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The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 might be familiar to you; she’s been here before as Sanjida O’Connell @SanjidaOConnell. She’s turned her hand to thrillers for her latest release and is wearing a new writing persona, Sanjida Kay
Soundtrack by David Gray, Coldplay, The Choir of Young Believers, Massive Attack, Faithless, Sandi Thom
What would you do if you found out that your child was being bullied? Laura, newly divorced and relocated to Bristol, learns that her nine-year-old daughter, Autumn, is being bullied at her primary school. When no one takes Laura seriously, she tries to protect Autumn from the bully – and makes the situation much, much worse. This is the start of my first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. The story is told from the point of view of the mother, Laura, as well as her daughter.
I found getting into Autumn’s head the hardest part of the process. After all, it’s a long time since I was nine! I wanted to get across what it felt like to be nine as well as the change that being bullied can wreak on a person’s character. Autumn is a shy, sweet child. She loves painting, misses her best friend, Cleo, and likes Mozart and ‘Bark’.
Listening to classical music and looking at Giacomettis didn’t help me understand what it felt like to be Autumn. I started playing Sandi Thom’s I wish I was a punk rocker. Autumn, a slightly other-worldly child, is certainly not a punk rocker – in exactly the same way that Thom sings about punk with the nostalgia of one who never experienced its raw anarchy; aching for a world that never was, whilst wearing flowers in her hair.
Laura, Autumn’s mother, is also shy and introverted. She lacks confidence and is vulnerable and isolated, yet, like any parent, loves her daughter with all her heart.
When Autumn was born, it was as if she recognized her, as if she’d always known that it would be her, this little person who had come to live with her and reside permanently in her heart. It was a love unlike any other: fierce and powerful.
The song that most helped me get into this zone was The one I love by David Gray with its notes of hope and fear.
Because of Laura’s personality and circumstances, she feels powerless to put a stop to some of the terrible events happening to her and Autumn. But at some point in the novel, she needs to overcome her lack of confidence and find inner strength. One of the triggers for this shift was inspired by a Coldplay song, Viva la Vida; a heart-heavy march of reluctant triumphalism.
Bone by Bone is set in Bristol where I live. What I wanted to capture was the juxtaposition of the city as gritty, grafitti-ridden yet woven through with green spaces like The Downs and Narroways, the urban nature reserve where much of the action takes place.
Bristol is a vibrant, culturally-rich and ethnically- diverse place to live; it’s also riven with divisions between classes and races, rich and poor, and I wanted to imbibe the novel with that edginess. The tracks I chose that summed up what Bristol means to me for the purpose of writing are by Bristolian bands, Massive Attack, Safe from Harm and Insomnia by Tricky of Faithless. Safe from Harm seems to embody that uneasiness, its melodic voice and hopefulness undercut with darkness; this track combined with the restlessness of Insomnia were perfect for what I was trying to do with Bone by Bone: create a relentless ratcheting up of tension.
Bone by Bone is set over a period of ten days, covering Halloween and Bonfire Night. It’s grey, cold, icy: I wanted to develop an atmosphere that was taut, tense, sinister. To get me in the right frame of mind, particularly on days when the sky was bright blue and sunshine flooded my office, I would listen to this lyrical, haunting and disturbing single – Hollow Talk by The Choir of Young Believers – now made famous by The Bridge.
The lines began to sing, a shrill, electric song, and then the cacophony of the train roared out of the darkness. The carriages were almost empty and painfully bright as they hurtled along the tracks to the heart of the city. In the fleeting light she saw the meadow, dotted with stunted hawthorns, their twisted limbs dense with red berries, and then a shape: achingly familiar, child-sized, shockingly still.
authors at work, Bristol, bullying, Coldplay, creative process, David Gray, Faithless, female protagonists, Massive Attack, music for writers, music for writing fiction, psychological thriller, punk, Sandi Thom, Sanjida Kay/Sanjida O'Connell, suspense, The Bridge, The Choir of Young Believers, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, undercover soundtrack
My guest this week has been here before. Not in a reincarnation sense; she’s guested on the series, but under a different name. For her latest novel she’s using a pseudonym for a change of direction. She’s written a gritty psychological thriller about a woman who discovers her young daughter is being bullied at school. Her attempts to intervene spark a series of sinister events, played out in the gritty, graffiti-scrawled areas of Bristol. Her soundtrack is full of brooding menace (and includes some of my own favourites, Massive Attack and Tricky). Anyway, come and meet Sanjida Kay on Wednesday, when she’ll be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Sanjida O’Connell @sanjidaoconnell
In my fourth novel, Sugar Island, Emily Harris is a glamorous young English actress who arrives in America in 1859, determined to make enough money to save her father’s theatre company. But while she’s there, her father dies, leaving her alone and, in her vulnerable state, a charming Southern gentleman, Charles Earl Brook, sweeps her off her feet and into matrimony. It’s during their honeymoon that she discovers his terrible secret: he owns a plantation in Savannah, Georgia, run by seven hundred slaves.
Darkness, danger and charm
Like many writers, I rarely listen to music whilst I work but I found that soul-haunting and edgy blues tracks, such as Down to the River to Pray by Alison Krauss and Natural Blues by Moby, helped me write about this naïve British woman who suddenly finds herself into the lush swamps of the Deep South, and of the heart-rending misery that she encounters. I played Jace Everett’s Bad Things endlessly. It has the darkness and the dangerous charm that is at the core of Charles’s appeal to Emily, as well as an evocation of the south’s decadent glamour.
Emily glimpses St Simons Island, where her husband’s plantation is, for the first time:
‘…the marsh appeared to close in, the reeds brushing past the edge of the boat. The overriding smells were rotting fresh seawater, seaweed, fish on the edge of decomposition. To her right lay an island of dense deep green tangled jungle; the dark grey sky pressed in on them. She’d spent the whole journey trying to dissect her emotions and now she realized that at the heart of all her arguments was one very simple thing: she felt as if she were slowly being pushed into a trap.’
This is when Emily encounters slaves for the first time. A group of them row her, her husband and her husband’s brother, Emmanuel, to the plantation. As they do so, they sing:
‘Mother, master gone to sell we tomorrow?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.
Gone to sell we in Georgia?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.’
Emmanuel uses the song as a way of telling Emily about their slaves, which he does with relish.
‘That’s why they are so pleased that you are about to have a child,’ said Emmanuel quietly, leaning towards her, ‘It means our family – your child – will continue to own them in the future and their families won’t be split up by being sold at auction.’
‘Mother don’t grieve after me,
No, no, no,
Oh, watch and pray.’
I found this slave song on www.negrospirituals.com and then altered the words slightly to keep them in the dialect I used for the St Simons slaves. Originally, I was so taken with some of these lyrics, their poignancy and their way of expressing the emotions of the slaves in a way they could not, I used them frequently. My editor at John Murray quite rightly said that less is more.
Emily does her best to help the slaves, from pleading with Charles to make their lives less miserable, to cutting down a young girl who’s been strung up by her thumbs and whipped, to teaching one slave to read, which at the time was illegal. Ultimately, Charles will no longer sanction her actions and makes her choose between her freedom and her daughter.
The only other slave song now remaining is right at the end of the novel but it might give away too much of the plot to quote that one.
Once I’ve finished writing for the day, I tend to go for a run and listen to some completely head-banging, heart-pulsing music to blast me out of the Deep South, Emily’s horrific quandary and the chilling plight to the slaves – songs such as I Fought the Law by The Clash, Mr Brightside by The Killers, All My Life by the Foo Fighters and Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day.
Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island (John Murray). She is on Twitter as @sanjidaoconnell
Alison Krauss, authors, Brad Paisley, deep south, Desert Island Discs, Foo Fighters, Green Day, historical novels, Jace Everett, literary fiction, literary novels, Moby, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, negro spirituals, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Sanjida Kay/Sanjida O'Connell, slave songs, soundtracks, The Clash, The Killers, The Undercover Soundtrack, True Blood, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
‘Blues took me to the swamps of the Deep South, and the heart-rending misery Emily encounters’ – Sanjida O’Connell
Blues, slave songs and the decadant glamour of the Deep South. My Undercover Soundtrack guest this week stirs up a heady mix for her novel about an Englishwoman in the 1850s who marries a charming American – and discovers he owns a plantation with 700 slaves. Sanjida O’Connell will be here on Wednesday talking about the music that helped her write Sugar Island
- 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 2011-2020. 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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- Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia
- From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress
- What movies get wrong – and right – about authors. And Elizabeth Taylor: Ep47 FREE podcast for writers
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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'