‘George Winston’s dreamy piano had to go’
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 award-winning literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew
Soundtrack by The Velvet Underground, Reef, Jimi Hendrix, burningpilot, Supergrass, Alien Ant Farm, Bob Dylan, Stereophonics, Pink Floyd
It was 1st November 2007, and I’d set myself a ridiculous challenge. By the end of the month, I would have written a novel, from start to finish. It would be a road novel for 21st-century Britain, a forlorn but determined attempt to live authentically and spontaneously in a highly controlled society. As I stared at the blank screen, planning things out and calculating just how many thousands of words I would need to write each day, I came to an important realisation.
Before I could begin typing, I would need new music.
Before then, you see, I’d been a devotee of calm, soothing, contemplative music. I’d always started my writing day by lighting an incense stick and playing George Winston. Beautiful, aren’t they, those dreamy piano notes? A perfect soundtrack for a morning spent gazing at swirling incense smoke and waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, not a good way to get a novel written in a month, certainly not a novel of frustrated youth raging against the stunted future mapped out for them. Poor George would have to go.
Enter The Velvet Underground and Heroin. Yes, I know, it starts out slow, but just listen to it ramp up around 1:20, and again at 2:22, and a few more times until, 6 minutes in, you can almost feel the spike in your vein. Suddenly some words appeared on the page:
I first met Neil not long after my father died.
Not much, but it was a start, and soon I was describing Neil, and the words started to flow, and I followed it up with Reef and Jimi Hendrix and burningpilot and Supergrass and I saw my characters, Jack and Neil, rampaging up and down the Holloway Road on a cold November night. I kept writing as they ran the life of drinking and parties swiftly to its conclusion, and after a week or so I was already five chapters in, and Jack and Neil had ditched London and made it to John O’Groats and were paddling in the freezing North Sea at three in the morning to the accompaniment of the suitably weird Alien Ant Farm.
By this time a change was called for, both for me and my characters. The frenetic pace couldn’t last. I took to walking a few miles every morning, and completed the bulk of the book sitting in a now-defunct north London cafe all afternoon for a couple of weeks with the likes of Bob Dylan and Stereophonics on my iPod. The quieter mood suited my characters, who were getting worn down by their quest but kept going anyway, taking one more step, visiting one more town, drinking, like me and Dylan, just one more cup of coffee. They went forward not with the hopeful enthusiasm of earlier; they went forward simply because they couldn’t go back.
For the ending I wanted something quiet and poignant, almost an anti-ending after all the noise and fury of earlier on. It was 30th November and I was tired, and so were Jack and Neil, and the three of us gritted our teeth and limped to the finish line with the dying chords of Wish You Were Here reverberating in our ears.
I took a week or two off from writing, printed off my manuscript and was amazed to discover it was ten times better than the novel I’d spent years working on before that. It would go on to win an award for unpublished writers, netting me £2,500 and a publishing deal, and my life would change.
Of course, that was still in the future. Before all that happened, I still had to edit the novel. That’s where George Winston and the trusty old incense stick came in handy again.
Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.