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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
Soundtrack by Fiona Apple
Music can be like little time capsules. For some, they may return you to younger days, for me they return me to books. Whenever I take on a project, my creative psyche demands that I find the right soundtrack for it. And if I don’t, I might as well kiss that creative spirit goodbye. They flounder, gasping and dying like a fish out of water.
When I began work on my novel Permanent Spring Showers I knew I was doing something a little odd. It was a book very loosely based on a screenplay I had written years earlier, but this was going to be a very different work, not an easy adaptation. Also, I was going to present it chapter by chapter on my site. I liked to call it then a book in real time since you could enjoy the book and witness the creation of it as well. Yet, it was even more than that. Since I wasn’t bogging myself down in thoughts of sales, agents, and publishers, I was opening the door for sheer possibility. I could do anything, only limited by my own imagination.
It was so creatively exhilarating to throw off the shackles that so many of us feel when creating. And, adding in the danger that I could screw it up at any moment (for everyone to see) was just as thrilling. I was playing with literary fire. Luckily, I never felt alone in the flames.
The Muse Behind the Story
Around the time I began work on my little literary experiment, Fiona Apple had released her CD The Idler Wheel…. It’s a different kind of CD for Apple, losing her big production feel that she used to have working with Jon Brion, now simply just a piano and drums. And sometimes the piano is only keeping tempo to her singing. This put her lyrics and voice solely in the front. It gives the album almost the feeling of a therapy session as Apple deals with her demons and frustrations in each song. When she screams, she screams from her soul. You would have to be a cold person indeed not to feel it.
Permanent Spring Showers begins with an affair, a betrayal.
After discovering her husband’s affair, Dr Rebecca Stanley-Wilson has one of her own. The problem is her drunken one-night stand was with an upcoming painter named Vince. That evening inspires one of the greatest works of art, capturing the world’s attention by storm. The book is about each of the people tied to that painting and that spring of its creation. Some are lovers, some are writers, all are a little broken.
Characters breathing in the songs
I see my characters throughout Apple’s CD. Putting on the CD, doesn’t just take me back to when I was writing the work, it reintroduces me to old friends.
Let me give you an example. One character is an experimental author named Jenn Gane. Her dream is to make a new literary genre, and to accomplish that she needs an unsuspecting victim/character. Poor Steve doesn’t realise how much his life and heart is being manipulated by Jenn. Jenn is the song Daredevil with lyrics about taking from others and not worrying at all about the consequences, especially to the other individual
What about the pure creative energy of Vince? For me that is the vibe of the last song Hot Knife. In the song Apple seems to sing about obsession, but the song grows and grows as her voice multiples into different personalities almost all overcome by passions. I like to imagine that is what it is like in Vince’s head when he is creating, with the unrelenting beat of the timpani driving him forever forward.
And listen to that piano line in Left Alone. That right there is the mind of the character of Steve captured in song. In Steve’s story, he came home to find his girlfriend had moved out, leaving the apartment a mess and no note. Finding her and discovering why she left is Steve’s main focus and until it happens he is almost in a panic just like the song. Lost in hopeless and anxious energy.
I could go on and on… The fact is I needed this CD, my book demanded it, and I was lucky to find it.
I used to dream of the idea of collaborating on a novel with a musician, having a CD to accompany the work, both complementing each other. The funny thing is with Permanent Spring Showers, I seemed to have accomplished that with Fiona Apple. She just has no idea I did. My dream is that someday she will discover the book (and she won’t mind).
Fiona Apple seems to demand your attention throughout her CD, definitely making an album that is never merely background noise. Her heart is in every song, soaring and breaking. I like to think that each of my characters do that as well in Permanent Spring Showers.
Scott D. Southard is the author of A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, Megan, 3 Days in Rome and Me Stuff. His eclectic writing has also found its way into radio, as Scott was the creator of the radio comedy series The Dante Experience. The production was honored with the Golden Headset Award for Best MultiCast Audio and the Silver Ogle Award for Best Fantasy Audio Production. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. Scott 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. He even shares original fiction on the site. Scott is also the fiction book reviewer for WKAR’s daily radio show Current State.
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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 writing coach EJ Runyon @EJRunyon
Soundtrack by Thee Midniters, Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Otis Redding, Consuelo Velazquez, The Righteous Brothers, Hank Williams
A House of Light & Stone, a tale set in the 60s, could easily have used the expected rock ‘n roll music of its day. Instead, I’ve featured a mention in the novel of other songs within the tale of Duffy Chavez. I’ve gone with a local, specific East Los Angeles song, Sad Girl (by Thee Midniters). Then a semi-folk song of the time, April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel) and followed with a light jazz tune, How Glad I Am (Nancy Wilson). The music was in my ear as I wrote and ended up in my novel as well.
In Duffy’s world, like in Roz’s work, there are a number of pieces that have special meaning for this character. We move from nostalgia with the Spanish-language songs and into an American sound of more yearnings. It’s with the mention of a Bob Dylan tune , Mr. Tambourine Man where a frisson of change is now in the air around Duffy. This song shows up at a point where we see a bit deeper into her past.
If you give a listen to the songs in this post, you’ll almost be able to write your own novel from them. These tunes tell a tale of their own as a playlist. Beginning with Lo Siento Mi Vida (Linda Ronstadt) and then to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding), there’s an arc you can follow and a sense of storytelling in the lyrics.
This is what I love the most about writing to music. When lyricists tell us a story, we become readers in our listening. From there, the inspiration for our own work seems a natural progression if you are open to it, just as I was inspired in the case of Duffy’s world.
Thief to belief
Duffy knows she must choose to either be a thief and liar all her life or believe in herself enough to risk using her gifts of imagination and ingenuity for good.
To tell that tale, I began writing by considering what my scene’s mood might be. I would ask myself what in the setting could reflect each mood. And also, month after month through this child’s journey, how do I show the passing of time for her poetically. And music seemed to be the key with music being such a large part of her young life.
And while listening to my own collection of music, Besame Querido (Consuelo Velázquez), Unchained Melody (The Righteous Brothers), Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan), these tunes are the ones I heard as I wrote and that managed to sneak into the novel itself.
In this novel, we follow a year in the life of one young girl. While reading Duffy’s story, one can hear the emotions of the music I listened to while writing. The music underscores a story that’s powerful, dark, and uplifting. As the songs felt to me when I wrote, so they matter to young Duffy as she traverses a year on Elliott Street.
A bit of foreshadowing of the novel’s theme is reflected in Otis Redding’s song ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’. Duffy’s story is a novel about letting go, as well as about our holding onto our pasts.
Songs as signposts
This isn’t a film we watch with those catchy songs we all know to be signposts to a set range of time we can all identify. These signposts are woven into the telling of Duffy’s quest to be a ‘real girl’. They’re used in her tale to serve the scene. The songs within Duffy’s life show her steps along the quest. Duffy is also being taught to play violin during her summer months. One of the joys I had writing those scenes was searching the web for actual lesson books a child might have used during that time and weaving its title into the story.
The lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s April Come She Will runs through the year, month by month, as does Duffy’s quest, chapter by chapter, from one Christmas day to the end of the following year. It’s almost as if I’ve planted lyric-based Easter eggs for folks to find if they are knowledgeable of the lyrics of these songs.
Music as character
Duffy’s world is often impoverished. It’s always colourful. Hopefully, it’s also reflected in the use of these tunes throughout my chapters. If there were a theme for A House of Light & Stone, it might be Duffy’s separateness that seems to be reflected with I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)
Duffy’s mother spends most of the novel listening to one song over and over. The repetition of the Otis Redding song, and how it affects so many of the characters, makes it seem as if that one song is a character all its own. And in a way, that is why, while not licensing the tune to use its lyrics, I did describe the iconic album cover to a T. This was in the hope that readers familiar to the time would pull in the lyrics on their own, in spite of none being quoted in the book.
EJ Runyon was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. She now spends her time in Las Cruces, New Mexico. EJ runs the coaching website for writers, Bridge to Story. Her books have garnered rather nice, if few, reviews. She’s currently working on her fourth book, Revision for Beginners, all her releases, including A House of Light & Stone, are from the UK Press, Inspired Quill. Find EJ on Facebook, or Twitter as @EJRunyon and at her author website.
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My guest this week wrote her book from a soundtrack of nostalgia – she describes it as a mix of Spanish-language songs and an American flavour of yearning. She used music and lyrics as signposts and milestones, to transport her into the mind of a child, to show the passing of time and the key moments of her young life. At one point, the character learns the violin and the author searched the internet until she had tracked down actual lesson books that would have been used by a child of that period. She is writing coach EJ Runyon, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
A House of Light And Stone, American flavour, authors, childhood, coming of age, Desert Island Discs, drama, EJ Runyon, entertainment, literary novels, Memory, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, nostalgia, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Spanish songs, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, violin, violin lesson books, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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 multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick
Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe, Gustav Mahler
I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.
I mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.
Births and inspirations
I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.
This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:
The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.
That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.
Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.
There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps. Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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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.
authors, Consuelo Roland, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, female character, Lady Limbo, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, psycho-sexual thriller, Roz Morris, Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2006, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, undercover soundtrack, Undercover Soundtracks, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
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-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Dolly Parton
Music is at the heart of my most recent novel – as you might expect from its title The Piano Player’s Son and the image of a piano on the front cover! Music is often a force for unity, as in the songs of the First World War or the Last Night of the Proms, but in The Piano Player’s Son, it soon emerges as also a divisive, destructive force. The piece which gave me inspiration for the complexities of the relationships in the novel is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
I love this piece, especially the first movement, but the more I listened to it while I was writing, the more I was pulled in different emotional directions: romantic and compelling, on the one hand, haunting and dark on the other. The piece seems to have the capacity to inspire thoughts of love and beauty, leading the German critic, Ludwig Rellstab, to identify it with moonlight flickering across Lake Lucerne, hence its popular title. But its eerie, unsettling quality also means it is sometimes chosen as the soundtrack in horror movies. In the film Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven, it is used to powerful but painful effect in relationship to the composer’s deafness. And this emotional dichotomy is exactly what I wanted to capture in the novel.
The book explores family dynamics in the wake of a death. Each of the four grown-up children deals with their father, Henry’s, death in a different way. Isabel and George share their father’s love of music, particularly the piano and appear to have been closest to him. The day after Henry’s death, Isabel listens to George playing the Moonlight Sonata:
It was one of their father’s favourites and the music filled her head. She held a tea cloth to her face, forcing the thick towelling material against her lips. Why couldn’t her fingers tempt such sounds of exquisite melancholy as George’s?
Despite their shared love of the piece, and grief at their father’s death, sibling rivalry underlies Isabel’s response.
The other brother and sister, Rick and Grace, are excluded from this musical bond. Rick blames the emotional distance he’s always felt from his father on his inability to master the piano:
It was ridiculous that he’d spent so much time craving his father’s attention when all it would have taken was a few plinkety plonks on the piano.
After Henry’s death, Rick vows to learn. All his problems will disappear if only ‘he could learn to play the Moonlight fucking Sonata’. The choice of language is deliberate with Rick – even at the moment of vowing to learn, and therefore becoming closer to Henry – denigrating his father’s favourite piece.
The Piano Player’s Son is also about inheritance and I chose Henry’s piano as the focus for the enduring war between Rick and George. Both brothers claim it as theirs, Rick as the eldest son, George as the one who shared his father’s passion for music. I didn’t want the dispute to relate to money, but to be about something of personal and emotional significance – in this case, each brother seems to be claiming their worth in their father’s eyes. I chose a piano because, like books, it is a thing of beauty which furnishes a room, but which also has the power within it to feed the mind and soul.
While he is waiting for his father’s piano to arrive, Rick buys a second-hand one and starts having lessons, but his progress is painfully slow. When he tells his teacher that he wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, she informs him he’s nowhere near ready for that.
Rick thought of his father’s stubby fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have been a piano player,’ he used to say, ‘not with these fingers.’ And yet, here Rick was, a piano player’s son, and he’d never master the instrument.
The piano and the Moonlight sonata encapsulate all that was wrong with his relationship with his father.
References to classical music enhance the novel – Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, Bach, all play a part. But when Rick chooses a piece of music that sums up his relationship with his darling American wife, Deanna, he turns his back on his father’s beloved classical pieces and instead it’s Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream that sums up the closeness and joy of their relationship. I love Dolly Parton – there is something inspirational in her continuing love of singing and her passion for music.
But I have to finish with the key piece for my novel, the Moonlight sonata. Although I’ve concentrated on the first movement, the three movements together convey something of the story structure, building towards the final, furious movement. The Moonlight Sonata helped me explore the emotional complexity of the novel to such an extent that I had to include it at my launch. I managed to persuade my husband to play the first movement, and you could feel the emotion in the room as he played.
If you’d like to listen to another version of the Moonlight sonata, here’s Daniel Barenboim.
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Unravelling, published in 2010, has won three awards, and her second novel The Piano Player’s Son,. Her website is here and you can also connect with her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Lindsay is giving away one paperback copy of The Piano Player’s Son. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!
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My guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn 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 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 biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber
Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster
I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.
In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.
Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.
Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.
Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.
This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.
I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins
The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.
I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.
Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.
Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.
Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).
My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.
When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.
Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.
Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks. The Centauress is her second novel. Find her on Twitter @kathyferber
GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you! The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August
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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
- 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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