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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 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.
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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 author Linda Gillard
Soundtrack by Philip Glass
When I ground to a halt writing my fifth novel, Untying the Knot, the second movement of Philip Glass’s first Violin Concerto showed me a way forward. I wanted to tell the story of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ex-soldier, ex-bomb squad, whose career had been ended by an explosion. I wanted to write about his marriage (which had ended in divorce) and about the loyal wife who’d stood by him through many years of active service, then years of rehabilitation and then walked away.
I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew the emotional trajectory of my characters, but I hadn’t a clue how to structure my novel. I’d called it Untying the Knot because it was a love story about a divorced couple, but the title was ironical. Divorced, my characters discover they’re bound together indissolubly, not only by continuing love for each other, but by their traumatic history.
The book was to be about both of them, not just the attention-grabbing hero, Magnus. I wanted to show his wife, Fay, quietly getting on with her life, quietly cracking up while no one noticed. But Magnus had taken over. My work-in-progress was about a hero, his sacrifice and terrible suffering. I couldn’t see how to bring his wife into the foreground and make her story – and her sacrifice – as poignant and moving as his. I was close to abandoning the novel as unbalanced and too complicated to work.
I always use music to support and enrich my writing and I usually have a playlist for each novel. I’d been looking for a piece of music to represent what’s known as ‘the long walk’ – the bomb technician’s lonely approach to an explosive device he’s about to disarm. I remembered the Glass Violin Concerto, with its descending ground bass pattern that repeats for the whole of the second movement. It sounded like someone walking, but it also had an edgy, disturbing quality, created by oscillating broken chords. This wasn’t just a slow walk, this was a walk towards something ominous, even dangerous.
In the music
As I ‘auditioned’ the Glass, it triggered an almost overwhelming cascade of ideas and I suddenly saw – almost completely – how I could structure my novel by emulating the structure of this eight-minute piece of music.
As I listened, I could hear two voices, male and female, engaged in a kind of dialogue. The male voice was the low, see-sawing strings and woodwind that create the walking ground bass. Over the top, I heard a female voice – a solo violin, calm and lyrical at first, a woman pleading with the man to give up his dangerous job, perhaps asking for his help. As the violin solo is repeated again and again against the implacable ground bass, her voice becomes desperate (anguished arpeggiated figures), yet the man never stops walking. It’s as if he can’t hear her and is walking away. Towards the end of the movement, the violin produces high, sustained notes. I found them heart-rending. The woman has finally lost it, given up and gone under.
The music showed me how I could weave my two narrative threads together. The long-suffering wife could move into the spotlight for a while, then retreat while her husband’s horrific back story took over. The couple could keep changing places until, at the dramatic climax of the novel, their two stories would collide and combine, allowing the reader to discover exactly why the marriage had foundered, why the wife had walked away. What had appeared to be his story would be revealed as her story.
As I listened, I felt Glass had written my novel for me, in miniature. I just needed to expand what he’d done, then translate it into a fictional form. There was an added musical bonus. The movement ends abruptly and is quite unresolved. I believe that unsettled feeling gave me the impetus and energy to get on with writing the book. Much as I admired the music that had inspired me, I thought, ‘In Untying The Knot, all this is going to be resolved.’ And it was.
Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of six novels, including Star Gazing, shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and House of Silence, which became a Kindle bestseller, selected by Amazon as one of their Top 10 ‘Best of 2011’ in the indie author category. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Linda is excited to give away one copy of the ebook to a commenter here – so if you drop by, be sure to say hello!
Amazon top 10 best of 2011, armed forces, authors, bomb disposal, bomb technician, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, entertainment, indie books, kindle, landmines, Linda Gillard, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Philip Glass, playlist for writers, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, rehabilitation, Roz Morris, self-publishing, soundtracks, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Untying the Knot, Women's fiction, 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.
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 2011-2022. 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'