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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 author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles
All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.
My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.
On my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.
My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.
Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.
The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.
Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.
As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.
It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.
Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.
Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.
A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’
Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’
I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’
That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.
Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.
After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.
Music also helps me get ideas.
When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.
Listening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.
Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.
The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.
Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.
Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.
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My guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
America, authors, Bob Dylan, Deer Tick, Desert Island Discs, drama, dystopia, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, entertainment, folk, folk-punk, main character, male writers, Montag Press, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-future, playlist for writers, post-apocalyptic, protest singer, protest songs, punk, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tom Waits, Trevor Richardson, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 US National Book Award winner William Alexander @williealex
Both of my novels, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, are set in the same city and unfold at the very same time. They also share a soundtrack. The first is about a goblin theatre troupe. The second is about a girl who loses her shadow and becomes a musician.
First let me tell you a bit about this shared setting. Zombay is a playfully broken place, its pieces repurposed and cobbled together. The noise of and voice of this city clanks and clamors. One single bridge — the Fiddleway — connects two halves of the city (barely), and various musicians play at all hours to keep that bridge from falling over.
Luce Strumgut the sailor explains how and why in Ghoulish Song:
“You can shape music to reshape the world, just as words do in charms and curses. Sailors learned that first.” Luce proudly tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “We sang chanties to the rhythm of oar and hoisted sail. It’s madness to trust your own weight to a bit of bark adrift on water. It’s only ever possible to face up to that madness with a song. So we made the music necessary to hold a barge together—or a bridge. The madness of the bridge, of walking and living and building whole houses high above the River, is only possible with many songs. You can hold anything together with the proper tune—or you can tear it apart.”
Two albums in particular helped me map out my city and hold it together.
First I used Real Gone by Tom Waits. I often started a writing session with Hoist that Rag. It’s a working song, a sailor’s song, and it has an urgency and a clanking, jangling rhythm that I found especially useful.
Once Tom forced me awake and growled at me until I started working the album would fade into background noise. That’s no criticism of its quality. All of Real Gone rewards close listening, but the songs didn’t seem to mind humming and muttering between themselves while I mostly ignored them and went about my writing business. There’s one track I couldn’t ever ignore, though: How’s it gonna end? Every time it came up I would write faster. Tom needed to know the ending, and so did I.
Lyrics can be distracting, though, and the stories told and hinted at in the rest of How’s it Gonna End don’t really match up with the stories I was working on. The other album I had set to endless repeat was Zoe Keating’s Into the Trees—an absolutely gorgeous album, played by a single cellist looping and accompanying herself. Keating composes ideal soundtracks for dark fairy tales. You can stream the tracks from her site, but pay particular attention to Optimist.
Take a moment to imagine both Tom Waits and Zoe Keating guest-starring on The Muppet Show. That sense of unsettling playfulness is pretty much what I was aiming for. If I hit the mark, then I owe it to those two musicians.
William Alexander won the US National Book Award for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that, too. Will studied theatre and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He lives in the Twin Cities, right in the middle of the States. Find him online at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter under @williealex.
Brief hiatus: The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break and will be back in two weeks’ time on 13 November. See you then!
authors, cello, classical, Desert Island Discs, drama, Earphones award, entertainment, fantasy, Ghoulish, Ghoulish Song, ghouls, Goblin Secrets, goblins, Halloween, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, soundtrack, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tom Waits, undercover soundtrack, US National Book Award, William Alexander, writers, writing, writing to music, Zoe Keating
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 multi-genre novelist and indie publisher Devon Flaherty @devtflaherty
Soundtrack by Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morissette, Gungor, Passion, Tom Waits, She & Him, The Sing Team, Adele, Waterdeep, Glen Hansard, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Brothers and Sisters, The City Harmonic, Trouvere, Lowland Hum, Over The Rhine, Putumayo, Belinda Carlisle
I have to admit, ever since I started staying at home with babies/small children, my interaction with music has been different. Not only do I have to put up with terrible kid music (with the exception of BNL’s Snacktime) and avoid music I formerly loved with questionable lyrics or themes, but I also have the occupational challenge of keeping my ears open, all the time, listening for a breach of boundary, a breaking glass, a sibling fight. Most of the writing of my recently published book, Benevolent, has taken place in this music vacuum—stealing moments of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill while driving alone to a friend’s home.
But this has been a really big month for me. On section two of my next novel, The Family Elephant’s Jewels, my husband has graduated nursing school, my son has been registered for kindergarten, and mommy has been given — by the appreciative husband — an iPod Nano! Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead without my Discman, but an iPod seemed a little extraneous with my loveable cling-ons. And now? It’s truly wonderful.
Last night, while listening to Gungor’s Dry Bones and folding clothes (and doing air pumps and some orchestra conducting), I saw the vision for my much-needed book trailer. The music just flowed through me. And I don’t know about you, but when I get really carried away with a song, visions break out like fireworks on my inner retina, making music videos of my creativity, my thought-life. Which is why, for me, music is such an integral part of the writing process.
I have been known to say, in recent interviews, that my ideas often come from moments in life when something small and extraordinary jumps out at me. I can’t begin to count, even during my music-starved twenties, the times that that small and extraordinary moment was fueled by music. My future fantasy trilogy Spin was almost completely born out of the song White Flag by Passion (which is kid-friendly). I have a whole story built around Tom Waits’s A Little Drop of Poison (which happens to be on the Shrek soundtrack).
Oh for Bose
So now that I am planning long hours lost behind noise-cancelling headphones — and the eventual transfer to a Bose stereo that I can blast when I am the only one home ‘working’ — I plan on creating the townscapes of The Family Elephant’s Jewels with the juice-flowing inspiration of all my latest (and greatest) favorite bands: She & Him, Sing Team, Adele, Waterdeep, Glen Hansard, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Brothers and Sisters, The City Harmonic, Trouvere, Lowland Hum, and many others, many as yet undiscovered by me.
The truth is, that even without music playing all the time (which it had for the first twenty-five years of my life), music was still inspiring me as I wrote Benevolent. It’s evident when I reach out and bring in a very specific piece of music, even in the prose. Gaby is listening to Over the Rhine’s Good Dog, Bad Dog as she rumbles bus-bound through Jerusalem, thinking about her romantic attachments. Putumayo’s Gypsy Groove lilts on the air during a disastrous scene near the end of the book (no spoilers!), but I had to change the title (Mali to Memphis) due to time differences. Heck, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth was the song that got me in the whole 80s and 90s mood to begin with. And let’s not forget the one I made up (because that’s how story and legend often convey):
And The Queen and her lover
ran for cover
Holding each other tight.
While the tall story man
and his evil war band
Chased down the beautiful knight.
Where have all the heroes gone?
I want a stately red-headed queen
to make love to angels
and wield a sure sword
And Jaden to save the day,
Oh-oh Jaden to save the day.
I like to bring my readers all the way into a story, and that means engaging all the senses, if possible. They are seeing a dingy 1980s dining room, eating chicken, smelling old carpet, feeling a chink in porcelain under their fingertip and the roughness of a tuxedo jacket against their arm, listening to—what? Besides Nadine yammering on? Besides the humming of the fridge and the clink of silverware? In Gaby’s opening scene, I have music everywhere: being rudely interrupted, then bursting out again, ‘in the foreground and background and off the walls,’ Stellar crooning obnoxiously to Bette Midler.
And I like to be immersed, myself, into life. I like to see, feel, smell, taste, and hear when I walk through the woods, when I take my husband on a date, when I read a book, and definitely, most definitely, when I write it.
Devon Flaherty is a writer in Durham, North Carolina. Originally from metropolitan Detroit, she is a mother, a wife, a hobby yogi, photographer, painter, and foodie. She has been writing seriously since her very earliest brushes with literature, and has published articles, poems, and photography in literary journals and magazines. She received a bachelors in philosophy and was an assistant editor, freelancer, and blogger, until she founded a publishing company, Owl and Zebra Press, and launched her novelist career with Benevolent. Follow her on Twitter @devtflaherty, at her blog The Starving Artist, or by signing up for her E-Newsletter. You can buy Benevolent here (or plenty of other places).
GIVEAWAY Devon is giving away a signed copy of Benevolent and also a copy of She & Him’s new CD, which Devon says is the kind of music her protagonists would be listening to today. You can enter both these giveaways via the links on Rafflecopter. For the signed copy of Benevolent go here, and for the She & Him CD go here. (And she’d probably appreciate it all the more if you also share the post!)
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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 multi-award-winning author and New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M Valente @catvalente
Soundtrack by Carl Sagan featuring Symphony of Science, Loreen, Ke$ha, Milla Jovovich, Yann Tiersen, Florence + the Machine, Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists, Anais Mitchell, Orenda Fink, Anna Ternheim, Pogo, Sufjan Stevens, Nobuo Uematsu, Tom Waits, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Bird, Circus Contraption, Antje Duvekot, The Innocence Mission, Rilo Kiley, Jason Webley, Neutral Milk Hotel, DJ Earworm, Ru Paul, Lady Gaga, S.J. Tucker
Exeunt on a leopard
Music and Fairyland go hand in hand. I can’t write without music – it’s an intimate part of my process. So often I start a novel by making a playlist for it, songs that say something about the subject and have a beat conducive to writing. Anything too aggressive and I get distracted, too soft and gentle and I get sleepy. There’s very much a sweet spot to find! With the Fairyland novels, the playlist is called Exeunt on a Leopard and it evolves with every book.
Fairyland is a novel about travel and magic, about growing up, about figuring out the world is a more complicated place than you thought. It’s whimsical but it has a bite. A lot of the songs I like to listen to seem like they could be sung in the voice of my protagonist, September, who is carried away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind (who rides a Leopard) and finds her way to Fairyland, a kingdom full of wyverns, witches, marauding herds of wild bicycles, and a very wicked Marquess who has inflicted some very human cruelties on the magical world. Fairyland is both an adventure story and a prodding—sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp—of the whole tradition of children’s literature. So I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy – all stories about fairies have a little melancholy in them.
Song to start the muse
I start out every writing day with Symphony of Science’s gorgeous song A Glorious Dawn. It makes me feel so optimistic about the world! After that, the heavy hitters are Florence + the Machine’s new album Ceremonials, Mumford and Sons’s Sigh No More, The Decemberists’ Her Majesty and Picaresque, Anais Mitchell’s folklore opera Hadestown, Orenda Fink’s Invisible Ones, Anna Ternheim, especially Shoreline, which seemed to be just written for September, Pogo’s Alice songs, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and Michigan albums, Nobuo Uematsu’s phenomenal soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Tom Waits’s sad and sweet musical version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America, Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated album Wicked Girls, the title track of which actually makes a quick, subtle cameo in the climactic scene of the novel, Andrew Bird’s Scythian Empire, Circus Contraption’s melancholy carnival album Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, Antje Duvekot’s Black Annis, Yann Tiersen’s fabulous music wherever I find it, The Innocence Mission for a little early 90s awesomeness, Rilo Kiley, Milla Jovovich’s surprisingly lovely song Clock, Jason Webley’s Ways to Love, Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers and In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.
When writing scenes heavy on action, I will admit with only a little blushing that I like some cheesy club pop music – DJ Earworm’s mashups that remind you how meaning can be so fluid, Ru Paul’s Glamazon, Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album, Ke$ha’s Tik Tok (there’s a strong clock theme in Fairyland!) and I’m completely in love with Loreen’s Eurovision winner Euphoria as I’m working on the third book in the Fairyland series. Sometimes the silly stuff makes me feel free to be ridiculous and whimsical in my work–not everything has to be serious and elegant all the time. This is an important lesson for a fantasy writer, I think.
Finally, I can’t talk about Fairyland and music without mentioning S.J. Tucker. She’s an extraordinary singer, and I have her last two albums Sirens and Mischief on a loop when working. But she’s also done three albums based on my books, and a fourth, based on Fairyland, will be coming out soon. So I listen to September’s Rhyme and Wonders quite a bit–they remind me what I mean to say with my books, and why I started this whole crazy business to begin with.
Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award and the Lambda Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat. She blogs at yuki-onna.livejournal.com and tweets @catvalente
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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.
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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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