‘How could I make these characters living and lovable people?’
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 my guest is award-winning novelist, short-story writer, creative journalist and online literary journal editor Nigel Featherstone
Soundtrack by Arvo Part, Jonsi, Phil RetroSpector, The Commodores, Turin Brakes, Nick Cave
What would the world be without music? I shudder to think. What would many fictional worlds be without music? Surely the only answer is this: not as rich, not as deep, not as engaging. At least that’s my answer, and it’s one I believe in – very much. No day goes by without music playing an almost unfathomably massive role in my life; it’s a rare 24-hour period when music doesn’t move me. And when I read I hope that I’ll be moved, and when I write I hope that I’ll move readers. What other aim should there be?
Earlier on, years ago now, I would write to music: the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Part was a favourite, as was Canadian post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. These days, however, music is all around me but when it’s time for words to go down on the page – my first drafts are written by putting a blue Bic pen to paper – I need silence. Still, at the beginning of 2010, when I ventured out of my little house in regional New South Wales to spend a month as a writer-in-residence in Launceston, Tasmania, I made sure to have a small collection of CDs with me, otherwise I’d be lost, perilously lost.
I went down to Tasmania to work on short stories, but as is the way with these things I left that peaceful island state with the somewhat sketchy first drafts of three novellas. I’m Ready Now, published recently by Blemish Books, was the first of these novellas to come out onto the page. The story concerns Lynne Gleeson, a wealthy 50-year-old woman whose husband has suddenly died, and her son Gordon, who is coming to the end of his ‘Year of Living Ridiculously’ – both are at the most critical cross-road of their lives, but will they make the right decisions? More importantly to the writing of I’m Ready Now, how could I make these two characters appear is if they are living, loving and lovable people with whom we’d want to spend time?
Finding a mother
Two albums I took to Tasmania were Jonsi’s Go and Phil RetroSpector’s Intro/Version. The former, by the Sigur Ros lead singer, is soft and cute and bubbly and moody and sometimes dark and ominous, the latter, which isn’t available commercially but can be downloaded from RetroSpector’s website, mashes classic artists such as Johnny Cash, David Bowie and New Order with relative newcomers such as REM, Muse and Sia. Somewhere between Jonsi and RetroSpector was the mother in my story. Except I didn’t really find her until I came across Sail On by The Commodores. There she was! Among the bad hair, sequined body-suits and pained musician expressions!
The Hobart-based Lynne Gleeson is a tough cookie, smart, determined, independent, as well as a romantic and maybe even a little naïve, and when we meet her in I’m Ready Now she’s coming to terms with losing her husband Eddie of a heart-attack after a game of golf. Heavy stuff. But Lynne also likes to laugh and I could imagine her as a kid dancing around her bedroom to Sail On, hairbrush in hand as a mic; I could also imagine her now that she’s thoroughly adult dancing around her loungeroom, wine-glass in hand, knowing that there’s a future out there for her – if only she’s brave enough to claim it.
Finding a son
When we meet Gordon he’s recently turned 30, living in Sydney and scratching out a crust as a professional photographer, kind-of-sort-of-maybe partnered with his boyfriend Levi, but really his main occupation – preoccupation – is his Year of Living Ridiculously, which involves spending his weekends enjoying all that Sydney has to offer, illicit and more. I liked Gordon from the beginning, despite his faults – I admired his naked desire to live big no matter what. But as his writer I found it hard to get beneath his skin. Until, that is, in a secondhand record-store in Hobart (I’d been invited to spend a weekend giving a workshop), I found Turin Brakes’s The Optimist LP, which contains a killer track called Underdog (Save Me). Ah yes, that’s it! Gordon is an underdog, that’s exactly what he is: just before his first birthday he was abandoned by his father, Lynne’s enigmatic but ultimately adventure-hungry first love from her high-school days. And Gordon needs saving, but despite all that his mother and boyfriend and his bestfriend are trying to do for him, the person do to the saving really is himself.
While it would be inappropriate – and downright cruel – of me to reveal what happens to dear old Lynne and her wayward son Gordon, what I can share with you is that ending I’m Ready Now was difficult. Really difficult. Firstly, I didn’t want to leave these people alone, I didn’t want them to leave me. Secondly, I simply didn’t know how to do it – the story builds and builds and then…what should be done? Thankfully Nick Cave stepped in; actually, he jumped up on the page and said, Can I help? He sure could. The Ship Song. The ending of this novella, such that it is – the story is as much about what happens after the last page is turned as it is about what’s on the pages in the first place – was built around those words of Cave’s, because it links so beautifully to Lynne’s Sail On and Gordon’s Underdog (Save Me). Sail on, good people, and be saved.
If music wasn’t in my life, I’m Ready Now wouldn’t be out there in the world at this very moment, doing what it has to do.
Thank Christ for music.
(Author photo by Jonny Lewis)
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary adult fiction and creative journalism. He is the author of the novellas I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books 2012) and Fall on Me (Blemish Books 2011), which won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction. His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books 2005) was published to considerable acclaim, as was his short-story collection, Joy (Ginninderra Press 2000). Nigel is also the author of 40 short stories published in Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. He is a regular contributor to The Canberra Times and has held numerous writing residencies. He is the founder and editor of online literary journal Verity La, for which he received a Canberra Critics Circle Award for 2012. Nigel lives in Goulburn, New South Wales. Find him at his website