Posts Tagged male writers

The anthems that define us – Nick Cook

for logoMy guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Publishing. Hosting him here feels like the end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Ian Sutherland

for logo‘Hacking 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 cyberthriller author Ian Sutherland @iansuth

Soundtrack by John Barry, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone, Elgar, Moby, Leftfield, Underworld, The Smiths

I write to music; never to silence. For me, music is essential. It rapidly gets me in the zone and allows the creative juices to flow freely. Right now I’m listening to the movie soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer. I love it when the two tracks by The Smiths come on.

There’s a pragmatic purpose to my use of music. As most people appreciate, writing is one of the most solitary professions there is. And one of the reasons I procrastinated so long in my life before finally publishing my debut novel was my desire to balance time for my family and friends (oh, and work). And even more so when my daughters left home for university, leaving my wife and me with the proverbial empty nest. The only way I could write was to relocate myself to the living room (and be in the same vicinity as my otherwise lonely wife) and wear headphones to drown out the noise of the TV!

034_Ian_Sutherland-3 smallMy debut novel is a thriller called Invasion of Privacy. When I first started it three years ago, I mostly played orchestral movie soundtracks while writing. There were two reasons. The first was practical: at the time I believed hearing songs with lyrics would be distracting (I’ve since overcome that). And the second was because soundtracks follow the tempo of the movies they represent, and pairing different soundtracks to the types of scenes I was writing helped.

For quieter more reflective scenes, my favourite choice is John Barry’s Dances With Wolves, the slow pace of the rather long movie suiting perfectly. For higher tempo, more action orientated scenes, I often selected 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Especially the title piece, which features a chamber choir singing rousting Latin hymns with massive crescendos.

Characterisation

These soundtracks directly influenced my characterisation in the novel and were referenced explicitly. The main protagonist is a computer hacker who, whenever he starts a hacking session, chooses a movie soundtrack to accompany him:

‘Brody selected his favourite movie soundtrack playlist, set it for random with the volume high and pressed play. The opening bars to John Barry’s Dances With Wolves boomed from floor-standing Bose speakers either side of the huge wall-mounted television. Then, like a concert pianist about to perform a solo, he rested his fingers on the keyboard in front of him.’

A hacking session later in the book is, of course, accompanied by 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Ennio Morricone’s The Mission also makes an appearance in the novel. It had to, given the number of times the novel’s author listened to it during the book’s writing.

Musical surprise

Unbeknown to me, my editor Bryony Sutherland (no relation!) had studied music at the Royal Academy of Music. She picked up on the large number of musical references in the novel, starting with the opening scene where Anna Parker, the soon-to-be-first-victim, reflects on her journey towards becoming a cellist:

‘A childhood spent observing her school friends through the living room window playing forty-forty, kerbie and later, kiss-chase, while she practised her scales over and over, her bow movements across the strings becoming autonomic as muscle memory took over, the melodies becoming more complex and harmonious.’

Bryony appreciated the background and characterisation this short description provided, but also commented on how accurate the musical description was. In the scene, Anna auditions for a role in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She plays Elgar’s Concerto in E-Minor, a perfect choice for a solo cellist performance:

‘She took two more deep breaths, drew back the bow and launched into the concerto, her favourite piece. The music, as Elgar had planned, came slowly and hauntingly at first. Within a few bars she was lost to the stately rhythm of her part.’

Invasion of Privacy  KINDLE TIFF medSetting the pace

As the novel headed towards its dramatic conclusion, the pace naturally picked up in the writing style. To help me maintain a faster pace during writing, I began to play the soundtrack to the movie The Beach on repeat. High tempo electro beats by the likes of Leftfield, Moby and Underworld were perfect to maintain concentration and a high pace. I also noticed that I set the volume in my earphones much higher as well, drowning out everything except me and the words on my laptop screen.

And I’m finishing writing this very post on a cheerful high. 500 Days of Summer has now looped a few times, but I write these last words to the quirky and breezy song, Mushaboom. Always guaranteed to leave anyone in a good mood! Give it a listen if you’ve not heard it before.

Ian Sutherland is a British crime thriller author. Leveraging his career in the IT industry, Ian’s Deep Web Thriller Series shines light on the threats we face from cybercrime as it becomes all too prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Invasion of Privacy is his debut. Ian lives near London with his wife and two daughters. Find him on his website, Twitter as @iansuth and on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Ian is giving away 1 copy of Invasion of Privacy, either print or ebook. 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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‘Hacking to music’ – Ian Sutherland

for logoOn The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters.  He is Ian Sutherland and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Paul Connolly

for logo‘The power of music and friendship’

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 a capella singer and debut author Paul Connolly @ACappellaPaul

Soundtrack by The Beatles, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys, Thomas Tallis, John Barry

 The Fifth Voice is about the power of music and friendship, and the incredible influence both can have on our lives. The four main characters are struggling in various ways with what life has thrown at them (an illness, a betrayal, a bereavement, a mid-life crisis), but when they sing together none of that matters. Together they embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-healing, as they go in search of the mysterious and elusive Fifth Voice.

PaulC-TFV-promo photoIt’s all about the music

My very first memory is hearing Help! by The Beatles playing in an amusement arcade when I was just five. Listening to the song as an adult, I remember what it was like to feel happy and carefree as a child on holiday, being transported by music for the very first time. Coincidentally, John Lennon said he wrote the song at a time when he’d completely lost himself and was harking back to when he was much younger and everything in life was much simpler.

Aside from the obvious connection (four singers), The Beatles inspired The Fifth Voice by providing two of the protagonists, Vince and Danny, with the material for their opening dialogue, arguing about their favourite albums around a pub table. They don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to The Beatles, Vince referring to the Sergeant Pepper album as ‘a pile of over-contrived, trippy nonsense’. Danny hits back by informing his friend that ‘when Sergeant Pepper was released, Kenneth Tynan in The Times said it was a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization’. And so the tone is set for the emerging friendship between the two.

Oh, and there’s dance too

One of my own favourite albums is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, which features the song Ballerina. It’s a haunting evocation of a love unrequited, or perhaps broken in some way. Listening to it, I get a sense of fragility, of a man who is yearning for this perfect vision of a woman to be his. The fact that I was once married to a ballet dancer means that those feelings have the ring of truth, and both the song and my personal experience compelled me to include a character in the book who was once a ballet dancer.

Margaret, the mother of Neil (another of the quartet) is a smart, sensitive, worldly and compassionate lady of a certain age. She has suffered the loss of her eldest son, which both she and Neil are struggling to come to terms with. She has every right to be bitter, but instead she throws all her energies into looking after her husband and remaining son, helping local charities, and running a ballet class for the senior citizens of her village. In her early years she lived a rarefied and exotic life as a dancer in Paris and was, without doubt, held in as much esteem as the ballerina in Van Morrison’s achingly beautiful song.

Finding their voices

One of the first songs I learned to sing in four-part harmony was a Beach Boys medley featuring the ballad In My Room. It made a big impression on me, as the harmonies are delicate and easy, and yet powerfully moving. I had to make it the first song the quartet in The Fifth Voice sing together, the one that makes them and their assembled company realise that their voices blend beautifully and that they could have a future as a quartet.

The song doesn’t always serve them well, however. When Ken, their eccentric vocal coach and mentor, invites them to explain what the song is about, Vince suggests ‘a bloke in a room’. Frustrated by his lack of imagination, Ken replies

Well, that certainly explains things. From the way you sang just now, I’d guess that the room is painted entirely white. Featureless. And I’d say that the bloke in question is probably wearing a straitjacket, that the walls are padded, and that the door is heavily bolted from the outside.

Perfect harmony

The book is about the search for harmony, not just in the musical sense. Ken inspires the quartet to discover a curious vocal technique called The Fifth Voice, which has the promise to deliver a prize much greater than anything they can imagine.

This idea was inspired in part by listening to harmonies on a grand scale, in the form of Spem In Alium, a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis. Composed in the 16th century for eight choirs of five voices each, this majestic piece is mind-blowing in its complexity and beauty, and no wonder it is widely considered to be the greatest piece of English early music.

TFV final cover-300dpi-mod1The big picture

A piece of orchestral music I return to often is The Beyondness of Things by John Barry. Barry’s late signature sound of richly textured strings and reflective, romantic melodies has a wooing effect, and I find myself drifting away whenever I listen to this piece. But it also delivers a genuine sense of beyondness, of there being more to life than the here and now. And that’s the essence of what The Fifth Voice is about. Listening to Barry helped set the tone for the metaphysical aspects of the story, as when Ken first tells the quartet about The Fifth Voice:

Listen to a top quartet ringing chords, and the room will fill with harmonic overtones. And at a purely physical level, you could say that those harmonic overtones are themselves an independent voice. A fifth voice, so to speak. But that’s only part of the story. Any competent quartet can create a fifth voice, but very few find The Fifth Voice. That’s something that goes beyond the physical. Something that comes from inside each of you. Something you have to search for.

Paul Connolly was born and brought up in Liverpool. After studying biology at Manchester University he worked for many years as a technical author in the computer industry, the foundation of his writing career. Paul sings bass with award-winning a cappella group The Royal Harmonics, which provided the inspiration for his debut novel, The Fifth Voice. He lives in Berkshire, visits Lundy Island as often as possible, supports Everton FC, and has a grown-up daughter. He is currently working on the sequel to The Fifth Voice, and you can connect with him at www.paulconnollyauthor.com and on Twitter @ACappellaPaul. The Fifth Voice is available as a paperback and ebook.

 

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‘The power of music and friendship’ – Paul Connolly

for logoMy guest this week is another writer with music in his very bones. His novel features four friends who keep their troubled lives on an even keel by singing in a quartet, and is inspired by his own experiences singing bass with an an award-winning capella group. In the novel, his characters are in search of a state of harmony called The Fifth Voice, where all the hearts and minds are playing as one entity. He is Paul Connolly and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Paul Sean Grieve

for logo‘Plundered people and rotten exploitation’

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 debut thriller writer Paul Sean Grieve @PaulSeanGrieve

Soundtrack by Midnight Oil, Eddy Grant, Peter Gabriel, Christina Aguilera, The Police, Kenny Rogers, Animotion, Katrina and the Waves, Gotye

Before Roz asked me to contribute to The Undercover Soundtrack, I’d never consciously thought  about how deeply Poison, my debut thriller, had been shaped and inspired by music.  In retrospect, this is almost unbelievable, because every time I think of a scene in the book, the music from which I drew inspiration reverberates so loudly in my head I wonder how anyone can read it without hearing it too.

5607416_origToxic

Set primarily in Toronto and Honduras, Poison tells the story of Drew Freeman, an idealistic young toxicology student who uncovers a research file so explosive it could shatter the globe-spanning empire of a massive agricultural conglomerate.

If there is one song I feel captures the ethos of the story from the protagonist’s perspective, it is Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil.  This is the song that inspired the ideas which eventually coalesced into the story and it’s the tune I played on Youtube when I needed to get myself into Drew’s head. It’s a very political song interpreted to be about the plight of aboriginal peoples and the long-ago theft of their lands, but I’ve always taken it to be about the plundering of earth’s resources and the exploitation of its less fortunate people.  What made the song resonate for me as the ‘anthem’ for this novel and its main character is its undercurrent of anger at gross injustice and its explicit call to action. Until Drew exposes the truth, his bed may as well be burning.

Transitions

His ex-girlfriend Claire, on the other hand, is a somewhat more complex character, one we learn has gone through a gut-wrenching transition in her life.  Formerly a muckraking firebrand of a freelance journalist, Claire was driven by disillusionment and the increasing prospect of life-long poverty to earn an MBA in pursuit of a new career in business. As my ideas about Claire gradually developed, three songs helped me to understand her headspace in three key segments of the narrative respectively.

The song of her back story was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue, an angry but upbeat protest song that echoes a hopeful ‘we’re not going to take it any more’ sentiment.  I can’t listen to this song without wanting to start a (peaceful) revolution, and it’s the song that played in my mind when I peppered the book with subtle hints about what sort of person Claire used to be years before we meet her.

But this former Claire is not the same woman who ascends in the the glass elevator to meet the CEO of the Fortune 500 company she desperately wants to work for.  As she undertakes the walk on eggshells she hope will lead to her dream job, Eddy Grant is nowhere to be heard. Now, it’s Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, a song which to me suggests powerful ambition and lust for material success. Its unapologetic, in-your-face brashness helped remind me how revved Claire was about the new job that was her ticket out of desperation and how reluctant she therefore was to heed Drew’s dire warnings. But Big Time only took me so far.  As Claire reluctantly comes to realise that, in spite of her new glamorous job, she is nothing more than a shill for an evil corporate empire, I sensed the energetic confidence of Peter Gabriel’s song start to ring hollow and gradually fade out, to be replaced with the theme song from the film Moulin Rouge, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?  As I wrote the speeches Claire delivers in support of the corporate propaganda machine, I imagined this song about soulless prostitution forcing itself on her like one of the unwelcome hecklers in the audiences she addresses.

poisonFemme fatale

In fairness to Claire, she is not the only one engaged in prostitution. Desperate for money, Drew tutors a maths-challenged female student for a chemistry credit she desperately needs. Unable to afford the number of hours she requires just to gain a fingernail grasp the basics, Scarlett (the student) resorts to the only resource she can count on – her feminine wiles. Unfortunately for Drew, who, lonely and frustrated, still secretly pines for Claire, this sultry femme-fatale proves irresistible.  Imagining Drew’s obsessive longing for Claire brought to mind the melancholy classic Every Breath You Take by the Police, which, while to reminding me of the character’s painful isolation and emotional desperation, helped me intuit how a such an ideological man would be so keen take solace in Scarlett’s brand of comfort. (As an aside, the name Scarlett came from Kenny Rogers’ song about an exotic dancer titled Scarlett Fever, one of my favourites when I was a kid). In spite of a few minor ethical qualms,  he almost forgets his longing for Claire as this ‘forbidden fruit’ hangs ever lower on the branch.  As I crafted  the story of Drew’s burgeoning attraction toward his beguiling student, I couldn’t help but hear the fiery passion of Animotion’s 1980’s synth-pop hit Obsession, and when he finally gives himself over to her, knowing full well it meant the end of his desperately needed stream of income, I imagined him none the less on cloud nine, strutting down the street to the tune of Katrina and the Waves’s Walking on Sunshine.

But, alas for poor Drew, when the relationship sours in a way that slams back into the conspiracy plot and Drew is left wondering what went wrong, I can just hear Gotye’s super-awesome Somebody I Used to Know blasting from the loudspeakers in his tortured mind. It played (delightfully) in an endless loop in my own mind every time I worked on the scenes post-Scarlett, particularly the cathartic and highly significant confrontation with her on the street (the outcome of which provides Drew with a vital clue).

Paul Sean Grieve has written and directed short stories, but prefers the medium of the novel as it is a more complete work. Poison: A Novel is his debut. It is free for a limited time at Smashwords, B&N and the iBook store (or $0.99 from Amazon).  Or he says you can email him for a free digital copy as he loves to hear from readers. His website is here, and you can connect with him on Twitter @PaulSeanGrieve.

 

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‘Plundered people and rotten exploitation’ – Paul Sean Grieve

for logoMy guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Josh Malerman

for logo‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’

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 apocalyptic thriller author Josh Malerman @JoshMalerman

Soundtrack by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog, Creepshow, Beetlejuice, Danny Elfman, John Carpenter, birdsong

I think Bird Box was written in a trance… a glorious madman’s marathon that most writers are gunning for… the uninterrupted completion of a rough draft that didn’t see a single day’s work end in a question mark. There wasn’t any writing myself-into-a-corner (I’m more likely to do that here, writing this, than I was on that run), no cold sweats, no freak-outs. What a month! Bird Box was written in 26 days. But the awesome bedbug-tapping of the keys and the way I talk to myself as I write weren’t the only sounds that propelled it.

author3There was music, too.

At first, it wasn’t my own. Wasn’t any that I owned, I mean. And some of it wasn’t really music at all. Here’s what I mean.

I’d rented the third-floor attic (former servants’ quarters?) of a mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. The owner of the home, a musician, a woman, occupied the rest of the house. But I had my corner; a kitchen up there, a bathtub, a bedroom. And birds. Finches. Five of them. I couldn’t bring myself to keep them caged so they flew freely about the space (a thing that ended poorly for some, but was really nice while it lasted.) I had an idea for a book. A different kind of monster. Fuck vampires, I used to think. And fuck the blues. Both so boring! Gimme something new. A monster burst forth! Splitting the idea-ether, lopping the head off the self-governor quickly. It was infinity, personified, the incomprehensible standing on the front porch, swinging on the porch-swing. Yes! Infinity would chase my Malorie through the foggy black and white world of Bird Box as the birds in my rooms sang out, seven o’clock in the morning, flying from one bookshelf to another.

And how their voices spurred me on.

Birds

I bought an album, Birds of North America, to play in the intervals, those rare times when the finches grew tired and simply stared, didn’t sing. The sing-song sounds of wild birds spun on the record player, giving my rooms a new feel, and a wider landscape to the book. When Malorie turned her blind head toward the trees, the limbs stretched out farther than they used to. The sky was higher. Room, you see, for all these birds. And there was more. Yes! More music! The landlady played classical guitar downstairs, attempting to revisit a lost passion of hers… writing dreamy-fantastic songs, though she hadn’t written a batch in so long.

Ah, what a place of inspiration! And who would stop there? I’d discovered, for myself, the magnificence of mood, the way an album could influence the words on the page, actually making its way into the work of art. How had I not known it before? How could I have listened to talk radio while typing the rough drafts that came before Bird Box?

Can you hear it?

Can you hear the opening of the Creepshow soundtrack in Bird Box? Can you hear it in my book? I can. It’s in there. No, not at the beginning of Bird Box, not where it appears in the movie Creepshow, but all over the place… as if the book is beginning once again… over and over… letting you know something is starting something is starting I thought it’d already begun but something is starting.

How about the soundtrack for John Carpenter’s The Fog? That ought to be easier to locate. What with the fog that inspired Malorie to leave her house, one might simply point to the page and declare, I hear it! I hear the atmospheric synth sounds of John Carpenter, the Made Man of horror.Yes, as my collection of horror movie soundtracks ballooned (it’s flat out awesome now), so did the story of the book, most pages colored by Slumber Party Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and Beetlejuice (if you can’t write to Danny Elfman then… then nothing…then I guess you can’t write to Danny Elfman… )

I had no reservations replaying these soundtracks over and over as the birds sang and the homeowner strummed downstairs.

Twenty-six days isn’t long enough to go through too many phases. You get into certain music… certain tracks… and live ‘em for a month.

And yet, the attic scene needed something more.

Something big

I wish I could cite the songs used for that frantic scene, but I can’t. I’d have to call radio stations, talk dates and times, extricate one piece from another. Because, for the attic, I wrote to two songs playing at once. As the local classical music station bellowed, the horror movie soundtracks spun on the table by the radio. Oh, the glory of two unrelated pieces sounding at once.

cover!How can I locate a link for such a sound? Maybe we can try. Go ahead and turn your computer speakers as loud as they’ll go. Then play any song you’ve got on there. Absolutely any song. Now turn on your radio and turn it to the classical station. Blast that fucker, too. Situate yourself somewhere in the middle. Sit down where the twain shall meet and begin typing.

Are you into horror? Do you like writing freaky stories? Are you looking for a new thought… a freshie… something you think you aren’t capable of inventing? So am I. Always. And one place to find it is in music. Impossible music… abhorrent combinations.

Why… I’m listening to something like that now… as the door to the office balcony is wide open, the birds sing outside, my girl Allison dribbles a basketball in the driveway… and the soundtrack for Under the Skin spins beside me.

Can you write a novel without music? Of course. But have you tried it with it? Listen closely… you can hear the scope of your story expanding, the boundaries stretching outward, out… until they are as invisible as the medium itself…

Oh, fear not as the music writes the story for you. You are only a conduit. The machine by which those frightening tones will become words… those words sentences… but not before being born as letters. Letters first. Just like the individual notes of the songs that propel you.

Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the singer/songwriter for the rock band the High Strung (whose song The Luck You Got can be heard as the theme song to Showtime’s hit show Shameless). If you’re in the US, you can see him interviewed by @Porter_Anderson (the very first Undercover Soundtrack guest) at the Writer’s Digest Novel-Writing Conference in August.  Find him on Twitter as  @joshmalerman and on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – Josh Malerman

for logoMy guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – David Penny

for logo‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’

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 science fictioneer-turned-historical-murder mystery writer David Penny @DavidPenny_

Soundtrack by Tinariwen, Neil Young, Joe Satriano, Grace Potter, Counting Crows, John Hiatt

I’m a frustrated musician. Many writers I talk to wish they were musicians (yes, we know who you are, Mr Rankin) but, when I talk to musicians they often want to be writers. Or actors. As for the actors, well…

For me writing is a constant striving to achieve the same visceral punch I get from great music. It’s hard because writing is a different medium, but every now and again, for a brief moment, I like to think I’ve almost attained that ambition.

david-penny-full-bw-600-webI use music to inspire me, to turn off my analytical mind and don a cap of imagination. While writing my first new book for over 35 years (don’t ask) I used music as inspiration, but also as a wash of sound through which my hands drifted across the keyboard.

That book, The Red Hill came to me complete in less than a second, the entire idea and thread for a multi-book series. Then it took two years to write. The protagonist, Thomas Berrington, is an Englishman a thousand miles from home, a surgeon working in the final years of the Moorish caliphate that has ruled Spain for over 700 years. For much of that period the Moors were a beacon of civilisation in a Europe shattered by invasion, war and ignorance. They were cultured, scientific, and curious about the world. While the Vikings invaded the north, the Moors were inventing flying machines (1100), algebra, the clock, and studying the stars and medicine. In the book Thomas uses the techniques and instruments invented by the Moors – many of which have developed into those now used in modern operating theatres. His life is settled, deliberately constrained, until a man he can’t refuse asks a favour that could get him killed.

Below is the music that inspired me in the writing of the book, but more importantly music that just inspired. What more is there?

Tinariwen

This is how I see Thomas dressed in The Red Hill. It’s also here because I listen to Tinariwen when I need to get into the emotional world of the Moors before they came to Spain, the world they carried with them. I can hear this music – without the electric guitars, but the Moors did have lutes and some even believe they created the acoustic guitar – being performed in al-Hamra at the time The Red Hill is set – the music rhythmic, dense, ululating. And the performers – you can see their lives etched deep on their faces.

Neil Young

I love everything about Neil Young when he plays electric guitar this way. His acoustic, Harvest Moon period, I can take or leave, but when he performs like this it sums up how I feel about writing. The music is on the edge, barely constrained, constantly threatening to tip over into chaos and feedback, always pulling back from the brink. I love his uncompromising nature. I understand it’s also what turns people off his music, but the point is he doesn’t care. He does what he does, what he must do. Whether you like it, love it, or loath it, it is what it is. The struggle to write something possessing this raw power and emotion is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again. It’s an unattainable dream, but that’s all right, because it means I never need to stop. Just like Neil. And take time to listen to the words.

Also there is this cover of Cortez the Killer by Joe Satriano and Grace Potter. Written by Neil, of course, but included for a couple of reasons – the main one being the dichotomy between the slight Spanish vibe and the words. And it tells the result of the victors in the battle the Thomas Berrington series is about. I can’t help wondering how different the world would be today if the Moors hadn’t been defeated.

Counting Crows

Another band I can’t get enough of, another singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. My wife and I – kids too – have seen this band more than any other, and every time they’re different. Some people don’t like that, wanting things to sound just like on the album. Us? No – we like different. This song, A Long December, contains one of my favourite lines: about oysters and pearls… listen… Also listen to Miller’s Angels – stark, haunting, beautiful.

the-red-hill-600-webJohn Hiatt

This song, Have a Little Faith in Me, has nothing to do with The Red Hill, other than I listen to John Hiatt all the time. It isn’t my favourite song of his (that’s another guitar blow-out, but I’ll spare you), but it is his best known and most covered. John Hiatt it the best unknown singer-songwriter in the world. No, don’t disagree – he is. He just is. And again, listen to the words and bow down to the man…

I first saw John Hiatt at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 90s and at the end of a three-hour show that blew my socks off he said something that sums up exactly how I feel about writing: ‘Hey, thanks y’all for coming. If you weren’t here we’d still be playing this stuff, but we’d be doing it in our garage.’

Also try Cry Love. I’ve included this because Immy from Counting Crows is on mandolin (plus it’s brilliant).

David Penny is the author of four science fiction novels and several short stories published during the 1970s. Near-starvation led him down the slippery slope of work, which distracted him from his true calling. He has now returned to writing and The Red Hill, a Moorish mystery thriller, is out July 13 2014. He is currently working on two new books: the follow up to The Red Hill, and a thriller set in the world of industrial espionage. You can find out more about David and his writing at his website and you can connect on twitter @davidpenny_

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