through time; a slow-acting psychological poison which engulfs the three children in adulthood.
I wrote it as a crescendo: smouldering beginning, gathering middle, explosive ending.
I didn’t completely throw away the structure rulebook. I understand that continuous intensity will exhaust the reader, and so there are dropouts of release, spikes of hypertension, recurring motifs and anchoring asides.
In other words, I wanted it to feel like a lot of the music I love – the kind that steals over you, seeps beneath your skin and then grips and grows and grows.
Soundscape to landscape
Music is as vital a part of my life as light or air. I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘background’ music in film or television. My favourite filmmakers bake it into the centre of the drama – as commentary to underscore the action, as soundscape to emphasise landscape. They also use the absence of music to wrongfoot the viewer into relaxing. (Is there anything less shocking than a jump scene telegraphed by a rising note and announced with a jarring chord?)
Music informs my writing in a similar way. It’s not there on the page, but it’s always present in my plotting brain and typing fingers.
When I’m not at my desk, I play out the scenes – particularly the set-pieces – on an internal cinema, soundtracking them with music in my headphones. Almost every story peak in The Ghost was conceived in this way; the events were enhanced by a vivid awareness of the sound which surrounded them.
I suppose it’s a form of creative synaesthesia. Before I write a word, most of my moments are steeped in distinct aural flavours. I find it difficult to write a significant sequence before seasoning its mood with music in this way.
The book follows two separate timelines in the life of lead character Dorian Cook: his impoverished childhood in early 1970s industrial England, and his working life as an adult film critic in modern-day London. As the present-day Cook realises he is being held to account for his actions as a child, the past timeline builds up to the inciting event itself.
The house carried an unholy chill that flowed deep through its foundations – a vaporous spectre of cold that first stirred in late August and had the place comprehensively haunted by December.’
For the austere 70s chapters, I favoured songs which seemed to define Cook’s world: corporal punishment, factory discharge, municipal menace. The clamour and whisper of Joy Division’s Heart and Soul; the inner-city palpitations of Burial’s Loner; and the slouching panic of Nine Inch Nails’s Corona Radiata, with its sense of impending reckoning which mirrors the book’s recurring first line:
Something was coming up the stairs.’
Two key sections in the past timeline take place during the notorious UK heatwave of 1976. At the time, I remember sweltering with a strawberry Mini Milk as my tiny portable radio squeaked out Minnie Ripperton’s ever-lovely Loving You and Mungo Jerry’s lascivious In The Summertime. But for the story I was telling, I needed Sketch For Summer by The Durutti Column, with its synthetic birdsong and rebounding guitar – a song that always evokes the invincibility of childhood summers, and Larkin’s mighty line about ‘the strength and pain of being young’.
In the present day, two songs defined Cook’s marital and mental collapse: Missing by The xx – a hushed and horrified dissection of a crumbling relationship; and, as the threat from his past grows ever mortal and Cook is forced to plot a counterattack, Magazine’s The Light Pours Out Of Me sets the death-defying scene.
So, The Ghost is a novel about violence. The story is triggered by violence and it ends with violence – although not, I hope, of the sort the reader is expecting. The final sequence – a queasy kind of closure – was linked to Sigur Ros’s monolithic Festival, a song which emerges, ever so delicately, with a lone Icelandic voice keening beneath overlapping string notes. It hovers like a hummingbird, and then drops hard into a midsection of martial drumming, before lulling and at last detonating in a starburst of choral harmonies. It briefly, unbelievably, ramps up one more level before collapsing into a single voice again, this time whistling the melody.
It doesn’t give me The Chills; it gives me The Glow – a surge of whiskey-warmth. I must have heard it a hundred times and I still get it, around eight minutes in, as if something in the song is hardwired into me.
Fellow writers talk of how their characters ‘take over’ and dictate the narrative. Others claim the muse descends in a certain place, or country. For me, it’s music that guides me through, defining the lifts and rifts of the characters’ inner lives and choreographing their actions in bold, movie-like rhythms.
The Ghost has been described as a ‘dark’ book, but I hope some of my musical motivation pokes through to reveal the more complex qualities I was reaching for – redemption, restoration, courage, euphoria, enduring connection. These are all qualities I find in the music I love, which in turn rouses my writing.
Andrew Lowe is an author, editor and journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames, and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by cycling and coaching youth football. The Ghost is his first novel, but it won’t be his last. Find him on his website, Facebook, Google +, Instagram and Twitter @andylowe99
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow
Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar
I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.
I first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.
The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.
In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.
David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.
During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.
My guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.