Posts Tagged The Undercover Soundtrack
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 by award-winning novelist, poet and novella-ist Heidi James @heidipearljames
Soundtrack by Nirvana, Ane Brun, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Portishead
I’ll start with a confession – I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing or reading, or cooking or clearing up, or anything really when I’m alone. I prefer silence and birdsong. Partly I think that’s because I’ve lived all my adult life with people who love and make music, and so have been saturated by other people’s sounds and musical choices; and partly because I have a noisy, busy mind, music has been too much of a distraction, especially if I’m in company, the noise making them less easy to access or decipher.
Yet, that changed when I started writing So the Doves. One strand of the narrative is set in the late 80s and early 90s, so listening to music from that era was essential to finding my way back to the texture, smells, fashion and visuals of that time. Listening to random tunes that I’d never usually listen to, like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue’s duet, Especially for You (time hasn’t improved it to my mind) helped me visualise that world of my childhood in ways that are not part of the novel, but that would be crucial to the writing of it. Hearing Terence Trent Darby’s Wishing Well, I could see our neighbour, Martin, in his socks and sandals, his knee-length grey shorts and neatly ironed t-shirt as he polished his blue Datsun and there was my mum, her sunbed on the patio, soaking up the rays, cigarette smoke turning and rising above her.
The main characters in the novel, Marcus and Melanie, forge the first bonds of their teenage friendship from a love of music:
‘Marcus,’ she said, her voice low and soft, ‘do you honestly think that what you learn in class today will be of more value to you than what you’ll learn in Vinyl Exile? Come on.’ She stood up, raised her eyebrow and cocked her head in the direction of town. ‘Let’s go my rebellious friend.’
And so I started to listen to the music I imagined they loved and from there the characters became more complex, more rounded. I could see them and hear them when I listened to the razored bass that slices through Blew on Nirvana’s Bleach, I was there lying with them on Melanie’s bedroom floor, sympathising with their longing for the day when they would escape the misery of their/our small town. I remembered the dull rage of interminable Sundays, the relief of good friendships and the welts left from clumsy kisses and lazy punches. About a Girl could’ve been written for Melanie. She’s charismatic and bright and unlike Marcus, she can see straight to the heart of things:
It’s weird; it’s like all romance and glitter and rags; as if it isn’t enough to just be a person who doesn’t fit, because that isn’t worthy of respect.’
Vibrant and fearless, she’s the girl everyone wants to know, everyone wants to be and then she vanishes; and Marcus is alone, and left looking for a truth he won’t find, despite searching throughout his award-winning career as a journalist.
This listening started as a point of reference and research, and yet, the more I listened to music, the more I had a sense of who I had been, the music I’d loved and so I started listening to more and more, rediscovering a self and tastes that I had forgotten. The sweep and drama of Bowie’s Life on Mars, the muscled bass and guitar on Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, the slinky sorrow in Portishead’s Sour Times – the music began to reorder and disrupt the strange taxonomy of my memories, easing the writing but so much more than that too.
Music became a space, a sonic zone of suspense from the physical world. It has become a haven for me, where before it was an irritant, an oppressive force. I tuck myself inside Ane Brun’s Halo, and feel strangely held in the embrace she is singing about, her voice tender and fragile. It reminds me of fiddlehead ferns, the feathery leaves coiled tight; of nests woven from grass; of the tangled strings of cat’s cradle caught on my Nanna’s fingers.
Marcus buys Melanie a record, and it’s a precious gift, the music pressed flat into an object that exists even without the means to play it, and here I am, having sold most of my CDs and records, with a music collection that is ephemeral, spectral, comprised of airwaves and numerical codes, contained on my phone, stored in a cloud. Like the angels I believed in when I was a child.
So I’ve begun to listen to music again, for me.
Heidi James’s novel Wounding was published by Bluemoose Books in April, 2014. She was a finalist for the Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (published by Neon Press in April 2015) won the Saboteur Award. Her novella Carbon, was published in English by Blatt and in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre. So the Doves is her second novel. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @heidipearljames and on her blog/website HeidiJames.me
My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’ll be on the Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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’s post is by Leonora Meriel @leonora_meriel
Soundtrack by JS Bach, Debussy, Sofia Rotaru, Rodnya Ensemble, Ukrainian Folk Choir, Emil Krupnik
The Woman Behind the Waterfall is the story of three generations of women in a Ukrainian village. The mother, Lyuda, cannot escape the belief that she has got everything wrong in her life, and yet her seven-year-old daughter Angela challenges that belief every day. The novel covers choices and mistakes and consequences and childhood, set against the background of a Ukrainian springtime.
The writing of the novel happened in several different ways. Some I wrote as pure emotion. Some came from images I held of the Ukrainian countryside, and I wrote as a painter, working to describe the landscape with all the sensory elements, just as I had experienced it at the time. Other parts I wrote with mental purpose, seeking a way to portray an aspect of Ukrainian life in a scene that carried the story forward.
These internal and external methods of writing demanded their own music, and I developed a set of pieces that would take me to the places where I could create what was demanding to be written.
The piece of music which was listened to the most is the well known and loved Cantata 147 by Bach: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. I am not a musician, and yet this music seems to me utterly perfect. The notes and melody are so contained and precise. They hold their beauty and passion with such poise that for me, it amplifies the love and grief and heartbreak that I hear in them, and that guided me to write the character of Lyuda, who struggles to lift herself out of her sadness for the sake of her daughter, and is constantly drawn back into her guilt and self-blame.
In my second novel, The Unity Game, a speculative sci-fi tale set in Manhattan, a distant planet and the afterlife, I tried to express this idea, when one of the characters finds himself in a garden, shortly after his death:
It was as if he were listening to the most exquisite piece of music which had never been written, but was being played, somehow, because the notes, in their creation, had contained the possibility of that music within them.’
My other classical muse was Debussy. The Ukraine I set out to portray in The Woman Behind the Waterfall was the rich countryside of western Ukraine in the regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Bukovyna and the pre-Carpathians. These areas are breathtakingly beautiful and lush. They are wild and untameable and terrifyingly fertile. They are more green than you could imagine was possible and in spring, everything is growing around you from the famous ‘chorniy zemlya’ – black earth. I found that Debussy’s passionate, wild yet dream-like music reflected these scenes for me. They are sensual and surreal and beautiful, just like the spring countryside, where every sense is filled and filled – intense smells, animal and village sounds all around, colour everywhere, the heat on skin.
For my ‘mental purpose’ writing, I listened to Ukrainian folk music to write about the three generations of women, and about life in the Ukrainian village. The joy and fun of the music and focus on nature reminded me of how Ukrainians love to party – to drink, dance, laugh, sing – and this is significant in my novel as Lyuda, the mother, has trapped herself in a private world of depression away from all this happiness.
The song Chervona Ruta, sung here by Sofia Rotaru, refers to a legend which is featured in The Woman Behind the Waterfall – the night of Ivan Kupala. On this midsummer celebration, unmarried girls go through rituals to predict and attract their future husbands, including leaping over village fires and plaiting their hair in special ways. According to legend, the ‘ruta’ or rue flower, which is usually yellow, turns red for a short time on the night of Ivan Kupala, and any girl who finds the red flower will be happy in her love.
‘Shanson’ music helped me to tap into the male characters in the novel, especially when I had to write about their choices and how they would approach a situation. Shanson can be described as Soviet prison music, and usually involves one or two men growling into a microphone with a guitar, accordion and sometimes drums to accompany them. Every taxi driver in Ukraine listens to Shanson UA and it goes perfectly with driving in a country where life is hard and unpredictable. It is angry and heart-breaking and rough and cruel. Here is an example of a Ukrainian artist Emil Krupnik singing Murka.
Ukraine has an incredibly interesting culture. If any readers have been tempted by this piece, I would urge them to go and visit this wonderful and always surprising country. If time and money are limited, you could read about the western part in The Woman Behind the Waterfall.
Leonora Meriel grew up in London and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh and Queen’s University, Ontario. She worked at the United Nations in New York, and then for a law firm. In 2003 she moved to Kyiv, where she founded Ukraine’s largest internet company. She learned to speak Ukrainian and Russian, witnessed two revolutions and got to know an extraordinary country at a key period of its development. In 2008, she returned to her dream of being a writer, and completed The Woman Behind the Waterfall, set in a village in western Ukraine, published in 2016. Her second book, The Unity Game was released in May 2017. Find her on her website, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter as @leonora_meriel
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’s post is a return visit by author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Blanck Mass, Glass Animals, Johan Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Leodoris, Mark Pritchard, Mogwai, UNKLE, YouTube tropical island ambience
Kris Kristofferson came first. At the end. A slow pull-back, with Nobody Wins playing over the scrolling credits.
I’d had the Savages story pinballing around my brain for a while, but hearing Nobody Wins gave me that final scene. It underscored the logic of the story, seeped into the characters and themes. It unspooled the narrative backwards, giving me the focus to go forward.
If some kind director (Shane Meadows or Danny Boyle, please) makes a film of the book, I would insist they pack the soundtrack with the music I used to fuel the writing. Because, for me, music isn’t a lubricant or a catalyst. It’s central to the story of a novel’s creation; as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app, the epiphanies in the supermarket queue, the drafts and redrafts.
I know some writers like silence or white noise or Brahms or Schubert or Eno, but I can’t make it happen like that. I need the mood of the music to match the tone of the scene, and, while I’m at it, I like to transpose the tunes into a fantasy soundtrack of the movie of the book. (Actually, let’s go for Ben Wheatley.) With Savages, that meant the wall-of-sound headrush of Blanck Mass for the final five chapters, Mark Pritchard’s ominous minimalism for the bad blood of the mid-section, and the cataclysmic crunch of Johan Johansson’s The Beast for a pivotal scene that I wanted to read like the slow and pitiless turning of a torture-rack wheel.
Savages is the story of Joel Pearce, a suburban GP who’s looking to shake up his routine. He receives an extravagant gift for his fortieth birthday: a ‘desert island survival experience’ and, despite being a creature of home comforts, he rises to the challenge. Together with four friends, he travels to a remote tropical island in the Philippines for three weeks of indulgence and self-discovery.
It doesn’t go well.
Savages is, I hope, a thriller that plunges the reader into deeper genre waters. I wanted to write something instant and high-concept and broad, but smuggle in plenty of literary layers and contemporary obsessions. (Self-improvement, male identity, ageing, post-hedonism, the blurring of the fake and the real.)
I read plenty of genre thrillers; mostly crime and psychological. When they’re good, they can be very, very good, but when they’re bad, they can feel like dressed-up research or algorithm-friendly templates, hacked out from the walls of the deepest data mines.
Over the last year or so, the most interesting books I’ve read have dabbled with fusion. The author has taken a little from this genre, a dash from that, and moulded their story into a lateral but nourishing whole. I’m thinking of Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (sci-fi romance), Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (one man and his dog and the human condition), Adrian J Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (post-apocalyptic existentialism).
With Savages, I wanted the fusion to come from a tweak to the three-act convention. Act One is character study; family and relationship drama. Act Two is a psychological thriller; mounting tension, known unknowns. Act Three is all-out action thriller, bordering on horror. And it’s all served up with a twist inside a twist which came from that Kris Kristofferson eureka! moment.
I don’t only use music as a writing backdrop; it always seeps into the story when I’m out and about, under headphones. With any writing project, I usually have a signature song that follows me around; something that seems to connect with the story’s ambience and conflict. For Savages, it was Toes by Glass Animals, with its furtive, feline slink and talk of “divine ape-swine”. (The song is a perfect fit for the setting, as it’s clearly inspired by HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.) I also loved the brooding sensuality of Leodoris’s Run, those honking synth stabs hinting at whatever evil lurks deep in the febrile vegetation, and the way its title chimes with one of the book’s recurring ideas: progress, forward momentum, running, the urge to run when there’s nowhere to run to, the limbo between fight and flight. (UNKLE’s Panic Attack helped here, too, as did Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake, a glistening guitar meltdown that I used as pre-writing psyche-up.)
And when I had to glue myself to the writing chair in the middle of a dark and dismal winter, and cook up scenes of heat and light and powdery beaches, I turned to old YouTube, where some kind soul had stuck a static camera under a palm tree and captured an uninterrupted hour of the kind of desktop-background fantasy island described in the book. Outside my window, the North London streets glittered with frost, but in my writing cave, I was transported, tapping away to the sounds of chirping cicadas, rustling palm fronds, cresting waves. The soundtrack helped me to create an authentic bucket-list dreamworld, which I could take great pleasure reshaping into a nightmare.
Andrew Lowe is an author and editor who has written for The Guardian and Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by running, cycling and coaching youth football. Savages is out now in ebook and paperback. Audiobook coming soon. His website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him as @andylowe99
My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’ll be sharing the Undercover Soundtrack for his latest novel on Wednesday.
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 award-winning journalist, travel memoirist, writing coach and novelist Claire Scobie @ClaireScobie
Soundtrack by Bangarra Dance Theatre, AH.FM trance radio, James Blunt, Adele, Govinda, Joi, Handel, various Indian temples
Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel
A year into writing The Pagoda Tree I went to a performance by Bangarra, Australia’s leading Aboriginal contemporary dance company. Known for hard-hitting stories about dispossession and colonialism, spiritual resonance and mesmerising soundtracks, much of their music has been composed by David Page, one of Australia’s most brilliant and original Aboriginal composers.
And yet, my book is set in India. So why did Bangarra’s Earth & Sky soundtrack have such an impact?
When I first saw the performance in Sydney, where I live, I was just starting to navigate between the two different narratives of my novel: the Indian story largely told by Maya, a girl living in Tamil Nadu in the eighteenth-century and the story of the arrival of the British. Maya is a temple dancer and it is expected that she will become a royal courtesan for the prince himself. The year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change.
On the day of her initiation into the temple, she sees a stranger ‘dressed all in black [wearing] an unusual triangular hat. He was a foreigner. His long hair was dishevelled, his pallid complexion ghostly.’
Maya fears this is a bad omen.
The man is Walter Sutcliffe, an English reverend, who has come to Thanjavur to be a moral guide to the rabble of the English army. Over the coming years their lives will intersect – ultimately with disastrous consequences for her.
From Bangarra to Bharatanatyam and back again
Still, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I didn’t know all of this when I started.
What I did know, though, was that nine-year-old Maya was destined to be a great dancer. Dance is the pulsating rhythm of this book: it is dance that offers Maya an escape when family tragedy strikes, enabling her to flee to the steamy port city of Madras where she meets a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce. Maya dances for the gods as well as men and her dance – Bharatanatyam – is still performed around the world today.
But initially I couldn’t connect to the intricacies of her art form. I watched many dance performances in south India during my research and I bought a stack of Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – videos as a way to understand the moves. It didn’t chime, though, and I sat and stewed in front of the keyboard.
Then I saw Bangarra’s Earth & Sky. In particular I put Weaving Part 2 from the soundtrack on repeat because its simple, rhythmic beat that builds and falls seemed to tap into the young innocence of Maya – and the misguided kindness of my English missionary character, Walter.
Walter was actually the first character who ‘came to me’ when I was visiting Thanjavur. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, in a monsoonal downpour.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Walter even if he was a man of his time. India works her magic on him, though, stripping away his moral Christian prejudices so he can face the demons of his past.
In the Bangarra performance, there is a dance sequence about the harmful impact of Christian missions in Aboriginal communities, captured in Bible Man, Broken Wing and rising to a pinnacle in the piece Victim.
All helped when I was further into writing Maya’s character and she starts to understand what the arrival of the British is going to mean for her family, community and people. Thanks to Victim, I was able to write the final climactic sequence of the novel.
Victim is like a performance song that combines the eerie sound of footsteps, prison doors locking and unlocking, violent swearing and Aboriginal voices, intercut with the monotone recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Kingdom Come / Thy Will be Done…’
Just re-listening to it now makes my heart beat faster. When I was writing the novel, it helped bring my plot strands together. In fact the entire album of Earth & Sky encapsulates this element of brokenness which I explore.
Getting into the zone
In general when I write, I don’t like music with lyrics as they stop the words that I’m trying to find in my story. Instead I like AH.FM trance radio because there are no ads and the tunes are uplifting and often anthemic. Then, once I’m writing, I tend to switch the music off and work in silence. If I get stuck, the music comes back on again.
As my novel is set against a pretty dramatic backdrop of war, famine and natural disasters, I did enlist some big pop songs to help with writing some scenes. After I’d been working on the book for around two years, I realised I was avoiding writing a particular scene with Maya’s aunt, Sita. I know enough now that if I keep avoiding something, it’s the thing that MUST be written.
It would be a plot spoiler to say what happens to Sita but James Blunt’s No Bravery got me there. Blunt served in the army before turning to song writing and this tune is about how war degrades our humanity and makes monsters of men.
Similarly, Adele’s roaring Rolling in the Deep helped as I was limping towards the end of my novel. I’d seen the last scenes very clearly 18 months before I actually wrote them. Adele’s emotional, piano-thumping beats and feisty lyrics galvanised the words to reach that fever pitch I was looking for.
Daily life in India: my main soundtrack
And then of course, there’s all the Indian music I turned to when I was writing the book in Sydney or London: Govinda’s A Modern Mantra and Joi’s India became favourites. I didn’t need it when I wrote in India because real life there provides its own sound track: temple drums wake you at four o’clock in the morning, then there’s a call to prayer from the minaret, crows cawing, monkeys shrieking, a Bollywood soap opera from the woman’s television next door, political rallies blaring out slogans on loud speakers… and so it goes throughout the day.
Except my goal wasn’t to pit these worlds against each other, which is the well-worn narrative we read so often about Raj India. Instead it was seeing how the cultures interlink and where the crossovers are. The future of the British in India wasn’t written in the 1770s and there was still a possibility of exchange between people. And at its heart, that’s what the music helped me discover – that space in-between, in that liminal world of spirit and matter, between love and hate, fear and joy. In the space between the words.
Claire Scobie is an award-winning British journalist and author who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. She has just indie published a new memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, co-authored with her mother Patricia Scobie. Claire runs writing courses in Australia, Asia and the UK, and mentors writers one-on-one. In 2013, she completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel. Her website is here, this is her Facebook page, and you can tweet her as @clairescobie
My guest this week might be familiar to you if you follow the Purple Blog. I featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat high up in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by for her post on Wednesday.
Pull on your boots. My guest this week had a radical change in music taste when she reached her 30s, and she hopes to convert you too – unless you’re already a fan of country. It started when she moved out of Chicago and found that the sensibilities of country singers were more in tune with her new environment. Not only that, she realised they were wry, witty storytellers, writing about characters complex enough to satisfy any novelist. Soon they were guiding the way her stories developed. So come and join a twangly, poignant chorus of Dolly Parton, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, all on the Undercover Soundtrack of Victoria Dougherty.
But I haven’t said when. I’m hoping to post as usual on Wednesday, but BT have mucked up my broadband and can’t promise they’ll have their wagons in order by then. So Victoria might be a day or two late. But she’s on her way. I guess life slows down when you’re in the country. See you soon.
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 Zürich-based Australian novelist and short story writer Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol), who is one half of ‘Christoph Martin’, a collaborative writing team, with Swiss writer and entrepreneur Christoph Martin Zollinger (@expansionbook).
Soundtrack by Nicky Jam, Benjamin Clementine, David Bowie, Zoe Keating
Before embarking on The Expansion project with Christoph, I hadn’t written fiction collaboratively, apart from working with beta readers and editors. I found the process a fascinating one, in which two minds bring ideas and experiences and skills to the table, and somehow, over time, a new expression of a story is built and honed, and eventually handed over to the world.
The Expansion is a political thriller; a fictional account of a conspiracy around the expansion of the Panama Canal, with storyworlds spanning Panama, Washington, DC, London and Switzerland. It’s the first of a four-part series that interrogates the global political landscape, and asks questions about power and corruption, and the broadly impacting deals and investigations that go on behind closed doors.
Both Christoph and I need silence to write. But our story has a massive scope, and there’s no doubt music has acted as both a useful anchor during the writing process for me, and as a ‘language’ of sorts, as Christoph and I sought to explain to each other the ‘feeling’ or ‘atmosphere’ we wanted to evoke in a certain scene.
As part of our research, Christoph and I travelled to Panama in 2015, where we visited the site of the Panama Canal expansion (mind-bustingly enormous), as well as numerous other locations that formed the setting for our story, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As part of that experience, I made sure I ate local foods and listened to local radio, and in fact it was the continuous wallpaper of Spanish-language pop music like Nicky Jam’s El Perdón (which I heard blasting out car windows in downtown Panama) that helped me get pumped and in the mood to write the good-times, party scenes. Or really any scene that contained one of our key characters, Godfredo Roco, who seems to bring the party with him wherever he goes.
One morning, Christoph turned up to one of our plotting meetings with ‘Condolence’, a song by British artist Benjamin Clementine, on his laptop. We’d been putting together the events around the darkest hours in our protagonist Max’s journey, and I immediately knew from listening to that track where Max’s head and heart were at that moment. The fact that Clementine’s accent is British (he’s from London) was an important anchor for me, because Max is a Brit who winds up in Panama City in a viper’s nest of political corruption and conspiracy between characters from the US, China and Panama. And at the very moment it’s all falling apart for him, he receives news from London that will break his heart and take him to a place he’s been and ‘seen before,’ as Clementine would put it. It’s a pivotal moment, as Max will need to decide whether he has it in him to stand up and fight for his life. (Again.)
What I love about Clementine’s track is that, as it heads for the second verse, it sounds like it’s about to resolve, break into a major key … and then it slips back into a minor key … So you don’t really know which way it’s going to go. And I had the distinct feeling from hearing that track that this was how we should be writing Max. (Metaphoric and literal spoiler: major key resolve after second verse.) Not only that, but the driving rhythm under the lone piano gave us the ‘visual’ of Max, stranded and utterly alone in the hustle and hubbub of downtown Panama City.
I think the Obsessive Creator Award needs to go to Christoph, who was far above the world (on a plane between Panama and Switzerland) when he first had the inspiration for The Expansion series. In a prolonged, one-finger typing frenzy on his iPhone (about six hours straight) he outlined the entire story and fleshed out most of the main characters and their backstories … all to the monotonous hum of the aircraft engine.
And (just to give myself the Obsessive Co-Creator Award) there were times when I was doing a lot of writing on my own, and at those times it was useful to have some musical inspiration. One such instance was when I was spending a lot of time in the headspace of one of our characters, a very tough and disciplined woman who is also terminally ill. That was a challenge for me, and in writing the events before her death, I appreciated David Bowie’s final gift to the world, Black Star, which I had on high rotation in between writing sessions. It’s a pretty discombobulating track—musically, lyrically, and visually (if you watch the video clip)—and I’ve observed that some people find it jarring, and off-putting. But I think, as a writer, you can benefit from staring uncomfortable things in the face. And it makes your writing stronger, too.
One of the most intriguing things about Black Star, for me, is that even though it is thematically quite intense, it has a surprisingly light touch—playful, almost. That was clarifying for me while writing our character; not that our character is necessarily playful or ‘light’—in fact, to the contrary, she’s ruthless and she has regrets—but, having listened to people talk about their own impending death, and having talked with friends whose loved ones have died, I notice there are many interesting preconceptions about what the ‘journey’ towards death will be like, but the actual experience seems to be very different for everyone, and in that sense Bowie’s track inspired me to stay firmly in our character’s head and in her heart as she started her journey towards her demise.
Of course, nobody knows what Bowie was going through in private, but I found the fact that he had written and recorded an entire album while sick and dying compelling. The performance of a lifetime, really. And so we gave our character the performance of her life as she headed into the eye of the storm.
Max […] surveyed the village below. Its narrow, stone streets had been laid hundreds of years before the first growl of a motor, and snow lay thickly on neat, fairy-tale rooftops. Twinkling Christmas lights delineated eaves and chimneys, and wisps of wood smoke hung low in the valley.’
This is the scene in which we first meet Max and his best friend, Godfredo: they’re teenagers, and they’re trudging up the mountainside at night from the tiny, village train station back to their exclusive Alpine boarding school. It’s a moment that forms the prelude to an event that sends their lives spinning off in different directions, and it’s also a moment that stays with them through the ‘dance’ that becomes their long-lasting, if at times mutually exasperating, friendship.
When it comes to writing the Swiss Alps, Zoe Keating is high on my list of inspiration. There’s something about lyrics-less cello that is very spacious, and yet Keating’s arrangements also have a powerful edge to them, and this element acted as a reminder to steer clear of stereotypes: to embed words that defy expectations, and to tell the story with a fresh eye. I put her music on whenever I feel like I might be veering towards ‘tidy’ or ‘cliché’.
On the one hand, The Expansion novel is a genre piece, so we needed to bow to the dramatic, and to the fast pace of a thriller, but we also wanted to take the time to do justice to our story and our characters—after all, it’s a star-crossed love story, too. So part of attaining that balance was to give the prose—the language—an edge, where possible, when the pace was slower. Like embedding the word ‘growl’ in an otherwise peaceful, fairy-tale, twinkly-lights night.
Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol) is an Australian novelist and prize-winning short story writer. Her young adult fiction, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She has lived in the UK, USA and Malaysia, and she now lives with her family in Zürich, Switzerland, where she is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly online publication, and WriteCon writing workshops. You can also connect with Libby on her Facebook Author Page and Goodreads. You can read more about The Expansion four-part series on The Expansion website, and find Christoph Martin on Goodreads and Twitter @expansionbook.
My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. Drop by on Wednesday for their Undercover Soundtrack.