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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 science fictioneer-turned-historical-murder mystery writer David Penny @DavidPenny_
Soundtrack by Tinariwen, Neil Young, Joe Satriano, Grace Potter, Counting Crows, John Hiatt
I’m a frustrated musician. Many writers I talk to wish they were musicians (yes, we know who you are, Mr Rankin) but, when I talk to musicians they often want to be writers. Or actors. As for the actors, well…
For me writing is a constant striving to achieve the same visceral punch I get from great music. It’s hard because writing is a different medium, but every now and again, for a brief moment, I like to think I’ve almost attained that ambition.
I use music to inspire me, to turn off my analytical mind and don a cap of imagination. While writing my first new book for over 35 years (don’t ask) I used music as inspiration, but also as a wash of sound through which my hands drifted across the keyboard.
That book, The Red Hill came to me complete in less than a second, the entire idea and thread for a multi-book series. Then it took two years to write. The protagonist, Thomas Berrington, is an Englishman a thousand miles from home, a surgeon working in the final years of the Moorish caliphate that has ruled Spain for over 700 years. For much of that period the Moors were a beacon of civilisation in a Europe shattered by invasion, war and ignorance. They were cultured, scientific, and curious about the world. While the Vikings invaded the north, the Moors were inventing flying machines (1100), algebra, the clock, and studying the stars and medicine. In the book Thomas uses the techniques and instruments invented by the Moors – many of which have developed into those now used in modern operating theatres. His life is settled, deliberately constrained, until a man he can’t refuse asks a favour that could get him killed.
Below is the music that inspired me in the writing of the book, but more importantly music that just inspired. What more is there?
This is how I see Thomas dressed in The Red Hill. It’s also here because I listen to Tinariwen when I need to get into the emotional world of the Moors before they came to Spain, the world they carried with them. I can hear this music – without the electric guitars, but the Moors did have lutes and some even believe they created the acoustic guitar – being performed in al-Hamra at the time The Red Hill is set – the music rhythmic, dense, ululating. And the performers – you can see their lives etched deep on their faces.
I love everything about Neil Young when he plays electric guitar this way. His acoustic, Harvest Moon period, I can take or leave, but when he performs like this it sums up how I feel about writing. The music is on the edge, barely constrained, constantly threatening to tip over into chaos and feedback, always pulling back from the brink. I love his uncompromising nature. I understand it’s also what turns people off his music, but the point is he doesn’t care. He does what he does, what he must do. Whether you like it, love it, or loath it, it is what it is. The struggle to write something possessing this raw power and emotion is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again. It’s an unattainable dream, but that’s all right, because it means I never need to stop. Just like Neil. And take time to listen to the words.
Also there is this cover of Cortez the Killer by Joe Satriano and Grace Potter. Written by Neil, of course, but included for a couple of reasons – the main one being the dichotomy between the slight Spanish vibe and the words. And it tells the result of the victors in the battle the Thomas Berrington series is about. I can’t help wondering how different the world would be today if the Moors hadn’t been defeated.
Another band I can’t get enough of, another singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. My wife and I – kids too – have seen this band more than any other, and every time they’re different. Some people don’t like that, wanting things to sound just like on the album. Us? No – we like different. This song, A Long December, contains one of my favourite lines: about oysters and pearls… listen… Also listen to Miller’s Angels – stark, haunting, beautiful.
This song, Have a Little Faith in Me, has nothing to do with The Red Hill, other than I listen to John Hiatt all the time. It isn’t my favourite song of his (that’s another guitar blow-out, but I’ll spare you), but it is his best known and most covered. John Hiatt it the best unknown singer-songwriter in the world. No, don’t disagree – he is. He just is. And again, listen to the words and bow down to the man…
I first saw John Hiatt at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 90s and at the end of a three-hour show that blew my socks off he said something that sums up exactly how I feel about writing: ‘Hey, thanks y’all for coming. If you weren’t here we’d still be playing this stuff, but we’d be doing it in our garage.’
Also try Cry Love. I’ve included this because Immy from Counting Crows is on mandolin (plus it’s brilliant).
David Penny is the author of four science fiction novels and several short stories published during the 1970s. Near-starvation led him down the slippery slope of work, which distracted him from his true calling. He has now returned to writing and The Red Hill, a Moorish mystery thriller, is out July 13 2014. He is currently working on two new books: the follow up to The Red Hill, and a thriller set in the world of industrial espionage. You can find out more about David and his writing at his website and you can connect on twitter @davidpenny_
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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 guest is debut novelist Claire King @ckingwriter
As an author whose days are pulled and split between parenting, work, chores and all the other usual distractions, when it’s time to write I find it really helpful to use sensory prompts to pull me quickly out of my own world and into the story. Visual prompts like photographs help, as do smells, tastes and definitely music.
The Night Rainbow, my debut novel, is set in southern France in the heat of August. It is narrated by five-year-old Pea, and plays out in a very limited environment – her house and the surrounding meadows and hills – but which of course seems much bigger to a child of that age. It also takes place over a surprisingly short span of time. But again, to a child a week can seem like forever. Because of this, I had a relatively small selection of music that I played when I was writing The Night Rainbow that would bring me back to the place, the time and the characters. I always listened to it on headphones, which emphasised the feeling of immersion.
Margot and Pea
The one album that I played over and over was Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes, by Alexandre Tharaud. Of these pieces, Gnossienne 1 for me really captured the feel of the novel. I found this piano music perfectly evocative of the environment I was trying to create – it’s very French, and it seems weighed down by heat and melancholy, yet the delicate notes of the piano evoke the lightness of childish movement. As Pea and Margot made their daily forays down through the peach orchard, over the fence and down past the donkeys to the stream, they were accompanied by this music.
Claude and Pea
Pea’s mother has been struck by tragedy twice in quick succession, having recently lost a baby and her husband. Burdened by grief and isolated from the village, she has retreated into herself. So, left to their own devices, Pea and her little sister run wild in the meadows. This is where they meet Claude, who Pea believes is at least a friend, and possibly a potential new papa. The relationship that develops between them is a cornerstone of the novel. On the one hand it’s an unusual relationship, which from an adult point of view can look rather sinister. But on the other hand, Claude is giving Pea what we, as readers, want to give her – company, food, shelter and kindness. The song that pulled me back to this relationship again and again is Cat Power’s cover of I Found a Reason.
There is something magical and ethereal about this simple song. I hooked onto the sense of being believed in, of hope and of being saved by someone. What struck me when I saw the cover for The Night Rainbow that Bloomsbury had designed was that they had somehow picked up on this image I had of Pea running, running, running. (See also the book trailer for another representation of this) and the piano music they chose (independently) to represent the book. A perfect synergy with my intention for the novel.
As Pea busies herself trying to take on the role of the adult in her family, her mother is sinking deeper and deeper into desperation. Heavily pregnant, apparently alienated somehow from her own parents and in danger of losing her farmhouse home now that her French husband is dead, Maman is struggling badly. I had to be so careful when writing this character because I wanted readers not to condemn her for being neglectful, but to sympathise with her plight. Her song was Amy Hit the Atmosphere by Counting Crows. I found her desperation in this song, but also a great evocation of that powerful need we have for our mothers, for someone to care for us.
Pea is reminded, towards the end of her story, of a moment between her mother and father dancing. The song they dance to is Je t’aimais, je t’aime et je t’aimerai by Francis Cabrel.
This song is in French, and I’ve not found a translation of the lyrics on the web that I’m completely happy with, but here’s one example.
This song was important to me because in amongst its many beautiful images, it captures the naivety of childhood, the messiness and the regrets of adulthood and amongst all that the essence of enduring, abiding love, that I wanted for my characters. Ultimately isn’t it what we all want for our children and for ourselves?
Claire King works and writes in southern France – where she lives in a shabby stone house in the middle of nowhere with her husband and their two young daughters. Her first novel – The Night Rainbow – is now out from Bloomsbury. Find her at her website and on Twitter @ckingwriter
GIVEAWAY Claire is excited to give away a print copy of The Night Rainbow to a commenter here. Bonus entries if you share on Facebook, Twitter, Google + and elsewhere (one entry per medium). Don’t forget to come here and tell me in the comments where you’ve shared it as I might not know!
alexandre tharaud, authors, bereavement, Bloomsbury, Cat Power, childhood, Claire King, contemporary fiction, Counting Crows, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Eric Satie, erik satie, France, Francis Cabrel, French countryside, grief, home, lifestyle, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, parenting, playlist for writers, recovery, Roz Morris, The Night Rainbow, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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
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