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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 is novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello @isabelcostello
Soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black M, Jane Birkin featuring Serge Gainsbourg, The Goo Goo Dolls, Paolo Nutini
Music has been a big inspiration in the writing of Paris Mon Amour although I never listen to it whilst working. I love these tracks for the great sound and vocals, of course, but what I most admire in my favourite singer-songwriters (they tend to be both) is their gift for telling a story and evoking a mood in three or four minutes. The economy and intensity that come from stripping back to the essentials is something I aspire to as a novelist.
If I could only listen to one artist it would be Springsteen. He has amazing range and to me he embodies ‘goodness’, a key motif in my novel despite the characters’ numerous misdemeanours. In The River, he captures something I’m very susceptible to: the beauty in sadness (or even ugliness), as he re-lives bittersweet memories. Back story gets bad press in fiction but it’s extremely important – the key is to give it the emotional clout of the present, and this song shows how. I’m on Fire expresses passion in a mellow and understated way; my book is about a married woman of 40 whose life is upended by ‘bad desire’. In these situations, you either rein it in or find yourself the (not) proud owner of a melodrama.
I love Pink Floyd and it’s perhaps fortunate that I can’t elaborate on the many ways in which Comfortably Numb resonated both in the story of Paris Mon Amour (some will be apparent) but above all in the creative process, which coincided with a turbulent phase in my own life. It’s always the aim to leave the characters and the reader in a different place to where they started and in this case, the writer too.
Whilst we’re on the deep stuff, Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of the few songs mentioned in the text – there’s a California connection – but again, it was very relevant to getting to the psychological core of the characters. It’s a very intelligent song: a complex questioning of what lies under the visible surface, something that fascinates me about people and places. In the book everyone’s hiding something from each other, and often themselves.
And that’s not all they’re doing. The song that spoke to me on this was On s’fait du mal (We keep hurting each other) by Parisian rapper Black M, which I discovered thanks to my teenage sons. There’s a touching openness to this tale of remorse in which he acknowledges causing pain to those closest to him, something my characters know all about. I’m moved by emotional honesty wherever I encounter it. Writing this book has made me less guarded and listening to this song played a part in that.
But for all this openness, as you’d expect of a book involving an affair, a lot goes on behind closed doors. I don’t need to get psyched up to write my sex scenes, which rarely get edited; all I need is to imagine my way into character and into the moment. Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime (moi non plus), featuring Serge Gainsbourg has become a bit of a parody – they do ham it up – but it always makes me smile and there’s plenty worth channelling: Gainsbourg has the ultimate sexy voice, the melody is languorous, the lyrics sensual yet remarkably direct, which is both characteristically French and the way I like it.
Paris Mon Amour is definitely a love story as opposed to a romance novel, but it’s still the first time I fully unleashed my inner romantic, knowing if I didn’t feel it, nobody else would. To this end I often listened to Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, which is the most heartrendingly beautiful expression of love I’ve come across. It makes me feel a weird mixture of euphoria and devastation, both of which I needed to capture. Again there’s that sense of vulnerability, where in falling for someone you surrender part of yourself you won’t ever get back, and of the most intimate connection possible between two people, which is never ‘just sex’, as Alexandra discovers to her cost.
If her lover Jean-Luc had been a more typical 23-year-old guy, she would never have ended up in such a mess. He may not have been interested in her either. But just as some people notch up decades learning nothing, others aren’t limited by their lack of life experience. (I couldn’t have written this book any earlier.) My final song, Last Request by Paolo Nutini, is stunning but painful to listen to. It barely seems possible that he was only 19 when he wrote it 10 years ago – it helped me uncover the character of Jean-Luc, which only fully emerged in the later stages, and to explore in depth what he and Alexandra had together. It’s a great feeling when you find the missing piece.
Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer who lives in north London. Her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was released in June 2016 in digital (Canelo) and audiobook (Audible). Isabel’s work has been shortlisted in the Asham Award, the Short Fiction Journal Prize and the inaugural Room to Write competition judged by Pat Barker. She hosts the Literary Sofa blog, where you can find her selection of recommended Summer Reads 2016, and was recently longlisted for Best Reviewer in the Saboteur Awards 2016. She can often be found talking about books on Twitter @isabelcostello.
Asham Award, Black M, Bruce Springsteen, California, Canelo, contemporary fiction, Isabel Costello, Jane Birkin, Literary Sofa blog, music for writers, Paolo Nutini, Paris, Paris Mon Amour, Pink Floyd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, romance, Serge Gainsbourg, Short Fiction Journal Prize, The Goo Goo Dolls, women authors, writers and music, writing with music
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 multi-award-winning young adult novelist Tabitha Suzuma @tabithasuzuma
Soundtrack by Rachmaninoff, Shin Suzuma, Bomfunk MC, Eminem, Charlotte Church, Lea Salonga, Mozart, Katherine Jenkins, Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Philip Glass, Gabriel Faure, Amy Winehouse, Garbage, Lana Del Rey, Paloma Faith, Marilyn Manson, Gabriel Yared, Christopher Duffley
The music came before the idea, before the very first book, before the whole career. I was working as a school teacher and spending most of my salary on tickets to concerts at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls. My debut novel, A Note of Madness (2006), was born out of my lifelong obsession with music, mainly classical, and in particular Rachmaninov. The novel is about Flynn, a teenage piano prodigy who falls prey to bipolar disorder as he struggles to master the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. So the piece, as well as my own struggles with the illness, inspired the whole book. I have always loved music and used to skip lessons at school to sneak into the music room where I started teaching myself the piano. My brother, concert pianist Shin Suzuma, was born when I was 14 and started picking out tunes on my keyboard before he could even walk. I was determined he should have every opportunity to become the concert pianist that I felt he was destined to be, so began teaching him. Today he is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and embarking on this very career.
The sequel to A Note of Madness came a couple of years later. A Voice in the Distance (2008) was dedicated to my brother, mainly because his music room was above my study, so he provided me with a live soundtrack to my book. He was learning the equally ambitious Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto at the time, a piece which features prominently in the book, and shortly after finishing it, I finally got to see my brother perform the piece with his university orchestra. The two books also feature Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler and Eminem, which I would listen to when writing Flynn’s manic episodes. His girlfriend, Jennah, is a singer and performs Summertime (performed here by Charlotte Church, On My Own (performed by Lea Salonga) , and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum (sung by Katherine Jenkins) – three of my favourite songs that I listened to on repeat.
So music and writing, for me, have always been irrevocably entwined. The first thing I do every night when I sit down to write is sort out my playlist. My last book, Forbidden (2010), is a tragic love story about an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Because of its subject matter, it was a harsh, frightening and lonely book to write. It wasn’t a plot I could discuss with family or friends, I had no idea if it would ever be accepted for publication, I was teaching by day and writing by night, so it was very intense. I was often in tears, and a combination of severe clinical depression, stress, insomnia and sleep deprivation led me to having breakdown soon after finishing it. The music I wrote it to reflects both the tone of the book and my state of mind at the time. Lemon Incest and Charlotte Forever by the late Serge Gainsbourg and his then teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg are both songs about father-daughter incest, and understandably created a great deal of controversy and anger when they were released in the mid-eighties. Philip Glass’s amazing soundtrack to my favourite movie The Hours was also permanently on my playlist, along with Faure’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem, which I listened to throughout writing the extremely painful final chapters of the book.
After Forbidden, I was forced to take a break from writing for health reasons, but have finally finished writing my sixth book, Hurt, out this September. It was an equally tough book to write, dealing with a similarly difficult, controversial and painful subject matter. I wrote it to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, Only Happy When it Rains by Garbage, Born to Die by Lana Del Rey, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Play On by Paloma Faith, and a very haunting cover of The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. These songs helped me get into the detached, heavy-hearted and depressed moods of Mathéo: a talented, privileged teenager who on the surface appears to have it all but deep down, harbours a terrible secret that threatens his life as he knows it, as well as the relationship he has with the only girl he has ever loved. It is one of the harsher, grittier and more difficult books I have written, and the soundtracks to the films Sylvia and Never Let Me Go also helped me reach the levels of distress experienced by Mathéo as he battles with his secret, his past, the consequence of his actions, and ultimately attempts to achieve forgiveness and absolution.
I am about to start writing my book for 2014. I can’t say what it is about yet, but I can say that it will be written to the soundtrack of the heart-wrenching voice of 11-year-old Christopher Duffley, and in particular his rendition of the song Open the Eyes of my Heart which I have already started listening to on repeat.
Tabitha Suzuma is an award-winning author of six books. Her most recent, Hurt, is due to be released in September 2013. Her last book, Forbidden, a controversial and hard-hitting book about sibling incest, was translated into six languages and won the Premio Speciale Cariparma for European Literature Award as well as being nominated for a number of others. She has won the Young Minds Book Award and the Stockport Book Award. Her books have been shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, the Catalyst Book Award, the Stockport Book Award, the Jugendliteraturpreis Book Award and nominated for the Waterstone’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal. For more, visit www.tabithasuzuma.com, add her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/tabitha.suzuma, or find her on Twitter: @TabithaSuzuma
GIVEAWAY: Tabitha has signed print editions on offer for the three most interesting comments. If you enjoy her post, let her know here!
A Note of Madness, A Voice in the Distance, Amy Winehouse, authors, bipolar disorder, Bomfunk MC, Branford Boase Award, Carnegie Medal, Catalyst Book Award, Charlotte Church, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christopher Duffley, classical pianists, clinical depression, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eminem, entertainment, Faure, Forbidden, Gabriel Yared, Garbage, Hurt, Jugendliteraturpreis Book Award, Katherine Jenkins, Lana Del Rey, Lancashire Book of the Year Award, Lea Salonga, Marilyn Manson, Mozart, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paloma Faith, Philip Glass, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, Premio Speciale Cariparma for European Literature Award, Rachmaninoff, Royal Academy of Music, Roz Morris, Serge Gainsbourg, Shin Suzuma, Stockport Book Award, Tabitha Suzuma, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Waterstone's Book Prize, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, YA fiction, young adult, Young Minds Book Award
- 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'