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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 musician, playwright, performer and award-winning novelist Nathan Singer @nathansinger1
My music and my fiction are often so inextricably linked there is very little separating the two. The music that I write for my bands is fairly ‘literary’ I suppose … and sometimes I just rip off my own novels for lyrics (gotta do whatcha gotta, and so on). Each of my novels corresponds to a different musical genre: A Prayer for Dawn is a thrash novel, In The Light of You is a punk novel etc. As such I often write — and occasionally record — my own soundtracks for my books to get a sense of tone first and foremost. Today I will be talking through the sounds that inspired/created/were created by my blues novel Chasing the Wolf, my only novel to date whose original soundtrack album was officially released, originally as part of a special limited edition of the book, but now for all to have on its own. So here is the (free) full soundtrack album that I wrote and recorded to accompany Chasing the Wolf called On Through the Night. It’s best to listen along while you’re reading the book.
Beyond my own original music, though, many masters of the form make direct (and indirect) cameos within the novel, and their music was playing constantly throughout the writing of the book. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Part One – Midnight Creepin’
The song quote that starts Part One is from a song by Rev. Robert Wilkins called That’s No Way to Get Along. It captures the deep well of the main character’s sorrow (as does the Blind Willie song below), and it’s also foreshadowing of what’s to come in the story.
The plot of Chasing the Wolf, in a nutshell, is this; a young white artist named Eli Cooper is living in NYC in the early 2000s with his beautiful African American wife Jessie. Jessie is a dancer. They are an ultra-hip couple. All is going just swell, until Jessie is killed in a tragic backstage accident. Overcome with grief, Eli attempts to commit suicide. He runs off into the night in a bind frenzy, passes out in Central Park … and wakes up in Mississippi 1938. Cue Dark Was The Night, by Blind Willie Johnson.
Once Eli accepts that he is not dreaming, he sets out through the dark of the night to try and make sense of what has happened.
Part Two – Dry Long So
Eli muses that one of his favorite blues legends Robert Johnson would by murdered at a juke house soon. He ponders how cool it would be to go witness it when he realizes that a mysterious young black man he had met some time ago back in NYC was actually the one and only (and long deceased) Howlin’ Wolf (the ‘Wolf’ of the title). He decides he needs to find Howlin’ Wolf in order to get back home. What Eli does not yet know, however, is that both he and Howlin’ Wolf are being followed by group of men in fancy, pinstriped suits that are likely not men at all. They are the hellhounds on your trail that Robert Johnson sang about. (Robert Johnson makes a brief but important cameo in the novel as well, but Eli never meets him.)
(Here I am channeling Robert to the best of my abilities at Morgan Freeman’s blues club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi.)
Part Three – In Devilment
Even though Skip James only gets a passing mention in this novel, his music informed the entire vibe of the novel and I played him constantly during the writing. His music is just so sinister and otherworldly, it provided the perfect ambiance.
In his search for The Wolf, Eli takes up lodging at a boarding house near West Point, Mississippi. To his shock he discovers a beautiful young widow working there named Ella Brown. Ella Brown looks, talks, and by all appearances is his late wife Jessie, even though she doesn’t know Eli at all, and is a bit frightened of him (much to his heartbreak).
Unbeknownst to Eli, Ella and another maid from the boarding house slip out of the house to a juke joint one night to see Howlin’ Wolf. After the show Wolf comes up to Ella and says, desperately:
You gots to tell him come find me, Miss Jessie.
Ella has no idea who ‘Jessie’ is. Out behind the juke house, Ella catches Wolf ‘killing’ a white man (actually one of the hellhounds).
When I’m upset, blood leaks from my head. When I’m over the edge my gums bust open and my nose bleeds and my eyes get little red polka dots on them.
You’ll have to read the novel to find out why.
Part Five – Lonely One in this Town
Eventually Eli catches up to Wolf. For a moment Eli thinks he sees a way out of his situation and con maybe even get Jessie to come with him. But, as Mr LeRoy Carr says in How Long Blues, the train seems to be gone. Here I am reading/ performing the scene – enjoy!
Nathan Singer is a novelist, playwright, composer, and experimental performing artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novels published by Bleak House Books A Prayer for Dawn, Chasing the Wolf, In the Light of You and the forthcoming sequel to A Prayer for Dawn, Blackchurch Furnace. He is also the lead vocalist, lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the bands Starshaker and The Whiskey Shambles. He is currently at work on two new plays, an opera, and three albums of original music, plus probably some other stuff. His website is here, connect with him on Facebook, or Twitter @nathansinger1.
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My guest this week says her fiction explores the hidden side of human existence, delving into mysticism, the paranormal and deep psychology – and her latest novel was sparked by a disturbing dream. Its soundtrack encompasses Vivaldi and Tori Amos, a potent aural brew that allowed her to forget she knew what was going to happens and live the story moment by moment. She is Vivienne Tuffnell and she’ll be here on Wednesday sharing the Undercover Soundtrack to The Bet
authors, Desert Island Discs, dreams, entertainment, fiction, gaming, human existence, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, mysticism, Nail Your Novel, paranormal, parapsychology, playlist for writers, psychology, reincarnation, Roz Morris, spiritual possession, The Bet, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, videogames, Vivienne Tuffnell, Vivienne Tufnell, writers, writing, writing to 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 Ellie Stevenson @stevensonauthor
There’s always a song playing in my head – I just need to decide if it means anything. Sometimes it might be an important clue, but mostly it’s just from a TV advert! Music has always been special to me – I listen to it often, usually pop but some classical. (Cue Music by John Miles.)
When I was writing Ship of Haunts, two tracks were particularly important. I’ve always liked Madonna’s music (especially the albums American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor) but this particular track came from the album Hard Candy.
The song, the Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You existed for me before the book, by which I mean it was influential in its creation. I’d listen to the lyrics and hear the tune, and what sounded like water, and have this image of two or three people in the depths of a ship, with the water rising, and somehow knowing they wouldn’t get out. That’s what happened to my character Lily, trapped with Hern in the depths of Steerage.
The story doesn’t end there though. The feel of the song, combined with Ballard’s haunting photo (Mail Online, 15 April 2012), of shoes and a shape on the ocean floor, maybe a dress, or some sort of coat, gave me the keys to Lily and Carrin – death and goodbye, but not the end. The lyrics of the song, which are about recognition – seeing someone is not who they should be, helped establish the theme of betrayal, which runs through the book: Mad with her kids, Iserva and Jacob, but mostly Carrin, whose lover Brianna is not what she seems. And then, of course, there are the real people who died on Titanic, whose families felt let down by the company (White Star Line).
The last waltz
Ship of Haunts is all about failings, the mistakes of history, like those with Titanic, and people’s mistakes and how they can learn to change and move on. For me, Titanic is all about stories, people’s stories and that’s what really holds us captive, tied to the ship, 100 years on. When I was reading, researching the ship, I went to YouTube, searching for histories and maybe some footage of Titanic. I came across a beautiful video with pictures and film clips of the ship – as she was then – you could see the people standing tall, not having a clue what lay in wait. A song was playing, Songe d’Automne; it could have been the last song ever played on Titanic – or maybe it wasn’t, but it was there in the clip and that was enough.The song, Songe d’Automne (Dream Of Autumn) was composed by Archibald Joyce in the early 20th century. This particular arrangement is by Rob Astor, and can be found on his Yesteryear Classics album.
Dance with Titanic
When I listened to the waltz, and watched the footage, I felt the song epitomised Titanic, its beauty and its loss, and I liked the haunting melody so much that I wrote the music into the novel. It became a kind of signature tune, telling of when, 100 years after Titanic had sank, Carrin and Brianna meet again. And still remember.
Several other songs helped to inspire me, including Rihanna’s track Disturbia, which helped me capture ‘confused and crazy,’ in the form of Mad, a troubled ghost who’s lost her children, but also Carrin, who thinks her enemies are out to get her. And then the song Runaway Baby (by Bruno Mars), which helped me solve an Australian problem: the place was hot and far too dangerous in the 1940s, especially if you were young and a girl. All the girls could do was run.
A lost time
This final track, The Last Resort, from the Eagles’ album, Hotel California, and always best heard with your eyes closed, spoke to me of the end of a world, in this case the England of the Edwardian era, a wonderful place but full of contrasts and not so wonderful for some. The song recalls how easy it is to forget what we’ve got, to damage what’s good, with our hunger for more or our careless indifference. As the time of Titanic was lost forever, along with her people.
Yet the song, like Titanic, is still amazing.
Ship of Haunts: the other Titanic story is Ellie Stevenson’s first novel. She also writes articles on history, careers, travel and the arts. In a previous life, she worked as a careers adviser, a web editor and also in libraries (although she keeps the last bit quiet…) She has a website and can also be contacted on Twitter @stevensonauthor
GIVEAWAY Ellie is giving away a paperback version of Ship of Haunts. Just tell us why you’d like to read an alternative Titanic story – one with quirky, subversive characters – and a novel that makes you think.
And just because it’s about Titanic, doesn’t mean you know how it ends! For a flavour of the book see http://tinyurl.com/9hw56um
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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 it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….
Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.
That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.
My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.
A life steeped in music
My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch). But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:
Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.
I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.
Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.
One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has
a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.
The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind. Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.
Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’
What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.
Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.
Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.
Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)
The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)
WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
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Kathleen Jones reviewed My Memories of a Future Life on her reading blog this week. One of the comparisons she made was with Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which explores the murky world of charlatan psychic healers who prey on the weak and vulnerable.
When I was kicking around ideas for MMOAFL, I did a lot of research into that world. A stand-out was going to a show where a spiritualist claimed to be contacting the dead relatives of people in the audience – but was obviously grasping ideas out of thin air and finding vulnerable people who would play along. Beyond Black was on my reading list, but somehow I never got round to it – perhaps I’d seen so much charlatanry in reality that I didn’t need to read fiction about it too. So Beyond Black descended further and further down my Amazon wish list, until here it is mentioned in Kathleen’s review … It has to be a sign…
If you’re reading My Memories of a Future Life episode by episode, here’s a friendly reminder: on Sunday the 0.99c launch offer ends and the price of each episode will be USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you’re aiming to complete the set for under USD$4, grab them from the Kindle store now.
If faffing with episodes makes you see red, the novel is also available in a better-behaved, complete form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and not have to pay a bird to carry it from the US.
As I didn’t manage to post the link last time, here’s the quick route to Joanna Penn’s video/blog/podcast in which we compared notes on writing literary fiction versus genre and were complimented on the faces we pulled while in earnest discussion. And new up yesterday, I guested on the rather fab For Books’ Sake, where I talked about how three fictional characters I studied at A level still feed into the stories I write today. Perhaps we’re all still 16 years old at heart.
authors, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, episodes, For Books' Sake, Jane Friedman, Joanna Penn, kindle, literary fiction, music, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, podcast, Roz Morris, serialised novels, serialising fiction, speculative fiction, spiritual possession, The Creative Penn, The Time Traveller's Wife Audrey Niffenegger
The finale episode, The Storm, is out on Monday. To coincide with its release I’m being grilled by the inimitable, formidable and flamboyantly wondrous Victoria Mixon, writer and editor. Through a ghostly cross-Atlantic splice she stuck me in the interview chair and asked me probing questions about the stories behind the story. No spoilers, though – so if you haven’t caught up you can read without fear of unsuitable premonitions.
classical pianists, contemporary fiction, kindle, literary fiction, music, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, reincarnation, Roz Morris, spiritual possession, themes, Victoria Mixon
Damn you can write well!! Didn’t look up once on my hour-long bus ride home! Amanda Glass-Watson, Facebook
I ended up reading it through in one sitting and found myself wanting immediately to know what happened next upon reaching the end of the episode. Andrew Rollings, Amazon review
Roll on September 5 and Episode #2 Matt Kelland, Amazon review
It’s been a heady week, letting my book fend for itself in the wilds at long last. And not a little nail-biting. I can’t tell you how delighted I am by the postive vibes you’ve been sending me, in comments, tweets, blog mentions, emails and reviews. Thank you.
My idea to release the novel as four episodes attracted the attention of a publisher… because they’d been cooking up the same idea. We had a good laugh about great minds thinking alike and decided to celebrate with a joint post on their blog. My novel also had a spot on Dorothy Dreyer’s blog We Do Write, where she asked about my inspirations, what part of the writing was easiest and what was hardest.
Have fun, and wear your white gloves
audio, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, episodes, kindle, literary fiction, music, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, Rachmaninov and Ruin, reincarnation, Roz Morris, serialised novels, serialising fiction, speculative fiction, spiritual possession, The Gargoyle Andrew Davidson, The Time Traveller's Wife Audrey Niffenegger
Download now – this link will take you to a google Docs page and you can download the MP3. file size is 12MB.
If that file is too big, there’s a more compressed version here, but the sound quality isn’t as good. Try the other one first!
You can also stream it here at Soundcloud:
Special thanks to Barry Brimer at BeOriginal.com for masterful file compression and for bringing the text alive with footsteps, thunderstorms, passing trains and a soupcon of piano. If you need a sound file sweetened (as they call it in the trade), he’s your guy.
Where to buy My Memories of a Future Life
audio, contemporary fiction, download, free audio, kindle, literary fiction, music, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, podcast, reincarnation, Roz Morris, serialised novels, serialising fiction, speculative fiction, spiritual possession, The Gargoyle Andrew Davidson, The Red Season, The Time Traveller's Wife Audrey Niffenegger
- 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'