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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 post is by prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH
Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens
My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.
Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.
The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.
I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.
It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.
But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.
I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.
I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.
Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.
My guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.