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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 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.
I 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?
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.
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.
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.
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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My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just seen an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, bass, crime, David Penny, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, guitars, historical crime, historical fiction, historical thriller, literary fiction, literary novels, lute, male writers, Moors, murder, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, protagonist, Roz Morris, Spain, surgery, The Red Hill, The Undercover Soundtrack, thrillers, undercover soundtrack, 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 attorney-turned aid worker and novelist Ted Oswald @Because_We_Are
Haitian culture is intoxicating, a blend of influences transmuted into something utterly unique and notable. Haitian music is no different.
Serving as the perfect fuel for the writing of my first book, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti – a murder mystery set against the backdrop of modern-day Port-au-Prince – I often drew upon an amazing library of past and contemporary music for inspiration. Here’s the book’s trailer since it fills in a lot of the back story. For those unable to watch, in 2010, I was a law student and interned in Haiti months after the earthquake. The story is set in the community in which I worked, a notorious slum called Cité Soleil, and follows two unlikely detectives—children: brash Libète and brilliant Jak—as they try to solve the mystery behind a murdered mother and her infant child. But more than that, it’s a story about bigger themes: friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community, faith and doubt in light of tragedy, and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty.
During the drafting and revision stages, completed primarily in the US, I relied upon particular albums and songs to snap me right back to Haiti; to again feel the unrelenting sun baking my skin, to get lost in a sea of spoken Kreyol, to recall hours spent walking vibrant city streets. But beyond a cheap return trip, the music often helped to define my characters and themes.
Special mention is reserved for the track used in my book trailer, a song entitled Nibo. This version is inspired by a piece written by Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe, the original recording of which was captured by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax during a trip to Haiti. Martha Jean-Claude recorded a version with lyrics in the 70s that immediately captured my imagination. More recently, Nibo has been given new life as a choral piece, Gede Nibo, by composer Sten Kellman. Every time I hear the song’s melody — whether brought to life by a plinking piano or a 40-person acapella ensemble — it powerfully captures the mood, tone, and mystery of Because We Are.
Vodou and rock
But I didn’t just listen to this song on repeat. Konpa is a modern-day mérengue played by prominent Haitian artists like Djakout #1, T-Vice, and sometimes Wyclef Jean (of The Fugees fame). Along with MizikRasin (roots music) which blends folk Vodou elements and rock (of which Boukman Eksperyans is one notable group), acts like these could be heard emanating from countless radios across Port-au-Prince. I was particularly moved by Atis Indepandan’s folk album from the mid-70s called Ki-Sa Pou-N Fe? or What is to be Done?. Listening to any of these strains of Haitian music helped to capture the manic intensity, humor, romance, suffering, piety, resilience, ribaldry, pain, joy, and sadness that so often comingle day-to-day.
Lastly, Because We Are is a story of protest. When volunteering in Cite Soleil, I taught a regular English class for young men using socially-conscious rap and hip-hop songs. Though they weren’t Haitian, artists like Talib Kweli (The Beautiful Struggle), Mos Def (New World Water), and The Roots (Dear God 2.0) capture a view of the world from the bottom up, reflecting the lived experience of my characters Libète and Jak and the young men I taught. I often found myself coming back to these artists and songs for inspiration along the way.
While scratching only the surface, I truly hope my Undercover Soundtrack might lead you to explore some new music and delve deeper into the amazing depths of Haitian music and culture.
Ted Oswald is a public interest attorney living in Philadelphia with his wife Katharine. Written while living in Haiti, after taking the bar exam, and before beginning his new job as a lawyer, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti is Ted’s first foray into fiction. The book is published by Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. It’s available on audiobook here. Follow updates about the book and its mission as a ‘nonprofit novel’ on Twitter and Facebook. Ted can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
advocacy, Alan Lomax, Atis Indepandan, authors, Because We Are, Boukman Eksperyans, community, contemporary fiction, contemporary music, Desert Island Discs, Djakout #1, drama, education, entertainment, folk, folk music, Gede Nibo, Haiti, Haiti earthquake 2010, Haitian music, hip-hop, human rights, justice reform, Ludovic Lamothe, male writers, Martha Jean-Claude, Mos Def, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, protest novel, protest songs, rap, Roz Morris, Sten Kellman, T-Vice, Talib Kweli, Ted Oswald, The Fugees, The Roots, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, volunteering, writing to music, Wyclef Jean
Fasten your seatbelts for a trip to Haiti. My guest this week was inspired to write his first novel by a spell as a volunteer after the 2010 earthquake. When he returned to the US he began to write a story of friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty. To recreate that distinctive place and define his characters, he returned to the music he heard pouring out of the radios in Port-au-Prince – folk, rock, rap and hip-hop. He says his work is a protest novel and so he’s donating the proceeds to aid organisations he worked with to help further education, advocacy, justice reform and prosecute human rights abuses. The novel is Because We Are; he is Ted Oswald and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
advocacy, authors, Because We Are, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, education, entertainment, folk, Haiti, Haiti earthquake 2010, hip-hop, human rights, justice reform, male writers, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, protest novel, protest songs, rap, Roz Morris, Ted Oswald, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, 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’s post is by novelist and Talking Writing columnist David Biddle @dcbiddle
My novel, Beyond the Will of God, is about many things: murder; rural Missouri in the heart of the summer; odd conspiracy theories; altered states of consciousness; and the realities of telepathy. Most importantly, though, this book is about the power of music and its connection to creativity, and what ultimately lies beyond death.
The story begins as a murder mystery, but very early on the reader is confronted with the realization that there may be a sort of magic to music that we don’t understand — rock ’n’ roll music in particular. Understanding that magic is the real mystery of the book.
The idea came to me when I was 17 and had just discovered the sorcery of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar work. The first time I heard his masterpiece, 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be), I became convinced that Hendrix had discovered a way to channel and tune human thought to a unified vibration. The title for my novel comes from a phrase in this song.
I wouldn’t start writing, though, for another 15 years. New Year’s Day 1990, I was listening to a radio special on Elvis Presley’s early career. Strains of acoustic guitar started up. A voice-over told us That’s Alright Mama was Elvis’s first hit. As I listened to The King of rock ’n’ roll, I saw a bar full of hard-drinking young people in rural Missouri listening to his first hit song, and an Amish boy sneaking in the back. I began to write. That work became the scene that is now in the middle of chapter one, ending with two characters lost in dark farm country hearing strange guitar music on the wind.
I knew the story was a mystery-thriller, but it would also be about the power of sonic vibration of all kinds. The untimely deaths of so many great musicians and personalities in the 20th century would become the center of the plot I was concocting.
Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are connected to all the sound in our lives. One song I kept coming back to that helped me meld the CIA with the hippie search for ‘higher consciousness’ was The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. Even today, almost 50 years after it was recorded, the use of tape loops, sitar, non-standard rhythm, and Lennon’s lyrics can crack open the most stodgy artist’s mind.
Over time, as I wrote, I listened endlessly to music by artists who, like Jimi and Elvis, had all died before their time – Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Croce, etc. Blues legend Robert Johnson’s story of selling his soul to the devil is where the black magic of rock ’n’ roll got its start. He died at the age of 27. In the classic Come On In My Kitchen he is haunting and mystical. Johnson has an important part to play in Beyond the Will of God.
Ideas of immortality
In the spring of 1997, I read about a singer and musician I’d never heard of before named Jeff Buckley. He’d just drowned in a channel of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. As I read, it became obvious Buckley was important to my story. His highly regarded album, Grace, was a smorgasbord of new music inspiration. Last Goodbye is my favorite song, but the title track, Grace, speaks directly to the ethos of Beyond the Will of God. It is dark, swooning, and ponders the idea of immortality. The first draft would be completed shortly after discovering Buckley.
But I wouldn’t have been able to edit and re-write my first draft it if I hadn’t found the rather esoteric album, Sushilove Sessions, by the world beat-improvisational jazz combo Global Illage. There are no easily accessible renditions of Sushilove Sessions online, but check out this recent recording by two of the group’s musicians, talented drummer, Jim Hamilton, and guitarist extraordinaire, Tim Motzer. Here they are, recorded in the spring of 2013, improvising the composition As Real As Life.
I listened to Global Illage non-stop every night for 23 days doing the final re-write of Beyond the Will of God. It went from 450 pages down to 350. Sex, drugs, (metaphysics), and rock ’n’ roll all wrapped up in a murder mystery.
Along with his novel Beyond the Will of God, David Biddle has published two collections of short stories: Trying to Care (2011) and Implosions of America (2012). He has been writing professionally for over 30 years, publishing articles and essays in the likes of Harvard Business Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, In Business, Huffington Post, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He writes the ‘Talking Indie’ column at the online magazine Talking Writing. You can track him down at http://davidbiddle.net. Tweet to him as @dcbiddle
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Music, dead rock gods, psychedelia consciousnesses and the CIA – this novel definitely had to feature on the Undercover Soundtrack. Its title came from a Jimi Hendrix song, and germinated when the writer was just 17 years old. It took him another 15 years to write, though, when an Elvis track kicked his imagination and gave him a vivid scene set in a bar in rural Missouri. The novel is Beyond the Will of God, the writer is Talking Writing columnist David Biddle, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Beyond the Will of God, David Biddle, dead rock gods, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Jimi Hendrix, male writers, Missouri, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, psychedelia consciousnesses, Roz Morris, Talking Writing, the CIA, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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'