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 Women In Journalism advocate and debut novelist Meg Carter @MegCarter
Soundtrack by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins, Elvis Costello, REM, Madonna, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Patti Smith
I grew up in a house full of music – classical music. An only child, I was discouraged from playing pop music at home by my parents who were a little older and a bit more conservative than others.
Instead, I spent countless rainy weekend afternoons lying on the sofa in my father’s study imagining film visualisations of LP tracks from Walton’s Façade or Holst’s The Planets. With eyes tightly shut, music shaped my characters, plot and place.
Until with the arrival of teenage-dom, a pair of headphones, and some new friends, the role of music in my life changed.
Suddenly, music was social currency. Almost overnight, which band you liked or disliked and which non-chart acts you rated (the more obscure, the better) mattered. It defined who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ and also who we wanted to be: lover, survivor, rebel.
How earnestly we’d make each other audio tapes, too. I found one just a few years back in a drawer when we last moved house: a home recording of Freaky Styley (an early Red Hot Chili Peppers album: pre-mainstream success, of course) gifted to me by a classmate’s older brother.
And I kept thinking of this as I began work on my first novel.
The Lies We Tell is a psychological thriller about former school friends Kat and Jude. Set in the present and the late 1980s, past sequences build towards the last time the two girls saw each other: on a school trip when Jude was attacked by a stranger and Kat ran away.
This basic idea is one I’d had for some time. But for a while that was all – no who, where, when or why? Yet I knew the relationship between them would would define what happened next. Hungry for inspiration, for a creative spark, I began to replay old LPs that I’d not listened to in years.
Inside the sleeve of one I found a clutch of A4 sheets on which an old school friend had written out for me every lyric from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album… in long hand. She and I were once close then drifted apart. Yet I was intrigued by the fact I still felt deeply touched by her gesture, and grateful. I decided then that Kat and Jude had to be drawn together and – to begin with, at least – be defined by music. It just felt right.
Past and present
How best to interweave and differentiate the now and then stories in The Lies We Tell was an immediate challenge.
The musical references helped me establish time and place. But as important was its role in understanding context and mindset; music also provided me with a short cut to excavate the tangled web of teenage friendship. For example, Kat would rather listen to Elvis Costello or some early REM rather than chart hits like Phil Collins’s Groovy Kind of Love – as she proudly tells Jude on their first meeting. And when she visits Kat’s home, Jude greets her collection of early Pretenders, Bowie, and Lou Reed with a nod of approval. Musical taste is a badge of honour, a powerful means of self-differentiation and a declaration of independence, too.
As important as the role of music in the girls’ teenage years is its lack of importance in Kat’s present.
On inveigling her way way into her one-time friend’s home more than two decades later, Jude notes much of the music collection belongs not to Kat but her partner, Michael – with the exception being a collection of Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.
Without hesitation, she selects Madonna’s Like A Prayer – a track she closely associates with a buried secret that once unearthed would change both girls’ lives, forever.
The dulling of Kat’s musical interest is a reflection of the shadow cast by her past. But it is a pattern played out widely in real life too. Like many, I’ve found as careers and family move centre stage, the joy of discovering new music has been replaced by something else – a nostalgia and a craving to rediscover old favourites that transport us back to a younger, simpler life.
Kat, then, would rather not look back. Jude, however, cannot stop as for years she has navigated life’s challenges with a grim determination fuelled by an acid sense of injustice.
The intensity of Jude’s grievance is encapsulated by her misquoting of Patti Smith’s Babelogue – the spoken poem off the 1978 album Easter, which reverberates with biblical reference and death and resurrection imagery. Jude’s mis-appropriation of Smith’s meaning demonstrates the extent to which her life has become derailed.
I didn’t hear Babelogue until I was at university in the early 1980s at which point, having only encountered Smith through her UK chart hit Because the Night, I found it as shocking as it is haunting. It’s still an inspiration today.
Meg Carter worked as a journalist for 20 years before turning her hand to fiction. Her features have appeared in many newspapers, magazines and online with contributions to titles including You magazine, Independent, Guardian, Financial Times, and Radio Times. She is on the advisory committee of Women in Journalism. Meg recently relocated from west London to Bath, where she now lives with her husband and teenage son. The Lies We Tell is her first novel and is published by Canelo. You can find out more about her at http://www.megcarter.com and on Twitter @MegCarter.