Posts Tagged 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 returning for a third spin – Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Doug Appling, A Chorus of Storytellers, Sean Digo, Mozart, traditional Korean music, traditional aboriginal music, James Hood
Thank you Roz for having me back to the Undercover Soundtrack. I’m thrilled to delve in and discuss the music behind my new novel The Time Collector. The story is a romantic thriller about two psychometrists. Psychometrists are people who can touch objects and see the past embedded within them. The pair become caught up in trying to solve the mystery of out-of-place artifacts (“ooparts”) that challenge the timeline of recorded history. Within the narrative, the story travels back in time periodically through the objects, and the answer to the ooparts’ riddle lies hidden within the fantastical world of crop circles, ancient crystals, and sacred geometry. The book has many aspects, so the music I listened to while writing was highly varied too.
The main character of the book, Roan West, is a master psychometrist who has been peering into the past since he was a boy. He wears gloves to control what he touches and the imprints he reads. The only time he takes his gloves off for long periods of time is when he mountain climbs. He is an avid boulderer, someone who climbs without gear or ropes, and bouldering has become his outlet where he can recharge. I went on YouTube to research videos of climbers I found the climbers’ playlists to be so kinetic and full of energy. I ended up getting several albums and looping specific songs. They became Roan’s songs in my mind. The music I looped the most for Roan was from the album Emancipator by Doug Appling. I particularly loved the tracks Rattlesnakes, Nevergreen, and First Snow.
The other psychometrist and main character in the story, Melicent Tilpin, is just starting out on her journey to becoming a psychometrist. For Melicent, I ended up looping A Chorus of Storytellers’s Within Dreams and Perro for many of her scenes. There is something elusively wistful about both pieces that struck a chord when I was trying to write her.
There is one song in general that I listened to the most throughout writing the book. I first heard it on the internet as background music to a short video piece that Futurism.com was circulating and I loved it so much I researched what it was and how to get it. It’s a short piece of instrumental music called Stream by Sean Digo and I was able to download on Audiojungle. I looped it for countless hours (hundreds) and even now when I listen to it the song brings back so many memories of the writing.
Parts of The Time Collector journey back in time through memories stored within objects. There were pieces of music that helped me write those historical passages. For example, within an antique music box lies the memory of 1700s Vienna and musical prodigy Regina Strinasacchi, who performed with Mozart. There’s a wonderful bit of backstory about the sonata Mozart composed for her and I wrote their chapter playing the sonata.
For another object’s memory—hidden within the key to the astronomical clock tower in Prague in the 1400s—I listened to medieval music on YouTube. And another memory is imbedded within an exquisite Korean fan of a young girl’s life during the Korean War. The girl’s mother was a musician and I found traditional Korean music to help spark my imagination. The full playlist is on my website, but this one performer is how I imagined the mother to look in concert.
An important flashback of the story takes place in Australia and I found some fantastic Aboriginal Didgeridoo music and another piece titled the Spirit of Uluru. I hunted all afternoon sampling music to find what I was looking for.
Sometimes though, you don’t have to go hunting for music, the music finds you. That happened to me while I was watching the movie Sing with my son of all places. One of the songs is a remake of Golden Slumbers/ Carry that Weight. The lyrics struck me and felt connected to Roan’s journey at the end. Roan is carrying the weight of the world’s memories inside of him and trying to get home. I ended up listening to the song many times for inspiration to write his journey. The spark of inspiration happened quite on accident while watching a Sunday family movie.
The two final pieces of music I want to mention is by one of my favorite artists James Hood. His previous album, Pure Ceremony, was pivotal when I wrote The Fortune Teller and it was incredible timing that his next album, Mesmerica, came out right as I was getting started on The Time Collector. The entire album is gorgeous! I ended up looping the songs Tapestry and Mesmerica the most, particularly while writing the end chapters. Last December I had the chance to meet James when I went to see his concert for Mesmerica. The show is an amazing 360-degree immersive art and music show that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside a kaleidoscope. I highly recommend going. Visit his website to see if he’ll be coming to your city.
To sample all the music that helped to inspire The Time Collector, the playlist is on my website. And if you’d like to read my past posts on Undercover Soundtrack, here are my discussions for The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter. One of the most enriching aspects of writing is to find the perfect music to go on the journey. I have infinite gratitude for all these artists who inspired me along the way. Thank you for listening!
Gwendolyn Womack is the USA Today bestselling author of The Fortune Teller and the award-winning reincarnation thriller, The Memory Painter. Her latest novel, The Time Collector, is out this month with PicadorUSA. Gwendolyn lives in Los Angeles with her family, collects kaleidoscopes, and paints as a hobby. Visit her online at gwendolynwomack.com or connect with her on social media at Twitter @Gwen_Womack , Facebook and Instagram
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 debut novelist Leslie Welch @Leslie_Welch
Soundtrack by Dave Bielanko, Christine Smith, Chris Rattie, Gus Smith, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, The Temper Trap, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Imagine Dragons
‘We’re recording these old songs at a church in Millheim. You should stop by.’
Intrigued by the invitation, my husband and I made the 22-mile drive from our hotel in State College to the post-industrial town. Back then, Millheim was growing into the unlikely heart of a serious music scene in Central Pennsylvania. That visit would eventually work its way into a novel I didn’t know I was going to write.
Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith (of Marah fame) had enlisted our friend Chris Rattie to play drums on Mountain Minstrelsy—a collection of old mountain songs they had resurrected with new music. Given the people involved, I expected the session to be different, but we walked into an all-out revolt against modern recording. Recording based on intuition instead of algorithms. My internal monologue alternated between, ‘This is so freaking cool’ and ‘How can this possibly work?’
A tangle of cords, amps, and a giant mixing board crowded the back of the sanctuary where greeters used to welcome people to worship. Mics were set up wherever there was good, natural reverb. Not a computer in sight.
Two towheaded boys chased each other through the pews in loops around us as we checked out the set-up.
‘Who are the kids?’ I asked.
‘The taller one is our fiddle player,’ Chris said. ‘Hey, Gus! Come over and play something.’
Eight-year-old Gus scooped up his fiddle and ripped out a quick melody that sucked me into a serious religious moment. The kind of experience that makes you doubt you could ever be good at anything in your life. That’s what happens when you experience a prodigy in person. Here’s Gus Smith.
Gus, undoubtedly used to these impromptu performances, gave us a look that asked if that was enough of a demo. Before our claps faded into the narthex, he was back to the business of chasing his brother around the church.
While the idea for my novel The Goodbyes wouldn’t come for a few months, I collected plenty of inspiration at that session. Fast forward to November of 2014.
Searching for a Soundtrack
With an idea begging for a blank document and a NaNoWriMo deadline, I sat down to write. Since the story was about Webb Turner, a rock star who races through a blizzard to possibly say a final ‘goodbye’ to the girl who inspired his songs, I packed my writing playlist with songs I thought Webb might write. Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and The Temper Trap dominated the two-hour loop. But when I pressed ‘play’, I found myself skipping each track after a few seconds.
I switched over to my music library, hoping the universe would step in. Song after song, nothing kept me writing for more than a sentence until I skipped my way to the one thing I would have never chosen—Tibetan Monks chanting. Yes, really. I didn’t care what it was, it shifted me into the zone. I tapped out a chapter or two on the train ride home.
When I wasn’t writing, I listened to popular music from the 90s and early 2000s. Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Kanye West and Nickelback transported me back to the spirit of that time. These songs play in the background of a lot of scenes in the book. They’re important to the characters, too.
I finished the first draft in a month. Once I had let it rest for a few weeks, I started the slow and painful process of editing. It wasn’t long before I realised that I needed more than ‘Oms’ to paint the flesh onto the bones of the story. My filmmaker husband suggested listening to movie soundtracks for some momentum. I quickly discovered that these epic melodies, swelling and crashing without apology, are gold for writers who want to add drama to key scenes. The Great Expectations soundtrack hit an especially sweet spot for me.
When it comes to creating a writing playlist, what works for one book might not work for the next. My current manuscript likes The Lightning Strike by Snow Patrol and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. It’s a nice change, but in the end, the most important thing is finding anything that inspires me to keep moving until I can punch out the two best words in a writer’s journey: The End.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Leslie Welch spent most of her youth concocting elaborate stories. Her high school English teacher encouraged her to turn these creative lies into creative fiction. Today, Leslie writes at least 1000 words a day on DC Metro orange line trains. She co-wrote her first book in Harrisburg hotel rooms and diners with her best friend, and in 2016 she released her first solo novel, The Goodbyes, published by Blue Moon. When she’s not off exploring the world, Leslie lives in a house full of laughter outside of Washington, DC, with her soulmate, two cats, two dogs, two fish, and a teenager. Find her website here and tweet her as @Leslie_Welch
My guest this week began her novel as a NaNoWriMo project, appropriately enough for this time of year. But its true seeds were at a gig in the late 1990s where the show was stolen by an eight-year-old fiddle player. Years later, the author sat down to power through a manuscript idea for NaNoWriMo. She used songs of the 90s and early 2000s to take her mind back to the night with the fiddle player, but nothing would make the words flow until an album of Tibetan chants popped up on her music library. She found the zone. She is Leslie Welch and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her 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 writing teacher, award-winning novelist and piano tutor Kris Faatz @kfaatz925
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Air Supply, John Mayer, Van Morrison
The first seeds of my novel To Love A Stranger came into my head in the fall of 2007. At the time, I had recently finished my grad studies in piano performance, gotten married, and started working professionally as a piano teacher. I’d written almost no fiction since high school, about 10 years earlier, and had never tried – or thought seriously about trying – to write a novel.
Stranger came out of the backstage world of the classical symphony. My two main characters, Sam and Jeannette, are a conductor and a pianist, respectively. They and their story woke up in my imagination because I had fallen in love with that particular piece of the music world, where people come together to create huge living pieces of art. Some of my favorite classical music, for solo piano and for symphony, ended up in Stranger, because I wanted to share the experience of hearing and being part of those works with readers. During the first months of writing the novel, though, I listened to very different music.
When I started the project, I had a starry-eyed idea that writing a book would take a few months and then we’d be off to publication. Pretty soon, I realized I had let myself in for worlds of trouble. I was in love with Sam, my primary character. He was clear and alive in my mind, and his story – about love and loss, and isolation and condemnation because of the person he was – felt urgent and real. I wanted to get it onto the page, but quickly realised I didn’t have the skills I needed. Frustration set in even as I tasted, for the first time, the exhilaration of a story that wanted to take root and climb for the sky.
Music pushed me along. First, I needed to anchor myself in Sam’s time and place. He was born in the early 1960s, and Stranger was ultimately set in the late 1980s, while I was born in 1979 and needed some way to touch a past I hadn’t experienced. One of the first tunes I listened to for inspiration was Bob Dylan’s Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard any Dylan before, but the tune quickly wrapped itself around my imagination. As I listened to Dylan sing, I felt myself reaching back and linking hands with people in the first crowds that thronged to hear him. I felt the energy of that time and understood why Dylan’s audiences fell in love with his candid, wistful lyrics. For a heartbeat or two, I was part of the generation that had claimed him as its voice.
From that early tune, I moved to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, and did my best to wear out my husband’s copy of it during the first year of working on Stranger. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go wasn’t just a time-anchor: it drew me a picture of a central relationship in Sam’s life, a love he had held and then felt compelled to let go. I listened to the tune over and over, caught the mood, cried over it, and did my best to put what I saw and felt on the page, as imperfect as it had to be.
“Gil,” Sam said, “listen.” He had to say something before it was too late, if only he could find the words… “I married her, but…” There it was, the simplest thing in the world. “I love you. Always. You know that, don’t you?” I never stopped loving you. I never should have left. I’m so sorry, Gil.’
I was disappointed not to be able to find a link to this tune as it’s performed on the Blood on the Tracks album. If you’ve never listened to the album, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Songs like Lonesome, about love and loss and missing the one who was gone, kept me focused as I stumbled along, trying to write the story that felt more urgent to me every day. I went to the Rolling Stones’s High Tide and Green Grass album and played Tell Me You’re Coming Back To Me over and over in my car as I drove to piano lessons. The song told me everything I needed to know about Gil, the man Sam had loved, and how Gil felt after the relationship ended. Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing At All filled the same function (as cheesy as the song sounds now to this 80s child’s ears). The thread about Sam and Gil helped pull me back into the story every time I got frustrated again with my limitations as a writer.
Stranger took far more than a few months to see through to completion. When the book was released in May, it had been almost a decade from start to finish. During those years, I realized that I wanted to be a writer even more than I wanted to be a musician, and I learned the writing craft pretty much from scratch. By the end of that journey, almost any music I heard anywhere was about Stranger in some way, or about the need for courage and persistence. As I wrap up these memories, I have to mention John Mayer’s Say (What You Need To Say) and Van Morrison’s Queen of the Slipstream, neither of which has to do with Stranger’s story, but both of which kept me writing when I didn’t want to.
Ultimately, To Love A Stranger exists because of music. The story could not have existed, or made it into the world, without the melodies that fill it and the tunes that carried me along when I needed them.
Kris Faatz’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Reed, Digging Through the Fat, and other journals. Her debut novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was released May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). She has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a fellowship recipient at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, and is a pianist and a teacher of creative writing. Visit her online at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter @kfaatz925
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
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 I’m proud to welcome back an author who last posted here in 2012 – Vivenne Tuffnell @guineapig66
Soundtrack by Debussy, Carolyn Hillyer, Medwyn Goodall
It’s been something of a blast from the past, trying to remember the music behind Little Gidding Girl. The novel was written during a period of unprecedented (and sadly, so far unrepeated) creativity probably triggered by hypergraphia (a beneficial by-product of my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder – I wrote seven in a little less than three years).
Little Gidding Girl was the product of a series of intense, mystical dreams, an obsession with TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and a variety of music that teased and prodded my unconscious mind into both the dreams and the conscious working out of a story that delved deeply into old memories and experiences, of lost love and of all-but-forgotten hopes and ambitions. Like many writers, I’m not a planner; I’m very much someone who furtles around in the unconscious, gives it a jolly good stir and waits to see what rises to the surface. Music helps with this furtling and stirring process.
Little Gidding Girl is the story of Verity, who at 17 lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At 35, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be.
The first piece of music is a classical piece that is probably so familiar as to be almost a cliché. L’après-midi d’un faune has a dream-like feel to it, soft and sweet and yet with an edge that’s easy to miss. You can float along on the melody, swaying and day-dreaming as if you were in a hammock strung between trees. Giving myself over to this piece induced a near-trance state that calmed and centred me back into the right mental space for writing, after walking the dog, seeing clients or performing household tasks. It holds that dreamy, unfocused state that the heroine of Little Gidding Girl slips into quite often, just before reality shifts and she finds herself living an alternative time-line.
One of my favourite musicians is Carolyn Hillyer (and her partner Nigel Shaw). Her work includes some powerful, raw chants and is used in a lot of women’s workshops, and she runs her own on Dartmoor. I’ve never had the courage to attend any but I have long loved every piece of music, art and creative writing that emerges from their partnership. Nigel’s flute music mixed with natural sound recordings from Dartmoor are often the backdrop to my writing now, but it was a couple of albums that fed into the powerful soup that created Little Gidding Girl. Old Silverhead (samples available from their website but for various reasons little of their music is on You Tube) is a journey of life, through rites of passage from babyhood to old age and into death. One song really got under my skin. It’s called Meet the Mirror. (I blogged on this song here.)
The other album by Carolyn was also very much a part of that creation. Cave of Elders is a haunting, sometimes a little frightening journey into the soul. Shamanic and powerful, I listened to this a great deal, both before the writing and during. Like the Debussy, it induces a trance-like state that allows the images and words to flow.
My final choice is one that links to the novel in several ways. During those years of intense writing, I also worked as a complementary therapist, largely doing reflexology but with occasional forays into other therapies. I had a small but loyal client base but I was often quite uncomfortable about the world of alternative and complimentary therapies, and especially about the extreme levels of what’s best described as woo-woo. Too often people seem to abandon all rationality and education and it’s a shame because my experience is that many therapies are beneficial but that too many claims are made about how they work and how well they work. I was good at what I did and clients really benefited from it but I still have reservations about almost all such therapies.
In Little Gidding Girl, the main character Verity works in a new-age shop and her boss offers a variety of wacky and way-out therapies as well as the more well-known ones. The wacky ones I made up for the purposes of the book include Egyptian Rejuvenation, Japanese Forest Bathing, and Mayan Heart Retrieval. Many of them seem to have been invented for real in some form since then. For my own practice I used a lot of different new age music, and I had to like it enough to keep using it. I also tended to get bored and need a change. One I used both for writing the book and for reflexology was Medwyn Goodall’s Return to Atlantis, especially if I didn’t want the client to fall asleep, as this one has a faster tempo than many. Listening to it was a good way into the scenes set in Juliet’s shop and therapy rooms, reminding me of the more commercial aspects of the new age industry, as Goodall has produced a vast number of albums, both under that name and also the name Midori. His fans tend to buy everything but I have only a few, as there’s too little variation between them to merit buying many. It seems even now to epitomise the world that Verity stands on the edge of, with the mind-set, beliefs and expectations that her boss Juliet would impose on her.
Vivienne Tuffnell is a writer who seeks to explore the hidden side of human existence, delving into both mysticism, the paranormal and deep psychology in her stories. She writes character-driven fiction, soul-filled poetry and blogs about soul growth. She also writes short stories and one novella and has a collection of essays on mental health as well as a book of meditations using fragrance. Little Gidding Girl is her fifth published novel. Her Amazon page is here, her Facebook aura is here and you can tweet her as @guineapig66 .
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 NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt @leavittnovelist
Soundtrack by the Smiths, the Beatles, Crowded House, Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones
My novel Cruel Beautiful World was written over a period of four years, with lots of tears, struggles, millions of pages, and I know for a fact, millions of songs. I admit that I listened to the same music over and over to get the emotional tone right. And I never could have silence when I wrote because the music both relaxed and inspired me.
You might think that because the novel is set in 1969 and 1970 that I listened to the period’s rock and roll back then—kind of dippy hits like Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), but actually, I didn’t. Hey, I grew up in the 70s and I didn’t want my own experiences leaking too much into my narrative. I wanted my characters to claim their own lives and their own music. And I wanted to create their world for them.
Every day when I sat down to write, I would listen to The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. To me, the lyrics are so very ‘cruel beautiful world-ish’ on their own. The song is narrated by a man in pain. He knows that yes, there is this hope, this light, even as he’s thinking about what a privilege it would be if a truck ran over him and the person he loves – death by Mack Truck. It always got me in just the right mood.
Some days, writing snags and I need a beat to propel me through it. Usually those songs have nothing to do with what I am writing, I just feel as if my heart is beating along with the musical beat. When I was writing the tortured, tangled relationships in the books, I listened to The Beatles Rubber Soul , that bright shiny sound, the beat that kept propelling me forward. I didn’t listen to the lyrics (if I had, I would have been derailed) but the music acted as a pulse.
When I had to write the most wrenching scene of my novel, where a death occurs, something I had put off for months, I had to be really tender with myself, but I also had to brace myself so I would go deep, so I wouldn’t pull back from what was important. That was when I listened to Those You’ve Known . What makes this song more meaningful and heartbreaking for me was my actor son was in a production of Spring Awakening, and he sang that song as Moritz. I wept listening to that song when I saw him onstage, and I wept while I was writing, but I got the scene done exactly as I wanted it to be.
Better Be Home Soon by Crowded House captures the feeling, the longing my characters have for one another–and my own internal longing which never seems to ebb. Listening to this song is like taking a vitamin for my writing. Back to Black by Amy Winehouse does the same thing for me because of its bluesy, smoky sound.
While I was thinking of my work as a whole, trying to categorize this unwieldy novel, my son was sprawled on a chair in the living room, avidly listening to this gorgeous song and I said, ‘What’s that? Who’s that?’ He looked up at me. ‘Group Love,’ he said. ‘Cruel and Beautiful World.’ I knew immediately that without the ‘and’ it would be the perfect title because it’s sort of my world view. Yes, things fall apart, hearts rip open, but there is love, too, and beauty and art and fresh Insomnia cookies.
The day I finished my novel and sent it off to my agent, I cried. And then I put on Tom Jones’s Country album, because that was the one I played every day when I was pregnant with my son Max. I sang along to it, feeling soothed. I used to put my headphones on my belly so my son could listen in, too.
I knew I was birthing something.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow and the critically acclaimed Cruel Beautiful World, which launched in paperback on 8 August. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and People, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as private clients. She was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, in NYC’s unofficial sixth borough, Hoboken, near their actor son, who lives in Brooklyn. Right now, she’s listening to lots of Benny King. You can find her on her website, Twitter (@leavittnovelist), Facebook, Instagram (carolineleavitt) and Litsy (Carolineleavitt)
When I invited this week’s guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her 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 my guest is essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty
Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks
I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.
Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.
I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.
And I used to be right there with them.
It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.
I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.
It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).
Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.
Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.
Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.
A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.
And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.
Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.
Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:
He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.
Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.
Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).
And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.
These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.
And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.
So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.
Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty