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