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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 my guest is novelist, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors Orna Ross @OrnaRoss
Soundtrack by Stephen Foster, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson, Rufus Wainwright, Steven and Peter Jones, Cyndi Lauper, The Eagles, Ronald Binge, BBC Shipping Forecast, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy MacCarthy
Music has always been part of my life, mostly as an appreciator. I did play piano for some years but what was more influential in terms of writing — and particularly these two novels I’m going to discuss here — was being brought up in a singing-and-storytelling culture. I grew up in a pub and my own social life, from my teens, centred round the pub where Saturday and Sunday were sing-song nights. Occasionally it was establish-provided entertainment for the punters to consume, but more often it was the customers themselves who created the night. That’s what defines an Irish bar for me and explains why a good one is in demand the world over: on a proper Irish night out, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else’s good time.
The tracks that underlie the writing of After The Rising and Before The Fall, my first two novels which I’m just about to reissue in a 2-for-the-price-of-1 special offer this summer, are all songs. What I found in putting together this undercover soundtrack was that it very much isn’t a Desert Island Discs lineup of favourite music. A few of these songs I do love but what unites them is that they convey some of the emotional texture of the novels and of my relationship to the time-and-place in which the novels are set: early 20th century Ireland and late 20th century San Francisco.
These were my first novels, and together they form a linked, cross-generational family murder mystery. The story opens with a young soldier, lured to dangerous sinking sands during the Irish Civil War of 1922 and this unresolved killing — who did it and why? — is causing chaos for our heroine, Jo Devereux, 50 years on.
At the time of writing, I was living in a very English market town, Knutsford, in Cheshire. I was nostalgic for both Ireland and California and that nostalgia fuelled the books, and this soundtrack is redolent with it too.
One of the first thing that happens Irish people when they emigrate is that they find themselves listening to songs they would never spend time with at home. For me, I’d always avoided ballads and laments that kept alive the sense of loss and grievance that had erupted in 1916 and led to the independence war of 1921 and its aftermath — yet that was the very background that I couldn’t escape when I came to write fiction.
Seeking the truth
‘Hard times!’ my great-aunt who lived with us, used to say whenever conversation came anywhere near that past, a shorthand expression, was always delivered with a shake of the head. The killing of her brother by his best friend in the ‘War of The Brothers’, the Irish Civil War of 1922/3, was the event on which my novels were based (I couldn’t find out the truth of what happened so made up a 500-page story instead). ‘Hard times!’ was her explanation and excuse and a closing of the door on emotion that just couldn’t be expressed. I think of her whenever I hear this song, Hard Times Come Again No More, (by Stephen Foster, the American writer of Oh! Susanna, and Camptown Races and more than 200 other well-known songs): sung here by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson and Rufus Wainwright.
Kilkelly, Ireland, by Steven and Peter Jones, is another song that reminds me of her. It tells the story of an Irish emigrant to America through a series of letters from his father back in Kilkelly. The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather to his son John, who was illiterate and dictated the letters to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a friend of John’s before he left. It’s what’s known in Ireland as a lament, (cumha in Irish), part of a web of interwoven customs that ritualised longing and loss — maybe as a result of colonisation, maybe something much older. Its cross-generational tale of emigration is told much more concisely than mine and its rhythm and cadence is just how the older generation spoke when I was growing up, oceans of silence beneath their few words. I can’t listen to it without being deeply moved
The research for the book showed that ‘The War of the Brothers’ was very much about the sisters too but Jo rejects entirely the weight of this burdensome history. She leaves Ireland for the same reason shared by countless thousands of other Irish women, intending never to return, and once she shakes off her homesickness she finds herself in 1980s San Francisco, where her anthem, like Cyndi Lauper’s, is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and that great gay anthem from the musical La Cage aux Folles, that meant so much at that time to to so many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I Am What I Am, by disco queen Gloria Gaynor.
I enjoy writing emotional twists and surprises around big themes and in these books the themes are national and sexual identity; family loyalty versus personal autonomy. And gender. We’re all seeded by man and born of woman and we all embody ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. How these play out, in an individual life, and in different societies, is endlessly fascinating to me and fully teased out in these novels.
What Jo finds, of course, is that running away is not the answer. The song that best captures her dilemma, both the dream of a better place… and the dangers of that dream, is The Eagles’s The Last Resort. Jo finds she’s not free to go forward until she goes back to Ireland and understands that place that made her.
So she does, and settles in a ramshackle shed in the seaside village where she grew up, intending to find out and understand her family history. The books are full of descriptions of the Atlantic Ocean and the song that always surfaces when I think of that sea is Sailing By by Ronald Binge, the music that cues the BBC’s late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4. I remember lying in bed listening to it as a child, the strange names — German Bight, Boomer, Dogger Bank, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea — and the weather promised — rain, wintry showers, sometimes moderate or poor, becoming good — were poetry to me.
I felt a bit foolish about this until I read one of my favourite Carol Ann Duffy poems, the beautiful Prayer. I was delighted when searching for Sailing By to find this version that also includes a televised shipping forecast from Laurie McMillan as part of an Arena Radio Night in 1993. And has a collection of stunning footage, presumably from BBC archives. Binge’s music is easy listening but underneath its sweetness I sense again that sense of longing felt by all the characters in these books — and that I used to feel myself for the sea in my land-locked days in Knutsford.
Another seafaring and emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues, ties the economic migration that Jo was part of, that of the 1980s with its Green Card Lotteries to the post famine exodus in the mid-19th century that led to the independence war, not least because it was funded by US dollars. Those words really capture something about the Irish in America that I want to tease out more in the sequel I’m writing, the third part of this story, In The Hour, set in NYC. Thousands Are Sailing tips its hat to Mr Cohan. It’s actually George M. Cohan, ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’ but for a long time I thought it was Mr Cohen, the great Leonard and I want to include his Bird On A Wire , the three opening and closing lines of which were famously claimed by Kris Kristofferson as his epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as ‘a Bohemian My Way, and that’s why it’s here. After The Rising & Before The Fall share this theme that’s found across all my writing, of ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. That’s what Jo has to learn, that’s what connects her personal and familial quest. Early 20th-century Ireland, late 20th-century San Francisco were connected by the same impulse: the desire to free the human spirit from suppression,
Except true freedom can’t be delivered by politics, it’s the terrain of the creative spirit itself. My own political arguments have not been around nation but gender and in this week where we hear of yet another atrocity arising from religious suppression, I am grateful again to a song that celebrates what remains great in Christianity, by going beyond it. One Bright Blue Rose, a piece of pure poetry by a great contemporary songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy (the lyrics are here), sung by Mary Black in her heyday, is full of Christian imagery of the better kind and always brings me beyond anger, back to a truer, better impulse, the one to which I’ve devoted my writing life, not just in these novels, but also in the work for the indie-author movement, and in my current non-fiction series, the Go Creative! Books. That’s how I try, in Cohen’s words, ‘to be free’. And to foster freedom for others.
Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative!books and has been described as ‘one of the 100 most influential people in publishing’ (The Bookseller) for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world’s best self-publishing authors and advisers. Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives, mostly, in London. Her amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/ornaross and her website is www.ornaross.com, where you can also sign up for her ‘Behind The Books’ newsletter and advance books and giveaways. Tweet her @OrnaRoss.
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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 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
Archibald Joyce, authors, Bruno Mars, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Ellie Stevenson, entertainment, John Miles, Madonna, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, reincarnation, Rihanna, RMS Titanic, Rob Astor, Roz Morris, Ship of Haunts: The Other Titanic Story, soundtracks, spiritual possession, The Eagles, The Undercover Soundtrack, Titanic, undercover soundtrack, White Star Line, writing to music
- 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 2011-2023. 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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