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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 apocalyptic thriller author Josh Malerman @JoshMalerman
Soundtrack by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog, Creepshow, Beetlejuice, Danny Elfman, John Carpenter, birdsong
I think Bird Box was written in a trance… a glorious madman’s marathon that most writers are gunning for… the uninterrupted completion of a rough draft that didn’t see a single day’s work end in a question mark. There wasn’t any writing myself-into-a-corner (I’m more likely to do that here, writing this, than I was on that run), no cold sweats, no freak-outs. What a month! Bird Box was written in 26 days. But the awesome bedbug-tapping of the keys and the way I talk to myself as I write weren’t the only sounds that propelled it.
At first, it wasn’t my own. Wasn’t any that I owned, I mean. And some of it wasn’t really music at all. Here’s what I mean.
I’d rented the third-floor attic (former servants’ quarters?) of a mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. The owner of the home, a musician, a woman, occupied the rest of the house. But I had my corner; a kitchen up there, a bathtub, a bedroom. And birds. Finches. Five of them. I couldn’t bring myself to keep them caged so they flew freely about the space (a thing that ended poorly for some, but was really nice while it lasted.) I had an idea for a book. A different kind of monster. Fuck vampires, I used to think. And fuck the blues. Both so boring! Gimme something new. A monster burst forth! Splitting the idea-ether, lopping the head off the self-governor quickly. It was infinity, personified, the incomprehensible standing on the front porch, swinging on the porch-swing. Yes! Infinity would chase my Malorie through the foggy black and white world of Bird Box as the birds in my rooms sang out, seven o’clock in the morning, flying from one bookshelf to another.
And how their voices spurred me on.
I bought an album, Birds of North America, to play in the intervals, those rare times when the finches grew tired and simply stared, didn’t sing. The sing-song sounds of wild birds spun on the record player, giving my rooms a new feel, and a wider landscape to the book. When Malorie turned her blind head toward the trees, the limbs stretched out farther than they used to. The sky was higher. Room, you see, for all these birds. And there was more. Yes! More music! The landlady played classical guitar downstairs, attempting to revisit a lost passion of hers… writing dreamy-fantastic songs, though she hadn’t written a batch in so long.
Ah, what a place of inspiration! And who would stop there? I’d discovered, for myself, the magnificence of mood, the way an album could influence the words on the page, actually making its way into the work of art. How had I not known it before? How could I have listened to talk radio while typing the rough drafts that came before Bird Box?
Can you hear it?
Can you hear the opening of the Creepshow soundtrack in Bird Box? Can you hear it in my book? I can. It’s in there. No, not at the beginning of Bird Box, not where it appears in the movie Creepshow, but all over the place… as if the book is beginning once again… over and over… letting you know something is starting something is starting I thought it’d already begun but something is starting.
How about the soundtrack for John Carpenter’s The Fog? That ought to be easier to locate. What with the fog that inspired Malorie to leave her house, one might simply point to the page and declare, I hear it! I hear the atmospheric synth sounds of John Carpenter, the Made Man of horror.Yes, as my collection of horror movie soundtracks ballooned (it’s flat out awesome now), so did the story of the book, most pages colored by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and Beetlejuice (if you can’t write to Danny Elfman then… then nothing…then I guess you can’t write to Danny Elfman… )
I had no reservations replaying these soundtracks over and over as the birds sang and the homeowner strummed downstairs.
Twenty-six days isn’t long enough to go through too many phases. You get into certain music… certain tracks… and live ‘em for a month.
And yet, the attic scene needed something more.
I wish I could cite the songs used for that frantic scene, but I can’t. I’d have to call radio stations, talk dates and times, extricate one piece from another. Because, for the attic, I wrote to two songs playing at once. As the local classical music station bellowed, the horror movie soundtracks spun on the table by the radio. Oh, the glory of two unrelated pieces sounding at once.
How can I locate a link for such a sound? Maybe we can try. Go ahead and turn your computer speakers as loud as they’ll go. Then play any song you’ve got on there. Absolutely any song. Now turn on your radio and turn it to the classical station. Blast that fucker, too. Situate yourself somewhere in the middle. Sit down where the twain shall meet and begin typing.
Are you into horror? Do you like writing freaky stories? Are you looking for a new thought… a freshie… something you think you aren’t capable of inventing? So am I. Always. And one place to find it is in music. Impossible music… abhorrent combinations.
Why… I’m listening to something like that now… as the door to the office balcony is wide open, the birds sing outside, my girl Allison dribbles a basketball in the driveway… and the soundtrack for Under the Skin spins beside me.
Can you write a novel without music? Of course. But have you tried it with it? Listen closely… you can hear the scope of your story expanding, the boundaries stretching outward, out… until they are as invisible as the medium itself…
Oh, fear not as the music writes the story for you. You are only a conduit. The machine by which those frightening tones will become words… those words sentences… but not before being born as letters. Letters first. Just like the individual notes of the songs that propel you.
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the singer/songwriter for the rock band the High Strung (whose song The Luck You Got can be heard as the theme song to Showtime’s hit show Shameless). If you’re in the US, you can see him interviewed by @Porter_Anderson (the very first Undercover Soundtrack guest) at the Writer’s Digest Novel-Writing Conference in August. Find him on Twitter as @joshmalerman and on Facebook.
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My guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his 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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- 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 2011-2020. 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
Find something unforgettable
- From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress
- What movies get wrong – and right – about authors. And Elizabeth Taylor: Ep47 FREE podcast for writers
- The panic document – when you fear your book has a major flaw, how to diagnose what’s really wrong
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- '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'