Posts Tagged New York Times

The Undercover Soundtrack – Victoria Dougherty

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 essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty

Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks

I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.

Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.

I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.

And I used to be right there with them.

It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.

I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.

It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).

Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.

Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.

Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.

A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.

And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.

Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.

Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:

He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.

 

Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.

Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).

And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.

These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.

And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.

So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.

Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty 

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logo‘Harmony from fragments’

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 my guest is UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro

Soundtrack by Karen Siegel

What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. An exciting new publishing company, (Shebooks) gave me the opportunity to publish an ebook of three short works of my choice. I already had two stories that I was delighted with, but there was one in me that my bones, my guts, had needed to write for so long, and each time I started out, the ‘how’ of writing the story — its basic narrative, where to start, the climax, denouement—was like a balloon bobbing overhead with the string always out of reach, no matter how high I jumped.

MEW-01I went to music as I often do for inspiration, direction. Writing lines of prose on a page or notes on a staff are hugely different, but have parallels—they begin, have a middle, and an end. There’s mood, pacing, breath stops. I played Chopin, Sousa, Wagner, nothing clicked. And then, in one of my procrastination bouts, I looked up a video of my daughter-in-law, Karen Siegel and her acapella composition Confessions from the Blogosphere, and had the eureka moment I had been hoping for.

Karen (the woman with the blue top in the video) holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MM (masters of music) in musical composition from NYU’s Steinhardt School where she studied with Marc Antonio Consoli, and a PhD in music composition from CUNY Graduate Center where she studied with Tania León. In this piece, she alternated and layered humorous excerpts from random blogs. Sometimes the text was set intact and homophonic—with the whole choir singing the same text at the same time, in a single rhythm — as in the opening statement, ‘I like Paris Hilton for real. Should I be ashamed?’ More often, a fragment of text was repeated in one or two voice parts at a time, offset against the same text in another voice part or voice parts, to create a rhythmic texture. This texture was frequently a backdrop for a melody in a single voice part. At other times, the rhythmic texture itself was the focal point. Altogether, it was like a cento, a poem made up of quotes, lines, phrases from others.

It occurred to me that neither Karen nor I had to have the total vision of what our creations were going to be. She used lines of dialogue gathered by different people. Bingo, I could write lines of dialogue from each of the characters I wanted in Secrets (the first and newest short story in What I Wish You’d Told Me, and see how it came together later, rather than trying to create order right away.

It made sense to me, even physically. I have a spot in my right eye that I need to see around. Sometimes it blots out the full picture of what I need to see, but somehow, my mind creates the whole of it. A study from John Hopkins University shows that when a person looks at a figure, a number, or letter, or any shape, neurons in other areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different parts of that shape, almost instantaneously interlocking them like a puzzle to create an image that sees and understands. I’m sure this is true for all of our senses.

WhatIWishYoudToldMeIn Secrets, a story set in the 60s about a teenage girl, Leah, whose illusions about her best friend, Arianna’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot, I began with a piece of dialogue from Arianna’s mother. ‘You ran him over!’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a dog. It was an old man.’ Arianna’s father counters with, ‘I wouldn’t have hit anything if you weren’t so drunk that I had to be the one to drive after I had a few.’

After pages of dialogue, some of which I got rid of in the end —’Kill your darlings,’ as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his lectures On the Art of Writing — I was able to fill in the rest, and that was the secret of my writing Secrets.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in the Coe Review, Compass Rose, the Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Read more about her at her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logo‘Everyone is haunted by something’

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 my guest is UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro

Soundtrack by Tanya Davis

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, everyone is haunted by something. When my Viennese mother-in-law slid into senescence, she began to hear strains of her favorite operetta, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. It played in her mind, non-stop, at full volume. She’d press her palms over her ears, and still she’d hear it. She would ask her neighbors in her assisted living complex if they were perhaps playing it on the radio. When they said no, she invited them in.

IMG_1187‘Do you hear it?’ she’d ask, hopefully. ‘Do you hear Die Fledermaus?

They just blinked at her.

According to Dr Victor Aziz of St Cadoc’s Hospital in Wales, musical hallucinations tend to happen to women over 73 who are living alone and have hearing impairment. In their mostly silent worlds, the brain stimulates itself to in order to hear sounds stored in the memory.

If this should ever happen to me (ptui, ptui, ptui, as my Russian grandmother would say to ward off bad fortune) the song that would probably come to me is Art by award-winning Canadian folk, pop, rock singer-songwriter, storyteller, and poet, Tanya Davis. It has become my anthem for creativity. I watch the video each morning before I begin writing. When I get stuck, I play it again. Art is a deceptively simple manifesto, a fetching love song to art, to what it means to be an artist and dedicate your life to it. In her quirky, endearing voice, Davis exposes the writer’s vulnerable heart, all the doubts, the worry if it’s worth it, if you’re worth it, whether people will appreciate your work, the whole caboodle that happens no matter how many times you’ve published.

Art, its childlike delivery, the girl painting as it’s sung, brings me back to my childhood bedroom, its floor printed with nursery rhymes, where I sat at the small desk my mother had painted red, drawing and writing stories, the tip of my tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth in concentration. Every now and then, I’d call out to my mother, ‘How do you write flower? Princess?’ When she holler-spelled the word from the kitchen, I would write most of the letters backwards. No one required me to draw or to write. And I didn’t expect anything further to come out of it. I just had a drive to create and I worked at my illustrated stories every day without thinking of it as work or even as play. It was instinct.

The child’s voice is the truth

As Davis’s lyrics tell us, this innocence, this grace, doesn’t last long. But Art can help you pick up the child’s voice, which is where you have to dig to in order to get to the truth of any character.

KAYLEEGHOSTCOVERIn my newest novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, a domestic drama spanning five generations about life here on earth and after we’ve passed on, is written in four voices. One is the voice of five-year-old Violet, a beautiful and sensitive child who seems to be psychic like her grandmother, Miriam. Miriam wants the chance to mentor Violet to help develop the gift as her own grandmother, her Russian bubbie, had done when she was a child. But Cara, Violet’s mother, a modern businesswoman who knows all too well the pitfalls of growing up with a psychic mother, digs in her heels. As things become more fractious, Miriam’s gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves and anxiety to the reader who has to worry about whether or not Miriam can make things right in time or whether it is already too late.

A young child speaks with urgency, without guile, amped feeling in every word. The feelings are real, naked, and make absolute sense according to the child’s logic and experience. In order to know an adult character, you have to not just know the events of his childhood, you have to imagine what he was like as a child. As Wordsworth said, ‘The child is the father of the man’.

Art, Art, Art, you haunt me when I don’t write and you worry me when I do. You are the best part of my childhood. Please be with me until the end. Whether or not the world can live without my writing, I can’t live without you.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is a phone psychic and an award-winning writer who teaches at UCLA Extension.  Her first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) was nominated for the Harold Ribelow Award. Her newest novel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook, 2012) was an Indie Finalist. Articles have been written about her psychic gift in such places as Redbook, The Jerusalem Post, the Dutch Magazine, TV GID, and the Long Island section of the New York Times. She’s chronicled her own psychic experiences in Newsweek (My Turn), and The New York Times (Lives) which can be read on her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rebecca Cantrell

for logo‘This song says it’s time to get serious’

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 my guest is NYT bestselling historical thriller author Rebecca Cantrell @RebeccaCantrell

Soundtrack by Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo, Dakota Staton, Lotte Lenya, Dagmar Krause, Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Macy Gray

When I start writing a new novel, one of the first things I do is put together a playlist for it. I’ll start with just a few songs and then add them as time goes on, so I might start out with 20 minutes of music and then end up with an hour and half to two hours by the end. I listen to this playlist almost every day while writing the book. At the beginning, I hear every word, but after a while the music becomes background while I’m writing in some Berlin café.

cantrell_450pixcolorMood and world

My latest Hannah Vogel novel is A City of Broken Glass and it’s set during Kristallnacht in 1938, so I listened to some modern stuff to establish the right mood and some historical stuff to put me straight in Hannah’s word.

The first song on my playlist is the theme from the BBC series Wallander sung by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. It’s haunting and sad and reminds me that it’s time to get serious, to slow down and leave all of my thoughts outside of the writing room and get to work.

The next song was written in 1926, but I think it was more popular during World War II, and it reminds me that Hannah is always trying to help others as they try to escape the burgeoning Nazi menace, even at the cost of her own life. It’s Someone to Watch Over Me sung by Dakota Staton. It’s a love song, and if I’m working on a romantic scene, sometimes I’ll play that song a couple of times in a row. Hannah and Lars both watch out for each other, so it’s not as sexist as it might seem. Or so I tell myself.

After that, I move on to Song of a German Mother, sung by Lotte Lenya with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. All of them lived in Berlin at the same time as Hannah, and all of them fled to the United States during the Nazi years. It’s a very grim song about a mother who lost her son to the Nazis because she didn’t understand what would happen. It’s a warning to Hannah and a reminder to me that the Germans, too, suffered terrible losses and had deep regrets, even before they lost the war. I try to paint a nuanced picture of all the characters, because few things were as simple then as we like to think they were when we look back on it. I couldn’t find Lotte Lenya singing this on YouTube (although she sings other songs there, all worth listening to—she has a wonderful smoky voice), but here it is sung by Dagmar Krause.

Light relief

After this, I need something a little lighter and more fun, so I have Mack the Knife, which was also has lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. I have a version sung by Lotte Lenya as well, where she teams up with Louis Armstrong.  Mack the Knife was part of the The Threepenny Opera and was first performed on stage in Berlin in 1928 (with Lotte Lenya and Peter Lorre!).  I think Hannah would have scraped together the cast to go and see it. Its message of violence under the smooth surface was prescient. And Louis Armstrong is always fantastic. I could follow that voice anywhere.

City of Broken Glass Paperback CoverThe next song is It’s Only a Paper Moon by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I got it off a CD called A Time to Remember 1934 that was in the birthday card section of a gift shop in Hawaii. I always buy one for the year each book is set, although I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’ve moved to Berlin and can’t get to that gift shop. I played a lot of those songs when I was writing the book set in 1934, but this one stuck with even after and moved on to this later playlist, probably because I have Hannah herself sing it while under the influence in A Night of Long Knives. I think it’s been remade many times over the years, but here’s the oldie version because I think that one is still the most fun:

There are various songs in between, some historical and some not, but all of them hopefully speaking to my subconscious and keeping me in Hannah’s world. The soundtrack ends with Beauty in the World by Macy Gray, as it brings me back to the 21st century. And lunch.

Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel, the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke and the Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin. Find Rebecca Cantrell on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.rebeccacantrell.com

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