My guest this week says he has to treat music with kid gloves. If he’s sitting at a dinner party and music is playing, he’s likely to get so distracted that he zones out of the real room. This is a familiar scenario to me too. And he’s definitely a writer who has found himself piecing together a novel from many of these moments of surprised distraction – where a track heard by chance perfectly fits the story problem his mind is mulling over. His novel is the story of a disillusioned man learning the way to feel alive once more, his name is Wayne Clark, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Roz Morris
‘First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground’
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 it’s my turn on the decks – with the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three
Soundtrack by Boards of Canada, Peter Gabriel, Enya, Vangelis, Gabor Presser, Ralph Vaughan Williams
Lifeform Three is a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, set in the near future, where global warming has shrunk the landmass and the countryside has been sacrificed for buildings and roads. One valley remains, of woods, trees and meadows, and is now kept as a theme park – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. My main character, Paftoo, is a groundsman there. He’s the odd one out; the only soul who’s uneasy in a world that everyone else accepts. You could say he lives in a utopia – but to him it’s a dystopia.
I knew the emotional beats of Lifeform Three before I knew the story. They came to me as pieces of music, a chain of albums and tracks that suggested the landmarks of the novel. I would load them into my MP3 player and take them running, puzzling over them as I pounded out the miles.
Paftoo is a bod – an artificial human who’s programmed to do menial tasks. To keep him efficient, his memory is regularly wiped, but he has inklings of other memories. We meet him after such an event (known as a ‘sharing’). My first beat was that state of newness, a world shining and fresh where you go out and do your tasks, content with simple instructions. In the beginning, Paftoo doesn’t even know his own name until he realises the sole of his boot has a number – 2 (his name is an alphanumeric, short for Park Asset Field Redo Bod 2).
Boards of Canada’s album Music Has The Right To Children told me the innocence of new, eager eyes, especially this track, An Eagle In Your Mind.
The novelty doesn’t last long. There’s a wildness in Paftoo and by the end of his first day, he’s made the others wary of him. He’s also frustrated. But worse is to come when night falls. While his companions go dormant and lifeless, Paftoo starts to dream.
Again, the idea came as a feeling from music – Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ suggested a tingling in the nerves, a meaning that must be grasped.
First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground
The dream sequence was choreographed to that album. It starts with a sense of unease, then that beat gallops in like the thing you knew was coming.
Horses, flashing across the green hills in glorious gallop. Necks reaching, tails streaming. Riders on their backs, urging them faster.
Paftoo opens his eyes, shocked. He knows he’s not supposed to dream. He also knows that nobody rides horses now. They’re untamed animals in the fields (and known as Lifeform Three). But at the same time it makes perfect sense in his restless soul. From that moment, Paftoo has a mission. Every night, he goes looking for clues that might explain why he has these dreams and what happened to him before his mind was wiped. By day, he struggles to hide his true nature in case he’s wiped again.
In a small way the story is autobiographical. In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. Like the horse Paftoo later befriends, my horse was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. If I couldn’t handle my dream, what did that make me? That first winter, Enya’s Anywhere Is was in the charts. I wasn’t a fan of her music, but when I came to write Paftoo’s attempts to tame a horse I listened to Enya to capture that time. For some reason Caribbean Blue with its waltz rhythm brought back the sense of a wondrous adventure, the tentative courtship of a wild creature and the sense of being alone on a dumb-headed quest for something inexplicable and ideal.
A song called Caribbean Blue that takes me back to an English winter, riding horses? Like dreams, Undercover Soundtracks have a logic of their own. Or I take no notice of lyrics.
During the writing, my soundtracks had to become a time machine. Those first days with my oversized horse were, as you can probably see, long ago. Reader, I kept him, and he was now reaping the arthritic rewards of a vigorous life. I was having ghastly conversations with the vet because if her treatments didn’t work it was time for the gun. I clung to those music tracks to help me give his glory days to Paftoo while the real situation seemed so hopeless. Thankfully, he rallied and we gallop on (on a good day).
The horse awakens Paftoo’s sense of the natural world, which humanity seems to have lost. Again, music already contained what I needed to say. Vangelis’s Pulsar was the thrill of galloping feet
‘gathering up the miles and throwing them out behind’.
Electromantic La Baletta No 2 – by the Hungarian composer Gabor Presser had feisty, fertile joy, like a primitive spring ritual. It smells of untamed hair and corduroy. And whoever said electronic music lacked a soul? Both these tracks are entirely electronic, made from circuits and wave generators, yet they bound and leap like wild animals.
Past, people and a vanished time
But there’s a lot more to Paftoo’s quest than riding and nature. They are merely the beginning; the gateway to a profound discovery of his own past and the people and creatures he loves. Now I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I can say that the more he recovers, the more he stands to lose and the more desperate his day life becomes. This impossibility was exquisitely insisted in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
The piece was written in 1914 and 1920, in an England changed forever by the first World War. That period would also be the heyday of Harkaway Hall, the mansion that used to stand at the heart of the Lost Lands, where Paftoo now struggles to keep his memories. The Lark Ascending seems to say that what will be lost is more than just the loves of a few souls in a little story; it speaks for the loss of time, grace, of fallen walls in overgrown woods, bumps under the turf in an empty field. That violin seems to be shrilling from the skies: it won’t last. We won’t last. And how can Paftoo save it?
Roz Morris is, of course, your host on The Undercover Soundtrack. Find out more here, connect on Twitter as @Roz_Morris and on the writing advice blog Nail Your Novel. Her first novel was My Memories of a Future Life (Soundtrack here) and Lifeform Three is now available in all formats, including print.
‘Urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground’ – Roz Morris
My new novel isn’t set in the world of music and none of the characters are musicians. It’s a quirky take on the future dystopia/utopia, with a smattering of Arcadia too – misty woods, abandoned towns, a forbidden life by night; the scent of bygone days; and an enigmatic door in a dream. Behind the scenes, though, music did all the early work for me. The first, rough outline came to me from favourite tracks by Boards of Canada, Peter Gabriel, Vangelis, Enya, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Hungarian electronica composer Gabor Presser. As I built the story I listened to them repeatedly, and now each of them represents a landmark on my main character’s journey. Join me here on Wednesday, when I’ll explain the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Dave Newell
‘A song that puts me under a spell I dare not break’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Olafur Arnalds, Thayer Sarrano
Can music make a writer a better writer?
I grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.
When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.
Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.
Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension
When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.
Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.
Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.
Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.
I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.
Listen for the stories
To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.
Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at davenewell.net and on Twitter at @davenewell.
‘A song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break’ – Dave Newell
I’m delighted that this week’s guest has included Olafur Arnalds’s album Living Room Songs in his Soundtrack. I discovered it from another guest here, and it got me like a snakecharmer’s pipe. While I’ve been mainlining it to brainstorm The Mountains Novel, my latest guest has been using it to create an environment of conspiracy, calm and sexual tension for his novel Red Lory. He says he puts music on to act as a metronome, guiding his voice while he concentrates on the sentence formation and world-building. He’s also inspired by the way songwriters pack so much into a tight space, which drives him to make his prose more vibrant and potent. He is literary novelist Dave Newell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Wolf Pascoe
‘Music goes to a part of the long-ago brain’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Soundtrack by Michael Stears, Enya
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
‘Music goes to the long-ago brain’ – Wolf Pascoe
Before words. Before thought or language. My guest this week spends his professional life challenged by the reflexes and intricacies of the long-ago brain. By day he is an anaesthetist; an inducer of sleep and guardian of the unconscious. Sometimes that’s more eventful than you’d think. By night he is a poet and a playwright. His latest book fuses night and day in a memoir of his profession. He is Wolf Pascoe and he will be sharing his Undercover Soundtrack here on Wednesday.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Isabel Ashdown
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by award-winning novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown
Soundtrack by David Bowie, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, The Clash, Lana Del Rey, The Smiths
When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard. But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.
My work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel. At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke. From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics. Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.
In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right. Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature. My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over. Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt. In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976. Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.
Time of struggle
The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather. Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers. But it was also a time of great opportunity. Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility. Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible. Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man. But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything? Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether. For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.
Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict. He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew. This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same. Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy. During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths – This Charming Video Game. I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.
Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie. Find out more about her at www.isabelashdown.com or chat to her on facebook and twitter.
‘The impossible bridge between words and music’ – Philippa Rees
My guest this week has frequently noticed how many Undercover Soundtrack authors describe music as a benign, supportive influence; a creative partner, if you will. She says for her it has been more of a gauntlet; a challenge to reach further with her prose, to infuse every syllable with power and nuance. She has two works. The first is a novel, which she describes as a warm-up for the second – a poetic narrative of western culture and science. Well, we love the unusual and unclassifiable here, so she’ll be right at home. She has also been a frequent and incisive commenter on my blogs, so it is all the more pleasure to host her. She is Philippa Rees and she’ll be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Scott D Southard
‘Belle and Sebastian are truly a band made for writers’
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 Belle and Sebastian, Damien Rice
There is usually nothing more important to me than the music I have playing while writing a book. Music can inspire me, engage me, keep my energy up when I need it to be up. It sets the mood for me, and the right song can pull the right levers to get me to go from point A to point B in a plot. It has also been known to drive the people that live with me crazy since while I am writing I may play a CD a few too many times (Just ask my wife about the writing of My Problem With Doors and my nonstop playing of O by Damien Rice; an album I am forbidden to play in her presence again). But what I used for A Jane Austen Daydream was something surprisingly contemporary. This was not something for Liz Bennet to dance to (but she might if given the chance).
A Jane Austen Daydream, my latest novel, was inspired by two ideas.
The first was the desire to fix a great injustice that fate had bestowed on Jane. Jane Austen did not have a romance, she did not find the happiness she gave so many of her characters; instead she died in her early 40s, far too soon, with work still to complete and no love to mourn her. That’s where my book comes in; in it, I re-imagine her life as one of her novels. Trying to guess the story she would have liked for herself, filling the missing little holes with characters from her books and plots she created as well.
Over the course of the novel (filled with adventures, wit, proposals, misunderstandings, and surprises) we follow Jane as she grows in her understanding of love and becomes the writer the world holds dear… and then there is the love affair (the second idea), but that is a major literary twist I don’t want to ruin here. There is a chance it might be the first time it was attempted in a novel.
Looking over the catalog of Belle & Sebastian (and I am a fan, owning everything I can get my hands on), desperation seems to be one of the themes that never leaves Stuart Murdoch (the main songwriter) and his songs. Belle & Sebastian are truly a band made for writers, since their songs are little stories, little character vignettes. He wants to find meaning (and so does his characters), understand what is going on in the world. And just like Jane in my book he seems to believe that there is some great truth to discover, to fall back on. If life was only that simple, Stuart.
I can’t escape my novel when I listen to their CD The Life Pursuit and certain songs stir emotions bringing me right back to the creation of the book. See, right from the opening of Act of the Apostle, Part 1 I feel myself returning to that time, as if on cue that old writing part of my brain kicking in. Starting up the right CD to begin writing is a ritual for me, from pressing play to the cracking of my knuckles.
The moments ‘borrowed’ from music
One favorite song from the CD is Funny Little Frog. A lonely and depressing love story sold around a song that almost has a Motown feel to it (even with horns). When I was writing the first part of the book, in which Jane convinces herself she is in love (she is not) and the questionable male is as well (he is not), this song screamed at me; and I know there were evenings where it was on constant repeat. And, I must admit, some of the song sneaked into the section, with Jane imagining futures with this man, allowing her creative mind to run away with her (just like the character in the song). The song truly was infused throughout that writing, right from the beginning to its wonderful last line.
Another song that brings me right back to my writing desk is For the Price of a Cup of Tea and I’m pretty sure this song inspired something unique to Jane’s books. See, in my novel I try to keep every setting from her books, there is nothing foreign really there… Well, except the tea shop in her hometown. This was a device/location I used it in each volume of the book for Jane to meet with her friend Harriet. If that tea shop existed in reality, this song would be on the stereos in the background since the metre and pace of the song feels like those scenes. (Wait, did I just say there would be a stereo in the 19th century? Bangs head on desk, in embarrassment.)
Oh, and when I hear White Collar Boy I picture Jane running through a field. It doesn’t make sense at all. I know that, but that’s creativity and inspiration for you.
Scott D. Southard’s most recent novel is A Jane Austen Daydream (Both available in print as an eBook); his other novels are My Problem With Doors and Megan. He can be found on the internet via his writing blog ‘The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard‘ where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing. Scott received his Master’s in writing from the University of Southern California. He is also on Twitter and Facebook.