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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 Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
Soundtrack by Kate Bush, World Order, U2
On January 11, 2018 I will have my book launch party at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, reading excerpts of The Hope Store accompanied by ambient music. The music will be an overt soundtrack, not the undercover soundtrack I am about to describe.
This speculative novel has always been structurally a kind of duet: the chapters of the book alternate between the voices of pessimist Jada who is a customer and optimist Luke who is one of the store’s creators. At times those voices harmonise, are dissonant, or simply collide. How do two characters with different worldviews see the same event, the same story? Are some realities more real than others? And most importantly: what is hope and how do we make more of it? The Hope Store tells the fable of the first store in the world to sell hope over the counter, the creators of this procedure that opens new paths in our brains, and the individual lives that are changed as a result. As often happens, complications ensue.
Jada Upshaw’s character is broken and hope-starved. The music of Kate Bush helped to conjure Jada for me. Bush’s music is dark, witch-like, desperate. In her classic song, Running Up That Hill, we first hear a siren’s call, then propulsive percussion, finally a lyric fragment. The lyric alludes to some deal she is in the process of making and it feels ominous. Coincidentally Jada comes to the store with a deal in mind, an ulterior motive which we will discover later. Her first words on the page are:
My name is Jada Upshaw. I started out as a girl without dreams and grew up to be a woman without a future. Mind you, it’s not a story I’m especially proud to tell, but if I’m at a party and someone asks me what my story is…‘
Luke Nagano’s character has a chequered past but he has reinvented himself, partly through hard work and partly through undergoing a ‘hope installation’. For me, Luke began to manifest on the page with the music of U2’s anthem With or Without You. Bono’s voice and words embody an unshakeable confidence. There is a steady beat, the whine of steel guitars. The music projects a feeling of determination equal to Luke’s commitment to bringing a new kind of healing into the world. His first words, however, start tentatively:
My name is Luke Nagano. I arrived on this planet as a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it. It took me years to learn how to throw my voice out into the world and wait for it to come boomeranging back to me.’
The revolution will be televised
I always pictured that the climax of this book would take place at a townhall meeting hosted by CNN. And that is exactly what I wrote. Toward the end of the novel, it is almost Christmas, almost the new year. The auditorium swirls with opinions articulated by The Enhanced Hopers who bow down at the altar of science — and opinions of The Natural Hopers who believe one should only have the hope you were born with. This latter group hates science and secretly fears it. During this long night, the arguments range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The audience is filled with skeptics, believers, and everything in between. The whole world is watching.
The song that ignited this scene as I was developing it was a Japanese pop tune called World Order by World Order. The words were gibberish to me as they are in Japanese but the passion of the singer coupled with the danceability of the tracks made this scene percolate. As if it was now time for a dance-off between opposing views. And so there is a choir of angry voices echoing through the auditorium, the Japanese pop tune only adding to the chaos. World Order, indeed. (By the way, the music video is quite entertaining as all the band members are choreographed to perfection. The leader of World Order, Genki Sudo, was formerly an MMA fighter who turned his focus to music and dance videos after an injury.)
Hope is the belief that the thing you most want – you can have
Where did this book come from? At some level, this book is a metaphor for my own healing. In years past I’ve battled generalised anxiety disorder which is characterised by relentless dread, debilitating social phobia which at times kept me home-bound, and a relentless moodswing that lasted over two years. In many ways I am both Luke and Jada, the healer and the person who needs to be healed. The shelves of my own unique hope store have been lined with an array of modalities including Buddhist chanting, therapeutic cuddling, and pharmacology. If Nichiren Buddhism has taught me nothing else, it’s that each person at some point must confront their own fundamental darkness — and conquer it, or at least tame it. Failing that, the person is doomed to a life of incessant suffering. To me, every story is about that: A hero coming face to face with that terrifying darkness — whether it resides within him or lurks somewhere outside himself.
When my book launch party finally occurs, I will not read to music that causes a story to happen, but to music that immerses the audience in the experience of the story. Think of children around a campfire late at night, how the flames add light, heat and even danger. Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I loved writing it. Namaste. The hope in me honours the hope in you.
Dwight Okita lives in Chicago where he designs websites and works for a nonprofit. His first novel, The Prospect of My Arrival, was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Tia Chucha Press published his poetry book Crossing with the Light. He is working on a new novel called Every Time We Say Goodbye which is about love, reincarnation and gun control. The Hope Store is available now. Find him at his website and tweet him at @DwightOkita
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, anxiety disorder, Dwight Okita, how authors work, how writers work, Kate Bush, magic realism, music for writing, Nichiren Buddhism, speculative fiction, The Hope Store, U2, undercover soundtrack, World Order, writers and music
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
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 post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.
Wonder and curiosity
I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born. It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible. (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)
The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:
A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.
The Hope Store
I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope. The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.
But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:
Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.
As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell. But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )
As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.
Crossing With The Light
Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet. In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.
Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.
Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook
GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.
ABNA, Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, authors, Chicago, contemporary fantasy, contemporary fiction, Crossing With The Light, David Bowie, David Bowie and Queen, Dwight Okita, entertainment, Joni Mitchell, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, Long Day's Journey into Dwight, male writers, music, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Queen, reincarnation, Roz Morris, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sara Bareilles, soft science fiction, speculative fiction, spiral staircase, The Hope Store, The Prospect of My Arrival, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writers, 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.
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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
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