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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 novelist, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors Orna Ross @OrnaRoss
Soundtrack by Stephen Foster, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson, Rufus Wainwright, Steven and Peter Jones, Cyndi Lauper, The Eagles, Ronald Binge, BBC Shipping Forecast, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy MacCarthy
Music has always been part of my life, mostly as an appreciator. I did play piano for some years but what was more influential in terms of writing — and particularly these two novels I’m going to discuss here — was being brought up in a singing-and-storytelling culture. I grew up in a pub and my own social life, from my teens, centred round the pub where Saturday and Sunday were sing-song nights. Occasionally it was establish-provided entertainment for the punters to consume, but more often it was the customers themselves who created the night. That’s what defines an Irish bar for me and explains why a good one is in demand the world over: on a proper Irish night out, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else’s good time.
The tracks that underlie the writing of After The Rising and Before The Fall, my first two novels which I’m just about to reissue in a 2-for-the-price-of-1 special offer this summer, are all songs. What I found in putting together this undercover soundtrack was that it very much isn’t a Desert Island Discs lineup of favourite music. A few of these songs I do love but what unites them is that they convey some of the emotional texture of the novels and of my relationship to the time-and-place in which the novels are set: early 20th century Ireland and late 20th century San Francisco.
These were my first novels, and together they form a linked, cross-generational family murder mystery. The story opens with a young soldier, lured to dangerous sinking sands during the Irish Civil War of 1922 and this unresolved killing — who did it and why? — is causing chaos for our heroine, Jo Devereux, 50 years on.
At the time of writing, I was living in a very English market town, Knutsford, in Cheshire. I was nostalgic for both Ireland and California and that nostalgia fuelled the books, and this soundtrack is redolent with it too.
One of the first thing that happens Irish people when they emigrate is that they find themselves listening to songs they would never spend time with at home. For me, I’d always avoided ballads and laments that kept alive the sense of loss and grievance that had erupted in 1916 and led to the independence war of 1921 and its aftermath — yet that was the very background that I couldn’t escape when I came to write fiction.
Seeking the truth
‘Hard times!’ my great-aunt who lived with us, used to say whenever conversation came anywhere near that past, a shorthand expression, was always delivered with a shake of the head. The killing of her brother by his best friend in the ‘War of The Brothers’, the Irish Civil War of 1922/3, was the event on which my novels were based (I couldn’t find out the truth of what happened so made up a 500-page story instead). ‘Hard times!’ was her explanation and excuse and a closing of the door on emotion that just couldn’t be expressed. I think of her whenever I hear this song, Hard Times Come Again No More, (by Stephen Foster, the American writer of Oh! Susanna, and Camptown Races and more than 200 other well-known songs): sung here by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson and Rufus Wainwright.
Kilkelly, Ireland, by Steven and Peter Jones, is another song that reminds me of her. It tells the story of an Irish emigrant to America through a series of letters from his father back in Kilkelly. The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather to his son John, who was illiterate and dictated the letters to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a friend of John’s before he left. It’s what’s known in Ireland as a lament, (cumha in Irish), part of a web of interwoven customs that ritualised longing and loss — maybe as a result of colonisation, maybe something much older. Its cross-generational tale of emigration is told much more concisely than mine and its rhythm and cadence is just how the older generation spoke when I was growing up, oceans of silence beneath their few words. I can’t listen to it without being deeply moved
The research for the book showed that ‘The War of the Brothers’ was very much about the sisters too but Jo rejects entirely the weight of this burdensome history. She leaves Ireland for the same reason shared by countless thousands of other Irish women, intending never to return, and once she shakes off her homesickness she finds herself in 1980s San Francisco, where her anthem, like Cyndi Lauper’s, is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and that great gay anthem from the musical La Cage aux Folles, that meant so much at that time to to so many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I Am What I Am, by disco queen Gloria Gaynor.
I enjoy writing emotional twists and surprises around big themes and in these books the themes are national and sexual identity; family loyalty versus personal autonomy. And gender. We’re all seeded by man and born of woman and we all embody ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. How these play out, in an individual life, and in different societies, is endlessly fascinating to me and fully teased out in these novels.
What Jo finds, of course, is that running away is not the answer. The song that best captures her dilemma, both the dream of a better place… and the dangers of that dream, is The Eagles’s The Last Resort. Jo finds she’s not free to go forward until she goes back to Ireland and understands that place that made her.
So she does, and settles in a ramshackle shed in the seaside village where she grew up, intending to find out and understand her family history. The books are full of descriptions of the Atlantic Ocean and the song that always surfaces when I think of that sea is Sailing By by Ronald Binge, the music that cues the BBC’s late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4. I remember lying in bed listening to it as a child, the strange names — German Bight, Boomer, Dogger Bank, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea — and the weather promised — rain, wintry showers, sometimes moderate or poor, becoming good — were poetry to me.
I felt a bit foolish about this until I read one of my favourite Carol Ann Duffy poems, the beautiful Prayer. I was delighted when searching for Sailing By to find this version that also includes a televised shipping forecast from Laurie McMillan as part of an Arena Radio Night in 1993. And has a collection of stunning footage, presumably from BBC archives. Binge’s music is easy listening but underneath its sweetness I sense again that sense of longing felt by all the characters in these books — and that I used to feel myself for the sea in my land-locked days in Knutsford.
Another seafaring and emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues, ties the economic migration that Jo was part of, that of the 1980s with its Green Card Lotteries to the post famine exodus in the mid-19th century that led to the independence war, not least because it was funded by US dollars. Those words really capture something about the Irish in America that I want to tease out more in the sequel I’m writing, the third part of this story, In The Hour, set in NYC. Thousands Are Sailing tips its hat to Mr Cohan. It’s actually George M. Cohan, ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’ but for a long time I thought it was Mr Cohen, the great Leonard and I want to include his Bird On A Wire , the three opening and closing lines of which were famously claimed by Kris Kristofferson as his epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as ‘a Bohemian My Way, and that’s why it’s here. After The Rising & Before The Fall share this theme that’s found across all my writing, of ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. That’s what Jo has to learn, that’s what connects her personal and familial quest. Early 20th-century Ireland, late 20th-century San Francisco were connected by the same impulse: the desire to free the human spirit from suppression,
Except true freedom can’t be delivered by politics, it’s the terrain of the creative spirit itself. My own political arguments have not been around nation but gender and in this week where we hear of yet another atrocity arising from religious suppression, I am grateful again to a song that celebrates what remains great in Christianity, by going beyond it. One Bright Blue Rose, a piece of pure poetry by a great contemporary songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy (the lyrics are here), sung by Mary Black in her heyday, is full of Christian imagery of the better kind and always brings me beyond anger, back to a truer, better impulse, the one to which I’ve devoted my writing life, not just in these novels, but also in the work for the indie-author movement, and in my current non-fiction series, the Go Creative! Books. That’s how I try, in Cohen’s words, ‘to be free’. And to foster freedom for others.
Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative!books and has been described as ‘one of the 100 most influential people in publishing’ (The Bookseller) for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world’s best self-publishing authors and advisers. Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives, mostly, in London. Her amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/ornaross and her website is www.ornaross.com, where you can also sign up for her ‘Behind The Books’ newsletter and advance books and giveaways. Tweet her @OrnaRoss.
After The Rising, Alliance of Independent Authors, authors, BBC Shipping Forecast, Before The Fall, California, Carol Ann Duffy, Cheshire, contemporary fiction, Cyndi Lauper, Desert Island Discs, drama, early 20th century Ireland, Emmylou Harris, entertainment, family loyalty, family murder mystery, gender, George M. Cohan, Ireland, Irish Civil War, Jimmy MacCarthy, Karen Matheson, Knutsford, La Cage Aux Folles, Leonard Cohen, LGBTQ, literary fiction, literary novels, Mary Black, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, national identity, Orna Ross, personal autonomy, playlist for writers, Rod Paterson, Ronald Binge, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, San Francisco, sexual identity, Shipping Forecast, Stephen Foster, Steven and Peter Jones, The Eagles, The Pogues, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, War of The Brothers, Women Writers, women writing women, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
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 women’s fiction writer Anne Stormont @WriteAnne
Soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright, Tom Baxter, Van Morrison, Elbow, Cat Power, Neil Diamond, Louis Armstrong, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Don Maclean, Military Wives, Blair Douglas, Greg Laswell, Bat for Lashes, Ungar and Mason
It took me almost a decade to write and publish Change of Life. It was a brush with mortality following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 1998, and an Arvon Foundation writing course that finally spurred me into getting my writing act together. And so, while teaching full time and putting the finishing touches to my fledgling adult children, I began.
I love music. I have eclectic tastes, from musicals, to Scottish traditional, through hard rock, and classical to contemporary. I’ve always had a soundtrack running in the background. I studied for high school and university exams with 1960s and 70s rock and pop in the background. I got through my cancer treatment to a background of songs by the Lighthouse Family and others, put together by my daughter on a mixtape – remember those?
And it has continued to be music that provides me with focus. While I’m writing, even if I’m not consciously hearing it, it’s on and it keeps me in the zone. It’s very much a mood thing for me. Much like inhaling a reminiscence-filled scent, a few bars of the right music and I’m transported.
Change of Life has two main characters, husband and wife, Tom and Rosie. The narration is in first person and Tom and Rosie take it in turns to tell their story.
Tom, being male, was a challenge to write, but it was one I relished. To get into his head it was Rufus Wainwright’s Do I Disappoint You, Tom Baxter’s My Declaration and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately that did it. Tom betrays Rosie’s trust and, when their resulting separation after more than 20 years of marriage, and Rosie’s diagnosis with breast cancer threaten to rob him of his wife forever, he has to do a lot of soul-searching and face up to some difficult truths. These tracks captured both Tom’s anger and his yearning. They helped keep me ‘in character’ and to tap into the appropriate emotions.
Making the switch to Rosie’s head was helped by Elbow’s Grounds For Divorce, Cat Power’s Woman Left Lonely and Neil Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. She also experiences anger and yearning, but this is overlaid with the fear that her cancer may kill her. When writing these darker passages it was Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World that helped me bring out the poignancy of her situation.
Then as the story came towards its conclusion, it was If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with And I Love You So by Don Maclean that kept me focussed and at the right emotional temperature.
For my new novel Displacement, it was mainly the Military Wives album In My Dreams that helped me set the tone. Again there are two main characters, Rachel and Jack. Two very different characters, both with their own demons, they meet in dramatic circumstances on the Isle of Skye. Rosie, a sheep farmer and writer of children’s books, is grieving for her dead soldier son, and retired policeman, Jack, is facing up to some difficult truths about himself. They begin an unlikely friendship. The story is set on Skye and in the completely contrasting, but no less dramatic landscape of Israel/ Palestine. The Soldier’s Lullaby and Sonamarg by Skye musician Blair Douglas also featured in supporting roles, as did Your Ghost by Greg Laswell. This last one captured Jack’s longing and conflict perfectly. I should also mention Wilderness by Bat for Lashes, which perfectly reflects both the natural wilderness of Skye and the Middle East and the inner wilderness of the two main characters. And finally, the Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar and Mason was the one track that broke through any resistance I felt when I came to the desk to write this novel. It just led me straight in. What more can a writer ask of their musical soundtrack?
Anne lives in the Scottish Hebrides. She can be a subversive old bat, but she maintains a kind heart. She’s about to take early retirement after 36 years as a primary school teacher. Her stories are about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent women. There is a strong element of romance in her books, but she’s resistant to the restrictive ‘romantic fiction’ label as she likes to think there’s more to her novels than just romance. Her first novel, Change of Life, is about to be republished under her own imprint Rowan Russell Books and, her second novel, Displacement, is due to be published at the end of May. Her work-in-progress is a children’s novel called The Silver Locket and is scheduled for release in the summer. Anne tweets as @writeanne and she blogs at http://putitinwriting.me She also writes for Words With Jam and is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Anne Stormont, Arvon Foundation, authors, Bat for Lashes, Blair Douglas, Cat Power, Change of Life, classical, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Don Maclean, drama, Elbow, entertainment, Glen Hansard, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Greg Laswell, hard rock, Lighthouse Family, Louis Armstrong, main characters, Marketa Irglova, Military Wives, mixtape, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Neil Diamond, ovarian cancer, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Scottish traditional, The Soldier, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tom Baxter, undercover soundtrack, Ungar and Mason, Van Morrison, Women Writers, Women's fiction, women's fiction writer, writers, writing, writing to music
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 romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
Ani Difranco, authors, Best Coast, Bobby Helms, Boogie Woogie, Carole King, classical music, Color Me Badd, contemporary fiction, Danny Elfman, Desert Island Discs, drama, Duke Ellington, Eddi Reader, Ella Fitzgerald, entertainment, Fairground Attraction, George Fenton, George Gershwin, Grease 2, Hans Zimmer, Ironside, Jeff Buckley, John Grant, Kirsty Greenwood, Matilda Beam, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nora Ephron, Novelicious, Pan Macmillan, Phoenix, playlist for writers, Point Horror, romance, romcom, Rosemary Clooney, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Skeeter Davis, soundtrack, Stacey Kent, Stevie Wonder, The Andrews Sisters, The Undercover Soundtrack, Toni Braxton, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yours Truly
- 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'