Posts Tagged music for writers
I settled down to read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack contribution and what did I find? The writer seemed to have plundered some of my own favourite tracks. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (though if you’re as much of a Kate Bush nut as I am you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to make an orchestral hat trick with Symphony in Blue). Not only has my guest served up a stirring soundtrack, she’s also made big waves with the novel she’s showcasing – securing a position on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. She says music is the emotional heart of the novel, speaking of relationships, times, hope, love and validation. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Deborah Andrews and Walking The Lights.
My guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.
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 book blogger, prolific short story writer and Polari prize nominee Anne Goodwin @annecdotist
Soundtrack by Jack Strachey, Faure, Grieg, The Dubliners, Mendelssohn, Karl Jenkins, Leonard Cohen, Terry Jacks, Country Joe McDonald, Jim Reeves, Eddie & The Hot Rods
Sugar and Snails is a mid-life coming-of-age story about a woman who has kept her past identity secret for all her adult life. The contemporary strand is set in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2004 from which my protagonist, Diana, looks back on her childhood in the 1960s and 70s in a North Derbyshire mining town, with a few weeks in Cairo at the age of 15.
Despite giving Diana some aspects of my own biography, I found it challenging in places to evoke the emotional atmosphere of her childhood. I had my memories, and the internet, but music proved a powerful tool in enabling me to delve that bit deeper.
In an early scene, Diana remembers dancing alone, aged about three and perhaps the last time she was at ease in her body. As it’s a long time since I was three, I listened to the music she’d undoubtedly have heard on the radio at home with her mother: the theme tunes from Housewives’ Choice (In Party Mood composed by Jack Strachey) and Listen with Mother (The Berceuse from Faure’s Dolly Suite Op.56). It was also helpful to listen to the music I’ve been told I danced along to as a toddler: In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
Although Working Man by The Dubliners isn’t about Derbyshire, it helped evoke the culture of the close-knit mining community in which Diana grew up. Ave Maria of Lourdes perfectly brought to mind her Catholic background; albeit slightly disappointingly since there’s so much better Christian choral music I’d have preferred to have in my head.
Diana’s difficulty navigating the physical and psychological changes of adolescence is central to the novel. I thought I remembered mine a little too well but, once again, music brought me closer to that amalgam of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia. Almost anything in a minor key would have served the purpose, but one I kept coming back to was Mendelssohn’s violin Concerto in E minor. At the time of writing my novel, I was also addicted to Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man (I’ve picked out the gorgeous Benedictus with the poignant cello solo), which not only put me in the right frame of mind, but served as a reminder that, for baby boomers like me and Diana, other people’s wars never seemed so far away. (As the piece also includes the Islamic call to prayer, it served a double purpose in conjuring up her auditory experience of Cairo.)
One of the key relationships in the novel is that between Diana and her father, Leonard. His character and his parenting decisions, such as they are, have been shaped by his own late adolescent experience as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. Like the biblical Abraham, brought to mind for me by Leonard Cohen singing The Story of Isaac, he sees his children more as offshoots of himself than as people in their own right.
While the Second World War impacted on her parents’ generation, Diana and her contemporaries watch in horror and fascination as, across the Atlantic, boys only a few years older are conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Country Joe McDonald’s Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die captures that period perfectly but I was surprised, watching the video, how young the hippies look to me now while, at the same time, they connect me to a younger girl to whom they appeared quite grown-up, and both exciting and terrifying in their rebellion. This fed into a scene in which Diana recalls her mother mistaking some long-haired boys for girls.
Aged 15 in 1974, Diana makes a life-changing decision. The early 70s hasn’t produced the best pop music, but no doubt she’d have had the transistor radio tuned to Radio One that summer. Morbidly inclined since early childhood (I suppose she might have been a Goth had she been born later), I had her listening to a song that leached nostalgia from that era, Seasons in The Sun by Terry Jacks.
I began to write Sugar and Snails in 2008, only four years later than when the contemporary strand of the novel is set. So, while music wasn’t necessary to transport me back to 2004, some of my casual listening did have a bearing on my decisions about the plot. The romance storyline, in early drafts dispatched in a rather disastrous one night stand, loomed larger in the final version, partly thanks to my penchant for the kind of sentimental songs Diana’s mother might have listened to, such as I Love You Because sung by Jim Reeves. But, although I was clear Sugar and Snails wouldn’t be a novel in which the woman is saved by the man, I wasn’t sure how far I was going to take her along the road to self-acceptance. You’ll have to read the novel to find out to what extent she’s able to overcome her demons, but I did enjoy listening to Eddie and The Hot Rods sing Do anything you wanna do while I thought it through. Given the long journey to publication, it’s an anthem to motivate any writer to follow her dreams.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel Sugar and Snails was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and longlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 60 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist. In honour of its first birthday, Sugar and Snails is available in Kindle format at only £0.99 or equivalent until 31 July 2016.
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on Wednesday to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
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