Posts Tagged short stories
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 prizewinning short story writer and Costa Awards finalist Annalisa Crawford @annalisacrawf
Soundtrack by Cherry Ghost, REM, Gary Jules, Queensryche, Colin Hay, Fort Atlantic, The Shins
I envy songwriters—it’s such a wonderful gift to be able to say something important so concisely and memorably. I’ve tried it, and it’s really hard. I’ll leave that to my singer-songwriter husband, and all the other talented musicians out there.
Music inspires me, allows me to delve into realities I never knew I could create, and elicit the deepest of emotions. The melodies flow into my writing and I have a penchant for repetition and alliteration, which I edit into more manageable pieces for the final draft.
So far, I’ve had a lot more success with shorter fiction. A lot of the time one song hits just the right note for that particular piece—either it’s there at the beginning, guiding me along, or I’ll hear it while struggling with a certain scene or character, and it’ll make sense of my story. Isn’t it strange that whenever a song takes on a special significance, you hear it everywhere you go?
In 2013, I wrote two stories that were set in the same town, featured the same pub, and contained characters that leapt from one to the other. I was trying to write a third story, because I knew they’d work perfectly as a trilogy, but that third story was being elusive.
One of my favourite songs was False Alarm by Cherry Ghost. Every time I heard it, I had a very heartwarming feeling, like arriving at home after a hard days’ work or snuggling up with my husband. I knew there was a story within those chords—I could sense it, I could feel my fingers tingling.
The first verse talks about being dragged down, and I had the image of a woman submerged in a river or lake. I was commuting a lot at that time, an hour’s journey each way, including a 30-minute walk, and inevitably I’d hit this song during the walking part—I remember muttering to myself, “There’s a story here, I know there’s a story.” (Luckily there was never anyone around!)
But it hung in the air, just out of reach.
One morning, I stopped mid-stride because I had it. And, oh it was perfect. I went home that night and the story fell into place, evolved, became something so exciting, and the submerged woman was the centerpiece of it all. In my head, this story and this song are inextricably linked. Our Beautiful Child became the title story, and definitely one of my favourites out of everything I’ve ever written.
I don’t mean to write sad stories, but my characters are usually broken in some way. Everybody Hurts could be the soundtrack to most of my stories. I once described it as the soundtrack to my own life! I see it as an uplifting song, that we all have times when we suffer, but there are people who will help.
There are two stories that were inspired by this—one directly, one indirectly.
In Omelette (from That Sadie Thing and other stories), Josie’s friend is gravely ill and she’s in need of support. She’s hurting, her friend is hurting, and a waitress—by doing nothing more than offer her an alternative to her usual lunch order—gives that comfort. I wrote Omelette, listening to this song, with tears running down my cheeks. I could imagine Josie sitting at her table, listening intently to the song on the radio, singing softly to herself.
The indirect story is Cat and the Dreamer. Julia hurts, enough to attempt suicide, which fails. The book is about her life afterwards—the refrain about holding on is just so perfect for her, because around the corner everything changes, she just needs to wait just a little bit longer.
The Girl who is Good (That Sadie Thing and other stories)
I grew up listening to—and loving—the Tears for Fears original of Mad World, but some of the covers have a more emotional impact. The Gary Jules version, used on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, is the one that resonates with the main character, the unnamed girl in the title. She’s torn between being the person her parents want her to be and the person she wants to be—she’s completely overwhelmed by her own reality. All around her, there are definitely familiar faces, but she stares at them as though they are strangers, isolated. At one point in the story, she’s looking at the reflection of herself and her parents in a window, and doesn’t recognize them.
Mad World, in all its incarnations, has a dreamy, surreal feel—try to listen past the lyrics and allow yourself to float away with the tune. The ending of this story would not exist without this song. I didn’t know where I was going with it, writing myself into a dead end. Then suddenly The Girl did something completely unexpected, but totally fitting for this track. You’ll have to decide what happens for yourself, though.
Some of my characters just need a hug, and Beth is definitely top of the list. Silent Lucidity by Queensryche is the musical equivalent. Right from the opening lines and with a voice that reminds me of melted chocolate.
Beth’s life is preordained, she wanders through the big moments, not really taking part. She marries her first boyfriend, and has three children with him—but her affair is unplanned, and changes her life in ways she couldn’t possibly imagine.
Again, this track has a surreal quality, drawing the listener along into a crescendo. Reading the lyrics for this post, I realised how perfect they really are. Beth wants to fly, it’s all she ever wanted—to soar high and achieve her dreams—and this song carries her.
Finally, recently I published my fourth short story collection, You. I. Us. I wrote the first draft of these stories very quickly and spent most of the time listening to all the best songs from the TV show How I Met Your Mother—fast, upbeat, quirky, they perfectly fitted the short vignettes I was writing. Two of my favourites are Let Your Heart Hold Fast by Fort Atlantic and Simple Song by The Shins. As they’re more upbeat than the rest of the songs I’ve featured, I’m going to finish with them. If you’re a fan of the show, you know exactly which scenes these tracks come from, don’t you?
Annalisa Crawford lives in Cornwall UK, with a good supply of moorland and beaches to keep her inspired. She lives with her husband, two sons, a dog and a cat. Annalisa writes dark contemporary, character-driven stories. She has been winning competitions and publishing short stories in small press journals for many years, and is the author of four books, Cat & The Dreamer published by Vagabondage Press, That Sadie Thing and other stories, Our Beautiful Child published by Battered Suitcase Press and You, I. Us published by Vine Leaves Literary Press. She won 3rd prize in the Costa Short Story Award, 2015. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @annalisacrawf
To introduce this week’s guest I’ll quote the opening line of her post: she says she envies songwriters because they are masters of the concise. She writes short stories and quite often doesn’t know where an idea will go, but finds her way by listening to a song, letting the words flow, trusting the music. A cover version of Mad World gave her a particularly dreamy, haunting tale about a girl struggling with identity. The post captures so well what we do, whether short or long form. From conciseness – a spark or a song – we get depth, a whole world. Anyway, do drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford.
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 award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell
Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles
Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)
As for the music:
…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’
Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.
A novel in stories
Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.
A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:
Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’
Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.
Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.
Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:
Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’
Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.
Chopin and chopsticks
In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:
How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’
The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?
Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:
Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’
I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.
Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.