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My guest this week returns for her third appearance on The Undercover Soundtrack. And it’s for her first novel, which she’s reissuing in a director’s cut, after reclaiming the rights. Plotlines and characters have been reimagined according to her original vision, and music was vital to recreating the book in her mind. Indeed, the story began in music, as she initially didn’t even realise her idea was destined to be a novel. She relates in her post how she’d sit on a gantry with guitar and writing pad, imagining a stage play with songs. But then the back story began to take shape, and the subtext, and before she knew it, a novel was born. She is NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers, one of my partners in crime at the Women Writing Women box set, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack for the novel she contributed, Crazy For Trying.
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 Nadine Matheson @nadinematheson
Soundtrack by Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Odell
Personally, I’m not committed to one genre of music. I will listen to anything and writing the story of The Sisters was also an opportunity to look back at my history with music. There is a scene where Lucinda is shopping in Portobello Market with her manager and she picks up a Jim Reeves album. Now, Jim Reeves was a 50s/60s country singer and my dad would play him on a Sunday morning and then move on to soul or reggae while my mum would be playing David Bowie or reminding me about the giant Marc Bolan poster that she had on her bedroom door when she was teenager. That’s how eclectic my own musical journey was and it was an important part of my own journey when writing this book.
In my head, I think that everyone walks around with their own theme tune. I like to think that Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic or All Along the Watchtower is being blasted out of speakers every time I enter a room or walk down the street. The same warped principle applies when I begin to write. The idea of writing in complete silence fills me with dread and when I’m planning my book’s I always play All Along the Watchtower. The start of the song is about formulating a plan and that there has to be an escape. That’s how I feel about the process of writing a book. There has to be a way out of this story I’ve created. There has to be an end.
The underlying theme of The Sisters is transitions and the effects of misunderstanding. Just like a good book, music is both transitional and emotive. The first character that I could see as a fully rounded person was Lucinda and the only singer that I could hear in my head was Nina Simone and one of my favourite songs Don’t let me be misunderstood. As I began to write Lucinda, I had an immense dislike for her and I initially thought that she was one dimensional but I kept playing Nina Simone’s Don’t let me be misunderstood.
I kept replaying that song because not only did it become the character’s mantra but it also reminded me that this was a character with many facets and not the resident one-dimensional baddie of the book. There is a scene in The Sisters when Lucinda says that she wants her music to be stripped back – that is Nina Simone’s reminder to me that for Lucinda to make her transition, I had to show her vulnerabilities. A favourite quote of mine from Nina Simone is ‘Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.’
Because I was writing about sisters who were in an R’n’B band in the 90s, I made a conscious effort not to listen to any music from that time period, that the sisters would have been playing/singing. I think that would have pigeonholed the characters and not allow them to grow.
There are lot of misunderstandings in The Sisters and the classic syndrome of people covering up how they really feel. When I was writing a scene that involved the sisters finally acknowledging what was going on both internally and with their own relationships I would play Tom Odell’s Can’t Pretend. It is haunting but when you listen to the lyrics it’s not the end of the world, as if all hope is gone. There needed to be a strong sense of authenticity in The Sisters and while writing the book, I chose music where there was a clear complexity in the lyrics. I wanted to show that life isn’t a glossy manufactured package and that there is always more to us than what you first see when we walk into a room.
Nadine Matheson’s The Sisters was published last month. She has also contributed to the sci-fi anthology No Way Home. When she’s not writing, Nadine works as a criminal lawyer. Her crime novel Key Positions was shortlisted for the City Uni/David Higham Associates Crime Writing Competition 2014. She is planning another sci-fi short story as well as working on completing her crime novel. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @NadineMatheson.
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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 contemporary fiction author, poet, editor and singer-songwriter Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell
Soundtrack by Judy Garland, Magic Dirt, Hole, Lene Lovich, I Killed the Prom Queen, Metallica
White Lady is written from the perspective of five different characters, each in first person, so, in addition to my usual character-defining tactics, I decided to give three of them specific music tastes. These music tastes also really helped to mould the personalities of these characters, and made it easier for me to write in their different voices.
The musical soundtrack fan: Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland
Sonia Shâd, an Australian/Turkish high school mathematics teacher and wife of Melbourne’s leading drug lord, is addicted to slicing people’s throats and admiring the blood cascade down her victims’ chests.
Now the clichéd thing to do would have been to make her a fan of heavy metal. I didn’t want to go the typical route. Instead, I thought it would be a little more creepy having a song associated with innocence and finding true bliss linked to Sonia finding her true bliss—the pleasure of a kill.
I’ve also used the rainbow as a metaphor for Sonia’s passion for numbers:
It is seven a.m. and everyone’s mailboxes are decorated with dew. When I was a child, I liked to think the dew meant fairies had been out to play during the night. Especially when the sun shone through dispersive prisms of condensation, creating a field of colour across my front lawn. It was the rainbow that first got me interested in mathematics and physics, and its ever-elusive pot of gold. It didn’t take long for me to rationalize that the pot of gold was simply the bait to enrich my knowledge.
As an extra quirk, Sonia’s doorbell plays this song when it’s pressed.
Mia Weston is an insecure overweight high school student, who turns to drugs to lose weight, and experiments with her sexuality to manipulate her drug dealer. She falls for Sonia’s son, Mick, and gets caught up in his family’s criminal activities. She enjoys every minute of it, because it makes her feel beautiful. She experiences a tug of war with her conscience — good girl (who is insecure about her looks, and wants to be a good daughter for her single father) versus bad girl (a beauty queen in Mick’s eyes, and bold and confident when engaging in illegal activities).
Mia is also an aspiring songwriter and turns to these female rock goddesses for inspiration.
I don’t, however, just use these songs to represent Mia’s personality. I make sure the songs appear in the story when the lyrics actually mean something to the scene.
For example, she turns Dirty Jeans up full blast when she realizes she might be falling for Mick. The first line of the song is about being attracted to an ordinary boy. Mick is far from an ordinary boy. Mia listening to this song is almost trying to convince herself that there is nothing to worry about, that Mick may be different than most, but deep down he is normal and she will be safe with him. At the same time, it also gives her a false
sense of self-esteem when she imagines the lyrics, about being beautiful, are being sung to her directly.
On the opposite end of the scale, when Mia is feeling guilty about her actions, she listens to Skinny Little Bitch, glorifying that fact that she is acting like one herself. Of course, she’s still romanticising about being skinny. It’s easier for her to be a ‘skinny bitch’ than an overweight one.
On the surface, Mick Shâd (Sonia’s son) is an absolute thug. He’s foul mouthed, exhibits violent and crude behaviour, and shows no respect to anyone whatsoever. Yet, deep down, he is a gentle sweetheart with a poetic soul, which readers witness through his scenes with Mia.
All his life he has been exposed to the illegal activities of his parents. The biggest thing that haunts him to this day is the blood stain on the back porch, along with the memory of Sonia tucking him in one night without having properly washed the streaks of blood off her skin.
Mick listens to hardcore music to escape his hardcore reality. It’s a way for him to shut the world out when he needs to be alone. Readers also get the hint that he prays to Allah on his seccade (a Muslim Prayer mat in Turkish), when he’s alone in his room too. He clearly has a conscience.
The songs I’ve mentioned above are not actually cited in the novel. Only the bands. This is because Mick isn’t the type of guy to describe what he’s listening to. He just turns his stereo on full blast — full stop. We also experience the loud music coming from his bedroom through Sonia’s perspective, in which she recognises the bands, but can only make out the sound of roar roar roar.
Despite readers never knowing what songs Mick listens to, these are the songs I had in mind when writing the scenes these bands are mentioned in. If you look up the lyrics to these songs, you will glean a lot of meaning from them and how they relate to the story. Though I would have loved to explain all these details in the book, they just didn’t fit. So I had to resolve myself to the fact that they would remain hidden (a true Undercover Soundtrack!”)
If you ever decide to use music for writing inspiration, have a think about how you can create symbolic branches to your music of choice in your story. Not only does it provide a fabulously diverse platter of character food, but it’s also nutrition for your plot. I don’t think I have ever written a book which didn’t incorporate music in one form or another. And now I don’t think I could ever write without it.
Is your story lacking the nutrients it needs? Perhaps some music will help!
Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Connect with Jessica online at her website, retreat & workshop, blog, the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Facebook and Twitter
GIVEAWAY To celebrate the release of White Lady, Jessica is giving away an e-copy (mobi, ePub, or PDF) to a random commenter of this post.
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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 biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber
Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster
I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.
In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.
Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.
Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.
Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.
This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.
I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins
The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.
I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.
Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.
Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.
Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).
My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.
When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.
Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.
Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks. The Centauress is her second novel. Find her on Twitter @kathyferber
GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you! The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August
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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 novelist, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors Orna Ross @OrnaRoss
Soundtrack by Stephen Foster, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson, Rufus Wainwright, Steven and Peter Jones, Cyndi Lauper, The Eagles, Ronald Binge, BBC Shipping Forecast, The Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy MacCarthy
Music has always been part of my life, mostly as an appreciator. I did play piano for some years but what was more influential in terms of writing — and particularly these two novels I’m going to discuss here — was being brought up in a singing-and-storytelling culture. I grew up in a pub and my own social life, from my teens, centred round the pub where Saturday and Sunday were sing-song nights. Occasionally it was establish-provided entertainment for the punters to consume, but more often it was the customers themselves who created the night. That’s what defines an Irish bar for me and explains why a good one is in demand the world over: on a proper Irish night out, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else’s good time.
The tracks that underlie the writing of After The Rising and Before The Fall, my first two novels which I’m just about to reissue in a 2-for-the-price-of-1 special offer this summer, are all songs. What I found in putting together this undercover soundtrack was that it very much isn’t a Desert Island Discs lineup of favourite music. A few of these songs I do love but what unites them is that they convey some of the emotional texture of the novels and of my relationship to the time-and-place in which the novels are set: early 20th century Ireland and late 20th century San Francisco.
These were my first novels, and together they form a linked, cross-generational family murder mystery. The story opens with a young soldier, lured to dangerous sinking sands during the Irish Civil War of 1922 and this unresolved killing — who did it and why? — is causing chaos for our heroine, Jo Devereux, 50 years on.
At the time of writing, I was living in a very English market town, Knutsford, in Cheshire. I was nostalgic for both Ireland and California and that nostalgia fuelled the books, and this soundtrack is redolent with it too.
One of the first thing that happens Irish people when they emigrate is that they find themselves listening to songs they would never spend time with at home. For me, I’d always avoided ballads and laments that kept alive the sense of loss and grievance that had erupted in 1916 and led to the independence war of 1921 and its aftermath — yet that was the very background that I couldn’t escape when I came to write fiction.
Seeking the truth
‘Hard times!’ my great-aunt who lived with us, used to say whenever conversation came anywhere near that past, a shorthand expression, was always delivered with a shake of the head. The killing of her brother by his best friend in the ‘War of The Brothers’, the Irish Civil War of 1922/3, was the event on which my novels were based (I couldn’t find out the truth of what happened so made up a 500-page story instead). ‘Hard times!’ was her explanation and excuse and a closing of the door on emotion that just couldn’t be expressed. I think of her whenever I hear this song, Hard Times Come Again No More, (by Stephen Foster, the American writer of Oh! Susanna, and Camptown Races and more than 200 other well-known songs): sung here by Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Karen Matheson, Rod Paterson and Rufus Wainwright.
Kilkelly, Ireland, by Steven and Peter Jones, is another song that reminds me of her. It tells the story of an Irish emigrant to America through a series of letters from his father back in Kilkelly. The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather to his son John, who was illiterate and dictated the letters to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a friend of John’s before he left. It’s what’s known in Ireland as a lament, (cumha in Irish), part of a web of interwoven customs that ritualised longing and loss — maybe as a result of colonisation, maybe something much older. Its cross-generational tale of emigration is told much more concisely than mine and its rhythm and cadence is just how the older generation spoke when I was growing up, oceans of silence beneath their few words. I can’t listen to it without being deeply moved
The research for the book showed that ‘The War of the Brothers’ was very much about the sisters too but Jo rejects entirely the weight of this burdensome history. She leaves Ireland for the same reason shared by countless thousands of other Irish women, intending never to return, and once she shakes off her homesickness she finds herself in 1980s San Francisco, where her anthem, like Cyndi Lauper’s, is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and that great gay anthem from the musical La Cage aux Folles, that meant so much at that time to to so many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, I Am What I Am, by disco queen Gloria Gaynor.
I enjoy writing emotional twists and surprises around big themes and in these books the themes are national and sexual identity; family loyalty versus personal autonomy. And gender. We’re all seeded by man and born of woman and we all embody ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. How these play out, in an individual life, and in different societies, is endlessly fascinating to me and fully teased out in these novels.
What Jo finds, of course, is that running away is not the answer. The song that best captures her dilemma, both the dream of a better place… and the dangers of that dream, is The Eagles’s The Last Resort. Jo finds she’s not free to go forward until she goes back to Ireland and understands that place that made her.
So she does, and settles in a ramshackle shed in the seaside village where she grew up, intending to find out and understand her family history. The books are full of descriptions of the Atlantic Ocean and the song that always surfaces when I think of that sea is Sailing By by Ronald Binge, the music that cues the BBC’s late-night shipping forecast on Radio 4. I remember lying in bed listening to it as a child, the strange names — German Bight, Boomer, Dogger Bank, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea — and the weather promised — rain, wintry showers, sometimes moderate or poor, becoming good — were poetry to me.
I felt a bit foolish about this until I read one of my favourite Carol Ann Duffy poems, the beautiful Prayer. I was delighted when searching for Sailing By to find this version that also includes a televised shipping forecast from Laurie McMillan as part of an Arena Radio Night in 1993. And has a collection of stunning footage, presumably from BBC archives. Binge’s music is easy listening but underneath its sweetness I sense again that sense of longing felt by all the characters in these books — and that I used to feel myself for the sea in my land-locked days in Knutsford.
Another seafaring and emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues, ties the economic migration that Jo was part of, that of the 1980s with its Green Card Lotteries to the post famine exodus in the mid-19th century that led to the independence war, not least because it was funded by US dollars. Those words really capture something about the Irish in America that I want to tease out more in the sequel I’m writing, the third part of this story, In The Hour, set in NYC. Thousands Are Sailing tips its hat to Mr Cohan. It’s actually George M. Cohan, ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’ but for a long time I thought it was Mr Cohen, the great Leonard and I want to include his Bird On A Wire , the three opening and closing lines of which were famously claimed by Kris Kristofferson as his epitaph. Cohen himself described the song as ‘a Bohemian My Way, and that’s why it’s here. After The Rising & Before The Fall share this theme that’s found across all my writing, of ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. That’s what Jo has to learn, that’s what connects her personal and familial quest. Early 20th-century Ireland, late 20th-century San Francisco were connected by the same impulse: the desire to free the human spirit from suppression,
Except true freedom can’t be delivered by politics, it’s the terrain of the creative spirit itself. My own political arguments have not been around nation but gender and in this week where we hear of yet another atrocity arising from religious suppression, I am grateful again to a song that celebrates what remains great in Christianity, by going beyond it. One Bright Blue Rose, a piece of pure poetry by a great contemporary songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy (the lyrics are here), sung by Mary Black in her heyday, is full of Christian imagery of the better kind and always brings me beyond anger, back to a truer, better impulse, the one to which I’ve devoted my writing life, not just in these novels, but also in the work for the indie-author movement, and in my current non-fiction series, the Go Creative! Books. That’s how I try, in Cohen’s words, ‘to be free’. And to foster freedom for others.
Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative!books and has been described as ‘one of the 100 most influential people in publishing’ (The Bookseller) for her work with The Alliance of Independent Authors, an association of the world’s best self-publishing authors and advisers. Born and raised in Wexford in the south-east of Ireland, she now lives, mostly, in London. Her amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/ornaross and her website is www.ornaross.com, where you can also sign up for her ‘Behind The Books’ newsletter and advance books and giveaways. Tweet her @OrnaRoss.
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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 media doctor and award-winning writer Carol Cooper @DrCarolCooper
While music isn’t always playing while I write, I sometimes need it to get into the right frame of mind to face a blank page. For me, The Beatles are creative Viagra. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t my favourite album, but its invigorating opening track makes it the one I find most conducive to spilling out words. Though Taxman from Revolver is pretty damn good. Then there’s Back in the USSR from the White Album and Come Together on Abbey Road… OK, so the Fab Four were pretty hot at opening tracks, and they followed up pretty well too.
Some music evokes specific characters in my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. Geoff, Laure, Sanjay and the others are in their mid-to-late-30s so they’d be very familiar with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Preoccupied with his own cancer, Sanjay enjoys listening to artistes who are dead (like Hillel Slovak from the Chilis).
They found a taxi. Geoff glanced at Laure in the half-light. Her face was hard to read, but her warm fingers were interlinked with his. Unprompted, the driver ranted about immigration, or possibly lenient judges. Geoff lost the thread halfway through, but the gist was that the cabbie thought the country was going to hell in a handcart, and everything the government did was tantamount to throwing away all they’d ever fought for during two world wars.
Anything is possible
I find the Chilis incredibly alive, and love them for their offbeat rhythm and their beautifully bonkers lyrics where anything is possible. My favourite album is By the Way. No wonder I found my novel taking strange new directions. The characters did things I hadn’t intended, like jumping into bed with people they shouldn’t. Sanjay’s cancer didn’t progress quite how I’d foreseen either, though maybe as a doctor I should be used to that.
As can happen when visiting Cuba, I felt totally immersed in music, especially son, on a trip to Havana a few years ago. There was live music on almost every corner of Habana Vieja. Many artists have recorded El Cuarto de Tula, but the late Compay Segundo’s version is my favourite. The tune is catchy and the lyrics suggestive. It’s a song is about a young woman’s bedroom being on fire, and it makes a great spur to writing sizzling sex scenes.
Geoff squeezed Laure’s hand experimentally. She squeezed back. He closed in for a kiss as the cab went over a speed bump. They kissed at length as the cabbie went on about not trusting any politician as far as he could spit.
Sometimes lyrics get in way of finding the right words, and I might need an instrumental piece. Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of my favourites. Evocative and imaginative, it never fails to put me in the mood for writing. My soundtrack includes a John Williams rendition, but I’ve recently heard the young Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić and I can’t wait for his interpretation on his new album Aranjuez. While I’m no expert in classical music, I’ve never known anyone make a guitar sing as he does. Sheer magic.
For those that don’t know, qawwali is the musical version of devotional poetry practised in Sufi Islam. The beat is endless and hypnotic, the lyrics ethereal and repeated. Although the characters in One Night at the Jacaranda aren’t particularly religious – and after all this is a novel about dating – they do have a basic creed which I think qawwali eloquently captures. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is said to be the king of qawwali. Listening to his album Rapture helps unpeel their spiritual layers of my characters, and imbue them with just the right amount of faith and hope.
As a student, Carol Cooper used to write music reviews, which got her into the best gigs in Cambridge. Carol is now a family doctor in London and a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her latest book One Night at the Jacaranda is a raunchy romantic novel with a heart-rending medical strand. It comes after a string of non-fiction health titles and an award-winning textbook of medicine, co-authored with colleagues from Imperial College Medical School where she teaches. She is now working on a sequel to her novel, taking some of her favourite characters into new territory. Her blog is Pills and Pillow-Talk and she’s on Twitter as @DrCarolCooper.
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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 it’s my turn on the decks – with the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three
Lifeform Three is a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, set in the near future, where global warming has shrunk the landmass and the countryside has been sacrificed for buildings and roads. One valley remains, of woods, trees and meadows, and is now kept as a theme park – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. My main character, Paftoo, is a groundsman there. He’s the odd one out; the only soul who’s uneasy in a world that everyone else accepts. You could say he lives in a utopia – but to him it’s a dystopia.
I knew the emotional beats of Lifeform Three before I knew the story. They came to me as pieces of music, a chain of albums and tracks that suggested the landmarks of the novel. I would load them into my MP3 player and take them running, puzzling over them as I pounded out the miles.
Paftoo is a bod – an artificial human who’s programmed to do menial tasks. To keep him efficient, his memory is regularly wiped, but he has inklings of other memories. We meet him after such an event (known as a ‘sharing’). My first beat was that state of newness, a world shining and fresh where you go out and do your tasks, content with simple instructions. In the beginning, Paftoo doesn’t even know his own name until he realises the sole of his boot has a number – 2 (his name is an alphanumeric, short for Park Asset Field Redo Bod 2).
Boards of Canada’s album Music Has The Right To Children told me the innocence of new, eager eyes, especially this track, An Eagle In Your Mind.
The novelty doesn’t last long. There’s a wildness in Paftoo and by the end of his first day, he’s made the others wary of him. He’s also frustrated. But worse is to come when night falls. While his companions go dormant and lifeless, Paftoo starts to dream.
Again, the idea came as a feeling from music – Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ suggested a tingling in the nerves, a meaning that must be grasped.
First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground
The dream sequence was choreographed to that album. It starts with a sense of unease, then that beat gallops in like the thing you knew was coming.
Horses, flashing across the green hills in glorious gallop. Necks reaching, tails streaming. Riders on their backs, urging them faster.
Paftoo opens his eyes, shocked. He knows he’s not supposed to dream. He also knows that nobody rides horses now. They’re untamed animals in the fields (and known as Lifeform Three). But at the same time it makes perfect sense in his restless soul. From that moment, Paftoo has a mission. Every night, he goes looking for clues that might explain why he has these dreams and what happened to him before his mind was wiped. By day, he struggles to hide his true nature in case he’s wiped again.
In a small way the story is autobiographical. In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. Like the horse Paftoo later befriends, my horse was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. If I couldn’t handle my dream, what did that make me? That first winter, Enya’s Anywhere Is was in the charts. I wasn’t a fan of her music, but when I came to write Paftoo’s attempts to tame a horse I listened to Enya to capture that time. For some reason Caribbean Blue with its waltz rhythm brought back the sense of a wondrous adventure, the tentative courtship of a wild creature and the sense of being alone on a dumb-headed quest for something inexplicable and ideal.
A song called Caribbean Blue that takes me back to an English winter, riding horses? Like dreams, Undercover Soundtracks have a logic of their own. Or I take no notice of lyrics.
During the writing, my soundtracks had to become a time machine. Those first days with my oversized horse were, as you can probably see, long ago. Reader, I kept him, and he was now reaping the arthritic rewards of a vigorous life. I was having ghastly conversations with the vet because if her treatments didn’t work it was time for the gun. I clung to those music tracks to help me give his glory days to Paftoo while the real situation seemed so hopeless. Thankfully, he rallied and we gallop on (on a good day).
The horse awakens Paftoo’s sense of the natural world, which humanity seems to have lost. Again, music already contained what I needed to say. Vangelis’s Pulsar was the thrill of galloping feet
‘gathering up the miles and throwing them out behind’.
Electromantic La Baletta No 2 – by the Hungarian composer Gabor Presser had feisty, fertile joy, like a primitive spring ritual. It smells of untamed hair and corduroy. And whoever said electronic music lacked a soul? Both these tracks are entirely electronic, made from circuits and wave generators, yet they bound and leap like wild animals.
But there’s a lot more to Paftoo’s quest than riding and nature. They are merely the beginning; the gateway to a profound discovery of his own past and the people and creatures he loves. Now I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I can say that the more he recovers, the more he stands to lose and the more desperate his day life becomes. This impossibility was exquisitely insisted in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
The piece was written in 1914 and 1920, in an England changed forever by the first World War. That period would also be the heyday of Harkaway Hall, the mansion that used to stand at the heart of the Lost Lands, where Paftoo now struggles to keep his memories. The Lark Ascending seems to say that what will be lost is more than just the loves of a few souls in a little story; it speaks for the loss of time, grace, of fallen walls in overgrown woods, bumps under the turf in an empty field. That violin seems to be shrilling from the skies: it won’t last. We won’t last. And how can Paftoo save it?
Roz Morris is, of course, your host on The Undercover Soundtrack. Find out more here, connect on Twitter as @Roz_Morris and on the writing advice blog Nail Your Novel. Her first novel was My Memories of a Future Life (Soundtrack here) and Lifeform Three is now available in all formats, including print.
authors, Boards of Canada, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Downton Abbey, drama, electronic composers, electronic music, electronica, English mansions, entertainment, Enya, fantasy, Gabor Presser, horses, Life Form Three, Lifeform, Lifeform 3, Lifeform Three, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, Margaret Atwood, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Peter Gabriel, playlist for writers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ray Bradbury, reincarnation, robots, Roz Morris, Roz Morris fiction, science fiction, soundtrack, speculative fiction, synth music, synthesisers, The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vangelis, vanished houses, vanished mansions, vanished mansions in England, wild horses, Women Writers, women writing women, Women's fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….
Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.
That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.
My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.
A life steeped in music
My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch). But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:
Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.
I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.
Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.
One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has
a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.
The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind. Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.
Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’
What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.
Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.
Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.
Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)
The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)
WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
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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.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
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- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'
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