Posts Tagged literary fiction
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 essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty
Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks
I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.
Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.
I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.
And I used to be right there with them.
It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.
I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.
It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).
Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.
Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.
Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.
A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.
And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.
Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.
Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:
He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.
Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.
Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).
And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.
These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.
And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.
So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.
Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty
My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 returning for an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke
When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.
When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.
All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.
I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.
Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.
But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.
But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.
The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.
But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.
And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.
And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.
I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.
(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).
If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.
I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.
I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.
For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.
In particular, I remember a moment of revelation – a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.
It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.
Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.
The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.
I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.
I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.
Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.
But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.
It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.
The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller
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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir
Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel
In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.
When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.
I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.
For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).
When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’
The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.
And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.
He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’
And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.
A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.
Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.
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 award-winning poet and debut novelist Stephanie Gangi @gangi_land
Soundtrack by Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Lumineers, Rihanna, Adele
The Next is a classic revenge story. Joanna DeAngelis is betrayed by her younger lover, becomes obsessed following him on social media, and decides to make him pay for what he’s done to her. The twist is this: she dies in this state of rage and her ghost carries out the revenge mission. But it’s another kind of story, too, a journey out of the dark for all the characters — her daughters, Anna and Laney; the betrayer, Ned McGowan; and even her loyal dog, Tom — and into a kind of enlightenment brought on by moving through grief. The Next is filled with music, from my head and on the page, but these in particular.
This song kills me, and I’m not the world’s biggest Van Morrison fan. I think it’s fair to say that every single time I hear it I well up with tears (or if I’ve had a glass of wine or two, I burst). There is something so poignant and elemental (and Irish!) about Van’s voice full of resignation and longing, such a powerful combination. When he sings about searching for home, quietly but relentlessly, it speaks perfectly to my ghost protagonist Joanna’s quest. All our quests! After a certain age, after life has thrown everything at you, after you understand how to pick yourself up and keep going, how to honor the sorrows and the joys, you – and Van — know in your bones that it’s a hard road.
This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) by Talking Heads, covered by the Lumineers
For some reason, the Talking Heads called to me during the writing of The Next. I don’t always know what they’re on about, but there’s something timeless and quest-y and unique about the band’s songs – there’s a Wes Anderson vibe to the Talking Heads. The song Naïve Melody lyrically communicates to me the complexity of long-haul love. The Lumineers’ version is one of those covers that, to my ears, surpasses the original. Wesley Schultz has a boyish quality to his voice that sounds like yearning, whereas David Byrne’s insistent, yelp-y delivery is wonderful but feels almost ironic. The Lumineers capture the exhilaration and challenges of being in love, the longing to find “home” within the lover, and also, the inevitability of regret. I don’t know – it’s a complicated song brimming with humanity, the struggle to be known, and seen by a lover. The unbearable disappointment when love leaves – my character Joanna is driven to rage and a quest of revenge because of the depth of that disappoinment. And yet, I can’t put my finger on exactly what the song means – which is probably just what David Byrne intended.
Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna
You can keep Beyonce, I am wild for Rihanna. I love her effortless Carib-girl swagger and her unapologetic (yep, it’s an album title of hers, too) persona. She does badass like nobody else, except maybe Helen Mirren. One of my favorite lines of my book (can I say that?) is: “Bitches are made, not born,” and Bitch Better Have My Money gives us Rihanna at her most insistent, bitchy, bitch-slapping finest. The track is both rapped and sung, and it’s got a pounding beat with a lot of repetition that just kind of gets under my skin. I can’t say I love the video – it’s gratuitous and violent and misogynistic and kind of racist – but the angry song makes me want to take revenge on anyone who’s done me wrong. Of course, I’m too chicken for that, so I get up and dance instead. When I was writing The Next, Rihanna helped me “try on” the anger I don’t normally feel in real life, and the dance breaks energized me so that I could get back to the chair and stay put and drive on!
Is there any better revenge song? It was released at the end of 2010 and coincided with the end of a relationship for me. For the next year it came at me from everywhere –car radios, doctor’s offices, the earbuds of the person sitting next to me on the subway, every store I stepped into including the grocery store and the dry cleaner’s. I am not kidding: I had a root canal and the nurse put headphones over my ears to drown out the drill and distract me, and what song comes on first? Yep. I am as captive as anyone else to Adele’s power and I could not get that tune out of my head. When I sat down to read the actual lyrics, I was pleasantly surprised at how vengeful they were and even a little bit violent, with the talk of taking every piece of this guy, and making his head burn. I was having dark thoughts I would never, ever act upon but listening to Rolling in the Deep helped me let myself fantasize about a woman who is so betrayed and broken that she can not let go of her anger, even as she lay dying. And that anger traps her – as anger does. I had to write it. Adele does a vocal deep dive into the dark blues with a ticking strum and pounding behind her. What a vocal performance! It still gives me chills. She attacks and mourns at the same time – exactly what I wanted my protagonist to do.
Stephanie Gangi lives, works and writes in New York City. She is an award-winning poet, and The Next is her debut novel and is published by St Martin’s Press. She is at work on her second novel. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter @gangi_land
My guest this week says her novel is steeped in music – and indeed had a massive Spotify playlist to accompany her drafts and rewrites. But certain tracks stood right out, tracks that seemed to catch her attention from the radio, or stick in her mind with an essential flavour of the characters and story. They’re strong vocals – Van Morrison, Rihanna, The Lumineers, Adele. Powerful, sassy, feisty, rocky, tormented and brimming with humanity – and perfect for her novel of obsessive revenge after love goes wrong. Do drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Stephanie Gangi.
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 stage and screenwriter Sandra Leigh Price @thevelvetnap
Soundtrack by Christy Moore, WB Yeats, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom
I’ve found that I’ve never been able to write in silence nor think much in quiet. Somehow in the hum of noise I hear my own thoughts flow, like a river in the distance. I always feel if I show up with pen in hand, that a river of words will wend its way to me.
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head…’
and in many ways the fire of an idea was in my head. The song was persistent and undeterred and would not leave me be. I’d first heard the song on the west coast of Ireland in my 20s and Moore’s voice had made the poem come alive to me – his voice carrying, for me, all the weight of diaspora. I thought of Heaney and his idea of fire in the head, the tradition of the druids and their poetry and I started. I wrote about a Jewish pogrom orphan who is lit up by reading the Song of the Wandering Aengus and sees ‘a glimmering girl’ sitting on the back step of an old terrace house in Sydney 1929.
As I got thicker into the writing, all sorts of images came up – birds, birds speaking, things that shine, magic, faith – when Kate Bush’s album Aerial started to resonate for me. Song after song, the double album almost feels like a novel in music. There are moments on the album where Bush sings in a call and response with a blackbird and for me, this really sparked the heart of what I was trying to write.
The first song that seemed to filter into my book was How to be Invisible. The lyrics seemed to be an almost magical refrain. The idea of being invisible, of transforming oneself, from hiding in plain sight to metamorphosis really seeped into the novel, each of the three main characters travels from the darkness to the light. Ari moves from being an orphan to knowing his past, from being under the will of his uncle to finding his own. Lily moves from hiding from her past and her grief to being comfortable in her own skin, taking herself from the side of the story to the centre. And Billy shifts from his obsession and lies to the glittering truth that comes with birdsong and the dawn.
The other album that seemed to infiltrate my imagination was Joanna Newsom’s Ys and in particular her song, Only Skin. It’s an exquisite and long song, full of wonderful images, of birds taking hair trimmings, a bird crashing into a window and thought dead, but comes back to life. Also I felt a sort of augury with the cover revealing a raven sitting with a berry in its mouth, almost ready for Aengus to attach his thread, to catch his silver trout.
This song has always been my portal back to the book, through the gaps and spaces between edits, I’d only have to listen to it to find myself back in that world of the novel, of my characters trying to find out what it was to be in their own skin. The novel starts with Billy trying to decipher Ari’s tattoo, which is forbidden in Jewish culture, the mark on Ari’s skin setting Ari apart. Lily has been defined by her skin her whole entire life, a girl with albinism in a small country town. And Billy, like a snake, always trying to shuck his own skin for another until he can shuck no more. Only Skin when I listen to it now, still gives me gooseflesh, it is truly beautiful.
And lastly the music I listened to bobbed out of the throats of birds themselves. I took to listening closely to the birds in my neighbourhood- the parrots, the currawongs, the magpies, the native doves. I even tried to find the elusive lyrebird, tramping around the bush in the Blue Mountains, but they eluded me. In my research I read of one that could sing Chopin after hearing the radio. A lyrebird is truly nature’s magician.
Sandra Leigh Price lives in Sydney, Australia. She graduated from the Australian National University, Canberra, with a double major in English literature and drama, and co-established a small theatre company before moving to Sydney to pursue a career as an actor, before turning to writing, for both stage and screen. The Bird’s Child, her debut novel, released in the UK in August 2016 and the US February 2017 and is part of a two-book deal. The second book will be released in Australia in 2017. Sandra tweets as @thevelvetnap
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on Wednesday to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week describes music as ‘a portable environment’. His work patterns have taken him all over the world and he might find himself writing anywhere from a station waiting room to a hotel lobby or a scorching beach. No matter where he finds himself, the music will put him back where he left off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his novels explore people who are lost, displaced or caught between cultures and he finds their soundtracks in the work of contemporary classical composers (including one of my own favourites, Olafur Arnalds). He is Toni Davidson and he’ll be here on Wednesday.
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 multi-award nominated novelist and theremin enthusiast Tracy Farr @hissingswan
Soundtrack by Portishead, Yo-Yo Ma, Pere Ubu, Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith Group, Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, Armen Ra, The Triffids, JS Bach, Saint-Saens, Ravel, George Gershwin
I usually write in silence. There are a few exceptions – albums I can play to put myself into a kind of writing trance. An album I’ve been using this way since it came out in 1994 is Portishead’s Dummy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the theremin, the musical instrument at the centre of my first novel, features (or a synth’d version of it does, at least) so strongly in Dummy’s opening track Mysterons (listen for the theremin sound kicking in at 0:12).
Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship imagined for a B-movie soundtrack, or like the low thrum and moan of a cello, warm with wood and resin and gut.
My first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, has been described as a fictional memoir. It’s the story of a musician, Lena Gaunt, and the instrument she becomes famous for playing: the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, invented in the 1920s, and played without touching.
Long before I started to write The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, I jotted notes about its main character: a musician, Lena Gaunt, born 1910. I didn’t know much more about this character I’d started to invent from thin air, but I figured she’d play the cello.
I’d become interested in writing a cellist character after a friend introduced me, in the 1990s, to Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Bach’s Six Cello Suites. It was a strange and beautiful revelation to me. I’d grown up on a diet of pop, fed by commercial radio, filtered through the great flat suburban sensibility of Perth in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I was living in Vancouver, in the 90s, my listening had shifted to PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Nirvana, Portishead, Pixies and Pulp. Ma’s rendering of the Bach suites, the sound of the unaccompanied cello, cut through the noise; it resonated, with an eerily human voice. My Lena Gaunt, I imagined, would be a perfect musician, flawless, precise, like Ma.
Electrical by nature
In the novel, Lena puts her cello aside, aged 17, and takes up the theremin. It’s another musical reference I chart back to my time in Vancouver, where I first saw the theremin played live when Pere Ubu toured their 1995 album Ray Gun Suitcase. I recall standing close to the front of the stage, mesmerised not just by the sound, but by the look (the action, the physicality, the dramatics) of the theremin; you can hear and see it when Pere Ubu play Red Sky.
It was Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin, who provided the strongest inspiration for my fictional Lena’s theremin playing. I watched film footage of Clara Rockmore playing pieces like Saint-Säens’ Le Cygne and Ravel’s Habanera, both of which I have Lena Gaunt play in the novel. Again, it was the look and physicality as much as the sound that attracted me, and that I aimed to recreate as I wrote. And while she inspired elements of Lena Gaunt, I think of Clara Rockmore as providing a reference, rather than a model, for Lena.
The lowest note in the universe
A low hum runs through this book, the hum of modernity and electronics, the low background hum of the universe; the hum of the theremin.
A low hum issues from it, the sum of the capacitance of my body, its effect on the electric currents…I raise my hands again – one to the loop, one to the wire – and hear the deep low that is almost the sound of a cello and yet is its own thing, its own sound…
I was looking beyond Clara Rockmore and her theremin for that low hum. I was inspired by women working in mid-twentieth-century electronic music – like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire – and by tracks like Derbyshire’s (as part of the band White Noise) Love Without Sound.
Lowness echoes through the novel. A very early note I made while writing it references Bowie’s 1977 album Low, the first album in his Berlin Trilogy. The drone and chant and length and lift of Warszawa – Track 1 on Side 2 of Low – rang through my mind often while I wrote.
Etherwave (which I rechristen Aetherwave in the novel) was an early name for the theremin (and is the most widely available model of modern theremin), and that prompted a clear link in my mind, a tumble of ideas from (a)ether to anaesthesia to self-medication. In the novel, Lena Gaunt smokes opiates; she uses for recreation, but also for relief.
Bowie’s substance-soaked Low was a reference point. I wanted drug use to sit lightly in the book, to be part of Lena’s character while not defining her, and I had in mind other ether/anaesthesia references, like PJ Harvey’s beautiful, sparse – and yes, (a)ethereal – When Under Ether.
Not drowning, waving
I have a complicated relationship with the sea, and it features a lot in my writing. The ‘wave’ in etherwave/aetherwave refers to sound waves, but I also wanted ocean waves present in the novel, and I wanted those waves to interact.
An early musical touchstone while I wrote was the Patti Smith Group album Wave, and the track I’d go back to again and again was Dancing Barefoot. Beyond the wave resonance of the album title, this track is full (like my novel) of benediction, addiction, strange music and heroin(e), connection and its lack.
While I was revising the novel, I saw on television a live performance by Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s of Hunt’s poem Wavesong. There was Hunt chanting the poem in his unmistakable (for New Zealanders) voice over Kilgour’s equally unmistakable guitar – and that performance, that driving, circular, resonant, wave-filled track, was lodged in my brain. I had only a memory of it as I wrote, though; I didn’t hear the track again until it was released, four years later, on their 2015 album The 9th.
The particular heat of a Perth summer, persevering into autumn, hangs over the section of the novel that’s set in the summer and autumn of 1991. Clara Rockmore played Gershwin’s Summertime on the theremin, and I recently found another wonderful theremin performance of it by Armen Ra. But it wasn’t only Summertime that played in my mind while I wrote; it was, more often, Too Hot To Move, the track that opens the 1989 album The Black Swan by Perth band The Triffids, and shimmers with the heat haze of a long Perth summer.
Tracy Farr is a recovering scientist and reluctant swimmer who writes novels and short stories. She owns an Etherwave theremin that she’s still learning to play. She’s Australian, but has lived in New Zealand for the past twenty years. Her debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press 2013, Aardvark Bureau 2016) was longlisted in 2014 for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and Barbara Jefferis Award. Her second novel, The Hope Fault, will be published in 2017. Find her on her website, or on Twitter @hissingswan.