Posts Tagged fantasy
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 short story writer, cultural magazine editor and speculative fiction author Camille Griep @camillethegriep
Soundtrack by Steely Dan, Amanda McBroom, Esthero, London Grammar, Paul Simon, Jonatha Brooke, Thomas Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Phox, Eliza Carthy, George Michael, Weekend Players, Florence + the Machine, Nick Cave
I have long been an aficionado of the journey (not to be confused with Journey), the treks taken between a home we love and a home we’ve yet to build. I’ve spent countless miles on mountain passes between my Montana birthplace and eventual homes in other parts of the state, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, even northwest Ohio. These places eventually became, and in some cases still are, home.
Journeys are an integral part of the fantasy genre, whether the travels are real or allegory. In my most recent novel, New Charity Blues, I set out to not only examine the pull one feels between an old home and a new one, but the coming of age that accompanies the realization that home is rarely static, and even if it is, the person going there is rarely unchanged from the journey itself.
When I sat down to write this book, a reimagining of the Trojan War, I listened to Steely Dan’s Home at Last on repeat. In New Charity Blues, Syd (aka Cressyda) travels from her home in the ruined City to her hometown, a walled-off bastion of perfection in a world trying to rebuild from a post-pandemic disaster. Once there, she finds herself at odds with her once best friend, the seer Cas (aka Cassandra). Home at Last holds lyrical meaning for both characters, a study of Odysseus, so changed by his journey that he can’t bring himself to disembark his ship. I played it as often as I needed in order to remember the aversion to melding worlds and experiences – a commonality for most of us who eventually leave home.
Home changes, and we ourselves are changed
I also basked in Amanda McBroom’s Dorothy, a song lamenting the Wizard of Oz heroine’s return to Kansas. In some ways, New Charity, the bastion Syd is pushed toward and enveloped in, is a sort of Oz. It’s a self-sustaining community full of safety and secrets. The magic that once imbued the town now protects the water Syd’s City so badly needs. But she’s torn, too. Memories of home, the assurance of love, the temptation of ease gives her pause – which home is home?
Like so many of us from small places, Syd is of two minds about New Charity itself. Listening to Esthero’s Country Living allowed me to remember what it was like to be in a small place, hoping to get out. Syd’s trajectory led her out and up, and, returning, she find New Charity is too narrow and too slow. She misses the sharp angles of the City and the people who had become her family. London Grammar’s Metal & Dust was a beautiful accompaniment to the character’s unrest.
These realisations – the pull between the people Syd loves, the town she once knew, and the City she promised to save were served Paul Simon’s beautifully sad Further to Fly. The song, as well as the pull of the characters, are a clear reminder that, though unrealistic, sometimes, it’s only human to want everything.
Outside the sanctuary
The relationship between best friends Syd and Cas is tested from the moment Syd arrives in New Charity. Cas all at once understands the threat Syd poses to the stasis New Charity has achieved and, at the same time, she begins to think outside the hermetic box of the Sanctuary, a religion devoted to the Spirit of the land headed up by a darkly mysterious Bishop. Though she wants to protect her friend and her home, it seems she cannot do both. She pleads with Syd to consider the consequences of her plans, and I imagine her doing so with Jonatha Brooke’s Because I Told You So playing in the background – a song that soothed me through many a tough conversation over the years.
Unlike Syd, whose circumstances of loss and need accelerated her adulthood, Cas is in some ways still a young girl. We meet her looking out over the green hills of New Charity, reflecting on the horizon. In her head, I imagine the Tallis Fantasia playing, the whole thing, from its beginning so quiet you have to sit next to the speakers to hear it to the heartswell at the eighth minute. I know this because I have felt this same swell for a piece of land, a vista, a connection and I think Cas feels it, too. As Cas falters with her identity – once so closely tied to being a twin, I listened carefully to more lush instrumental brilliance within Laura by Phox and Poor Little Me by Eliza Carthy.
Cas and Syd’s friendship is further displaced by the romance between Cas’s older brother, Troy. In her capacity as prophetess, she can see the beginning of the end, and, if she knew the song, she’d be singing George Michael’s Cowboys and Angels to both her friend and her brother.
As in life, circumstances and characters beyond their control complicate Syd and Cas’s eventual unearthing of the town’s secrets. Syd falls in love and finally allies with Cas. After a night under the stars with Troy, she wakes up knowing what to do. Crafting this scene, I studied the lyrics of Higher Ground by The Weekend Players and Rabbit Heart by Florence + the Machine.
The die is cast for the town of New Charity. In the dark moments, which I’ll not spoil here, Nick Cave’s O’Children guided the necessary tears of both characters and the writer.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to make arts by the grace of other artists like the ones above – and, of course, the countless others. Though we don’t always know whose lives – whose homes – we touch with our art, it is reassuring to know we are always building another space in which to feel free.
Camille Griep is the author of two novels: Letters to Zell (July 2015) and New Charity Blues (April 2016), both from 47North. Her recent short-form work has been featured in Synaesthesia, The Vignette Review, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She edits the literary magazines Easy Street and The Lascaux Review and lives north of Seattle with her partner Adam and a spoiled bulldog named Dutch. She is agented by Cameron McClure at Donald Maass Literary Agency. Find her on Twitter @camillethegriep or at www.camillegriep.com.
My guest this week has set herself the task of reimagining the Trojan War and she says she couldn’t have done it without music. Her soundtrack has a stirring, epic scale with storming emotional keys, from Florence + the Machine to Thomas Tallis. More intimate pieces by Amanda McBroom and Esthero illuminated the interior lives of her Cressida (renamed Syd) and Cassandra (Cas). She is also a much-decorated writer of short stories and the editor of two cultural journals, Easy Street and The Lascaux Review. Drop by tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of Camille Griep.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 theatre composer and fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock
Soundtrack by Fela Kuti, Beach Boys, Alice Coltrane, Benny Goodman, Brian Eno, the Doors, Jack Bruce, George Harrison, Beethoven, David Lang, Adam Guettel
Having marveled each week at how writers use music to flesh out a character or bring emotional life to their work, I feel like a fraud. These authors put on a particular piece to evoke what they write, but that feels like a magical act of synesthesia to me. So why does this poor fraud need music to write? In 2003, Apple introduced iTunes and the computer playlist, and I began my series, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. For each of its 1001 chapters a character recounts a past life story, creating a karmic puzzle for the ten linked souls, the qaraq. The playlist became a writing tool to give me courage for this daunting task.
For Book One of the series, The Qaraq, I had to hold a lot in my head as I wrote: introducing ten characters in their present lives in suburban New Jersey, and fitting together the first puzzle pieces of their history. That they all lived as different body parts of a single prehistoric dragonfly is proof enough of the Qaraq’s reincarnations, but when reveal this epiphany?
I need concentration to manage this material. To minimize distracting shifts within my eclectic playlists, I often select long cuts, like Fela Kuti’s half-hour jam Look and Laugh.
My favorite listening process is a ‘contest,’ where I intersperse a playlist with ten recent downloads, then narrow them down to a ‘winner.’ A current winner: The Beach Boys’ gorgeous, new That’s Why God Made the Radio.
But assessing winners while writing requires concentration on the music. I realized one function of my listening is procrastination, re-organizing the next half-hour of songs, or mixing in every Andante from Mozart’s first fifteen symphonies. Perhaps I need distraction from the heady multiple structures. On the other hand, often I don’t notice the music and get on a roll. Deeply meditative pieces help this flow, like Alice Coltrane’s incomparable Journey in Satchidananda.
The energy of a composition provides another clue to why I listen while creating 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. Sometimes I need a perky track for stimulation, like One O’Clock Jump from the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert.
By contrast, in the morning on the train, or after work, I need peace, like the gentle repetition of Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports. For my latest book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, I contemplated the effect of Maya, the Hindu concept of worldly illusion. Blocked by the trivial details of everyday life, the Qaraq loses its power of memory, the higher awareness of reincarnation. I did not seek music to evoke a meditative mood, but in developing the theme of how Maya hinders and helps, I heard a lot of ragas and minimalist music. An unconscious influence?
So I examined if music had an unconscious effect on my work. The Qaraq’s past life tales are full of wild imagination and experimental writing styles. My brain conjures up atomic particles having a love spat, an alien performing arts school where dancers train their nerves rather than their muscles, or an Ice Age tribe that copes by re-configuring the calendar to include three seasons, excluding winter.
I hope music triggers my imagination, and I make quirky selections for my playlists: a rarely heard track from a familiar artist, like Indian Summer by The Doors; a song off the beaten path, like Jack Bruce’s He the Richmond, from his masterful Songs for a Tailor; or hard-to-find gems, like George Harrison’s first film soundtrack, Wonderwall, the Indian collaboration he did during The Beatles.
But if an unconscious process, I may never know if music is the spark.
It pains me to think I cannot access music’s emotional depths to deepen my writing. The writing process is painful enough. When I stare into space wondering how the next word will appear, it’s comforting to have music in my ears, like a virtuosic arpeggio from Glenn Gould’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 making me think, You can do this!
Despite its fanciful whimsy, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor has emotional moments, which were difficult to write. The Egyptian stories start humorously, with a pyramid tomb salesman, but lead to a terrifying vision of immortality, the dread of living endlessly with no relief from conflict. Can I access the pain of this emotion through music? I sobbed inconsolably when I heard David Lang’s ethereal The Little Match Girl Passion last winter, after seeing homeless people freezing on the sidewalks of New York City.
The beauty of it is a balm while writing, but it can’t make me write better.
A final test
For me, music and text exist on separate levels. The final chapter of The Qaraq and the Maya Factor is like a novella, where all the characters’ present-day dénouements thread through an epic past life tale. The first European translator of The Thousand and One Nights faces a moral crisis whether to fabricate tales to complete all 1001 sections of the collection. A mysterious ally lures him to a secluded chateau, full of cats costumed as fairy tale characters, and guides him to an emotional epiphany.
Playing a tune that always give me shivers, like Come to Jesus, by Richard Rodgers’s grandson, Adam Guettel, might inspire the struggle, the mystery, or the passion of this scene. But I only experience the duet on its own terms; it doesn’t bring the words alive. Am I a lost cause?
Looking back on this chapter, I am pleased with it: the way the Qaraq’s issues reflect the tale (complexity); the misty locale of the magical chateau (energy); the translator’s fantastical epic discovering the Nights (imagination). I feel moved by the impassioned encounter between the translator and his ally. Maybe music did have some psychic influence on the writing when all is said and done.
Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series and the upcoming ebook giveaway here . Find Stephen on Facebook. 1001 will be an 11-book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Book 2 is here. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.