Posts Tagged music for writers
My 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.
My 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.
My 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.
The 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.
Push 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.
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.
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.
Above 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
Hands 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.
My 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.
The 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.
I’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.
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…
It 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