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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 award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley
Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford to be extravagant. Occasionally a perfectly ordinary, independently minded woman – such as a sexy ground hostess – will use their services.
From a little black book to a husband that vanishes into thin air is not such a literary leap of the imagination. The only tangible clues to the ‘disappeared properly’ man’s identity are the vinyl long playing records (LPs) carted into his current incarnation: Daniel de Luc, husband. A man who favours alternative rock, old circus music (think extravagant carnivalesque LP cover art), and African jazz is perhaps not going to be your average conventional spouse.
A voice for intensity
When Daniel de Luc barges into my novel with all his unpredictable here-now-gone-tomorrow energy he arrives together with cult band R.E.M. Their music is constantly playing in my car. The wickedly intelligent lyrics have the enigmatic aura of a Poe story.
Periodically Daniel withdraws from the world (and Paola, his wife) by listening to R.E.M. with its anti-establishment undertones. It is Daniel’s theme music; the friend he turns to when he has to figure things out.
The music of R.E.M. is ideal for Lady Limbo as a kind of activist male anthem. I feel as if I know Daniel as well as any real live man of my acquaintance when I listen to them. My first R.E.M. CD came from a male friend brought up in Europe; the opaque music brings this association with it too, helping me to give a voice to Daniel’s intensity and his foreign outlook.
The only R.E.M. song named in Lady Limbo is the mesmerising Nightswimming. There are echoes of the early party scene when Paola watches partygoers engage in open group sex in a night-lit swimming pool. But her immersion in Nightswimming has its own redemptive beauty and truth even while it suggests the foolishness of being human. The song that Chris Martin of ColdPlay once called ‘the best song ever written’ becomes a bittersweet tribute to relationships and feelings that can never be the way they once were.
It’s all in the night’s song: we are creatures of the night, skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections. In Lady Limbo it is the bright light of day with its criminal banality that comes to terrify Paola Dante, and the night’s deep-throated mystery that seduces her.
Music of ambivalence
From music of the night to nights at the circus.
Circus music, with its relentless glee, is the perfect music of ambivalence. It fills a gap between Paola and Daniel with its nostalgic evocation of a carnival atmosphere, and yet its excessive gaiety is strangely disturbing. In Lady Limbo the ghosts of death-defying acts plummet to the sawdust over and over again.
My research uncovers that the atmospheric circus music of yesteryear is for the most part produced by a calliope (steam whistles played by a keyboard) , a very special mechanical instrument. When Daniel hears the frenetic delight he, like The Beatles’ John Lennon who employed snippets of calliope music in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, is transported to a seat from where he can smell the sawdust on the big tent floor.
A circus music thematic appears; it expresses a magical interpretation of life and independence of spirit that is outside the norm, and somehow beyond society’s approval or control. Old time rumours about the circus as a haven for runaways, freaks, outcasts, and even baby abductors, add a mysterious resonance to Lady Limbo.
From nights at the circus to African jazz and Jamaican rebellion…
Youssou N’Dour (You to his fans) provides the cross-cultural musical bridge I need between Africa and Europe. N’Dour’s cosmopolitan nous absorbs the entire Senegalese musical spectrum, often filtered through the lens of the genre-defying mbalax sound, which takes traditional Wolof music and combines it with Islamic and Cuban influences. Daniel is as intrigued by N’Dour’s roots (a maternal line of griottes) as by his professional exploits. From my perspective, N’Dour’s tenor voice has an unusual prophetic quality that fills a car as it coasts along dark cliff top roads.
In Lady Limbo the past has been neglected, mishandled and deliberately avoided. Since Paola is as guilty as this of Daniel I have her mull over Daniel’s difficult boyhood in the hotel room darkness with Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff playing on the radio in the background.
Caught between reality and fiction Daniel is the flawed paradox at the centre of Lady Limbo’s complex mystery. Marley’s reggae anthem for justice, just a one-liner in Paola’s musings, pre-empts Daniel’s act of protection at the end of Lady Limbo. All of this the music reveals, and overlays and underlays. Only the music, capable of endless interpretation and re-interpretation, tells the truth.
Portrait by Dina Photography
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes novels, poems, essays, and short stories. Lady Limbo, a psycho-sexual mystery, is her second novel. She is working on book II in the limbo trilogy, due to come out next year. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide, now an ebook, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books. She is also a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Her Amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/consueloroland. Connect with her on Facebook and on her website. Tweet her @ConsueloRoland.
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We often don’t realise what surprises our own work holds for us. My guest this week tells me that while writing her post, she realised she was seeing her novel in a fresh light. She’s been on this series before, so is no stranger to Undercover Soundtracks. This time she has a psycho-sexual tale of a husband who vanishes and a wife who follows him into a seductive, mysterious and dangerous night world in which they all become creatures of darkness, ‘skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections’. The novel is Lady Limbo, the writer is Sunday Times Fiction Prize nominee Consuelo Roland, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her 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 award-winning novelist, essayist and poet Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
The Good Cemetery Guide began one fog-laden winter’s night in a dimly-lit music locale in Kalk Bay, South Africa. Three acoustic guitarists, jamming loud enough to wake the dead, shifted my world a step to the left.
The uninhibited energy that rocked that small dingy space attracted a motley crowd, including some local town ghosts. Tony Cox, Steve Newman and Syd Kitchen, acoustic guitar fingerstyle masters, opened a passage between the real world and the possible world. On the long road home we passed a drab brick house with salt encrusted windows. The nondescript sign of a funeral parlour floated in the sea fog under a street lamp. Behind the walls I saw Anthony Loxton looking at himself in a bathroom mirror, back from a guitar gig, wishing his life could be different.
It’s hilarious in retrospect. My first novel was going to be about a funeral director moonlighting as a guitar player, when I knew nothing about making music or the undertaking business. But the musician before his audience was a perfect metaphor to underpin an ancient literary theme: No Man is an Island.
Part of my research was always having the car radio on – it felt necessary. One day I found myself finger-tapping to Ziggy Marley’s Jammin, and an image popped into my head of Sweet the guitar teacher jiving to his own beat, adding a repetitive gospel music refrain to the reggae beat; taking liberties with the musical greats.
Anthony’s alter ego, Tony the Fox, evolved in a similarly strong-willed direction; he began to think of himself as looking like Phil Collins. In those early days of story incubation I turned to my favourite power balladeers for inspiration: Richard Marx’s Waiting for You made me feel the pain of missing the woman you love; Phil Collins’s Survivors made me feel the sadness of doomed love with a shared past.
Gradually all the listening paid off. I borrowed bits and pieces of songs that felt completely right and authentic, and that amplified the storybook of a third-generation funeral director who strives valiantly to outfox destiny.
At a major crossroad of his adult life Anthony remembers ‘that sometimes the words of a song don’t have to make sense for it to be a good song’, and he ‘lets the man and the woman go to Mexico before the gringos came, and make capsicum chilli love as often as they want.’
The Mexican theme came up when I was ‘doing research’ in Kalk Bay. The discovery of the afternoon was a Mexican cowboy cardboard puppet who fired from the hips. Bang! Bang! He was delightfully impish, although the skeleton Señorita in her cellophane packet seemed impervious to his charms. I could see a small boy discovering Mexico in a forbidden library book. By torchlight he might see a band leading a procession and then a host of twirling skeletons and masked dancers (to help the dead go back) attending El Día de los Muertos. On that night of heartfelt sorrow and great celebration the veil between the living and the dead would be lifted; the Mexican cowboy would serenade the beautiful Señorita, and he would raise his pistols – Bang! Bang! – for every suitor, dead or alive. It was the mesmerizing Lila Downs who acted as my guide to a Mexico of the soul.
Anthony’s double life embodies secrets. The theme of concealment is interwoven with melody to express dark, melancholic thoughts the adult man cannot otherwise vocalise. I unearthed Texas troubadour Willis Alan Ramsey’s Ballad of Spider John while researching guitars.
Much of the novel is about coming to terms with existence, and how sex is only a temporary diversion. Writing about sex from a man’s perspective was a challenge. Listening to Meatloaf’s soaring lustful lyrics, particularly the gothic epic You Took the Words Right Out Of My Mouth, helped the sex scenes to flow. The effect of that single song and its sexual tension and irony was enormously helpful to get inside the head of my lascivious male character as he spun from one carnal adventure to the next.
When gothic love is followed by gothic death the musician quits playing and the masquerade is temporarily suspended. It’s left up to the broken-hearted to process the inexplicable as best they can. Robbie Williams’s Cursed perfectly evoked the mood of ‘immeasurable sadness’ that occasionally struck Anthony down. Cursed has a driving rock beat which captures the concrete physicality of being alive and then it slows completely and incredible piano sections evoke the fragility of love and the power of memory.
This is the unique soundtrack of a man who was born the son of a mortician, and given the gift of a guitar. In The Good Cemetery Guide music has the power to wake not only the dead, but also the living.
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town. After leaving the IT business, she completed an MA in creative writing. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2006. It was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books in 2007. After retrieving her rights she self-published as an ebook. She has also published poetry and short stories. Her essay, ‘Was Ayn Rand Wrong? An essay on capitalism’, appeared in The Face of The Spirit: a century of essays by South African Women published by the Department of Art & Culture. Her second novel Lady Limbo is due for release by Jacana Media in November 2012. Connect with her on Twitter @ConsueloRoland Facebook and her website.
GIVEAWAY – For a FREE e-book copy of The Good Cemetery Guide send an email – before 15th November – to firstname.lastname@example.org with your full name and ‘The Undercover Soundtrack FREE e-book offer’ in the subject heading. You’ll receive a 100% discount coupon to use on Smashwords
HIATUS – Next week I’m taking a brief break. The Undercover Soundtrack will return on 14th November
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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.
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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
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