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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 my guest is debut thriller writer Paul Sean Grieve @PaulSeanGrieve
Soundtrack by Midnight Oil, Eddy Grant, Peter Gabriel, Christina Aguilera, The Police, Kenny Rogers, Animotion, Katrina and the Waves, Gotye
Before Roz asked me to contribute to The Undercover Soundtrack, I’d never consciously thought about how deeply Poison, my debut thriller, had been shaped and inspired by music. In retrospect, this is almost unbelievable, because every time I think of a scene in the book, the music from which I drew inspiration reverberates so loudly in my head I wonder how anyone can read it without hearing it too.
Set primarily in Toronto and Honduras, Poison tells the story of Drew Freeman, an idealistic young toxicology student who uncovers a research file so explosive it could shatter the globe-spanning empire of a massive agricultural conglomerate.
If there is one song I feel captures the ethos of the story from the protagonist’s perspective, it is Beds are Burning by Midnight Oil. This is the song that inspired the ideas which eventually coalesced into the story and it’s the tune I played on Youtube when I needed to get myself into Drew’s head. It’s a very political song interpreted to be about the plight of aboriginal peoples and the long-ago theft of their lands, but I’ve always taken it to be about the plundering of earth’s resources and the exploitation of its less fortunate people. What made the song resonate for me as the ‘anthem’ for this novel and its main character is its undercurrent of anger at gross injustice and its explicit call to action. Until Drew exposes the truth, his bed may as well be burning.
His ex-girlfriend Claire, on the other hand, is a somewhat more complex character, one we learn has gone through a gut-wrenching transition in her life. Formerly a muckraking firebrand of a freelance journalist, Claire was driven by disillusionment and the increasing prospect of life-long poverty to earn an MBA in pursuit of a new career in business. As my ideas about Claire gradually developed, three songs helped me to understand her headspace in three key segments of the narrative respectively.
The song of her back story was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue, an angry but upbeat protest song that echoes a hopeful ‘we’re not going to take it any more’ sentiment. I can’t listen to this song without wanting to start a (peaceful) revolution, and it’s the song that played in my mind when I peppered the book with subtle hints about what sort of person Claire used to be years before we meet her.
But this former Claire is not the same woman who ascends in the the glass elevator to meet the CEO of the Fortune 500 company she desperately wants to work for. As she undertakes the walk on eggshells she hope will lead to her dream job, Eddy Grant is nowhere to be heard. Now, it’s Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, a song which to me suggests powerful ambition and lust for material success. Its unapologetic, in-your-face brashness helped remind me how revved Claire was about the new job that was her ticket out of desperation and how reluctant she therefore was to heed Drew’s dire warnings. But Big Time only took me so far. As Claire reluctantly comes to realise that, in spite of her new glamorous job, she is nothing more than a shill for an evil corporate empire, I sensed the energetic confidence of Peter Gabriel’s song start to ring hollow and gradually fade out, to be replaced with the theme song from the film Moulin Rouge, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? As I wrote the speeches Claire delivers in support of the corporate propaganda machine, I imagined this song about soulless prostitution forcing itself on her like one of the unwelcome hecklers in the audiences she addresses.
In fairness to Claire, she is not the only one engaged in prostitution. Desperate for money, Drew tutors a maths-challenged female student for a chemistry credit she desperately needs. Unable to afford the number of hours she requires just to gain a fingernail grasp the basics, Scarlett (the student) resorts to the only resource she can count on – her feminine wiles. Unfortunately for Drew, who, lonely and frustrated, still secretly pines for Claire, this sultry femme-fatale proves irresistible. Imagining Drew’s obsessive longing for Claire brought to mind the melancholy classic Every Breath You Take by the Police, which, while to reminding me of the character’s painful isolation and emotional desperation, helped me intuit how a such an ideological man would be so keen take solace in Scarlett’s brand of comfort. (As an aside, the name Scarlett came from Kenny Rogers’ song about an exotic dancer titled Scarlett Fever, one of my favourites when I was a kid). In spite of a few minor ethical qualms, he almost forgets his longing for Claire as this ‘forbidden fruit’ hangs ever lower on the branch. As I crafted the story of Drew’s burgeoning attraction toward his beguiling student, I couldn’t help but hear the fiery passion of Animotion’s 1980’s synth-pop hit Obsession, and when he finally gives himself over to her, knowing full well it meant the end of his desperately needed stream of income, I imagined him none the less on cloud nine, strutting down the street to the tune of Katrina and the Waves’s Walking on Sunshine.
But, alas for poor Drew, when the relationship sours in a way that slams back into the conspiracy plot and Drew is left wondering what went wrong, I can just hear Gotye’s super-awesome Somebody I Used to Know blasting from the loudspeakers in his tortured mind. It played (delightfully) in an endless loop in my own mind every time I worked on the scenes post-Scarlett, particularly the cathartic and highly significant confrontation with her on the street (the outcome of which provides Drew with a vital clue).
Paul Sean Grieve has written and directed short stories, but prefers the medium of the novel as it is a more complete work. Poison: A Novel is his debut. It is free for a limited time at Smashwords, B&N and the iBook store (or $0.99 from Amazon). Or he says you can email him for a free digital copy as he loves to hear from readers. His website is here, and you can connect with him on Twitter @PaulSeanGrieve.
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My guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 journalist and novelist Catriona Troth @L1bCat
My novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry and Brixton in 1981. Around that time, young musicians from different communities were developing styles of music that melded sounds from their cultural roots with modern pop, and writing lyrics that expressed their anger and discontent. The music they produced played a vital part in taking me back to those times and in helping me identify with characters from three different communities.
Coventry in 1981 was the city of 2 Tone Records and Ska; it was also a city riven by conflict between skinheads and young Asians. The 2 Tone sound was essential to the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Ska has its origins in the West Indies, but by the time it stormed Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had a flavour all its own. The line-up of the bands on Coventry’s 2 Tone label – like The Specials and The Selecter – were a mix a black and white musicians, and the message of their songs was often explicitly anti-racist.
One of the characteristics of the 2 Tone sound was the use of a horn section, epitomised by Rico Rodriguez’s wailing trombone sole at the start of The Specials’ Ghost Town – surely one of the most haunting openings to a pop song ever written. Ghost Town inspired not only the title of my novel but underpins much of its mood.
That was the day that The Specials released Ghost Town. For days it keened from every radio, every jukebox, every stereo. Those stabbing horns and that eerie, wailing chorus became the soundtrack of their deaths.
Equally poignant is the voice of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter. Black’s voice slides from contralto (in Three Minute Hero) to soprano (in On My Radio) – dark and light all in one unforgettable package.
Tracks like these helped me to unlock memories and recapture the feel of those troubled times.
Down in Brixton, the defining sound for the young Black community was reggae. If 2 Tone drew me back into my own past, then reggae opened a doorway into a different world. Like most people, I knew a few Bob Marley tracks, but in writing the book, I explored others like Barrington Levy’s Shaolin Temple and King Tubby’s Flag Dub.
Most of the rioters had slipped away through the alleyways, back into the maze-like estates beyond. Behind the blank façade of the night, the sound of reggae spilt into the air. Brixton was celebrating.
At the same time, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson were performing live to a reggae backing beat. Highly political lyrics written in Jamaican dialect (such as LKJ’s New Crass Massahkah) capture the fury that led to the Brixton riots in a way that no amount of reportage could possibly convey.
Back in Coventry, the third element of my story lay among young British Asians, many of whom arrived in Coventry as children when their parents were expelled from East Africa.
Many young Asians identified with the 2 Tone sound, but they were also developing a sound of their own. It would be another two years before the first Bhangra records were pressed, but meanwhile, local bands were experimenting with blending the traditional sound of instruments like the dohl (drum) and the single-stringed tumbi with Western pop.
Most of us are familiar with Bhangra music now from films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, but back then it was new, exciting and a little bit dangerous. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings where the best bands were playing.
The stringed instrument opened by twanging out a melody and was answered by the seductive beat of the drum. The singer threw back his head and produced an ululating sound that formed a contrapuntal beat. The other instruments joined in one by one, weaving between the two rhythms … Feet tapped and bodies began to sway. A circle of dancers formed, energetic and sinuous –hands clapping, wrists twisting and shoulders shaking.
Those early bands were unrecorded, but you can catch something of their feel from listening to the earliest Bhangra stars, such as Malkit Singh, on Putt Sardaran Da or Alaap with Heera Group UK on Chamm Chamm Nachdi.
Listening to these three styles of music helped me get under the skin of the different characters, to absorb something of their rhythms and to switch from one ‘mode’ into another as I moved from scene to scene.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com.
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Coventry and Brixton in the 1980s. My guest this week has drawn on reggae and the music of the iconic Two Tone label to evoke cities riven by racial conflict. Music was a strong part of identity and hers is a soundtrack of jagged horns and simmering beats. Her novel’s title echoes one of Two Tone’s landmark tracks – Ghost Town, by The Specials. If you know it, I bet it’s started in your head – and hold that thought, because she returned to the track time and again to capture her characters’ tensions. She is Catriona Troth and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
1980s, 1981, authors, Brixton, Catriona Troth, Coventry, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Ghost Town, hits of 1981, London, music, music for writers, music for writing, music of 1981, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, number 1 in 1981, playlist for writers, racial conflict, reggae, Roz Morris, ska, The Undercover Soundtrack, Triskele Books, trombones, Two Tone, Two Tone label, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Words with JAM, writers, writing, writing to music
This week, Undercover Soundtrack day falls on Halloween. And my guest has more than risen to the occasion. Her main character is a guitar-playing mortician’s son and she built his life and passions from eclectic musical sources including reggae, Texan ballads, traditional Mexican music, Phil Collins, Robbie Williams and the Beatles. You’ll grin like a stripped skull when you see what she took from Meatloaf. She is Consuelo Roland and she’s here on the spookiest day of the year, sharing the Undercover Soundtrack for her literary novel The Good Cemetery Guide.
cemetery guide, Consuelo Roland, contemporary fiction, Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, entertainment, good cemetery, Halloween, literary fiction, literary novel, Mexico, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, reggae, Texan ballads, The Good Cemetery Guide, The Undercover Soundtrack, traditional Mexican music, undercover soundtrack, 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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- 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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