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 writer and translator Alison Layland @AlisonLayland
Soundtrack by Steven R Smith, Aiko Shimada, PJ Harvey, Colin Stetson, Laurie Anderson, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dark Patrick, Darko Rundek, Smoke Fairies, Beth Orton
Music is an essential part of my writing process. I pick up on atmospheres, and fragments of lyrics that suggest an idea, character or situation (not always in the way the artist intended!), and build up a playlist for almost everything I write. I rarely listen to music when actually writing, but my playlist influences my work, and a copy to play in the car or while working keeps me in the zone.
A great inspiration, and music I definitely can and do play while writing, comes from Steven R. Smith. His music, mainly instrumental, captures my imagination, and the range of atmospheres he creates match so many of my moods. He records under various names/personas, and when working on Someone Else’s Conflict I found his Hala Strana records particularly appropriate as the Eastern and Central European influences helped me to tap into the Croatian backstory to the novel. I was also delighted when he agreed to let me use an extract from one of the Hala Strana tunes, Wedding of the Blind, for my book trailer.
Stories from a dark place
In Someone Else’s Conflict, Jay is an itinerant storyteller and busker, leading a self-imposed nomadic lifestyle and using his stories as a way of escaping from his memories and past. Stories by Aiko Shimada is that world of escapism through stories. What Jay is concealing is involvement in the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and the guilt that still haunts him. Scenes from the war are shown in flashbacks and, as I’m fortunate not to have experienced any kind of war zone first-hand, I used music as the vehicle to take myself there. PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake told me it was possible and throughout the time I was writing the novel I had the first line of The Words That Maketh Murder going round in my head, as similar thoughts must have plagued Jay.
Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s amazing album New History Warfare Vol. 2 immersed me in all kinds of dark places and provided the perfect atmosphere both for the war scenes and the effects they had on the characters, in particular The Stars in his Head with its menacing driving pulse and swirling loops, and the chaos and displacement of A Dream of Water with guest vocals from Laurie Anderson. My fictional war zone was further intensified by the beauty and terror of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Mladic.
The haunting Ivases Lament by Dark Patrick not only suggested to me the feel of loss, tragedy and anger, but also had personal associations with my characters though a loose connection with its title – Ivan was Jay’s friend who was killed in the Croatian war and his son, Vinko, now a teenager and immigrant searching for identity, is central to the novel. The song brought out all the edginess of their relationship.
As I’m a linguist, it was more or less inevitable that, during my research into the Balkan conflicts, I would be moved to learn the language, especially as a personal way of gaining an insight into the feel and culture of the region. Music also features in my language-learning process, and I made some wonderful discoveries from that part of the world. My favourite so far has been Darko Rundek, in the context of writing the novel especially since a number of his songs deal with the conflict and its aftermath. When I first heard Ista Slika (The Same Picture) – before I saw the video, worked out the lyrics and fully appreciated the tragedy of what the song is about – I simply thought it was a lovely song. When I looked into it more deeply and discovered that it was about the war and that the refrain, roughly translated, means ‘whatever your way in the world in your crazy head you see the same picture’ it became a kind of theme tune for the novel. My own reaction epitomised the way Jay hides his own dark side from the world.
The novel is certainly not all darkness, and my playlist helped me keep me grounded in this, too. An essential thread is the developing friendship and love between Jay and Marilyn, the artist he meets who helps him come to terms with his past and has to decide whether to stand by him as things start to go wrong. Several songs from the Smoke Fairies’ Low Light and Trees album became part of their relationship in my mind, especially Summer Fades with its strong feel of the other person’s past. For a long time, Marilyn is understandably not sure of Jay; she is finding her feet after a difficult previous relationship and is unsure how much to trust him, despite his charismatic and outwardly friendly nature. In one of those serendipitous moments of musical discovery, I was initially drawn to Beth Orton’s Magpie because it reflects the imagery of one of Jay’s stories, and soon found it gave me a real feel for Marilyn’s inner strength.
The ending of the novel evolved as I approached it, but I always knew it would have a positive feel – though just how positive, I wasn’t sure. And so we return to the music of Steven R. Smith. The title and soaring atmosphere of To Rise and Move On says it all.
Alison Layland is a writer and translator, originally from Bradford and now living in the beautiful Welsh mountains with her family. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, originally inspired by her passion for storytelling, tells of trust, love and the need to belong, moving from the peaceful Yorkshire Dales to the horrors of the Croatian conflict of the 1990s and its aftermath. It is published by Honno and was a Lovereading.co.uk Debut of the Month in January 2015. Alison can be found at her website. She tweets as @AlisonLayland and is a member of The Prime Writers @ThePrimeWriters