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The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_
Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev
When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.
Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own
Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …
Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.
For narrative, I go to Chopin’s Ballades – Ballade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.
So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?
But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.
I often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.
The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_
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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 Scott D Southard @SDSouthard
There is usually nothing more important to me than the music I have playing while writing a book. Music can inspire me, engage me, keep my energy up when I need it to be up. It sets the mood for me, and the right song can pull the right levers to get me to go from point A to point B in a plot. It has also been known to drive the people that live with me crazy since while I am writing I may play a CD a few too many times (Just ask my wife about the writing of My Problem With Doors and my nonstop playing of O by Damien Rice; an album I am forbidden to play in her presence again). But what I used for A Jane Austen Daydream was something surprisingly contemporary. This was not something for Liz Bennet to dance to (but she might if given the chance).
A Jane Austen Daydream, my latest novel, was inspired by two ideas.
The first was the desire to fix a great injustice that fate had bestowed on Jane. Jane Austen did not have a romance, she did not find the happiness she gave so many of her characters; instead she died in her early 40s, far too soon, with work still to complete and no love to mourn her. That’s where my book comes in; in it, I re-imagine her life as one of her novels. Trying to guess the story she would have liked for herself, filling the missing little holes with characters from her books and plots she created as well.
Over the course of the novel (filled with adventures, wit, proposals, misunderstandings, and surprises) we follow Jane as she grows in her understanding of love and becomes the writer the world holds dear… and then there is the love affair (the second idea), but that is a major literary twist I don’t want to ruin here. There is a chance it might be the first time it was attempted in a novel.
Looking over the catalog of Belle & Sebastian (and I am a fan, owning everything I can get my hands on), desperation seems to be one of the themes that never leaves Stuart Murdoch (the main songwriter) and his songs. Belle & Sebastian are truly a band made for writers, since their songs are little stories, little character vignettes. He wants to find meaning (and so does his characters), understand what is going on in the world. And just like Jane in my book he seems to believe that there is some great truth to discover, to fall back on. If life was only that simple, Stuart.
I can’t escape my novel when I listen to their CD The Life Pursuit and certain songs stir emotions bringing me right back to the creation of the book. See, right from the opening of Act of the Apostle, Part 1 I feel myself returning to that time, as if on cue that old writing part of my brain kicking in. Starting up the right CD to begin writing is a ritual for me, from pressing play to the cracking of my knuckles.
The moments ‘borrowed’ from music
One favorite song from the CD is Funny Little Frog. A lonely and depressing love story sold around a song that almost has a Motown feel to it (even with horns). When I was writing the first part of the book, in which Jane convinces herself she is in love (she is not) and the questionable male is as well (he is not), this song screamed at me; and I know there were evenings where it was on constant repeat. And, I must admit, some of the song sneaked into the section, with Jane imagining futures with this man, allowing her creative mind to run away with her (just like the character in the song). The song truly was infused throughout that writing, right from the beginning to its wonderful last line.
Another song that brings me right back to my writing desk is For the Price of a Cup of Tea and I’m pretty sure this song inspired something unique to Jane’s books. See, in my novel I try to keep every setting from her books, there is nothing foreign really there… Well, except the tea shop in her hometown. This was a device/location I used it in each volume of the book for Jane to meet with her friend Harriet. If that tea shop existed in reality, this song would be on the stereos in the background since the metre and pace of the song feels like those scenes. (Wait, did I just say there would be a stereo in the 19th century? Bangs head on desk, in embarrassment.)
Oh, and when I hear White Collar Boy I picture Jane running through a field. It doesn’t make sense at all. I know that, but that’s creativity and inspiration for you.
Scott D. Southard’s most recent novel is A Jane Austen Daydream (Both available in print as an eBook); his other novels are My Problem With Doors and Megan. He can be found on the internet via his writing blog ‘The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard‘ where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. He is also on Twitter and Facebook.
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My guest this week says his wife has forbidden him to play certain albums in her presence. Of course, they are the ones that provided the souls of his novels; drew him to the writing desk; catapulted him into the worlds of his characters. Readers here will be well acquainted with the idea that once a song joins your writing repertoire, you never tire of it (although your family might). For his latest novel, he was drawn to songs of desperation, and the finely drawn character vignettes of Belle & Sebastian – a band he says are truly made for writers. When you see that the title of his novel is A Jane Austen Daydream, you might be surprised that its music is so contemporary. But has there ever been a time when Ms Austen didn’t feel bang up to date? Join us here on Wednesday when Scott D Southard will be sharing his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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
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