‘A song that puts me under a spell I dare not break’
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 Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Olafur Arnalds, Thayer Sarrano
Can music make a writer a better writer?
I grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.
When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.
Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.
Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension
When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.
Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.
Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.
Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.
I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.
Listen for the stories
To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.
Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at davenewell.net and on Twitter at @davenewell.