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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 fantasy author and self-publishing zealot Ben Galley @BenGalley
Music. It has always ruled my life. From getting up to falling asleep, I do so accompanied by music.
Where did such an obsession with music come from? That’s a good question. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this preoccupation with the idea of a soundtrack to life. Let’s be honest – we’ve all pretended, or at least felt, that our lives were a movie at one point in our lives. It’s in this way that I use music. I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and the cinema (media from which I’ve drawn plenty of inspiration from in the past) and for some reason I’ve always paid a massive amount of attention to the soundtrack. Soundtracks can add a whole new level of punch to a scene – it could be emotion, tension, or action, music simply has the ability to add more. That’s why I use music to mark occasions, or to cheer me up or chill me out. I cook to it. I clean to it, I exercise to it, and of course, I write to it. And that’s where the involvement goes a little deeper.
Intriguingly, my obsession with music once usurped by dream of being a writer. In 2006, aged only 17, I swapped that dream for two years of studying bass guitar and music at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). It was brilliant fun. Those two years expanded my musical horizon immensely, and as such I began to look into a career in music, performing and touring. Sad thing was, nothing ever really took off. It was difficult. Tough. I felt I had missed the train somewhat. And so, whilst working a succession of meaningless jobs in bars, restaurants, and pubs, I decided it was time to start writing again – to get back that original dream of being a writer.
I first started writing my debut fantasy novel The Written in 2009. Although music was as ubiquitous in my life then as it is now, I quickly discovered something new – a way to take music and use it to fuel writing. I found that writing to music didn’t just help evoke emotion, but it also seemed to affect my pace, my focus, my drive, even the direction of the story itself. It suddenly grew from an accompaniment and a soundtrack to a force. Let me explain more.
I’d written books before, aged 11 and 12 (three terribly written novels that will never see the light of day) but I’d never used music to write before. As I learned more about my book and the series, I also learnt how music could help, testing it against how my tastes and playlist had expanded with age and ACM. This is how I learnt how to make my own private (or underground!) soundtrack for the scenes I was writing.
Getting back into writing and launching into an epic series was tough. Enter rock and metal. Two genres that can curl your fingers into fists, and make grim, determined slits of your eyes. Whatever mood I was in, music ignited my drive, helping me to get stuck and in and overcome those hard initial pages. These were my ‘Come on! Get on with the bloody thing!’ tracks. The main tracks that helped me do this are Dig by Incubus (a calmer track in this genre), Maggie’s Farm by the indomitable Rage Against the Machine, Kings and Queens by 30 Seconds to Mars, and Empire by Alpines.
Fights and cold landscapes
Fight scenes featured prominently in the first few chapters of my book, interspersed with sections setting the scene of the cold, vastness of my world, Emaneska. I constantly switched from rock, metal, and electronica, to softer genres: classical, soundscape, or original film soundtracks. The latter worked particularly well – composer Ludovico Einaudi gave softness to the calmer scenes, pause and mystery too. I Giorni and Monday are some of his finest tracks. Film composer Thomas Newman helped too, with the soundtracks to American Beauty and Shawshank Redemption. Using soundtrack music really helped. It was lyric-less so I could tune it out or in when I wanted to. Primarily though, it brought back memories of film scenes, and the dialogue, action, and mood used within them. This in turn helped me refine my scene-setting skills. Another score for music! Pardon the pun…
One thing I did find was that I would occasionally get bogged down by dialogue and the need to impart information to the reader. To help, I used what I called ‘swagger tracks’ – songs that I used to pump confidence and life into these sections. I believe that confidence can be felt through writing. Just as in social situations where the need to appear confident is important, I believe that writing is no different. Readers need to feel like they are in the hands of a confident story-teller. I call this swagger. Two particular swagger tracks for me are Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, or Miami by Foals.
Music also helped me to apply tempo and pace to exciting scenes. Rock, metal, and upbeat soundscape tracks, such as Staralfur by Sigur Ròs, once again helped. I also used a lot of electronic music, particularly dubstep. For those of you not familiar with dubstep, it can be frenetic and hardcore, more noise than anything, but I love it. It’s no-holds barred production and sampling. A good example of a track I used is Skrillex’s First of the Year – Equinox. Bonfire by Knife Party is also very good. One track in particular is My Obsession by Killswitch Engage. I found myself slowing and speeding up along to the pace of these songs as I wrote. I believe this approach helped me vary the pace of my scenes, making for more interesting, perhaps even more organic, writing.
And lastly, the finale. I needed something softer, for the calm after the storm. For my main character, Farden, he needed a moment sat atop a snowy peak, staring down onto his city. A moment of reflection. What was my send off? It was Sæglópur by Sigur Ròs. Beautiful song. (Fast forward to 1.50.)
Overall, I’ve found that when I’m writing, music becomes a tool. It helps me focus, helps me keep those fingers moving. I’ve learnt to feed off its pace and passion, off its confidence, off that unquantifiable ‘oomph’, off its conveyed emotion. When I’m writing, music becomes less of my own soundtrack, and becomes more the soundtrack to whatever world I’m building, hopefully enriching it. And that’s my undercover soundtrack!
At 25, Ben Galley is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the epic and gritty fantasy series – The Emaneska Series. He has released four books to date, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. Ben is also incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He runs the advice site Shelf Help, where he offers advice and services for writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben is also the co-founder and director of indie-only eBook store Libiro. Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at www.bengalley.com.
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- 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 2011-2021. 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'