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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 novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown
When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard. But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.
My work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel. At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke. From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics. Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.
In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right. Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature. My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over. Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt. In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976. Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.
Time of struggle
The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather. Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers. But it was also a time of great opportunity. Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility. Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible. Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man. But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything? Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether. For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.
Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict. He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew. This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same. Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy. During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths – This Charming Video Game. I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.
Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie. Find out more about her at www.isabelashdown.com or chat to her on facebook and twitter.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Sanjida O’Connell @sanjidaoconnell
In my fourth novel, Sugar Island, Emily Harris is a glamorous young English actress who arrives in America in 1859, determined to make enough money to save her father’s theatre company. But while she’s there, her father dies, leaving her alone and, in her vulnerable state, a charming Southern gentleman, Charles Earl Brook, sweeps her off her feet and into matrimony. It’s during their honeymoon that she discovers his terrible secret: he owns a plantation in Savannah, Georgia, run by seven hundred slaves.
Darkness, danger and charm
Like many writers, I rarely listen to music whilst I work but I found that soul-haunting and edgy blues tracks, such as Down to the River to Pray by Alison Krauss and Natural Blues by Moby, helped me write about this naïve British woman who suddenly finds herself into the lush swamps of the Deep South, and of the heart-rending misery that she encounters. I played Jace Everett’s Bad Things endlessly. It has the darkness and the dangerous charm that is at the core of Charles’s appeal to Emily, as well as an evocation of the south’s decadent glamour.
Emily glimpses St Simons Island, where her husband’s plantation is, for the first time:
‘…the marsh appeared to close in, the reeds brushing past the edge of the boat. The overriding smells were rotting fresh seawater, seaweed, fish on the edge of decomposition. To her right lay an island of dense deep green tangled jungle; the dark grey sky pressed in on them. She’d spent the whole journey trying to dissect her emotions and now she realized that at the heart of all her arguments was one very simple thing: she felt as if she were slowly being pushed into a trap.’
This is when Emily encounters slaves for the first time. A group of them row her, her husband and her husband’s brother, Emmanuel, to the plantation. As they do so, they sing:
‘Mother, master gone to sell we tomorrow?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.
Gone to sell we in Georgia?
Yes, yes, yes,
Oh, watch and pray.’
Emmanuel uses the song as a way of telling Emily about their slaves, which he does with relish.
‘That’s why they are so pleased that you are about to have a child,’ said Emmanuel quietly, leaning towards her, ‘It means our family – your child – will continue to own them in the future and their families won’t be split up by being sold at auction.’
‘Mother don’t grieve after me,
No, no, no,
Oh, watch and pray.’
I found this slave song on www.negrospirituals.com and then altered the words slightly to keep them in the dialect I used for the St Simons slaves. Originally, I was so taken with some of these lyrics, their poignancy and their way of expressing the emotions of the slaves in a way they could not, I used them frequently. My editor at John Murray quite rightly said that less is more.
Emily does her best to help the slaves, from pleading with Charles to make their lives less miserable, to cutting down a young girl who’s been strung up by her thumbs and whipped, to teaching one slave to read, which at the time was illegal. Ultimately, Charles will no longer sanction her actions and makes her choose between her freedom and her daughter.
The only other slave song now remaining is right at the end of the novel but it might give away too much of the plot to quote that one.
Once I’ve finished writing for the day, I tend to go for a run and listen to some completely head-banging, heart-pulsing music to blast me out of the Deep South, Emily’s horrific quandary and the chilling plight to the slaves – songs such as I Fought the Law by The Clash, Mr Brightside by The Killers, All My Life by the Foo Fighters and Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day.
Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island (John Murray). She is on Twitter as @sanjidaoconnell
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- 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.
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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
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- 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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- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'
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