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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 Patsy Cline, Nick Drake, Jefferson Airplane, Claudia Schmidt, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson
Of course, the song that had the greatest influence on Crazy for Trying is the song that gifted the book with the perfect title: Willie Nelson’s Crazy recorded by Patsy Cline in 1961 and by many others since then. Nelson (who was just a journeyman songwriter back then) actually wrote the song for Billie Walker, who rejected it because it seemed like ‘a girl’s song’, which means, I suppose, that it’s gentle and vulnerable, filled with longing and a willingness to love with no hope of being loved in return. But I see those qualities as strengths, not weaknesses, and I wanted Tulsa’s story to deliver exactly the same vibe we get from Patsy Cline’s powerhouse rendition. Crazy features several times in the book, informing and giving voice to both main characters.
The earliest version of the manuscript took shape while I was living with my husband on a fire tower on Weaver Bally, a 9,000 foot peak in the Trinity Alps wilderness area in Northern California. I originally thought I was writing a stage play with music, so I sat out on the catwalk with my feet up on the rail, my guitar on my lap and a yellow legal pad between my knees.
I had the plot in mind, knew the characters, and had a list of songs, which I thought would be apt and entertaining in the show. Among these were Pink Moon by Nick Drake, Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane and Spoon River, done here by Michael Peter Smith. (I love Claudia Schmidt’s version.) Drinking Buddy by Claudia Schmidt makes perfect sense of the relationship between Tulsa and Mac.
A book, actually
While I was learning it, I started to feel that the songs were actually informing and developing the characters in ways that went beyond dialogue, evolving into more back story and subtext than were practical for a small stage. I started thinking maybe I was actually writing a book. And then I quickly glanced over my shoulder, burning with shame at my audacity for even considering the possibility that I could actually write a book. It took another ten years for me to embrace the idea and find time and quiet to do the work; I finished my first novel in isolation, undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I do not recommend this as a great way to write one’s debut novel, but it worked for me.
Originally titled Last Chance Gulch, my debut novel was published by MacMurry & Beck in 1996. Brainstorming titles, my editor, Fred Ramey, suggested Crazy for Trying, and it resonated like a gong. It’s so perfect; I wish I could say I was the one who thought of it. The only downside is occasionally being referred to as Joni (Crazy for Trying) Rodgers — which is probably not completely inaccurate.
In the years after Crazy for Trying was originally published, I’d occasionally hear a song that actually opened my eyes to aspects of the story I hadn’t fully thought through as a debut novelist, and I started banking them in a file, thinking I might revisit the book and indie publish a sort of “director’s cut” after it went out of print and I regained the rights, which finally happened in 2008.
While I worked through the second edition, two songs in particular kept me grounded in my goal to be true to the original while allowing it to benefit from 20 years of hard-earned wisdom and craft experience: Johnny Cash’s haunting cover of the Nine Inch Nails heart-wrencher Hurt says everything you need to know about the wrung out heart of an aging drug addict. Willie Nelson’s take on Coldplay’s The Scientist brings such a gracefully aged wisdom to that song about the task of loving, and his familiar voice brought me back to where I began.
The Crazy for Trying second edition debuted as part of Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a box set of seven stellar novels featuring extraordinary women characters, and will be released next year in paperback to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the book’s original publication. In addition to her own critically acclaimed novels and memoirs, NYT bestselling author Joni Rodgers has collaborated as ghostwriter/ book doctor on a number of celebrity book projects, including Part Swan, Part Goose with Broadway icon Swoosie Kurtz (Perigee 2014). She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of 30 years, mechanic/ winemaker/ voracious reader Gary Rodgers. Joni’s books and video book reviews can be found at www.jonirodgers.com. She is the founder of the League of Extraordinary Authors and you can also find her on Twitter @JoniRodgers.
LIMITED OFFER Psst… Outside The Box: Women Writing Women is available only until 24 May. 7 full-length novels for £7.99, including My Memories of a Future Life by yours truly. And it vanishes on 24 May.
bestselling author, Claudia Schmidt, contemporary women's fiction, Crazy For Trying, debut novelist, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Cash, Joni Rodgers, music for writing, Nick Drake, Outside the Box, Patsy Cline, playlist for writers, strong women, Swoosie Kurtz, The Undercover Soundtrack, vulnerable women, Willie Nelson, Women Writers
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 Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb
Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues
An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.
The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.
Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide
The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.
He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.
Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.
Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.
Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in the mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?
We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.
Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.
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My guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
air raids, authors, Britain, Desert Island Discs, drama, Help for Heroes, Kenneth Branagh, mental health, Moody Blues, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nick Drake, playlist for writers, post-war Britain, PTSD, Roz Morris, shell shock, Shell-Shocked Britain The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, soldiers, soldiers' mental health, Suzie Grogan, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, war years, Wilfred Owen, Women Writers, World War I, World War II, writers, writing, writing to music
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 award-winning novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown
When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard. But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.
My work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel. At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke. From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics. Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.
In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right. Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature. My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over. Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt. In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976. Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.
Time of struggle
The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather. Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers. But it was also a time of great opportunity. Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility. Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible. Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man. But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything? Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether. For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.
Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict. He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew. This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same. Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy. During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths – This Charming Video Game. I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.
Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie. Find out more about her at www.isabelashdown.com or chat to her on facebook and twitter.
1976, authors, Brian Eno, contemporary fiction, David Bowie, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Glasshopper, Hurry Up and Wait, Isabel Ashdown, Isle of Wight, Lana Del Rey, literature, London Evening Standard Best Book of the Year, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Myriad Editions, Nail Your Novel, Nick Drake, Observer Best Book of the Year, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Summer of '76, The Clash, The Smiths, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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.
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Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
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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
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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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