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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 apocalyptic thriller author Josh Malerman @JoshMalerman
Soundtrack by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog, Creepshow, Beetlejuice, Danny Elfman, John Carpenter, birdsong
I think Bird Box was written in a trance… a glorious madman’s marathon that most writers are gunning for… the uninterrupted completion of a rough draft that didn’t see a single day’s work end in a question mark. There wasn’t any writing myself-into-a-corner (I’m more likely to do that here, writing this, than I was on that run), no cold sweats, no freak-outs. What a month! Bird Box was written in 26 days. But the awesome bedbug-tapping of the keys and the way I talk to myself as I write weren’t the only sounds that propelled it.
At first, it wasn’t my own. Wasn’t any that I owned, I mean. And some of it wasn’t really music at all. Here’s what I mean.
I’d rented the third-floor attic (former servants’ quarters?) of a mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. The owner of the home, a musician, a woman, occupied the rest of the house. But I had my corner; a kitchen up there, a bathtub, a bedroom. And birds. Finches. Five of them. I couldn’t bring myself to keep them caged so they flew freely about the space (a thing that ended poorly for some, but was really nice while it lasted.) I had an idea for a book. A different kind of monster. Fuck vampires, I used to think. And fuck the blues. Both so boring! Gimme something new. A monster burst forth! Splitting the idea-ether, lopping the head off the self-governor quickly. It was infinity, personified, the incomprehensible standing on the front porch, swinging on the porch-swing. Yes! Infinity would chase my Malorie through the foggy black and white world of Bird Box as the birds in my rooms sang out, seven o’clock in the morning, flying from one bookshelf to another.
And how their voices spurred me on.
I bought an album, Birds of North America, to play in the intervals, those rare times when the finches grew tired and simply stared, didn’t sing. The sing-song sounds of wild birds spun on the record player, giving my rooms a new feel, and a wider landscape to the book. When Malorie turned her blind head toward the trees, the limbs stretched out farther than they used to. The sky was higher. Room, you see, for all these birds. And there was more. Yes! More music! The landlady played classical guitar downstairs, attempting to revisit a lost passion of hers… writing dreamy-fantastic songs, though she hadn’t written a batch in so long.
Ah, what a place of inspiration! And who would stop there? I’d discovered, for myself, the magnificence of mood, the way an album could influence the words on the page, actually making its way into the work of art. How had I not known it before? How could I have listened to talk radio while typing the rough drafts that came before Bird Box?
Can you hear it?
Can you hear the opening of the Creepshow soundtrack in Bird Box? Can you hear it in my book? I can. It’s in there. No, not at the beginning of Bird Box, not where it appears in the movie Creepshow, but all over the place… as if the book is beginning once again… over and over… letting you know something is starting something is starting I thought it’d already begun but something is starting.
How about the soundtrack for John Carpenter’s The Fog? That ought to be easier to locate. What with the fog that inspired Malorie to leave her house, one might simply point to the page and declare, I hear it! I hear the atmospheric synth sounds of John Carpenter, the Made Man of horror.Yes, as my collection of horror movie soundtracks ballooned (it’s flat out awesome now), so did the story of the book, most pages colored by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and Beetlejuice (if you can’t write to Danny Elfman then… then nothing…then I guess you can’t write to Danny Elfman… )
I had no reservations replaying these soundtracks over and over as the birds sang and the homeowner strummed downstairs.
Twenty-six days isn’t long enough to go through too many phases. You get into certain music… certain tracks… and live ‘em for a month.
And yet, the attic scene needed something more.
I wish I could cite the songs used for that frantic scene, but I can’t. I’d have to call radio stations, talk dates and times, extricate one piece from another. Because, for the attic, I wrote to two songs playing at once. As the local classical music station bellowed, the horror movie soundtracks spun on the table by the radio. Oh, the glory of two unrelated pieces sounding at once.
How can I locate a link for such a sound? Maybe we can try. Go ahead and turn your computer speakers as loud as they’ll go. Then play any song you’ve got on there. Absolutely any song. Now turn on your radio and turn it to the classical station. Blast that fucker, too. Situate yourself somewhere in the middle. Sit down where the twain shall meet and begin typing.
Are you into horror? Do you like writing freaky stories? Are you looking for a new thought… a freshie… something you think you aren’t capable of inventing? So am I. Always. And one place to find it is in music. Impossible music… abhorrent combinations.
Why… I’m listening to something like that now… as the door to the office balcony is wide open, the birds sing outside, my girl Allison dribbles a basketball in the driveway… and the soundtrack for Under the Skin spins beside me.
Can you write a novel without music? Of course. But have you tried it with it? Listen closely… you can hear the scope of your story expanding, the boundaries stretching outward, out… until they are as invisible as the medium itself…
Oh, fear not as the music writes the story for you. You are only a conduit. The machine by which those frightening tones will become words… those words sentences… but not before being born as letters. Letters first. Just like the individual notes of the songs that propel you.
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the singer/songwriter for the rock band the High Strung (whose song The Luck You Got can be heard as the theme song to Showtime’s hit show Shameless). If you’re in the US, you can see him interviewed by @Porter_Anderson (the very first Undercover Soundtrack guest) at the Writer’s Digest Novel-Writing Conference in August. Find him on Twitter as @joshmalerman and on Facebook.
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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’s post is by romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
Ani Difranco, authors, Best Coast, Bobby Helms, Boogie Woogie, Carole King, classical music, Color Me Badd, contemporary fiction, Danny Elfman, Desert Island Discs, drama, Duke Ellington, Eddi Reader, Ella Fitzgerald, entertainment, Fairground Attraction, George Fenton, George Gershwin, Grease 2, Hans Zimmer, Ironside, Jeff Buckley, John Grant, Kirsty Greenwood, Matilda Beam, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nora Ephron, Novelicious, Pan Macmillan, Phoenix, playlist for writers, Point Horror, romance, romcom, Rosemary Clooney, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Skeeter Davis, soundtrack, Stacey Kent, Stevie Wonder, The Andrews Sisters, The Undercover Soundtrack, Toni Braxton, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yours Truly
- 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'