My guest this week began writing at roughly the same time as she started piano lessons. She says music and writing have always been natural pursuits for her, ways to help her grapple with a fundamental need to express the inexpressible. When she needed an aural companion for her epic fantasy series she found it in Bill Whelan’s rousing Riverdance. She is Melissa McPhail and she will be here on Wednesday talking about her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Niki Valentine
‘The psychological disorder of the piece appealed to me’
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 novelist and creative writing tutor Niki Valentine @nikimon
Soundtrack by Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Valentina Lisitsa
Music is incredibly important to me as a writer and has played a large part in my process, as well as populating my stories almost constantly. My latest novel, Possessed, is immersed in music in that it takes place in a conservatoire at an unnamed university. The students are obsessed and driven by music. This means that music comes out in the story itself. Both of the pieces I’m going to talk about appear in the narrative, in rather dramatic ways, but what’s more interesting, I think, is how these pieces fed into my writing process.
The vulnerability of a female soloist
The first piece is Schubert’s Ave Maria. This has a special place in my heart because it was performed at my wedding. For some reason this piece was running a constant background in my head as I sat down to write. As the music played out in my head, I could see one of my main characters singing it, and it meant I could hear her voice, picture her vulnerability. This fed into her character in many ways. Firstly, she became a singer as well as a flautist, which I hadn’t originally planned, and it helped to distinguish her from her twin sister, both in my mind and in the narrative. There is something haunting about this piece of music and I think part of that comes from the vulnerability of a female soloist, hitting those high notes. And, of course, it’s often a funeral hymn, or sung in church.
The other piece came later in the process, meaning that I was brought to it by one of my characters rather than the other way around. I realised that my protagonist, a young pianist called Emma, had never played a Rach and that she wanted to. This led me to listen to some Rachmaninoff concertos and sonatas, which became a constant background to my planning and writing. I wanted to bring in the intensity of certain pieces of piano music and how they could be consuming. In the end, I chose his Sonata number 1 and focused on the first movement. I was particularly struck by this recording by Valentina Lisitsa.
The characters in the music
There is something compelling about this sonata and, of course, it’s highly technical. I think it’s utterly lovely, and full of power, and the Lisitsa performance keys into that. Each time I listened, I found something different there. Since I’ve been writing I’ve had two absolute gifts that have presented themselves to me in the research stage. The title of my first novel was one and this piece of music, the other. The more I listened, the more I felt that my characters were there in the music, trying to get through to me. It fed into my process in an ongoing way.
I then read about its genesis and Rachmaninoff’s composition process. This was where something magical seemed to happen. I discovered that the composer had originally themed the Sonata on Goethe’s Faust. The tragic play of lost innocence has so many resonances with my story. Like the play, Possessed has three main characters and, similarly, there’s the sense of naivety about one, malevolence in another and, perhaps, collusion and deception from the third. I love to play with grey areas in my fiction, so there is sense that these personality traits move between my characters but, essentially, the triangle is similar. Even more wonderfully, I’d focused on the first movement, said to represent the turmoil of Faust’s mind. In my stories, the psychological disorder of the characters is all important and perhaps this is why the particular piece appealed so much.
To begin with, my connection with this music thematically was entirely to do with what I heard and how it made me feel but, as I researched, the theories fed in to my process too. With a thriller, you don’t want themes or ideas playing on the surface, but they were certainly something I kept in mind as I continued to write and draft. I doubt there are many readers who would see this through my writing and understand it but, for me, the music added a depth to this book that made it far richer.
Niki Valentine is the award winning author of The Haunted, The Doll’s House, and Possessed, published by Sphere. She also writes gritty, realist fiction as Nicola Monaghan. When she isn’t working on her next psychological thriller, Niki teaches creative and professional writing at Nottingham university. Find her on Twitter @nikimon
The Undercover Soundtrack – GG Vandagriff
‘Vastly yearning, longing for resolution’
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 post is by award-winning novelist and incorrigible genre hopper @GGVandagriff GG Vandagriff
Soundtrack by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Dvorak
Right next to my love of writing is my love of music. In fact, as I look at my novels, I find that music is inescapably woven through them. I take my literary cues from the music I listen to.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major was the inspiration behind my women’s fiction: Pieces of Paris. My heroine, Annalisse, is stuck in the Missouri Ozarks with her quixotic husband who thinks he has found the Garden of Eden. However, she grew up on a farm and knows that a farm is just a farm. She is overcome by PTSD and finds herself immersed in flashbacks of another life her husband knows nothing about.
Before that life ended tragically (thus causing her to bury the memories deeply), she was a concert pianist (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Chopin’s etudes figure here). More importantly, she was passionately in love with a brilliant violinist consumed by the Tchaikovsky.
In creating that character, I also became consumed – both with him and with that amazingly complex composition. I played it as I wrote, and Jules became one of my most memorable characters. The concerto is vastly yearning, longing for resolution. Jules’s character development traced the concerto’s. In the same way, as I wrote this book during my 25-year apprenticeship, I was yearning for the completion that only writing could give me. I was stretching, as the violinist stretches in this composition. It was plainly the soundtrack for my literary life.
In my most recent book, The Only Way to Paradise, a tale of four women who find hope and healing in Italy, two of my ‘crazy ladies’ are violinists. Arthritis has stricken Georgia, ending her career as a violin sensation. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was her signature piece, and she played it ‘like silk’. As I wrote of Georgia and her memories, I played the concerto as my soundtrack. When she thinks she wants to end her life, she hears through her window in Florence, the sound of the Dvorak violin concerto played by an anonymous virtuoso. The Slavic melody of the music echoes her mood, but saves her life. The violinist turns out to be one of her companions, whom she undertakes to mentor.
It is one of life’s great ironies that I understand music, but cannot play a note, nor even read it! However, I cannot live without it. Now, as I write a frothy romance, I am listening to a lot of Bach and Puccini Arias. Except for the duel scene—that is accompanied by Shostakovich’s uber-dramatic Fifth Symphony!
GG Vandagriff is the author of 12 books and an inveterate genre hopper. She has a series of five mysteries, two suspense novels, one award-winning historical epic, two novels of women’s fiction, and two non-fiction. She is also a journalist, writing for an on-line magazine and Deseret News. Educated at Stanford, she studied music at Stanford-in-Austria. Her latest book is another genre hop into romance, The Duke’s Undoing. Find her on Twitter, her website and her blog.