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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 guest is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt @jasonhewitt123
Soundtrack by Fritz Kreisler, Manuel Ponce, Schubert, JS Bach, Gustav Mahler, Benny Goodman, Erskine Hawkins, Flanagan & Allen, Johann Johannsson,James Newton Howard, Philip Glass, Dvorak, Max Richter
Whenever I give a talk about writing I usually start by making a comparison between music and literature, saying that in my mind writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. It’s an analogy that was certainly apt when writing The Dynamite Room, a novel set in 1940, and in which music pervades the whole narrative, not least because two of the main characters are trained musicians.
I’d written fiction before but never a novel in which music flavoured the story so intensely, and as I started to fumble my way through a first draft I began looking for links between the processes of composing music and writing fiction. My protagonists, Heiden and eleven-year old Lydia, might be my lead instruments (first violin and piano perhaps) but they are nothing without the support of the other characters that swill in and out of the story like horns, clarinets and flutes. Like a symphony my novel is split into movements (or five days in this case); backstories, plotlines, and recurring motifs thread in and out like returning musical themes, ever word placed like a note. I even plotted out the crescendos on a piece of paper, marking them on my literary score along with where each character (my instruments) swept in and then left.
Heiden is a Nazi soldier but music is so engrained within him that much of his pre-war memories revolve around it or his relationship with Eva, a gifted violinist. As the novel is partly told from Heiden’s viewpoint I felt that I needed to submerge myself into his world as much as I could, to familiarise myself with the classical pieces that were important to him so that those pieces that he and Eva loved lived within me as much as him.
For that reason Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria were played on constant rotation so that they soaked into every scene the characters featured in as I wrote. From the moment we first encounter Eva, through a memory, she is engulfed in sound – JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in E – while tracks like Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 not only would have been embedded within Heiden’s repertoire but also helped me to conjure the blistering hot July of 1940 – it’s a piece that smoulders like the heat.
If he shut his eyes he could hear it, the Concerto swelling to fill the template of the metronome’s beat, the auditorium reverberating to its ornate rafters in that glorious wash of sound.’
To immerse myself in the period I would start my writing days by listening to 1940s hits. Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance and Erskine Hawkins’ Tuxedo Junction are almost synonymous with the times and helped me create the atmosphere of some of the lighter moments and the memories that Lydia has of the house where ghosts of music long silent still swill through the rooms. I like to think she would have danced around to Flanagan & Allen’s Run Rabbit Run but to Heiden the wartime radio hit holds a much darker significance.
To help me find the essence of my main characters I also chose an individual ‘theme track’ for them – a piece that epitomised them in my mind. For Lydia it was Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Theme from And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees. It evokes Lydia’s wide-eyed innocence, particularly when we first meet her on a hot day, the piece very aptly ending in a storm.
For Heiden I needed something more robust, filled with the same vigour, resilience and desperation that he is. I chose Nothing is Impossible by James Newton Howard (from the film Defiance). There is a sense of endless endurance to it that reminded me of him battling through the blizzards of Norway, a lone violin struggling through the torrent of other strings.
Eva’s piece is the Violin Concerto, 2nd Movement by Philip Glass. There’s a simplicity to it that mirrors her moral position and yet becomes increasingly complex until it finally breaks free into its stomach-churning midsection then swills away again. Combined, these pieces hold the balance between my characters. If I ever lost sense of who one of them was I would play the track and they would come alive again, as if everything about them was held within these notes.
She always wrote on lined paper, each letter placed like a note, whole sentences plotted out like lines of music. He could sing the words if he wanted to, he could hear the song of them playing in his head.’
In my new novel Devastation Road, music takes a back seat, but as the story is about the immediate aftermath of war it seemed right that the musical influences I’d established in The Dynamite Room still echo through.
The early chapters are set in Czechoslovakia and have a dreamlike atmosphere as Owen wanders through a landscape that he cannot remember. Dvořák was greatly influenced by Bohemian Forest Music and his Silent Woods became the soundtrack for my opening scenes. Flutes come in like trilling birds while the slow descent of notes sound like Owen’s trudge as he traverses the Bohemian forests himself, the surge and fall of the music mimicking the densely-wooded slopes.
As the story progressed, though, I found myself needing something more and discovered it in Max Richter’s After Gunther’s Death (from Lore). The two-note rhythm of the piano echo the stumble of Owen’s feet as he makes his journey across Europe, only then for the violin (like Janek) and then the cello (like Irena) to join him, the three of them sweeping along together, somehow pulling each other through. It’s a piece that – like my novel I hope – is tragic and yet filled with heart.
Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His debut novel The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster 2014) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel Devastation Road (Scribner 2015) was published in July. After a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe his play Claustrophobia makes its London debut at The Hope Theatre, London (Nov 17-Dec 5 2015). For the full Youtube playlist that accompanies The Dynamite Room please visit his website. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @jasonhewitt123
1940, Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, Benny Goodman, Bohemian Forest Music, Claustrophobia, Czechoslovakia, Desmond Elliott Prize, Devastation Road, Dvorak, Erskine Hawkins, Flanagan & Allen, Fritz Kreisler, Gustav Mahler, historical author, historical fiction, James Newton Howard, Jason Hewitt, Johann Johannsson, JS Bach, Manuel Ponce, Max Richter, Nazi soldier, Philip Glass, Schubert, The Dynamite Room, The Hope Theatre, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by debut author Barry Walsh @BJWalsh
Soundtrack by Neil Young, Handel, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Marvellettes, Rod Stewart, Adele, Flanagan & Allen, Mozart, JS Bach, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Dexy’s Midnight Runners
The Pimlico Kid is about first-love, which can quarry a hollow in one’s life that is hard to fill. It’s also about kids scrabbling past puberty and slamming into emotional or physical barriers set by adults.
… the most we might have expected to deal with was a first kiss or a dying grandparent, we were undone by love itself, and violence – and that adults betrayed us.
The lyrics of Neil Young’s songs were ever-present in my head while writing the book. For years I had piled up notes from which to make The Pimlico Kid a novel but it was the beautiful reference to childhood friendship and secrets being revealed in Philadelphia that turned intention into action.
The narrator, Billy, unlike some of his friends stands on the solid ground of happy family life. His easy-going father is a hard man and his volatile brother, John, will become one. However, Billy’s father is comfortable revealing his softer side and expresses it in his fine singing. And, when his sons were small, he kidded them he knew Italian and sang his favourite Beniamino Gigli songs, such as Handel’s Ombra mai fu, in beautiful gibberish.
This contrasts with Bob Dylan’s less mellifluous The times they are a changin’ (played loudly enough to shake the house) that defines the rebellious younger brother John, who is yet to discover his softer side:
When he’s asked or told to do something, he has this stiff, chinny look that makes it clear he doesn’t have to comply, but that he will, only on this occasion.
The exhilaration of first attraction is almost always about a face. And it is nailed by the Beatles’s I’ve Just Seen a Face. When Billy falls for Sarah, he worries that his more mature friends will disapprove because she is still flat chested. However, he’s prepared to wait for breasts:
I know that whatever Rooksy says about fabulous flesh, love starts with a face.
A host of songs evoke the summer of 1963 but none more vividly than the Beatles’s She Loves You. Billy and his friends stand transfixed outside a pub from which it is blasting out, again and again. This is the song that vanquishes the old pop music order – along with Brylcreem. When an Elvis song starts up, they leave.
During one of those never-ending summer days of childhood, the loves of four friends – Billy, his best mate, Rooksy, Sarah and Josie collide and magic is conjured up by declarations of love and secrets revealed. The Marvelettes’ When You’re Young and in Love kept popping into my head as I tried to pin down the excitement of new love. The lyrics may be simple but if you are young and in love, they couldn’t be more true.
At a critical moment Billy’s behaves like an idiot in front of Sarah. Burning with shame, he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t affect how she feels for him. This reflects my experience of how often weak and flawed people, usually men, are lucky enough to find someone who loves them anyway. Neil Young ‘gets’ it in Hangin’ on a Limb, in which a man wobbles at the edge of an emotional precipice and a girl teaches him how to dance.
As their relationship grows, the four friends come to learn that love breeds compassion and diminishes judgement of those it’s easy to ridicule, whether it’s because of a birthmark or sexual orientation. In the early sixties there were few openly gay teenagers and a great deal of unthinking homophobia. A decade later, Rod Stewart’s The killing of Georgie helped to change things a little and it came to mind constantly while I struggled to get this issue onto the page.
Adele’s Someone Like You wasn’t a creative influence but, on a more exalted level, it provided creative confirmation of the universal theme that I was trying to make personal. During my fourth re-write, the song was playing every day and everywhere and its reference to glory days of summer goes to the heart of The Pimlico Kid, in which …
love can endure but … promises are hard to keep.
Finally, the streets of London are the main stage for The Pimlico Kid. Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner anchors Billy – and me – to the greatest of cities.
I write to classical music, which provides welcome harmony to counter the dissonance in my head. I start most days with Mozart’s String Quintet No 1 because it lifts my default mood of pessimism about finding the right words. Each day features Bach, lots of Gregorian chant and the liturgical songs of Hildegard von Bingen. I regularly work my way through Beethoven’s quartets but stop when I reach No 15, which triggers Wordsworthian ‘thoughts that lie too deep for tears’.
When the writing has gone really well, I celebrate with the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which isn’t at all ‘solemn’. And, when there’s no one else in the house, I turn to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen and jig around like mad Ben Gunn on the beach.
Barry Walsh grew up in the heart of London during the 60s and thought belatedly that there might be a story in it. The result is The Pimlico Kid, published by Harper, a story of first love. He is now writing his second novel. When not at the keyboard, Barry enjoys cycling (he once rode non-stop to the top of Mont Ventoux), holidays in France, watching Arsenal, listening to Neil Young and gazing at Audrey Hepburn’s face. He is a proud trustee of the world’s oldest youth club – St Andrew’s, Westminster – and believes that London might just be the centre of the universe. He is married with two daughters. Find him on his website and Twitter @bjwalsh
GIVEAWAY Barry is offering a signed print copy of The Pimlico Kid. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
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
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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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'