My guest this week had quite an epic journey to write her novel. It began with her experience of music as a graduate student, which made her want to write about the romantic and artistic relationship between a pianist and a conductor. She began to listen to more music to imagine the characters, imagining that within a few months she’d have it done, but the more she wrote, the more craft she realised she had to learn. This will be a familiar situation to all of us who’ve fallen for a story idea and then struggled to do it justice. Certain songs became talismans – Bob Dylan, Air Supply and the Rolling Stones – keeping her in contact with her original purpose and the characters who were so strong in her mind. Ten years on and her persistence has paid off: the novel is published by Blue Moon and has earned a prestigious award. She is Kris Faatz and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Tag: music for writing fiction
The Undercover Soundtrack – Caroline Leavitt
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’s post is by NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt @leavittnovelist
Soundtrack by the Smiths, the Beatles, Crowded House, Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones
My novel Cruel Beautiful World was written over a period of four years, with lots of tears, struggles, millions of pages, and I know for a fact, millions of songs. I admit that I listened to the same music over and over to get the emotional tone right. And I never could have silence when I wrote because the music both relaxed and inspired me.
You might think that because the novel is set in 1969 and 1970 that I listened to the period’s rock and roll back then—kind of dippy hits like Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), but actually, I didn’t. Hey, I grew up in the 70s and I didn’t want my own experiences leaking too much into my narrative. I wanted my characters to claim their own lives and their own music. And I wanted to create their world for them.
Every day when I sat down to write, I would listen to The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. To me, the lyrics are so very ‘cruel beautiful world-ish’ on their own. The song is narrated by a man in pain. He knows that yes, there is this hope, this light, even as he’s thinking about what a privilege it would be if a truck ran over him and the person he loves – death by Mack Truck. It always got me in just the right mood.
Some days, writing snags and I need a beat to propel me through it. Usually those songs have nothing to do with what I am writing, I just feel as if my heart is beating along with the musical beat. When I was writing the tortured, tangled relationships in the books, I listened to The Beatles Rubber Soul , that bright shiny sound, the beat that kept propelling me forward. I didn’t listen to the lyrics (if I had, I would have been derailed) but the music acted as a pulse.
When I had to write the most wrenching scene of my novel, where a death occurs, something I had put off for months, I had to be really tender with myself, but I also had to brace myself so I would go deep, so I wouldn’t pull back from what was important. That was when I listened to Those You’ve Known . What makes this song more meaningful and heartbreaking for me was my actor son was in a production of Spring Awakening, and he sang that song as Moritz. I wept listening to that song when I saw him onstage, and I wept while I was writing, but I got the scene done exactly as I wanted it to be.
Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House captures the feeling, the longing my characters have for one another–and my own internal longing which never seems to ebb. Listening to this song is like taking a vitamin for my writing. Back to Black by Amy Winehouse does the same thing for me because of its bluesy, smoky sound.
While I was thinking of my work as a whole, trying to categorize this unwieldy novel, my son was sprawled on a chair in the living room, avidly listening to this gorgeous song and I said, ‘What’s that? Who’s that?’ He looked up at me. ‘Group Love,’ he said. ‘Cruel and Beautiful World.’ I knew immediately that without the ‘and’ it would be the perfect title because it’s sort of my world view. Yes, things fall apart, hearts rip open, but there is love, too, and beauty and art and fresh Insomnia cookies.
The day I finished my novel and sent it off to my agent, I cried. And then I put on Tom Jones’s Country album, because that was the one I played every day when I was pregnant with my son Max. I sang along to it, feeling soothed. I used to put my headphones on my belly so my son could listen in, too.
I knew I was birthing something.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow and the critically acclaimed Cruel Beautiful World, which launched in paperback on 8 August. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and People, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as private clients. She was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, in NYC’s unofficial sixth borough, Hoboken, near their actor son, who lives in Brooklyn. Right now, she’s listening to lots of Benny King. You can find her on her website, Twitter (@leavittnovelist), Facebook, Instagram (carolineleavitt) and Litsy (Carolineleavitt)
The Undercover Soundtrack – GD Harper
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 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.
But 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.
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.
As 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.
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.
As 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.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Sanjida Kay
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 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
What 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.
Bone 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.
Bone 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.
‘A cracked but steely song of survival and beauty’ – Philip Miller
My guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.