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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 UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro
Soundtrack by Karen Siegel
What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. An exciting new publishing company, (Shebooks) gave me the opportunity to publish an ebook of three short works of my choice. I already had two stories that I was delighted with, but there was one in me that my bones, my guts, had needed to write for so long, and each time I started out, the ‘how’ of writing the story — its basic narrative, where to start, the climax, denouement—was like a balloon bobbing overhead with the string always out of reach, no matter how high I jumped.
I went to music as I often do for inspiration, direction. Writing lines of prose on a page or notes on a staff are hugely different, but have parallels—they begin, have a middle, and an end. There’s mood, pacing, breath stops. I played Chopin, Sousa, Wagner, nothing clicked. And then, in one of my procrastination bouts, I looked up a video of my daughter-in-law, Karen Siegel and her acapella composition Confessions from the Blogosphere, and had the eureka moment I had been hoping for.
Karen (the woman with the blue top in the video) holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MM (masters of music) in musical composition from NYU’s Steinhardt School where she studied with Marc Antonio Consoli, and a PhD in music composition from CUNY Graduate Center where she studied with Tania León. In this piece, she alternated and layered humorous excerpts from random blogs. Sometimes the text was set intact and homophonic—with the whole choir singing the same text at the same time, in a single rhythm — as in the opening statement, ‘I like Paris Hilton for real. Should I be ashamed?’ More often, a fragment of text was repeated in one or two voice parts at a time, offset against the same text in another voice part or voice parts, to create a rhythmic texture. This texture was frequently a backdrop for a melody in a single voice part. At other times, the rhythmic texture itself was the focal point. Altogether, it was like a cento, a poem made up of quotes, lines, phrases from others.
It occurred to me that neither Karen nor I had to have the total vision of what our creations were going to be. She used lines of dialogue gathered by different people. Bingo, I could write lines of dialogue from each of the characters I wanted in Secrets (the first and newest short story in What I Wish You’d Told Me, and see how it came together later, rather than trying to create order right away.
It made sense to me, even physically. I have a spot in my right eye that I need to see around. Sometimes it blots out the full picture of what I need to see, but somehow, my mind creates the whole of it. A study from John Hopkins University shows that when a person looks at a figure, a number, or letter, or any shape, neurons in other areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different parts of that shape, almost instantaneously interlocking them like a puzzle to create an image that sees and understands. I’m sure this is true for all of our senses.
In Secrets, a story set in the 60s about a teenage girl, Leah, whose illusions about her best friend, Arianna’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot, I began with a piece of dialogue from Arianna’s mother. ‘You ran him over!’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a dog. It was an old man.’ Arianna’s father counters with, ‘I wouldn’t have hit anything if you weren’t so drunk that I had to be the one to drive after I had a few.’
After pages of dialogue, some of which I got rid of in the end —’Kill your darlings,’ as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his lectures On the Art of Writing — I was able to fill in the rest, and that was the secret of my writing Secrets.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in the Coe Review, Compass Rose, the Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Read more about her at her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro
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My guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 former rock singer and multi-award-winning author Warren FitzGerald @Warren_FitzG
Music is evil. It’s the Juju man messing with your head. It’s the sound of Bacardi Breezers clinking in the park when your soul is really being blasted by icy winds. And worse, perhaps, a carefully chosen trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things when really the forecast is fine.
So says one of the characters in a novel I’m working on at the moment. I agree with her: her reasons. But the conclusion I draw is different. For me music is not evil, music is awesome, powerful, magical. That’s probably something most of us feel, but perhaps I have studied its effect a little more than some because of my previous incarnation as a singer which included the joy and stress of being in a struggling rock band to the buzz of performing all over the world as a session singer to audiences as big as 20,000 people, and trust me that is awesome, powerful, magical!
The inspiration for my latest novel Tying Down The Sun came from my recent travels through South America. A heady few months in a continent booming with music. Latin Americans love their music and they love it loud. But the greater part of this novel concerns itself with a harrowing kidnapping which takes place within the beautiful jungles of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia. A place, which when I trekked through there a couple of years back, was one of the few parts on the continent so remote I did not hear music. But music has been crucial in helping me recall and verbalizethat landscape and its own intense soundtrack sung only by cicadas and silence.
The work of Argentinean musician Gustavo Santaolalla particularly from the film soundtracks for Babel and The Motorcycle Diaries was the obvious choice for me if I ever needed to recapture the atmosphere of those majestic landscapes and precious ruins I came across as I backpacked around Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. Every haunting track Santaolalla produces echoes with the vastness of the great waterways of South America, of the endless rain forests, the mountain ranges, the windswept deserts and their icy emerald lakes. If I ever for a moment forgot what it felt like to be there I would just play Deportation/Iguazu and I would be transported there once again with my characters, perched on the edge of Ciudad Perdida, the lost city, couched among jungle clad mountains which joyfully weep with silent waterfalls. And if that’s all it takes to get me back to those heart-swelling places then music (like literature) is truly magical.
Looking for freedom
The two protagonists in Tying Down The Sun are both young women looking for freedom. We first meet 14-year-old Luz as she is deciding to break away from her isolated Amazonian village and its customs which she finds barbaric, only to escape to a life as a child soldier in the National Liberation Army (ELN), taking freedom from her hostages yet soon realising she is in fact as disenfranchised as them. And we first meet Sarah as she marvels at the natural wonders and ancient indigenous cultures of South America, as she lets her hair down after finishing her degree in London, before she becomes one of those hostages herself.
Some of Sarah’s five fellow captives begin their carefree tourist trek through the rain forests equipped with I-pods to supply them with entertainment on the long nights under the stars, but as the unplanned days and weeks at gunpoint pass, the batteries die and music becomes a rare commodity. Just before the last I-pod loses power, Sarah and Luz cement their unlikely friendship by appreciating a piece by Beethoven. The same piece doesn’t do much for me, but in order to understand how it might move some of my characters I indulged in a piano recording which affects me enormously. I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi was the piece I used to get myself ‘in the zone’ because the opening few notes alone break my heart every time I hear them. Beautiful because it’s so sad, or sad because it’s so beautiful, this recording makes my heart feel like bursting, I think, because the images it conjures (long lost lovers reunited and caressing each other like blind people feeling their way, crashing waves seen silently through the window of an idyllic cottage, to name a few) are never in reality without their spoiling imperfections.
I played Te Aviso, Te Anuncio and remembered the wonderful ache in my feet as I stomped through cigarette butts and plastic cups. I played Crazy In Love and felt the luxurious sickness in my stomach when I used to twirl until everyone else disappeared.
As the reader and Sarah find out just what horrors Luz has had to endure in her young life already, they surely can’t blame her for her cynicism, but I have hope for Luz because the one word from her indigenous language of Quechua which she clings on to, despite abandoning the rest of her Amazonian roots, is tinkuy. Tinkuy means to dance, but it also means to battle. As Luz’s uncle tells her:
There is no separate word for each. It is just a matter of interpretation, a matter of context. But you have to decide which way you are going to go. Are you going to battle through life or are you going to dance?
I’ll leave the reader to decide if my hope for Luz is justified; to decide whether the novel ends with a battle or a dance.
A graduate of Warwick University and former singer in rock bands, these days Warren FitzGerald often finds himself in remote and ostensibly dangerous corners of the globe. His travel usually involves voluntary work on projects including the building of a health centre in Kibungo, Rwanda (the setting for his first novel, The Go-Away Bird), living on a rubbish dump in Nicaragua (the subject of a documentary film he is currently working on) and trekking through the combat zones and cocaine regions of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia (the setting for his new book Tying Down the Sun).Warren’s first novel, The Go-Away Bird won the Amazon Rising Stars Award 2010, Authors’ Club Best First Book Award (longlisted) 2011 and was Waterstones’ Book of the Month: Oct 2011. He lives in London. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @Warren_FitzG
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My guest this week has studied music more closely than some. His previous artistic incarnation was a rock singer – both with a band of his own and performing as a session vocalist to vast venues. (If you’re very good, we’ll include a video of him so you can see for yourself.) Now he has settled into an artform of lower decibel, but he hasn’t left music behind. His latest novel, Tying Down The Sun, is the story of a kidnap in the Sierra Nevada and he used music to help him verbalise the landscape and to mark the plight of his captive characters as their ordeal wears on. He is Warren Fitzgerald and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, incarnation, kidnap, kidnap stories, Latin America, literary fiction, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, music of Latin America, music of South America, musician-turned-writer, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, rock singer, Roz Morris, session vocalist, Sierra Nevada, singers, South America, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tying Down The Sun, undercover soundtrack, vocalists, Warren FitzGerald, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'