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You may recognise the name of my guest this week. She was one of my earliest Soundtrackers and she returns this week with a novel of friendship and betrayal: a man looking back on his youth and making sense of a troubled history. It’s set in Glasgow, and traditional Scottish music gave her both geographical setting and emotional landscape: the depth in apparent simplicity, the universal condition of loving and losing. She is novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska; the novel is The Physic Garden and she’ll be here on Wednesday with its Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips @i_ebookreview
Soundtrack by Michael Jackson, Shaggy, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, The Muppets, Nat King Cole, David Rovics, Sam Cooke, John K and Fred Ebb, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters
All my life I have made up words to songs. As a student I used to entertain my companions on the way to and from the pub by making up ‘different’ lyrics to pop songs and musicals. It was just something I did. I heard music as a soundtrack in my head all the time and used the melody to write my own version of songs. I had a love of musical theatre and sort of wished that the world could be like that, people breaking out into song in the oddest places without any provocation. Strangely, I never thought about a career as a lyricist (I didn’t know you could). When I ‘became’ a writer for a job in my late 20s I chose screenwriting because I needed to earn a living. But life takes you on all kinds of unexpected paths and sometimes all the creativity inside you just hits that perfect moment. I’m lucky. For me the moment lasted the best part of 10 years. And changed my life.
In 2003 I started working with an advocacy group for adults labelled with learning disability who wanted to learn drama. I had no experience of ‘learning disability’ but plenty of experience of practical drama. It was challenging to begin with. Most of the group couldn’t read or write, some couldn’t or didn’t even speak. However, an amazing thing happened. Music unlocked the door.
One member of the group who never spoke beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Happy’ just came alive when we started to use music. He revealed a talent for singing as well as a keen memory of 50s and 60s music. Consequently I started using music to bind together our flexible scripts. I found that by changing the lyrics of familiar pop songs to suit the story we managed to create dramas that the cast could engage with and which entertained an audience.
In 2004 we did a comedy musical version of Hamlet (called Piglet!) which included ‘ghosty’ pigs doing a song and dance version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (song starts 04:40) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me alongside my adaptation of a well-known classic with one word changed! ‘Piglet, do you want to know a secret.’ This was followed up by devised musical plays around the theme of Fairtrade – Go Bananas which featured Day-oh and Wake up and Smell the Coffee which featured, among other songs You’re the cream in my coffee and a play on recycling using the title of a David Rovics song The End of the Age of Oil and built around that song. Performed at the Scottish Parliament, we opened the event with our ‘star’ singer (the man who didn’t speak, remember) singing Amazing Grace accapella. That was a high point of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Our most ambitious project was performed in 2008. Aiken Drum’s Recycled Musical was our first full musical. For the uninitiated, Aiken Drum is a traditional Scots tale which deals with how people view ‘outsiders’. It was a really political piece in many ways. We set it in a sort of fictional Industrial Revolution town called Trade Town. All the songs were adapted from pop songs. For example I adapted the lyrics of Wonderful World (song starts 0:38) –
‘Don’t know much about industry,
Don’t know much about commodities,
Don’t know much about stocks and shares…’
and my favourite line
Don’t know why you want to work for money, I don’t think consumerism’s funny.’
And we also butchered Cabaret’s classic Money Makes the World go round
‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet and your coat’s thin as paper and you look thirty pounds underweight
My advice is get a job, get a mortgage, pay with credit, have all the luxuries you need
Cause money makes the world go around…’
Having moved 200 miles north I no longer work with the group, but I have taken our experiences from that time and published them as a novel, A Week with No Labels, which includes all the ‘dramas’ I’ve mentioned and a few more besides. It includes many of the ‘created/adapted’ lyrics. Described by Julia Jones as ‘perhaps the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year’, it is a tribute to my time with this amazing bunch of people who changed the course of my life and changed me irrevocably as well. Without the music there would have been no creativity. Without ABC there would have been no novel.
On the way to writing A Week with No Labels I have learned that music and creativity is for everyone. And that life can be a musical. One shouldn’t take it too seriously, one shouldn’t strive for perfection because what’s most important in life is to live and love and be creative together. The song which was always in my mind while I penned A Week With No Labels and remains there whenever I think about it is You’ve got a friend. Sung by my friend, Larry. Among other things he taught me that in our real life musicals the voice is less important than the heart. So maybe music is about more than just words.
Cally Phillips has worked as a screenwriter and playwright for 20 years and is now focussed on fiction writing. Committed to a life of creativity, she publishes advocacy work through Guerrilla Midgie Press and other writing through HoAmPresst Publishing. She writes in silence but still makes up songs, sometimes to extant tunes, sometimes recycling other melodies. Only the dogs get to hear these masterpieces. She is currently director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival and reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective. She is also a member of the Authors Electric Writers Collective. A Week With no Labels is available in ebook format for Kindle and epub and as a paperback.Her website is here. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @i_ebookreview
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My guest this week has always made up lyrics, whether alternate versions of existing songs or not-terribly-serious inventions of her own. She says she wishes life was more like a musical, where people might burst out singing if the fancy takes them. Her deep-held belief that life should be lived with lusty vocals led to a collaboration with a theatre group for adults with learning disabilities, and, by circular means, a novel that commemorates the experience – A Week With No Labels. She is screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her very individual Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 multi-award-winning children’s fantasy author Susan Price @priceclan
Soundtrack by Pavel Chesnokov, the Cantus Sacred Music Ensemble, The Orthodox Singers’ Male Choir, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Orlando Gibbons, the King’s Singers, Pierrot Lunaire, Jan Garbarek, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Tim Wong, Benjamin Britten
Music doesn’t help me understand my characters, or set the mood for a particular scene. I don’t need, for instance, martial music to write a martial scene. Instead, for me, the music seems to set the atmosphere, or time-frame, of the whole book. I can’t write a scene set in the past to poppy dance-music, because the music insistently reminds me of my own time and drags me back to it. I find it equally hard to write contemporary scenes while listening to music from the past. If Mozart is playing, my characters shrug off their jeans and trainers and slip into knee-britches and powdered wigs.
My Ghost World sequence (Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) is set in a fantasy Czarist Russia. I wanted these books to be fantastical, frightening and beautiful, with the brilliant jewel colours of Russian folk-art set against intense darkness and cold. While writing them I surrounded myself with postcards of Russian art, and played chants like this one on repeat.
The beautiful swaying voices, with their deep, dark bass notes took me into the vast, dark pine forests of Russian folk-tale, to Northern darkness and cold. Listening again, as I write this blog, I feel the visceral thrill and shiver this music always gives me.
The music and art served the same purpose: bringing together and concentrating all my disparate imaginings. Looking at a Bilibin forest, listening to an Orthodox chant, I was there, in my imagination’s world. This piece, with the Basso Profundo, sounds like the Russian Bear singing.
Past, present and Borders
It is always time and place with me. My Sterkarm novels have scenes set both in the past and in the 21st Century, but the heart of the novels, for me, were the scenes in the 16th century Scottish borders. I read about the reivers and their way of life, I visited the Borders, but to bring it all together and put me there, I played Border Ballads, which I’ve loved since a teenager. Here’s the wonderful June Tabor with her thrilling Clerk Sanders. The final, long-drawn note always raises my hair. It rings like a glass. It’s all there – love, hatred, jealousy, horror, revenge.
I listened to Steeleye Span a lot too. Even though they used electric instruments, I always felt they captured the spirit of many of these old songs better than many who tried too hard to be strictly traditional. Here’s their Wife of Usher’s Well, a tale of life, death, ghosts and maternal love.
Hits of the 16th
I wrote Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, to the smash hits of Christopher’s day, such as The Silver Swan, sung here by the King’s Singers. (And its closing couplet, ‘More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise,’ seems appropriate for Christopher too.)
Poor old Keats reviewed plays in order to get a free pass to theatres so he could hear the playing of professional musicians. We’re spoiled today – we can hear excellent musicians any time we casually turn on the radio. Not only musicians of our own day either, but those long dead, and music played in the style of centuries past.
The far future
But what to play when writing something set in the far future, such as my Odin’s Voice trilogy? I found myself seeking out music that, to me, sounded strange and futuristic, and helped me expand my ideas to include all the weird and wonderful possibilities of nano-technology and space-elevators. More musically educated people might find my choices rather old-fashioned, but they worked for me.
First is Moonstruck Pieirrot, or Pierrot Lunaire. ‘What the hell did I just listen to?’ asks a YouTube commentator. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s extraordinary. I remember first hearing it. I was vacuuming during the early hours, while half-listening to the Open University’s educational programmes. This began, and I switched off the vacumn to hear it. I remained on one leg, spellbound, throughout. Didn’t like it, exactly, but couldn’t stop listening.
I am fonder of this by Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I find it chill, eerie, beautiful and strange – but instead of evoking deep, dark forests, it evokes, for me, the vast dark emptiness of space and the future, where who knows what might be possible? Oberon’s song from Britten’s Midsummer’s Night Dream has the same effect on me. It may have been written in the 20th century, as Britten’s response to Shakespeare’s 16th century play, but its eerie otherworldliness, for me, suggests space – perhaps the music of the spheres?
In 1973, Susan Price‘s father signed a contract with Faber for her first book, The Devil’s Piper. She was under-age, at 16, and couldn’t legally sign it herself. She has earned her living by writing and lecturing ever since. Her best known books are The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal, and is available as an e-book, and The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize. She has a blog and is also a founder member of the group Do Authors Dream of Electric Books (aka Authors Electric), and she tweets as @priceclan.
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My guest this week was so young when Faber bought her first fantasy novel that her father had to sign the contract. She’s more than built on that early promise by scooping the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian prize and is so prolific that in her credits she only lists her best-known works. Her imagination has ranged everywhere, from a fantasy czarist Russia to the far future – and thrilling, evocative music has been intrinsic to all of them. She is Susan Price, and she will be here on Wednesday talking about her Undercover Soundtrack.
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This Saturday, October 1 if scheduling works according to plan, I’m guesting at The Creative Penn. In glorious grainy Skype video, you’ll be able to see me scrunching my writerly brow as Joanna – a thriller writer – quizzes me about writing literary novels and developing a literary style. If TV on your monitor is too weird, the post will also be available as more portable text and audio.
I’ve also been out and about on other websites. You might have already seen some of these, but as this is the book’s official online home it seems incomplete not to mention them.
A Journey of Souls : Why Novels Tell The Deepest Truth – this post at Women Writers was inspired by your feedback while the book was releasing. For which – thank you.
My book is like a TARDIS – or bigger on the inside than the out. Or the impossible job of squashing 100,000 words into a few paragraphs for a blurb, as explained in my monthly column on Do Authors Dream of Electric Books.
My Memories of a Future Life was also featured on this post by Matt Kelland, where he was very complimentary but ticked me off for chopping the book in four. Point taken,Matt; not everyone appreciated the episode format and the novel is now available in one handy shot on Kindle.
I have to thank Gary Swaby for honouring me with the first author interview ever to feature on his newly-minted blog. And finally, I have to thank my husband, the writer Dave Morris. Not because I’ve become Oscarishly soppy (although he does say some nice things in this post), but because he reveals how if I’d followed his advice and that of most editors who saw the book, My Memories of a Future Life would have been a genre potboiler.
The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to complete your collection at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now.
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- 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 2011-2022. 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'