‘Break your heart in just three minutes’
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 publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran
Soundtrack by The Supremes, Freda Payne, Bill Withers, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Bobby Gentry, Dave Van Ronk, Ernie Ford, The Pogues, Special AKA, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash
Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.
I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.
My latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.
Pleasure and pain
That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).
You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.
Strength is weakness
I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?
Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.
The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.
Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.
One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.
Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.
Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.
We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!
Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.
David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.