Posts Tagged music for writers

The Undercover Soundtrack – Isabel Costello

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black M, Jane Birkin featuring Serge Gainsbourg, The Goo Goo Dolls, Paolo Nutini

Music has been a big inspiration in the writing of Paris Mon Amour although I never listen to it whilst working. I love these tracks for the great sound and vocals, of course, but what I most admire in my favourite singer-songwriters (they tend to be both) is their gift for telling a story and evoking a mood in three or four minutes.  The economy and intensity that come from stripping back to the essentials is something I aspire to as a novelist.

The Undercover Soundtrack Isabel Costello 2If I could only listen to one artist it would be Springsteen.  He has amazing range and to me he embodies ‘goodness’, a key motif in my novel despite the characters’ numerous misdemeanours. In The River, he captures something I’m very susceptible to: the beauty in sadness (or even ugliness), as he re-lives bittersweet memories. Back story gets bad press in fiction but it’s extremely important – the key is to give it the emotional clout of the present, and this song shows how.  I’m on Fire expresses passion in a mellow and understated way; my book is about a married woman of 40 whose life is upended by ‘bad desire’.  In these situations, you either rein it in or find yourself the (not) proud owner of a melodrama.

I love Pink Floyd and it’s perhaps fortunate that I can’t elaborate on the many ways in which Comfortably Numb resonated both in the story of Paris Mon Amour (some will be apparent) but above all in the creative process, which coincided with a turbulent phase in my own life.  It’s always the aim to leave the characters and the reader in a different place to where they started and in this case, the writer too.

Whilst we’re on the deep stuff, Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of the few songs mentioned in the text – there’s a California connection – but again, it was very relevant to getting to the psychological core of the characters. It’s a very intelligent song: a complex questioning of what lies under the visible surface, something that fascinates me about people and places. In the book everyone’s hiding something from each other, and often themselves.

And that’s not all they’re doing.  The song that spoke to me on this was On s’fait du mal (We keep hurting each other) by Parisian rapper Black M, which I discovered thanks to my teenage sons. There’s a touching openness to this tale of remorse in which he acknowledges causing pain to those closest to him, something my characters know all about.  I’m moved by emotional honesty wherever I encounter it. Writing this book has made me less guarded and listening to this song played a part in that.

But for all this openness, as you’d expect of a book involving an affair, a lot goes on behind closed doors. I don’t need to get psyched up to write my sex scenes, which rarely get edited; all I need is to imagine my way into character and into the moment. Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime (moi non plus), featuring Serge Gainsbourg has become a bit of a parody – they do ham it up – but it always makes me smile and there’s plenty worth channelling: Gainsbourg has the ultimate sexy voice, the melody is languorous, the lyrics sensual yet remarkably direct, which is both characteristically French and the way I like it.

The Undercover Soundtrack Isabel Costello 1

Paris Mon Amour is definitely a love story as opposed to a romance novel, but it’s still the first time I fully unleashed my inner romantic, knowing if I didn’t feel it, nobody else would. To this end I often listened to Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, which is the most heartrendingly beautiful expression of love I’ve come across.  It makes me feel a weird mixture of euphoria and devastation, both of which I needed to capture.  Again there’s that sense of vulnerability, where in falling for someone you surrender part of yourself you won’t ever get back, and of the most intimate connection possible between two people, which is never ‘just sex’, as Alexandra discovers to her cost.

PMA-FINAL-cropIf her lover Jean-Luc had been a more typical 23-year-old guy, she would never have ended up in such a mess.  He may not have been interested in her either.  But just as some people notch up decades learning nothing, others aren’t limited by their lack of life experience.  (I couldn’t have written this book any earlier.) My final song, Last Request by Paolo Nutini, is stunning but painful to listen to. It barely seems possible that he was only 19 when he wrote it 10 years ago – it helped me uncover the character of Jean-Luc, which only fully emerged in the later stages, and to explore in depth what he and Alexandra had together. It’s a great feeling when you find the missing piece.

Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer who lives in north London. Her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was released in June 2016 in digital (Canelo) and audiobook (Audible). Isabel’s work has been shortlisted in the Asham Award, the Short Fiction Journal Prize and the inaugural Room to Write competition judged by Pat Barker. She hosts the Literary Sofa blog, where you can find her selection of recommended Summer Reads 2016, and was recently longlisted for Best Reviewer in the Saboteur Awards 2016. She can often be found talking about books on Twitter @isabelcostello.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – GD Harper

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 GD Harper

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tangerine Dream, JS Bach, Wagner, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Billie Holiday

In 1974, I saved up my paper-round money and bought a turntable. David Bowie burst into my monochrome life like a rainbow, daring me to be different. Aladdin Sane was the first album I bought, and every track seemed to be a coded message telling me there was no such thing as normal, there was no need to conform, that we had to be true to who we really were. Jean Genie filled my mind with surrealistic, decadent imagery, although on Cracked Actor a 27-year-old Bowie singing to a 16-year-old schoolboy about how fundamentally sleazy is a 50 year-old man brings a smile to my face today.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper suspense thriller ScotlandBut it was Bob Dylan who set out the agenda by which I’ve lived my life. It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) told me if I wasn’t always busy being born, then I’d soon be busy dying. I’ve spent my life reinventing myself, in appearance, in career, in lifestyle, in geography. It’s what keeps me alive. Curiosity is a muscle that needs exercise to stop atrophy setting in.

Reinvention

And so to my novel, Love’s Long Road. I was 55 years old, had sold my business and finally in my life had a financial breathing space to take the risk of another reinvention, to become what I always wanted to be, a writer. My novel is set in the 1970s, of course. There’s never a time in your life like the one when the music in the charts is being written for your generation. It was an era I could write about with passion, and, with a little prompting from Wikipedia, from experience.

Lyrics had inspired me to start on this journey, but to write I needed to find music to fill my mind but not fight the words I was trying to get out. So thank you, Ian Rankin. He did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his writing process and revealed the secret of his productivity: Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, whose vast, formless swirling soundscapes formed the perfect sonic background to my brainstorming and planning as the story took shape. I invested in the 4 CD boxed set, and loaded it into a multi-disc CD cartridge. I’d play it over and over again, never tiring of its astonishing ability to sooth and refresh my addled brain.

Bach and Wagner helped me raise my game when I was trying to be a bit cerebral when writing more literary prose, although I did feel a bit of a heel in the way I used Wagner in the book. The suave, sophisticated baddie in the tale quotes Frederick Nietzsche, has two Doberman Pinschers called Lucifer and Satan, and generally does all the things that scream out at you ‘run away, run away’ (which of course my heroine doesn’t do). So I had him listening to Wagner, even being a real Wagner buff, playing on all these Nazi connotations. Nothing could be more different from the ugliness of fascism than the beauty of Wagner’s music and I’m a bit ashamed of myself that in my own small way I’ve perpetuated a negative stereotype.

Legacy of Bowie

My main character was a 22-year-old woman, and I wrote the story from her perspective in the first person, a legacy of Bowie daring me from all these years ago. And as I started to write the story, the 70s setting started to grow in importance, becoming almost a character in the novel in its own right. The characters pored over the lyric sleeves of albums trying to decipher their meaning; there were parties, with blue lights and joss sticks and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon providing the soundtrack to mass snogging sessions. Clare Torry’s vocals on The Great Gig in the Sky 15 minutes 42 seconds after the thudding heartbeat opening on side one always seemed perfectly timed.

My character had to keep escaping from jeopardy and reinventing herself, so It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) spoke to her as well. And my faith in the corporate music world was boosted when I approached Dylan’s publishing company to quote his lyrics in my book and after they’d read the excerpts that feature Dylan’s lyrics, they became fantastically helpful and supportive in me securing the rights to do that.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper noir music writingAs the story progressed, music continued to shape the writing. If I needed a burst of energy to complement Tangerine Dream’s calming influence, some early-period Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen would do the trick. And at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, some of my favourite lines in the novel came when listening to lyrics. A seedy bar in the book, where

cigarette smoke hung in the air like a blue fug, the colour of missed chances and broken dreams

was written as Springsteen was singing in the background of broken heroes and their last chances in life on Born to Run.

And my description of a character as

having sprouted into a tall, gangly explosion of energy, jumping about like an oversized grasshopper

suddenly materialised while listening to Jarvis Cocker singing Common People.

Narcotic life

Perhaps the most powerful and harrowing part of the book is in the later stages, which deals with taking heroin and the lifestyle that goes with it. Writing in the first person, I felt I had to show my character initially embracing this destructive lifestyle, but it is a very challenging topic to write about, being mindful of the responsibilities of in any way glamourising or condoning drug abuse. It is still a bit of a literary taboo to describe the narcotic effect of heroin and I found as I wrote about my character’s descent into an opiate hell my writing became more metaphorical in nature. I let songs like Lou Reed’s Heroin or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit send goose bumps down my spine as I wrote this part of the book. I hope I’ve captured in some small way both the temptation and the danger of drugs as powerfully as these songs have done.

Final cover designAs I finished the novel and it went off for proof reading, I was, of course, shocked and devastated by David Bowie’s death. This is a blog about music but I can’t help but finish without paying tribute to not just Bowie’s musical genius but also to how his spoken word can be an inspiration. As I sat down to start my next book, I thought about what I’ve learned writing this one, about what to write, who to write it for, what people want to hear. And I saw this clip someone posted on Facebook today, with Bowie’s thoughts on the creative process. He says ‘Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.’

Good advice, David. Thank you.

Glyn Harper spent his career working in marketing for multinational corporations around the globe before setting up his own media and marketing consultancy in 1999. After selling the business in 2012, Glyn trekked the ‘Great Himalayan Trail’ in six months, becoming the first British man to cross the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route. On his return Glyn started writing, being placed third in the Lightship Prize for new authors in 2014. Glyn’s hobbies include music, photography and writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Facebook and his website. Love’s Long Road is his first novel.

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‘Music to fill my mind but not fight the words’ – Glyn Harper

for logoMy guest this week says he is much concerned with reinvention. He’s spent his life setting himself challenges to embrace new careers, lifestyles, places to live – and the latest of those reinventions is being a novelist. His debut title is a story of 1970s Glasgow and required some daring imaginative reinventions – not least, writing in the voice and psyche of a 22-year-old woman. A soundtrack was essential – Tangerine Dream to soothe and order the brain; Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and David Bowie to restart the period – and provide other wisdom besides. He is Glyn Harper – writing as GD Harper – and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Freedom, broken ties and love outside of marriage’ – Diana Stevan

for logoMy guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’ll be here on Wednesday.

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‘When I feel like a storm is raging’ – Stephanie Carroll

for logoMy guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Toni Davidson

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is multi-translated author Toni Davidson @silemrenk

Soundtrack by Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles, Goldmund, Speedy J

Long before my first book was published I believed that the setting for writing had to be just right, that there should be a room with a view. To be a writer, there needed to be a gnarled, wooden desk strewn with the debris of streams of consciousness – an emptied glass, an ashtray brimming with Gitanes and old editions of Beckett and Huysmans. I believed that environment completely influenced the writing process, that imagination would be nurtured by being surrounded by nice things. This ideal didn’t last. Lack of money, crap housing and the onset of reality eroded romantic  ideals. Besides, the external was a vain distraction. I needed, with youthful earnestness, to explore myself and what better companion than music.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson1Push forward and my first novel Scar Culture – a novel about the uses and abuses of psychotherapy with a dark, satirical heart – was written to what seems now a limited range of bleakness and ambience. I didn’t want words, sung or spoken, to fill or influence creative pauses, so I chose the airy drones of Eno’s Ambient 1 or Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopodie. On repeat, no surprises, just layers of sound and knolls of notes that were not so much background as everywhere in my head.

Music for reading

While I struggled to get the novel published, I messed around with its structure, excerpting one voice then another and made my own music to accompany a reading. It was simple stuff, a soundscape of pads and dripping sounds. Arty no doubt, especially when I sampled sentences from the text into the recording. It was of its time for sure but I enjoyed amplifying my voice so that it had to fight with the music I created. This wasn’t a bad thing. To fight one’s own words as a writer is to be a creative pugilist. It’s no use being in harmony all the time, such melodic reassurance can be counteractive. Sometimes dissonance can expose expectation – a prime example of this is Stravinsky’s first performance of Rite of Spring.

Writer, responder

Music became more embedded in my writing process when I moved to Vietnam with my girlfriend. Over the five years I stayed there, I became a different kind of writer and a different responder. I was not making music any more, I was not going out listening to music any more, most music I heard was in my headphones. My Gun Was As Tall As Me, my second novel, is set in a SE Asian country and it is crucial that the atmosphere of the novel is as dense and as humid as much of the sub-tropical environment I lived in. As I was teaching long hours in the daytime, later at night was my time to write and music helped me shift gears, to replace a working environment with a writing one.

One artist dominated the writing of the novel. Max Richter’s Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks became entwined with my writing head. The music was both juxtaposition to my sub-tropical environment with its cold synth washes, the echoing footsteps of European noir and a compliment. Within the music, the soaring then plaintive roller-coastering melody fitted perfectly with the distressing narrative of the novel; hope lifting the spirits and then horror torturing them. The music became a faithful companion as I wrote about the fate of Internally Displaced People in Burma. For sure, the music influenced the writing of the book; it released emotions that helped me get beyond the mechanics of writing and into the soul of the story.

Toying with expectation

By the time I started writing my third novel, The Alpine Casanovas, writing now had its own playlist. Gone were the days when a CD would need to be found just at the wrong moment. I could create a playlist and shuffle around, toying with expectation again. In the time since My Gun Was As Tall As Me, I had deepened my interest in contemporary classical music/electronica – Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules – most of who are on the Erased Tapes label. I have come to rely on the label to produce a body of work that suits my ears and the other label that does that is Type Records. In particular the mix tapes produced by label artists provide a narrative accompaniment giving the listener, as any good DJ does, a sense that the journey is more important than the destination.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson2

And now, as I work on my next novel, Electro Birseck, the play list has expanded. Because of the length of time I take to write my novels, I like to seek new work by artists known to me – their previous work is often too associated with my own previous work. Gotta move on.  This novel has music at the heart of its narrative, dance music – from disco to techno – from one generation’s drugged-up hedonism in outlandish costume to an underground music community culture in a location partitioned by ethnic differences. Truly music is now embedded fundamentally in my writing process as the playlist shuffles from the solo piano of Peter Broderick to the sequenced patterns of Rival Consoles; from Goldmund to banging sessions by Speedy J at the Boiler Room.

The Undercover Soundtrack - The Alpine CasanovasAbove all, music means a portable environment. My original and somewhat pretentious aesthetic desires have evolved to the relative simplicity of headphones and laptop. Because of my work patterns and my relocations, I have learned to write anywhere, from hotel lobby to the beach; from station waiting rooms to a room being battered by wet season storms. Music allows me to be wherever I need to be to write. I press play and I am instantly back where I was when I left off.

Toni Davidson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His novel Scar Culture (Canongate, 1999), has been translated into nine languages. His short story collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, was published in 2008. In 2012 his second novel My Gun Was As Tall As Me, was published by Freight Books. His most recent novel, The Alpine Casanovas, also published by Freight and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015. For more visit his website: tonidavidson.com. And find him on Twitter @silemrenk

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‘The lowest note in the universe’ – Tracy Farr

for logoHands up if you know who Delia Derbyshire is. Don’t put them down yet. Keep them up, waft them gently and imagine you are conjuring a shimmering singing sound. That’s how you play a theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. Theremins are an abiding inspiration for my guest this week; her novel centres on the life and loves of a cellist who becomes famous in the 1920s and 30s for playing this eerie, theatrical device. Her soundtrack is an ethereal mix of Portishead, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and of course Ms Derbyshire, one of the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. And I also must mention that the novel (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt) has been nominated for several awards. She is Tracy Farr and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘To make art by the grace of other artists’ – Camille Griep

for logoMy guest this week has set herself the task of reimagining the Trojan War and she says she couldn’t have done it without music. Her soundtrack has a stirring, epic scale with storming emotional keys, from Florence + the Machine to Thomas Tallis. More intimate pieces by Amanda McBroom and Esthero illuminated the interior lives of her Cressida (renamed Syd) and Cassandra (Cas). She is also a much-decorated writer of short stories and the editor of two cultural journals, Easy Street and The Lascaux Review. Drop by tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of Camille Griep.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Daniel Paisner

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 NYT bestselling ghostwriter and novelist-in-his-own-right Daniel Paisner @DanielPaisner

Soundtrack by James McMurtry

Confession: I listen to the Spa channel on Sirius when I’m writing.  Like, a lot.  In my defense, I don’t actually ‘own’ any of this music, and I’m not really ‘listening’ to it.  It’s just on, like white noise, a little something to fill the space between exasperated sighs.  I’ve tried listening to jazz, or symphonic music, or even piano sonatas, but when there’s a mood to a piece it messes me up.  I hate it when some long-dead composer’s sense of bombast or melancholy seeps into my work, so this New Age pap is just the thing.  (Plus, sometimes there are zithers!)

Mostly it’s the lyrics that get in the way.  I need music to fill the room, but there’s no room in my head for the words – not when I’m working on a piece of my own.  That’s not always the case.  You see, I make most of my living writing other people’s stories.

undercover soundtrack daniel paisner 1I’m a ghostwriter, by principle trade.  I work with actors, athletes, politicians and assorted colourful or celebrated characters and help them craft their autobiographies or their 15-minutes-of-fame tomes, and when I’m collaborating on one of these assignments I can listen to pretty much anything.  Classic rock, mostly.  Loud.  Since I’ve got the satellite radio set up in my office, that lately means Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel. Are you hip to this channel? Here, I’ve got it on now as I write this: Chocolate Watchband’s Let’s Talk About The Girls into Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie into Social Distortion’s Ball and Chain.  Lots of surprises here, always, and some of the jocks dig deep into liner notes and back-story, so there’s good context too, and when I’m rendering a life story that’s already been lived by someone else I can absorb these distractions.

A book of my own

But it’s when I’m not writing somebody else’s memoirs that the music starts to matter, and it’s when I’m not sitting at my desk that I’m doing most of my own work.  For example, I’ve got a book coming out called A Single Happened Thing, from a terrific indie press called Relegation Books (‘craft publishing at its finest’), and that sucker was gestating for a long, long while before I actually rolled up my sleeves and started writing.  During that long, long while I listened to a lot of singer-songwriter types – alt rockers and folk rockers, troubadours and hillbillies.  James McMurtry.  Jason Isbell.  John Hiatt.  Bonnie Raitt.  Christopher Paul Stelling.  Courtney Barrett.  Storytellers, all.  Writers, all.  Foot-stompers, most of ’em.  I was drawn to artists with a singular vision, a way of looking at the world that hadn’t been slick-polished by mainstream success.  There was no formula here, only a clear sense of voice and place.  A  sensibility.

A lyric that persists

A lot of times I’ll hear a snatch of lyric or a turn of phrase that stays with me and informs the piece I’m working on.  That’s what happened with this new novel.  It’s based on the life (and death) of an old-time baseball player named Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, one of the forgotten greats of the game.  He played in the 1880s, most notably for the 1884 St Louis Maroons of the Union Association, where he had one of the greatest seasons ever, ever, ever.  For a stretch, he was one of the best-known ballplayers in all the land, at a time when our national pastime was taking root.  And yet he died at the relatively young age of 43, penniless, friendless, all but forgotten.  His body lay unidentified for days — far too long for a man who was once baseball’s highest-paid player — and strangers had to be pulled from the street to serve as pallbearers.

undercover soundtrack daniel paisner 2Sad, huh?

I started thinking about Dunlap’s curious legacy, and looking for ways to attach his story to a contemporary tale of a middle-aged protagonist coming to terms with the fallings short in his own life.  Alongside this thinking, I was playing a shit-ton of James McMurtry.  (Yep, his dad is Larry McMurtry, so he’s got some serious pedigree to go with his serious chops.)  His first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, was on all the time in my study — and, after that, his follow-up, Where’d You Hide the Body.

There’s one song of McMurty’s, I’m Not From Here, that haunted me, stayed with me, and as he sang that title refrain and told his story of a vagabonding soul my own story began to take shape.

I’m not from here

978-0-9847648-3-9It was just a phrase, a snatch of lyric, but it spoke to me of the rootlessness that must have been at play at the end of Dunlap’s life — the life of an itinerant ballplayer, with no apparent tether to family or community.  At least, that’s how I imagined it.  The song, I think, is about something else entirely, but the line itself was all Dunlap, and out of that one line a story emerged.  Really.  Those album titles had a hand in things, too.  Left me wondering what would happen if together with that rootlessness there was also a restlessness in Dunlap that left his spirit to wander in the cosmos, like an unreceived radio transmission, only to alight in the path of another lost soul.

And so I was left at the intersection of two lives without footprints — one real, one imagined — separated by a century, and joined somehow by this one line from this one song.  Anyway, that was the germ of it, the nut of it.  And now, if you don’t mind, I’m back to the Spa channel.  There’s another story to tell.

Daniel Paisner is the author of more than 60 books, including 13 New York Times bestsellers.  As a ghostwriter, he has written more than 50 books in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians, business leaders and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell, including tennis great Serena Williams; Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich; football legend Ray Lewis; Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn; and potty-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried.  He is co-author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, written with Krystyna Chiger; and, the gripping 9/11 diary Last Man Down: A Firefighter’s Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center, with FDNY Deputy Chief Richard Picciotto – both international bestsellers.  In addition to A Single Happened Thing, from Relegation Books, he is the author of two previous novels: Obit and Mourning Wood.  Find him on his website and on Twitter @DanielPaisner

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Sanjida Kay

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 might be familiar to you; she’s been here before as Sanjida O’Connell @SanjidaOConnell. She’s turned her hand to thrillers for her latest release and is wearing a new writing persona, Sanjida Kay

Soundtrack by David Gray, Coldplay, The Choir of Young Believers, Massive Attack, Faithless, Sandi Thom

The Undercover Soundtrack Sanjida Kay 1What would you do if you found out that your child was being bullied? Laura, newly divorced and relocated to Bristol, learns that her nine-year-old daughter, Autumn, is being bullied at her primary school. When no one takes Laura seriously, she tries to protect Autumn from the bully – and makes the situation much, much worse. This is the start of my first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. The story is told from the point of view of the mother, Laura, as well as her daughter.

I found getting into Autumn’s head the hardest part of the process. After all, it’s a long time since I was nine! I wanted to get across what it felt like to be nine as well as the change that being bullied can wreak on a person’s character. Autumn is a shy, sweet child. She loves painting, misses her best friend, Cleo, and likes Mozart and ‘Bark’.

Listening to classical music and looking at Giacomettis didn’t help me understand what it felt like to be Autumn. I started playing Sandi Thom’s I wish I was a punk rocker. Autumn, a slightly other-worldly child, is certainly not a punk rocker – in exactly the same way that Thom sings about punk with the nostalgia of one who never experienced its raw anarchy; aching for a world that never was, whilst wearing flowers in her hair.

Laura, Autumn’s mother, is also shy and introverted. She lacks confidence and is vulnerable and isolated, yet, like any parent, loves her daughter with all her heart.

When Autumn was born, it was as if she recognized her, as if she’d always known that it would be her, this little person who had come to live with her and reside permanently in her heart. It was a love unlike any other: fierce and powerful.

The song that most helped me get into this zone was The one I love by David Gray with its notes of hope and fear.

Because of Laura’s personality and circumstances, she feels powerless to put a stop to some of the terrible events happening to her and Autumn. But at some point in the novel, she needs to overcome her lack of confidence and find inner strength. One of the triggers for this shift was inspired by a Coldplay song, Viva la Vida; a heart-heavy march of reluctant triumphalism.

The Undercover Soundtrack Sanjida Kay 2Bone by Bone is set in Bristol where I live. What I wanted to capture was the juxtaposition of the city as gritty, grafitti-ridden yet woven through with green spaces like The Downs and Narroways, the urban nature reserve where much of the action takes place.

Bristol is a vibrant, culturally-rich and ethnically- diverse place to live; it’s also riven with divisions between classes and races, rich and poor, and I wanted to imbibe the novel with that edginess. The tracks I chose that summed up what Bristol means to me for the purpose of writing are by Bristolian bands, Massive Attack, Safe from Harm and Insomnia by Tricky of Faithless. Safe from Harm seems to embody that uneasiness, its melodic voice and hopefulness undercut with darkness; this track combined with the restlessness of Insomnia were perfect for what I was trying to do with Bone by Bone: create a relentless ratcheting up of tension.

The Undercover Soundtrack - Bone by BoneBone by Bone is set over a period of ten days, covering Halloween and Bonfire Night. It’s grey, cold, icy: I wanted to develop an atmosphere that was taut, tense, sinister. To get me in the right frame of mind, particularly on days when the sky was bright blue and sunshine flooded my office, I would listen to this lyrical, haunting and disturbing single – Hollow Talk by The Choir of Young Believers – now made famous by The Bridge.

The lines began to sing, a shrill, electric song, and then the cacophony of the train roared out of the darkness. The carriages were almost empty and painfully bright as they hurtled along the tracks to the heart of the city. In the fleeting light she saw the meadow, dotted with stunted hawthorns, their twisted limbs dense with red berries, and then a shape: achingly familiar, child-sized, shockingly still.

Sanjida Kay’s debut thriller, Bone by Bone, is published by Corvus Books. She lives in Bristol with her husband and her daughter. Find her on her website, Facebook  and Twitter @SanjidaOConnell.

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