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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 Birgitte Rasine @Birgitte_Rasine
When I was in middle school, I remember proudly thinking I would be one of the world’s few teenagers completely unaffected by rock-n-roll.
That was, thankfully, a nanoblip in my life.
I live and breathe music. I’m trying to be really good in this lifetime so that in the next one I get to go on stage and sing. In this lifetime, I’m a writer. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating music—on the contrary – as I said in this post on Joe Bunting’s The Write Practice. In all of my literary career, I have not written a single story or book without piping the raw power of song through my veins.
I should cacao
My latest work, a historical fiction novel for young readers about the story of cacao, was written with a playlist you’re not likely to see anywhere else. What could Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil, and Manish Vyas possibly have in common?
They all flow directly into the marrow of the soul, through the ancestral stem of the brain. They all color the fierce romance (as I also said on The Write Practice) that is human existence. That, and they’re the musical backbone of my novel.
Set in contemporary Guatemala, the story is about a young American boy and his bee researcher dad and mum visiting an ecological research station (also known as a forest garden). There, our protagonist meets an enigmatic Maya girl his own age who introduces him to the wonders and mysteries of the rainforest, of growing and making chocolate… and an ancient cacao tree that neither one of them will ever forget. Intertwined into the narrative is a wild blend of Mesoamerican mythology, botanical and natural science facts, and flights of fantasy that make history soar to life.
Because my characters spend so much time in the jungle and the cacao grove, I needed the musical expression of the soul of the rainforest, of ancient plants and the cycles of life and death. I needed to be able to write passages like
He could see eyes everywhere; he could hear the breathing of a million different animals, birds, and insects; he could feel the living rhythms of the rainforest shifting from the energies of the day to those of the night. Nervous but thrilled to the marrow of his soul, he could feel all of his senses open up like the wide petals of an orchid: his skin electrified at the slightest brush of a leaf or wing of a passing insect, his pupils dilated to capture the luminescent pollen of the moon and stars filtering through the canopy, his ears tuned to the full range of chirps, clicks, sighs, drips, footsteps, and scratches, of the slitherings of scaled bodies, the flutterings of wings small and large, the stalkings of silent claws through the undergrowth. Body and soul surrendered to the jungle, and fear had to take a back seat.
For all of his hi-tech gear, Max felt completely naked in the darkness of the jungle.
A thousand plays
With the exception of the three Cirque du Soleil tracks, which only came in at the end of the book, I played the soundtrack over and over and OVER again while I wrote, probably a thousand times. I listened to them individually looped or in certain groupings, at certain points in the narrative. Lana Del Rey’s warm amber ballads stood by the characters during times of tension and uncertainty, supporting them in their deepest emotions, their rawest moments. For passages describing the rainforest, the cacao grove, and other physical surroundings, the instrumental pieces (Manish Vyas, Desert Dwellers, Professor Trance, Kimba Arem) painted a rich sensual background. Whenever I had to stay in a certain emotional state, I’d loop a song until the scene was done.
As inevitably happens, repetition paired with alignment creates active memory. Just as your body embeds certain movements into muscle memory when you practise a dance number, so your mind instantly drops you into the world you’ve taught it to associate with a certain song. For a writer, that’s gold. You don’t need a specific setting to write. You don’t need a certain time of day. You don’t need your lucky necklace or those sexy boots. None of that. All you need is your music and your mind. I wrote in cafés, on my sofa, in my bed, at the pool, in my car (parked, no worries!).
Riding the intense wave of concentration these songs swelled for me, I completed the novel, from initial research to final manuscript, in about six months, despite the constant and unavoidable forced pauses in writing courtesy of my toddler, clients, domestic responsibilities, and sleep. During the holidays, I endured two weeks of an excruciating sinus infection — but I soldiered on, writing each day, Manish Vyas et al flexing my pain and fatigue into a near trance-like state of focus.
At the end, when I was on the last chapter, my brain needed a break. Yet I couldn’t take a break—I needed to deliver the book to my publisher; I was already past my original deadline. One night, my family tucked blissfully into bed, I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of drifting away from my MS Word manuscript and onto the web pages of Cirque du Soleil. I’d gotten tickets to Amaluna with my daughter and stumbled across the soundtrack to Totem, another Cirque show we’d gone to see a few years prior. The throbbing native American rhythms of Onta and Kunda Tayé soaked into my veins, pumping the critical end of the storyline with new vigour.
But there are two other songs that carry the very DNA of the storyline, that I haven’t revealed yet. A book has to stay quiet and sacred until the day of its birth. And so it is with its primary songs. Stay tuned…
Birgitte Rasine is the author of numerous works, including The Serpent and the Jaguar, Verse in Arabic, Confession and The Seventh Crane. Her upcoming novel about the history of chocolate will be released by new educational publisher Zoozil (check them out on Facebook and Twitter) later this year. Be the first to know when it’s out — and what the novel’s two headline songs are: sign up for Birgitte’s eletter, The Muse. Aside from wishing she were an opera singer, Birgitte did actually lend her body — if not her voice — to music: she has danced flamenco, tango, salsa, the swing, the waltz and the hustle to name a few of her faves. She can still tear up the floor if she can manage to get away on an evening. You can follow Birgitte on Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. Or you can just become blissfully lost in her online visual soundtrack, er, website.
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Once upon a time, a schoolgirl resolved to never be a slave to music. She says she is glad this promise never lasted, because she cannot imagine having a creative life without music to guide and inspire her. Her latest work is a historical novel for young readers about the story of cacao, and features a heady soundtrack of Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil and Manish Vyas. She is multipublished author Birgitte Rasine and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is award-winning novelist, essayist and poet Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
The Good Cemetery Guide began one fog-laden winter’s night in a dimly-lit music locale in Kalk Bay, South Africa. Three acoustic guitarists, jamming loud enough to wake the dead, shifted my world a step to the left.
The uninhibited energy that rocked that small dingy space attracted a motley crowd, including some local town ghosts. Tony Cox, Steve Newman and Syd Kitchen, acoustic guitar fingerstyle masters, opened a passage between the real world and the possible world. On the long road home we passed a drab brick house with salt encrusted windows. The nondescript sign of a funeral parlour floated in the sea fog under a street lamp. Behind the walls I saw Anthony Loxton looking at himself in a bathroom mirror, back from a guitar gig, wishing his life could be different.
It’s hilarious in retrospect. My first novel was going to be about a funeral director moonlighting as a guitar player, when I knew nothing about making music or the undertaking business. But the musician before his audience was a perfect metaphor to underpin an ancient literary theme: No Man is an Island.
Part of my research was always having the car radio on – it felt necessary. One day I found myself finger-tapping to Ziggy Marley’s Jammin, and an image popped into my head of Sweet the guitar teacher jiving to his own beat, adding a repetitive gospel music refrain to the reggae beat; taking liberties with the musical greats.
Anthony’s alter ego, Tony the Fox, evolved in a similarly strong-willed direction; he began to think of himself as looking like Phil Collins. In those early days of story incubation I turned to my favourite power balladeers for inspiration: Richard Marx’s Waiting for You made me feel the pain of missing the woman you love; Phil Collins’s Survivors made me feel the sadness of doomed love with a shared past.
Gradually all the listening paid off. I borrowed bits and pieces of songs that felt completely right and authentic, and that amplified the storybook of a third-generation funeral director who strives valiantly to outfox destiny.
At a major crossroad of his adult life Anthony remembers ‘that sometimes the words of a song don’t have to make sense for it to be a good song’, and he ‘lets the man and the woman go to Mexico before the gringos came, and make capsicum chilli love as often as they want.’
The Mexican theme came up when I was ‘doing research’ in Kalk Bay. The discovery of the afternoon was a Mexican cowboy cardboard puppet who fired from the hips. Bang! Bang! He was delightfully impish, although the skeleton Señorita in her cellophane packet seemed impervious to his charms. I could see a small boy discovering Mexico in a forbidden library book. By torchlight he might see a band leading a procession and then a host of twirling skeletons and masked dancers (to help the dead go back) attending El Día de los Muertos. On that night of heartfelt sorrow and great celebration the veil between the living and the dead would be lifted; the Mexican cowboy would serenade the beautiful Señorita, and he would raise his pistols – Bang! Bang! – for every suitor, dead or alive. It was the mesmerizing Lila Downs who acted as my guide to a Mexico of the soul.
Anthony’s double life embodies secrets. The theme of concealment is interwoven with melody to express dark, melancholic thoughts the adult man cannot otherwise vocalise. I unearthed Texas troubadour Willis Alan Ramsey’s Ballad of Spider John while researching guitars.
Much of the novel is about coming to terms with existence, and how sex is only a temporary diversion. Writing about sex from a man’s perspective was a challenge. Listening to Meatloaf’s soaring lustful lyrics, particularly the gothic epic You Took the Words Right Out Of My Mouth, helped the sex scenes to flow. The effect of that single song and its sexual tension and irony was enormously helpful to get inside the head of my lascivious male character as he spun from one carnal adventure to the next.
When gothic love is followed by gothic death the musician quits playing and the masquerade is temporarily suspended. It’s left up to the broken-hearted to process the inexplicable as best they can. Robbie Williams’s Cursed perfectly evoked the mood of ‘immeasurable sadness’ that occasionally struck Anthony down. Cursed has a driving rock beat which captures the concrete physicality of being alive and then it slows completely and incredible piano sections evoke the fragility of love and the power of memory.
This is the unique soundtrack of a man who was born the son of a mortician, and given the gift of a guitar. In The Good Cemetery Guide music has the power to wake not only the dead, but also the living.
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town. After leaving the IT business, she completed an MA in creative writing. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2006. It was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books in 2007. After retrieving her rights she self-published as an ebook. She has also published poetry and short stories. Her essay, ‘Was Ayn Rand Wrong? An essay on capitalism’, appeared in The Face of The Spirit: a century of essays by South African Women published by the Department of Art & Culture. Her second novel Lady Limbo is due for release by Jacana Media in November 2012. Connect with her on Twitter @ConsueloRoland Facebook and her website.
GIVEAWAY – For a FREE e-book copy of The Good Cemetery Guide send an email – before 15th November – to firstname.lastname@example.org with your full name and ‘The Undercover Soundtrack FREE e-book offer’ in the subject heading. You’ll receive a 100% discount coupon to use on Smashwords
HIATUS – Next week I’m taking a brief break. The Undercover Soundtrack will return on 14th November
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This week, Undercover Soundtrack day falls on Halloween. And my guest has more than risen to the occasion. Her main character is a guitar-playing mortician’s son and she built his life and passions from eclectic musical sources including reggae, Texan ballads, traditional Mexican music, Phil Collins, Robbie Williams and the Beatles. You’ll grin like a stripped skull when you see what she took from Meatloaf. She is Consuelo Roland and she’s here on the spookiest day of the year, sharing the Undercover Soundtrack for her literary novel The Good Cemetery Guide.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is historical novelist Erika Robuck @ErikaRobuck
I don’t know who once said that art begets art, but that has always been true for me in my creative process. There’s nothing like a particularly evocative painting or piece of music to inspire scenes, mood, or even character in my writing.
My latest novel, Hemingway’s Girl, is set in Key West in 1935, when a half-Cuban woman goes to work for Ernest Hemingway to support her widowed mother and sisters, and save money to start her own charter fishing boat business. Soon after she becomes Hemingway’s housekeeper, she finds herself torn between the writer and a WWI veteran and boxer working on the Overseas Highway.
Like the other novels I’ve written, music was integral to my creation of this work, particularly in the areas of temperature, time, and theme.
In Hemingway’s Girl, the characters and the time period are warm, passionate, and colorful. From the Spanish-speaking Cuban mother, to the dark bars and boxing matches in town, to boating under the blazing sun on the Gulf of Mexico, Hemingway’s Girl simmers with tropical heat.
Nothing captures that simmering intensity for me better than Spanish classical guitar music, specifically by Manuel Ponce and David Russell. Both composers’ blends of sultry guitar riffs, moody reflective measures, and sudden bursts of sound and scale matched my characters and their volatility.
One of my characters is an amputee from WWI, and he plays Ponce’s Suite in A Minor on his guitar to convey his emotions associated with his passionate love of life and pain over his loss, just as my protagonist’s widowed mother plays the song on her gramophone. I named the song in the text as a frame of reference for the reader with the hopes of sending my audience searching for the music that inspired me, and to convey the heat I felt while writing it.
Writing historical fiction while living in the present day, with three sons running around the house, is a special challenge. When I step into the writing zone, I put down a sippy cup and pick up a metaphorical long, pearly cigarette holder. I don’t actually smoke, but the act of turning from my life to the past happens more seamlessly in the context of prop and music.
While writing Hemingway’s Girl, one of the songs that grounded me in the thirties was All Through the Night by Cole Porter. It came on a Pandora mix one night while I was writing, and inspired a scene where my protagonist first danced with the boxer. The song is so intimate and filled with longing that I was able to get lost in a moment where two people began to understand the depth of their feelings for each other. The music opened up a new avenue for me in the story because, until hearing it, I couldn’t figure out how to transition their relationship from casual friendship to the beginnings of love. It was the music that made the scene.
Ernest Hemingway once said that he used words the way that Bach used notes. He said that he studied Cezanne until he could paint a landscape with words the way the artist could with his brush. Hemingway felt the connection between art forms and recognized their power. It is my hope that the music in the creation and product of my novel enhances the themes in the story.
Erika Robuck is a guest blogger at Writer Unboxed and has her own historical fiction blog called Muse. Her novel, Hemingway’s Girl, was published in September 2012 by NAL/Penguin, and will be followed by Call Me Zelda in 2013. Connect on her website, www.erikarobuck.com, Twitter @ErikaRobuck, or on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Erika is giving away one signed copy of Hemingway’s Girl to a commenter here… so be sure to say hello!
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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.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'