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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 painter, singer-songwriter, humorist, mystery/suspense and time travel novelist Natalie Buske Thomas @writernbt
Soundtrack by Enya
Grandpa Smiles is an oil painting picture book about how Grandpa watches over a boy throughout his life, though he can be with him only in spirit. My father lost his battle to cancer when he was 37 years old. I told my son that my dad was a cardinal in the tree, watching him laugh and play. Grandpa Smiles is a sweet timeless story: family is forever, love lives on. But how could I communicate the beauty of loss in so few words when my heart had so much to say?
My Undercover Soundtrack for the writing and painting of this project was Enya, and only Enya. Nothing else would do! As you can probably imagine, it’s hard for me not to get pulled into the music when I paint. My paintbrush tends to ‘dance’ to the beat, so there were a few Enya songs that I couldn’t listen to because the music was too distracting. But if I didn’t play the songs that made it into my ‘loop’ I froze!
Music to grieve by
One illustration combines two oil paintings onto one page. The boy (a painting created for the book) looks at a picture of his grandpa (a painting created previously). The picture of Grandpa is an oil painting of my parents’ wedding day. Dad is wearing his military dress uniform, he was leaving soon for the Vietnam War. The painting was featured in a gallery exhibit called ‘Touched by War’. My dad has been gone a long time now, over 25 years. My mom is gone now too. I didn’t realise how overwhelming it would be to paint a portrait of their young selves in their wedding clothes. I was doing fine until I painted their eyes, that was when I lost myself in Enya’s It’s in the Rain.
Beauty in pain
Sometimes the art came to me first and other times the words did. I needed a seasonal picture, so I looked through my son’s photo box for inspiration. I found a picture of my son jumping in a pile of leaves on our old hobby farm. The property was a beautiful five-acre parcel that my husband and I built into a home for our young family of five, but we had to sell it seven years later, when layoffs and pay cuts hit my husband’s company hard. Around this same time, my mother had passed. It was time to move on. We left behind the land where our children played. As I painted the image of my son playing in the leaves, my heart was breaking. My little boy was now a young man. Where had the time gone? (Only Time, says Enya.) But through the color of my paints, he is forever that child who laughed in the leaves. No matter where he goes, his moment of joy in the leaves lives forever. (On my Way Home)
Love lives on
One of my favorite pictures in the book says ‘The child leaps’, followed by ‘Grandpa helps’ on the next page. I painted an image of my son in his Superman costume with his arm outstretched, his fist pumped, and his eyes sparkling. Grandpa is portrayed as the face in the wind that lifts his cape so that my son can fly. (Hope has a Place.)
Grandpa Smiles was meant to be a heartwarming story, nothing more. My career as an oil painter was exhausting. I didn’t want to do gallery exhibits anymore. I already had a career as a novelist, why was I running myself ragged? What if I combined my art with my writing? It was meant to be that simple. But watching my son’s face when he saw the book for the first time was like witnessing him receiving a message from heaven. Later, I brought a few copies with me at the Doctor Who convention in Minneapolis. I expected to sign my time travel fiction, but people were more interested in Grandpa Smiles. Strangers flipped through the book in front of me and became emotional – I had no idea that my book could touch people like this. Besides strangers, my dad’s family was moved to tears. My aunt asked me to send a gift copy to a family friend I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. This family friend sent me a handwritten thank-you note. In the note she mentioned that the painting of my parents was very recognisable. I didn’t realize how important it was that I capture my parents’ likeness until I read her words. A project that had a simple concept, simple words, and simple pictures turned out to be anything but simple.
Natalie Buske Thomas is an oil painter, singer/songwriter, humorist and the author of over a dozen books. She is currently working on her first album Painting my Songs that will combine her music, writing, and art into one project. Watch Natalie paint, try one of her Serena Wilcox books for free, or learn the secrets to her success in her new book Nice Authors Finish Last. Find her on Twitter @writernbt
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My guest this week is writing about a very personal project – a book of oil paintings that contain a story where a young boy is watched by his grandfather. She was inspired by her memories of her father who died tragically young, and she struggled to do him justice in a medium that allowed her so few words. Her guide was the music of Enya, and certain signature tracks carried the emotions she was looking for as she painted and wrote – love, loss, the swift march of time, letting go and still loving. She is Natalie Buske Thomas and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Enya, family, Grandpa Smiles, grandparents, grieving, loss, love, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Natalie Buske Thomas, oil paintings, parents, personal project, picture book, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing from grief, writing from loss, writing to music
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 it’s my turn on the decks – with the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three
Lifeform Three is a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, set in the near future, where global warming has shrunk the landmass and the countryside has been sacrificed for buildings and roads. One valley remains, of woods, trees and meadows, and is now kept as a theme park – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. My main character, Paftoo, is a groundsman there. He’s the odd one out; the only soul who’s uneasy in a world that everyone else accepts. You could say he lives in a utopia – but to him it’s a dystopia.
I knew the emotional beats of Lifeform Three before I knew the story. They came to me as pieces of music, a chain of albums and tracks that suggested the landmarks of the novel. I would load them into my MP3 player and take them running, puzzling over them as I pounded out the miles.
Paftoo is a bod – an artificial human who’s programmed to do menial tasks. To keep him efficient, his memory is regularly wiped, but he has inklings of other memories. We meet him after such an event (known as a ‘sharing’). My first beat was that state of newness, a world shining and fresh where you go out and do your tasks, content with simple instructions. In the beginning, Paftoo doesn’t even know his own name until he realises the sole of his boot has a number – 2 (his name is an alphanumeric, short for Park Asset Field Redo Bod 2).
Boards of Canada’s album Music Has The Right To Children told me the innocence of new, eager eyes, especially this track, An Eagle In Your Mind.
The novelty doesn’t last long. There’s a wildness in Paftoo and by the end of his first day, he’s made the others wary of him. He’s also frustrated. But worse is to come when night falls. While his companions go dormant and lifeless, Paftoo starts to dream.
Again, the idea came as a feeling from music – Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ suggested a tingling in the nerves, a meaning that must be grasped.
First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground
The dream sequence was choreographed to that album. It starts with a sense of unease, then that beat gallops in like the thing you knew was coming.
Horses, flashing across the green hills in glorious gallop. Necks reaching, tails streaming. Riders on their backs, urging them faster.
Paftoo opens his eyes, shocked. He knows he’s not supposed to dream. He also knows that nobody rides horses now. They’re untamed animals in the fields (and known as Lifeform Three). But at the same time it makes perfect sense in his restless soul. From that moment, Paftoo has a mission. Every night, he goes looking for clues that might explain why he has these dreams and what happened to him before his mind was wiped. By day, he struggles to hide his true nature in case he’s wiped again.
In a small way the story is autobiographical. In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. Like the horse Paftoo later befriends, my horse was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. If I couldn’t handle my dream, what did that make me? That first winter, Enya’s Anywhere Is was in the charts. I wasn’t a fan of her music, but when I came to write Paftoo’s attempts to tame a horse I listened to Enya to capture that time. For some reason Caribbean Blue with its waltz rhythm brought back the sense of a wondrous adventure, the tentative courtship of a wild creature and the sense of being alone on a dumb-headed quest for something inexplicable and ideal.
A song called Caribbean Blue that takes me back to an English winter, riding horses? Like dreams, Undercover Soundtracks have a logic of their own. Or I take no notice of lyrics.
During the writing, my soundtracks had to become a time machine. Those first days with my oversized horse were, as you can probably see, long ago. Reader, I kept him, and he was now reaping the arthritic rewards of a vigorous life. I was having ghastly conversations with the vet because if her treatments didn’t work it was time for the gun. I clung to those music tracks to help me give his glory days to Paftoo while the real situation seemed so hopeless. Thankfully, he rallied and we gallop on (on a good day).
The horse awakens Paftoo’s sense of the natural world, which humanity seems to have lost. Again, music already contained what I needed to say. Vangelis’s Pulsar was the thrill of galloping feet
‘gathering up the miles and throwing them out behind’.
Electromantic La Baletta No 2 – by the Hungarian composer Gabor Presser had feisty, fertile joy, like a primitive spring ritual. It smells of untamed hair and corduroy. And whoever said electronic music lacked a soul? Both these tracks are entirely electronic, made from circuits and wave generators, yet they bound and leap like wild animals.
But there’s a lot more to Paftoo’s quest than riding and nature. They are merely the beginning; the gateway to a profound discovery of his own past and the people and creatures he loves. Now I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I can say that the more he recovers, the more he stands to lose and the more desperate his day life becomes. This impossibility was exquisitely insisted in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
The piece was written in 1914 and 1920, in an England changed forever by the first World War. That period would also be the heyday of Harkaway Hall, the mansion that used to stand at the heart of the Lost Lands, where Paftoo now struggles to keep his memories. The Lark Ascending seems to say that what will be lost is more than just the loves of a few souls in a little story; it speaks for the loss of time, grace, of fallen walls in overgrown woods, bumps under the turf in an empty field. That violin seems to be shrilling from the skies: it won’t last. We won’t last. And how can Paftoo save it?
Roz Morris is, of course, your host on The Undercover Soundtrack. Find out more here, connect on Twitter as @Roz_Morris and on the writing advice blog Nail Your Novel. Her first novel was My Memories of a Future Life (Soundtrack here) and Lifeform Three is now available in all formats, including print.
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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 poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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.
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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
- 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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- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'
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