Posts Tagged non-fiction

The Undercover Soundtrack – David Gaughran

for logo‘Break your heart in just three minutes’

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 publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran

Soundtrack by The Supremes, Freda Payne, Bill Withers, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Bobby Gentry, Dave Van Ronk, Ernie Ford, The Pogues, Special AKA, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash

Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.

I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.

David GaughranMy latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.

Pleasure and pain

That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).

You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.

Strength is weakness

I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?

Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.

The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.

Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.

One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.

mercenaryAuthenticity and resonance

Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.

Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.

We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!

Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.

David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.

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‘The impossible bridge between words and music’ – Philippa Rees

for logoMy guest this week has frequently noticed how many Undercover Soundtrack authors describe music as a benign, supportive influence; a creative partner, if you will. She says for her it has been more of a gauntlet; a challenge to reach further with her prose, to infuse every syllable with power and nuance. She has two works. The first is a novel, which she describes as a warm-up for the second – a poetic narrative of western culture and science. Well, we love the unusual and unclassifiable here, so she’ll be right at home. She has also been a frequent and incisive commenter on my blogs, so it is all the more pleasure to host her. She is Philippa Rees and she’ll be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherine Ryan Howard

‘I was trying to recreate a mood, to write about events with a depth that the passage of time might have made shallow’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by travel memoirist, novelist and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard @cathryanhoward

Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Gustavo Santaolalla, Thomas Newman

This past summer I sat down to write 70,000 words about a three-month backpacking trip I’d taken in Central America in early 2008. I soon found that while it was easy to remember the things we’d done (there was a travel blog, a travel journal, a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring to refer to, a best friend to double-check with and a thousand photos to help jog my memory), I found myself struggling to recall—and so, recreate—exactly how I’d felt.

I turned to music for help.

There were songs we listened to while on the road that would’ve been obvious choices for memory-jogging, but I wasn’t trying to go back in time. (And I also find music with lyrics fatally distracting while writing.) What I was really trying to do was to create an authentic mood in the present similar to the mood I’d been in back then, that would enable me to write about the trip’s events with a depth of feeling that the passage of time might have otherwise made shallow.

And I found the perfect soundtrack—or soundtracks, rather. When you need music to help conjure up a specific feeling (and conjure it up quick), for me, there’s one obvious place to turn: movie soundtracks, which have been written to serve just that purpose.

The pick-up truck

I’m not exactly your typical backpacking gal (or even her third cousin twice removed) as the book’s title—Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America—suggests. For the first month I had to bite back a growing desire to pick up my backpack and go home, and an anxiety about the fact that I hadn’t yet. This all changed when, quite by chance, I got to ride in the back of pick-up truck through the stunning highlands of Honduras where I realised how lucky I was to be experiencing such a thing. To help bring back that feeling of pure joy and sudden elation, I listened to Gumption, a piece by Hans Zimmer from The Holiday soundtrack.

For those thirty minutes, I constantly reminded myself that I was backpacking. That I was in Central America. That I was in Honduras. That I was in the back of a pick-up truck, headed to a Las Vegas that didn’t have a strip, climbing up a mountain covered in luscious tropical forest and while enjoying an uninterrupted view of the countryside that expanded with every turn of the wheel.

And I recognised what a privilege it was to experience such a thing, and I could forever consider myself lucky to have done it.

I thought, I am so lucky that I’m here. I’m so glad I came. This was a fantastic idea.

Me, the Starbucks addict.

Me, the five-star hotel devotee.

Me, the reluctant backpacker.

Border crossing

The only true fear I felt during our trip was when for a reason that is still a mystery to us, a bus we were travelling on got mobbed near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. In the midst of it, our backpacks were stolen from the roof rack. It was hard to write this scene while preserving the confusion I felt while it was happening, to do it without diluting it with facts I’d learned since. Writing this, I listened to Iguazu by Gustavo Santaolalla, from The Insider soundtrack. It creates for me an atmosphere of underlying danger, sinister events that are unfolding quickly, and there’s something about it (the charango, maybe?) that evokes a feeling of a foreign, unfamiliar place.

The ending

We had to come home eventually and when it came time to leave, I became unexpectedly upset. Cruelly our travel plans had our second bus leaving as our first bus pulled into the station, and so our goodbyes to the rest of our six-strong travel group had to be done suddenly, speedily and unexpectedly. I wasn’t at all prepared — for saying goodbye, or for being upset having to. One of the most hauntingly sad pieces of music I know has a suitably sad title: The Letter That Never Came. It’s by Thomas Newman and from the soundtrack to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. To me, it sounds like sadness with roots: a reflection on the past, a move into a new future, a person changed by the events in between. Perfect, in other words. I put it on repeat the night I wrote the last chapter and by the end—and ‘The End’—I was more upset than I’d be on the day!

It was all a bit like Dorothy at the end of Return to Oz when a stone-faced Ozma cruelly sends her back to Kansas before she’s ready.

Damn that Ozma.

And damn that bus.

We did our best to run around to everyone with a hug and a goodbye, but it was a quick scramble, and we needed to get on the bus, like, five minutes ago. We waved over our shoulders as we ran onto it, and grabbed two seats at the back.

The last we saw of our little group was Dan, sitting on everyone else’s backpacks in the bed of the pick-up, a half-smile, half-smirk on his face, waving to us as our bus pulled away.

As the scene faded from the view, Sheelagh and I turned away from the windows.

And started to cry.
 

Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, blogger and self-publisher from Cork, Ireland. She is the author of two travel memoirs (Mousetrapped and Backpacked), a novel (Results Not Typical) and a ‘sane person’s guide to self-publishing’ (Self-Printed). She can usually be found dividing her time between the desk and the sofa, on Twitter at @cathryanhoward or blogging on www.catherineryanhoward.com

And incidentally, in this festive season you can get episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life for free on Kindle – but hurry to the Kindle store right now as the offer vanishes after December 30…

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