Posts Tagged The Beatles
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’s post is by NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt @leavittnovelist
Soundtrack by the Smiths, the Beatles, Crowded House, Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones
My novel Cruel Beautiful World was written over a period of four years, with lots of tears, struggles, millions of pages, and I know for a fact, millions of songs. I admit that I listened to the same music over and over to get the emotional tone right. And I never could have silence when I wrote because the music both relaxed and inspired me.
You might think that because the novel is set in 1969 and 1970 that I listened to the period’s rock and roll back then—kind of dippy hits like Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), but actually, I didn’t. Hey, I grew up in the 70s and I didn’t want my own experiences leaking too much into my narrative. I wanted my characters to claim their own lives and their own music. And I wanted to create their world for them.
Every day when I sat down to write, I would listen to The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. To me, the lyrics are so very ‘cruel beautiful world-ish’ on their own. The song is narrated by a man in pain. He knows that yes, there is this hope, this light, even as he’s thinking about what a privilege it would be if a truck ran over him and the person he loves – death by Mack Truck. It always got me in just the right mood.
Some days, writing snags and I need a beat to propel me through it. Usually those songs have nothing to do with what I am writing, I just feel as if my heart is beating along with the musical beat. When I was writing the tortured, tangled relationships in the books, I listened to The Beatles Rubber Soul , that bright shiny sound, the beat that kept propelling me forward. I didn’t listen to the lyrics (if I had, I would have been derailed) but the music acted as a pulse.
When I had to write the most wrenching scene of my novel, where a death occurs, something I had put off for months, I had to be really tender with myself, but I also had to brace myself so I would go deep, so I wouldn’t pull back from what was important. That was when I listened to Those You’ve Known . What makes this song more meaningful and heartbreaking for me was my actor son was in a production of Spring Awakening, and he sang that song as Moritz. I wept listening to that song when I saw him onstage, and I wept while I was writing, but I got the scene done exactly as I wanted it to be.
Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House captures the feeling, the longing my characters have for one another–and my own internal longing which never seems to ebb. Listening to this song is like taking a vitamin for my writing. Back to Black by Amy Winehouse does the same thing for me because of its bluesy, smoky sound.
While I was thinking of my work as a whole, trying to categorize this unwieldy novel, my son was sprawled on a chair in the living room, avidly listening to this gorgeous song and I said, ‘What’s that? Who’s that?’ He looked up at me. ‘Group Love,’ he said. ‘Cruel and Beautiful World.’ I knew immediately that without the ‘and’ it would be the perfect title because it’s sort of my world view. Yes, things fall apart, hearts rip open, but there is love, too, and beauty and art and fresh Insomnia cookies.
The day I finished my novel and sent it off to my agent, I cried. And then I put on Tom Jones’s Country album, because that was the one I played every day when I was pregnant with my son Max. I sang along to it, feeling soothed. I used to put my headphones on my belly so my son could listen in, too.
I knew I was birthing something.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow and the critically acclaimed Cruel Beautiful World, which launched in paperback on 8 August. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and People, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as private clients. She was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, in NYC’s unofficial sixth borough, Hoboken, near their actor son, who lives in Brooklyn. Right now, she’s listening to lots of Benny King. You can find her on her website, Twitter (@leavittnovelist), Facebook, Instagram (carolineleavitt) and Litsy (Carolineleavitt)
My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’ll be on the Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27
Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives
Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.
Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.
The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.
I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.
Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.
I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.
Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.
Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.
Find their space
While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’
Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.
I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.
The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:
No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’
She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:
Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’
I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.
I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.
Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.
When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.
It appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.
But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.
Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27
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 Diana Stevan @DianaStevan
Soundtrack by Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Patsy Cline, Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Helen Reddy, Andy Williams, William Warfield, Cat Stevens, Johnny Nash
The Rubber Fence was inspired by my work on a psychiatric ward in 1972 and couldn’t have been written without the songs of that time playing in my head.
Inspired by workplace
I had just graduated with a Master of Social Work in 1972. Dedicated and ambitious, I found myself working on a psych. ward where shock treatment was still taking place. Years later, troubled by what I had seen, I wrote The Rubber Fence.
My novel is about a psychiatric intern, Dr Joanna Bereza, who finds herself up against a system as stuck as the people it treats. Assigned two patients, Joanna struggles to keep them from getting shock treatment by an arrogant shrink, who happens to be her supervisor. Complicating matters is Sam, one of her fellow interns, who looks like a rock star and is as loose as she is tight. She can’t help but be attracted to him, especially when her relationship with her husband, Michael, is on shaky ground.
Music that speaks of freedom
Because I wanted to immerse myself in the era and recall the emotions that served as the underpinnings of my story, I played 60s and 70s music with lyrics that spoke of freedom, broken ties, and love outside of marriage.
Music that encouraged breaking free served my writing of both the patients’ stories and Joanna’s. The patients in the story are not only trapped in their own misery but also in a system that doesn’t have time nor often the heart for them. Joanna is trapped in a different way. She’s in a crumbling marriage that she doesn’t know how to fix. And she’s working in a system where she has little control.
With Joanna’s unnerving attraction to Sam and the independence he represented, Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee came to mind.
The Beatles’ Hey Jude sparked my memory when I wrote a scene that takes place in a city park. It’s where Joanna and her husband see all the hippies on the move across country, having the freedom they both long for. Now, the lyrics of Hey Jude don’t connect directly to what is going on emotionally for Joanna, but it was the song I heard one of the hippies play when I went to that park in the 70s. It brought back the images of all those young people sitting on the grass.
The girls were braless, the shape of their nipples pushing at the rayon fabric of their tie-dyed T-shirts. Peace sign necklaces, long beads, and broad leather wrist wraps signaled the deeper changes ahead.’
Same for music like Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (also known as Feelin Groovy). Hearing that song set the tone for the pub scene, where Joanna goes to relax with her fellow interns. It was also how she needed to feel after struggling with her patients’ progress.
A woman’s plight
And when Joanna worries about her husband Michael and his fidelity, songs Crazy by Patsy Cline, and If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot helped me find both the mood in those settings and Joanna’s internal monologue. It also helped me discover what Michael might’ve been feeling and from that, I could write his behavior and dialogue.
Torn by all that is happening, Joanna’s lost. The lyrics of Helen Reddy’s I Don’t Know How To Love Him speak to that confusion. Not surprisingly, Joanna wants to check out. I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane by John Denver was the perfect song to capture those exit plans and the emotions that drove the arguments leading up to them.
Writing about Joanna’s shattered hopes of a lasting love was also helped by the music from that tragic film Love Story. Where Do I Begin, so beautifully sung by Andy Williams.
And for one of Joanna’s patients, Theresa, a young woman, who stopped talking after the birth of her baby, the tune and lyrics of Old Man River, sung by William Warfield, popped into my head when I wrote a group therapy scene. In it, Sam plays the guitar and sings this old lament. Some of the patients join in, but Theresa doesn’t. The significance of the music’s lyrics finds its way into Joanna’s thoughts.
Had Sam consciously chosen this song—one that seemed to speak to Theresa’s condition—or was it one of those synchronous things that happens in life?”
Writing in hope
For the scenes where Joanna begins to see some possibility for change, I used Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens and I Can See Clearly Now The, The Rain Has Gone by Johnny Nash. These classic hits underlined for me Joanna’s hope for some kind of resolution, for a rainbow promising a better future.
Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem I Am Woman gave me the spark to write the scenes where Joanna takes on the head shrink and the medical establishment (all male) over its indiscriminate use of shock treatment.
As I write this, I’m struck by the power of music to soothe, stir up feelings and generate thought. Thank you, Roz, for suggesting I write this post. Music unleashes that inner world, not only of a writer’s characters, but of the writer herself. And what better way to touch a reader than to expose that underbelly.
Diana Stevan has worked as a clinical social worker, model, professional actress and writer-broadcaster for CBC Television’s Sports Journal in Vancouver, Canada. In later years, she wrote three screenplays, two novels—A Cry From The Deep, a romantic adventure, and The Rubber Fence, psychological fiction—a novelette, The Blue Nightgown—short stories, poetry, a stage play and some children’s books. She’s published articles in newspapers and poetry in a UK journal. She is currently working on her grandmother’s story, set in Russia during World War I. Diana lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia with her husband, Robert. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @DianaStevan
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 guest is Clare Flynn @ClareFly
Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys, Pussycat Dolls
When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.
When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.
Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.
The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”
I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.
Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.
Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.
When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.
Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:
Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”
Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.
I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.
I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.
I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”
And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.
The passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.
Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”
The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.
Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.
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.