‘A sense of trying to work something out’
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 contemporary women’s fiction novelist Joanne Phillips @joannegphillips
Soundtrack by Morrissey
I’m one of those writers who needs absolute peace and quiet to concentrate. Birdsong is fine; distant lawnmowers are okay; total silence is better. Anything I can ignore won’t interrupt my peace, but I can’t ignore music so I never listen while working. Music has always affected me deeply; I discovered Radio 4 during a difficult period in my life when the most innocuous song could trigger an attack of the blues.
Because I haven’t studied music I lack the vocabulary to explain precisely what it is that reaches inside and yanks out strings of emotion. I know there’s an amorphous sense of longing, of trying to work something out, and it’s this feeling, produced only by a beautiful tune or resonating lyric, that I aim to recreate in the reader when I’m writing. Great music and good fiction should transport you in some way, and no artist is better at evoking this response in me than Morrissey.
Conflicted and empowered
Morrissey’s lyrics have often inspired ideas for characters’ inner conflicts and turmoil. In The Future When All’s Well – a beautiful, upbeat song full of hope – is behind Stella’s blind faith in The Family Trap. As I listen to this track I feel empowered to take risks, to be my own person, and I gave this motivation to Stella, who is often quite infuriating but to me she carries this sense of hope and positivity with her always. There is a ‘definiteness’ to Morrissey’s music, a challenge, an invitation to take it any way you choose. Stella’s character embodies this – I prefer to write characters who are challenging, perhaps not immediately likeable but all the more real for it. And on a more general note, if I’m ever flagging or feeling low, listening to this track will always give me a lift. (Who says Morrissey is depressing?)
Last year, while I was writing The Family Trap, we were lucky enough to see him live in Manchester. There is so much passion in his music, and in the response from his fans, as you can hear during this clip (Every Day Is Like Sunday). And listen to those first two lines. It’s a beautiful, evocative image that prompts the questions: Who stole them? What happened next? The use of the word trudging is perfect. When I’m trying to pin down a piece of narrative, to reduce it to its core, I reflect on the use of song lyrics to set up a scene or emotion so economically. It really helps.
Not only do I listen to Morrissey for inspiration and ideas, I often use his music to reconnect to my own passion for writing, to be reminded that it’s fine to do things the way I want to, that I don’t have to follow strict conventions just because I write in a particular genre. Morrissey is the master of emotional manipulation and one of his key techniques is to contrast lyrical content with musical style: heart-rending, near-suicidal lyrics set to an upbeat, jaunty tune (I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris). While both my novels are contemporary women’s fiction, they are not light and fluffy by any means. Both explore fairly dark themes for the genre – losing everything you own, materialism, the effect of having a parent in prison, the possibility of paternal abandonment – and I think these themes are all the more powerful for being set in a more humorous context.
Of course, I do listen to artists other than Morrissey! But he has provided the soundtrack to my life, and influenced my emotional responses to music and writing in ways that even I don’t understand. If I can evoke just an echo of that in my readers I’ve more than done my job.
Joanne Phillips is the author of contemporary women’s fiction novels Can’t Live Without and The Family Trap, both available in ebook and paperback from Amazon. She is studying for a masters in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and works part time as an indexer. Joanne blogs about writing and publishing and you can follow her on Twitter @joannegphillips and Facebook