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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 NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgers
Soundtrack by Dick Dale & the Del Tones, The Playboys, Rockin’ Rebels, The Ventures, The Trashmen, The Tremolo Beer Gut, Propellerheads, Shirley Bassey, Fabulous Playboys, B-52s, Booker T & the MGs, Dave Brubeck, Archie Bell & the Drells, Caroline Savoie, Hanson, Cake, Nancy Sinatra, Duffy, Amy Winehouse,
Kill Smartie Breedlove is the story of a Shep, a dishonored cop, and Smartie, a pulp fiction writer, who is convinced that Shep’s employer, divorce attorney Suri Fitch, is behind the murders of several of her clients’ inconvenient exes. It is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book – ever – and was born out of a pure pleasure reading/listening binge of pulp fiction (hardboiled mysteries of the 1930-60s) and ‘pulp music’: electric guitar and percussion-driven beats embodied by Dick Dale & the Del Tones’ Misirlou – which a lot of people associate with the movie Pulp Fiction. The Playboys’ Cheater Stomp actually gave me the original working title.
As I absorbed a plotting masterclass from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the vaguely nerdy vibe of the music took me to a creative place that was fun and full of reckless energy, a semi-cool throw-back to horn-rimmed glasses and pencil pants. The Dick Dale channel on Pandora features The Ventures, Rockin’ Rebels and other old-timers along with gritty off-beat wonders like The Trashmen and a Danish band called The Tremolo Beer Gut. These instrumentals are driven machine-gun percussion and gritty electric guitar leads. They’re a bit reminiscent of the theme music from The Munsters – which might explain the macabre undertones that rumble and rise throughout the book, which has a lot of ‘whistling past the graveyard’.
Rhythm and sense memory
Two songs that anchored me to my original vision with rhythm, lyrics and sense-memory: Propellerheads (featuring Shirley Bassey) History Repeating and The Fabulous Playboys Nervous. Archie Bell and the Drells Tighten Up always reminds me of exactly what I love about Houston, which is very Southern but very urban.
Roam by the B-52s plugged me into the quirky artistic tourism that compels dysfunctional Smartie to observe people and extrapolate their backstories. Dave Brubeck’s classic Take Five and Booker T & the MGs’ Green Onions perfectly capture the plodding procedural aspect of Shep’s work and the patiently canny way he goes about his daily grind.
Both Shep and Smartie are widowed, and a collection of cover versions of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine kept me mindful of how that terrible loss motivated and defined them. Two of my favorite covers are Caroline Savoie and Hanson. (Seriously! As in ‘MmmBop’ Hanson. They grew up. Sort of.)
Divorce attorney Suri Fitch’s calculating brilliance (and Shep’s ill-timed attraction to her) steps out of Cake’s Short Skirt Long Jacket, while the transformative sorrow, betrayal and bitterness she sees (and generates) in her business are present in Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang, Duffy’s Stepping Stone and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel was the chance to write about the publishing industry with a bit of the ol’ gimlet eye. Smartie and her critique-mates, a group of women authors called the Quilters, approach writing life with a wistful pragmatism best expressed by Nancy Sinatra remixing one of her dad’s standards, This Town.
Amy Winehouse, Archie Bell, Archie Bell & the Drells, authors, B-52s, Booker T & the MGs, Cake, Caroline Savoie, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett, Dave Brubeck, Desert Island Discs, Dick Dale, Dick Dale & the Del Tones, drama, Duffy, entertainment, Fabulous Playboys, Hanson, Joni Rodgers, Kill Smartie Breedlove, League of Extraordinary Authors, murder, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, Nancy Sinatra, noir, Part Goose, Part Swan, playlist for writers, Propellerheads, pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler, Rockin’ Rebels, Roz Morris, Shirley Bassey, Smartie Breedlove, Swoosie Kurtz, The Playboys, The Trashmen, The Tremolo Beer Gut, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Ventures, undercover soundtrack, Whistling past the graveyard, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is award-winning novelist, essayist and poet Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
The Good Cemetery Guide began one fog-laden winter’s night in a dimly-lit music locale in Kalk Bay, South Africa. Three acoustic guitarists, jamming loud enough to wake the dead, shifted my world a step to the left.
The uninhibited energy that rocked that small dingy space attracted a motley crowd, including some local town ghosts. Tony Cox, Steve Newman and Syd Kitchen, acoustic guitar fingerstyle masters, opened a passage between the real world and the possible world. On the long road home we passed a drab brick house with salt encrusted windows. The nondescript sign of a funeral parlour floated in the sea fog under a street lamp. Behind the walls I saw Anthony Loxton looking at himself in a bathroom mirror, back from a guitar gig, wishing his life could be different.
It’s hilarious in retrospect. My first novel was going to be about a funeral director moonlighting as a guitar player, when I knew nothing about making music or the undertaking business. But the musician before his audience was a perfect metaphor to underpin an ancient literary theme: No Man is an Island.
Part of my research was always having the car radio on – it felt necessary. One day I found myself finger-tapping to Ziggy Marley’s Jammin, and an image popped into my head of Sweet the guitar teacher jiving to his own beat, adding a repetitive gospel music refrain to the reggae beat; taking liberties with the musical greats.
Anthony’s alter ego, Tony the Fox, evolved in a similarly strong-willed direction; he began to think of himself as looking like Phil Collins. In those early days of story incubation I turned to my favourite power balladeers for inspiration: Richard Marx’s Waiting for You made me feel the pain of missing the woman you love; Phil Collins’s Survivors made me feel the sadness of doomed love with a shared past.
Gradually all the listening paid off. I borrowed bits and pieces of songs that felt completely right and authentic, and that amplified the storybook of a third-generation funeral director who strives valiantly to outfox destiny.
At a major crossroad of his adult life Anthony remembers ‘that sometimes the words of a song don’t have to make sense for it to be a good song’, and he ‘lets the man and the woman go to Mexico before the gringos came, and make capsicum chilli love as often as they want.’
The Mexican theme came up when I was ‘doing research’ in Kalk Bay. The discovery of the afternoon was a Mexican cowboy cardboard puppet who fired from the hips. Bang! Bang! He was delightfully impish, although the skeleton Señorita in her cellophane packet seemed impervious to his charms. I could see a small boy discovering Mexico in a forbidden library book. By torchlight he might see a band leading a procession and then a host of twirling skeletons and masked dancers (to help the dead go back) attending El Día de los Muertos. On that night of heartfelt sorrow and great celebration the veil between the living and the dead would be lifted; the Mexican cowboy would serenade the beautiful Señorita, and he would raise his pistols – Bang! Bang! – for every suitor, dead or alive. It was the mesmerizing Lila Downs who acted as my guide to a Mexico of the soul.
Anthony’s double life embodies secrets. The theme of concealment is interwoven with melody to express dark, melancholic thoughts the adult man cannot otherwise vocalise. I unearthed Texas troubadour Willis Alan Ramsey’s Ballad of Spider John while researching guitars.
Much of the novel is about coming to terms with existence, and how sex is only a temporary diversion. Writing about sex from a man’s perspective was a challenge. Listening to Meatloaf’s soaring lustful lyrics, particularly the gothic epic You Took the Words Right Out Of My Mouth, helped the sex scenes to flow. The effect of that single song and its sexual tension and irony was enormously helpful to get inside the head of my lascivious male character as he spun from one carnal adventure to the next.
When gothic love is followed by gothic death the musician quits playing and the masquerade is temporarily suspended. It’s left up to the broken-hearted to process the inexplicable as best they can. Robbie Williams’s Cursed perfectly evoked the mood of ‘immeasurable sadness’ that occasionally struck Anthony down. Cursed has a driving rock beat which captures the concrete physicality of being alive and then it slows completely and incredible piano sections evoke the fragility of love and the power of memory.
This is the unique soundtrack of a man who was born the son of a mortician, and given the gift of a guitar. In The Good Cemetery Guide music has the power to wake not only the dead, but also the living.
Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town. After leaving the IT business, she completed an MA in creative writing. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize 2006. It was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books in 2007. After retrieving her rights she self-published as an ebook. She has also published poetry and short stories. Her essay, ‘Was Ayn Rand Wrong? An essay on capitalism’, appeared in The Face of The Spirit: a century of essays by South African Women published by the Department of Art & Culture. Her second novel Lady Limbo is due for release by Jacana Media in November 2012. Connect with her on Twitter @ConsueloRoland Facebook and her website.
GIVEAWAY – For a FREE e-book copy of The Good Cemetery Guide send an email – before 15th November – to email@example.com with your full name and ‘The Undercover Soundtrack FREE e-book offer’ in the subject heading. You’ll receive a 100% discount coupon to use on Smashwords
HIATUS – Next week I’m taking a brief break. The Undercover Soundtrack will return on 14th November
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'