My guest this week says her novel is steeped in music – and indeed had a massive Spotify playlist to accompany her drafts and rewrites. But certain tracks stood right out, tracks that seemed to catch her attention from the radio, or stick in her mind with an essential flavour of the characters and story. They’re strong vocals – Van Morrison, Rihanna, The Lumineers, Adele. Powerful, sassy, feisty, rocky, tormented and brimming with humanity – and perfect for her novel of obsessive revenge after love goes wrong. Do drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Stephanie Gangi.
Tag: Women’s fiction
The Undercover Soundtrack – Anne Goodwin
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 book blogger, prolific short story writer and Polari prize nominee Anne Goodwin @annecdotist
Soundtrack by Jack Strachey, Faure, Grieg, The Dubliners, Mendelssohn, Karl Jenkins, Leonard Cohen, Terry Jacks, Country Joe McDonald, Jim Reeves, Eddie & The Hot Rods
Sugar and Snails is a mid-life coming-of-age story about a woman who has kept her past identity secret for all her adult life. The contemporary strand is set in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2004 from which my protagonist, Diana, looks back on her childhood in the 1960s and 70s in a North Derbyshire mining town, with a few weeks in Cairo at the age of 15.
Despite giving Diana some aspects of my own biography, I found it challenging in places to evoke the emotional atmosphere of her childhood. I had my memories, and the internet, but music proved a powerful tool in enabling me to delve that bit deeper.
In an early scene, Diana remembers dancing alone, aged about three and perhaps the last time she was at ease in her body. As it’s a long time since I was three, I listened to the music she’d undoubtedly have heard on the radio at home with her mother: the theme tunes from Housewives’ Choice (In Party Mood composed by Jack Strachey) and Listen with Mother (The Berceuse from Faure’s Dolly Suite Op.56). It was also helpful to listen to the music I’ve been told I danced along to as a toddler: In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
Although Working Man by The Dubliners isn’t about Derbyshire, it helped evoke the culture of the close-knit mining community in which Diana grew up. Ave Maria of Lourdes perfectly brought to mind her Catholic background; albeit slightly disappointingly since there’s so much better Christian choral music I’d have preferred to have in my head.
Diana’s difficulty navigating the physical and psychological changes of adolescence is central to the novel. I thought I remembered mine a little too well but, once again, music brought me closer to that amalgam of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia. Almost anything in a minor key would have served the purpose, but one I kept coming back to was Mendelssohn’s violin Concerto in E minor. At the time of writing my novel, I was also addicted to Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man (I’ve picked out the gorgeous Benedictus with the poignant cello solo), which not only put me in the right frame of mind, but served as a reminder that, for baby boomers like me and Diana, other people’s wars never seemed so far away. (As the piece also includes the Islamic call to prayer, it served a double purpose in conjuring up her auditory experience of Cairo.)
One of the key relationships in the novel is that between Diana and her father, Leonard. His character and his parenting decisions, such as they are, have been shaped by his own late adolescent experience as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. Like the biblical Abraham, brought to mind for me by Leonard Cohen singing The Story of Isaac, he sees his children more as offshoots of himself than as people in their own right.
While the Second World War impacted on her parents’ generation, Diana and her contemporaries watch in horror and fascination as, across the Atlantic, boys only a few years older are conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Country Joe McDonald’s Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die captures that period perfectly but I was surprised, watching the video, how young the hippies look to me now while, at the same time, they connect me to a younger girl to whom they appeared quite grown-up, and both exciting and terrifying in their rebellion. This fed into a scene in which Diana recalls her mother mistaking some long-haired boys for girls.
Aged 15 in 1974, Diana makes a life-changing decision. The early 70s hasn’t produced the best pop music, but no doubt she’d have had the transistor radio tuned to Radio One that summer. Morbidly inclined since early childhood (I suppose she might have been a Goth had she been born later), I had her listening to a song that leached nostalgia from that era, Seasons in The Sun by Terry Jacks.
I began to write Sugar and Snails in 2008, only four years later than when the contemporary strand of the novel is set. So, while music wasn’t necessary to transport me back to 2004, some of my casual listening did have a bearing on my decisions about the plot. The romance storyline, in early drafts dispatched in a rather disastrous one night stand, loomed larger in the final version, partly thanks to my penchant for the kind of sentimental songs Diana’s mother might have listened to, such as I Love You Because sung by Jim Reeves. But, although I was clear Sugar and Snails wouldn’t be a novel in which the woman is saved by the man, I wasn’t sure how far I was going to take her along the road to self-acceptance. You’ll have to read the novel to find out to what extent she’s able to overcome her demons, but I did enjoy listening to Eddie and The Hot Rods sing Do anything you wanna do while I thought it through. Given the long journey to publication, it’s an anthem to motivate any writer to follow her dreams.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel Sugar and Snails was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and longlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 60 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist. In honour of its first birthday, Sugar and Snails is available in Kindle format at only £0.99 or equivalent until 31 July 2016.
‘Music brought me closer to that amalgam of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia’ – Anne Goodwin
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on Wednesday to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Kathryn Craft
‘An expectant silence, a connection to something greater’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter
The Undercover Soundtrack – Karen Wojcik Berner
‘Music for tragedy, coming of age, romance’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner @karenberner
Soundtrack by Icicle Works, Peter Gabriel, The Indigo Girls, The Doors, The 5th Dimension, Bach, Phil Collins
I was a singer way before I was a writer. Nothing on a grand scale, although I was asked to try out for the Lyric Opera children’s chorus, which I turned down because I hated opera and didn’t recognize the value of the musical education I would have received. What did I know? I was only ten. I settled for local variety shows, high school musicals, and choirs. Wise? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t have discovered writing.
Only natural then that music helped me create the Bibliophiles series, which revolves around members of a classics book club. Not your typical series, each book stars one or two of the book club members and tells their stories. Tragedy. Coming of Age. Romance. You never know what you’re going to get.
Small and helpless
The first is A Whisper to a Scream, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as the title of an Icicle Works song from the 80s. Most people think A Whisper to a Scream is a mystery novel, but if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it’s really about feeling small and ‘ever helpless’ in the face of a greater force, which is exactly what the book is about.
Overwhelmed stay-at-home mother of two Sarah Anderson feels adrift in a sea of diapers, Legos, and school projects. Her workaholic husband is never home, and she longs for just 10 minutes to herself to reclaim the person she was pre-kids. When she finally gets out of the house and joins a classics book club, she meets Annie Jacobs, a public relations executive. Annie’s infertility treatments send her spiraling out of control. What starts as a mere notion, a small whisper of the promise of motherhood, consumes her, whipping her into a frenzy.
The song’s happy dance beat underscores the need to surrender to circumstance, something both Sarah and Annie eventually do at the end.
Tell me Y
Having never written from a male perspective, I was worried Annie’s husband John could easily become a stereotype. After all, who do you think of when a couple is dealing with fertility issues? Not the guy.
When John sensed his marriage was coming undone, I’d listen to Peter Gabriel’s tender, yet melancholy Blood of Eden, which perfectly captured what John felt as his wife spun out of control in a vortex of hormones, emotion, and deep craving that he cannot understand. He missed the intimacy of their life before sex became mechanical.
Was this guy married to Annie too? He tipped his glass to Peter Gabriel, comrade in misery.’
A Whisper to a Scream
Several years ago, I bought the Indigo Girls album Rite of Passage. One track is Galileo, which talks about reincarnation and how many times must we go around until we finally get this life thing right. But instead of reincarnation, I envisioned a young woman who kept reinventing herself from location to location. That became Until My Soul Gets It Right, about another classics book club member, Catherine Elbert.
She was a fraud. Had been for years.’
Until My Soul Gets It Right
I’d wanted the final book in the series to be a love story. Opposites attracting is always fun, so why not bring together fastidious Anglophile computer programmer Thaddeus Mumblegarden IV and the free-spirited daughter of Hippies Spring Pearson in A Groovy Kind of Love?
The chance to delve into the 60s and the Pearsons’ background was too much fun to resist. Only a small child when the Hippies embarked on their psychedelic journey, I was drawn to their sense of freedom, something I had never felt growing up as an only child.
Every day while writing Spring’s childhood, the velvety smooth vocals of Jim Morrison in The Doors’ classic Light My Fire showed me a window to their world and explored quintessential sixties sounds. I mean, does anyone use an organ like that anymore? Aquarius belted out by the 5th Dimension and originally from the musical Hair signified pure freedom. Anything was possible if you opened your mind and let the sunshine in. That bass line underscores the funkiness of the dance. You can’t help but move.
That’s how I felt about the Pearsons. Sure, they might be potheads who left their eleven-year-old daughter in charge of their juice bar, but you can’t help but like them.
In contrast, Thaddeus’s family is traditional, and he, himself, is more formal. The Brandenburg Concertos played on repeat while writing his chapters. They helped me focus on structure and complexity. While driving, Thaddeus puts on the local classical music radio station hoping for Handel or a medieval madrigal.
Instead one of John Cage’s twentieth-century avant garde sonatas accosted him, which he immediately turned off with disgust. Better no music than that trash!’
A Groovy Kind of Love
Music helps my imagination find its sense of time and place. It’s almost hypnotic. As soon as one of my inspiration songs plays, I’m back in the 60s with the Pearsons, bouncing from coast to coast with Catherine, or drinking scotch with John. I really cannot write without it.
Karen Wojcik Berner writes contemporary women’s fiction, including the Bibliophiles series. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, and Fresh Fiction. She is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. When not writing, she can be found on the sidelines of her youngest’s football or lacrosse games, discussing the Celts with the oldest, or snuggling into a favorite reading chair with a good book and some tea. Find her on Goodreads, Facebook, her blog, Google +, and Twitter @karenberner
Music for tragedy, coming of age, romance – Karen Wojcik Berner
My guest this week says she was a singer long before she was a writer, and when she started writing, music was a natural place to find story inspiration. She writes a series of novels based around the members of a book club, and many of the titles and characters come from tracks that have been special to her. I took unashamed pleasure in seeing Icicle Works and Peter Gabriel make an appearance – the latter with Sinead O’Connor (gasp). And one of her books was inspired by a track by Indigo Girls, which talks about reincarnation and the soul reinventing – possibly a familiar idea to longtime visitors here. Anyway, she is award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
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
‘Harmony from fragments’ – Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
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.
The Undercover Soundtrack – Orna Ross
‘Oceans of silence beneath the words’
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.
‘Oceans of silence beneath the words’ – Orna Ross
My guest this week says her first novels were fuelled by nostalgia and the past. She wrote them while living in a small market town in England, and harking back to her former homes in California and Ireland. Her soundtrack connects her back to those places and their people. Traditional emigrant songs that remind her of stoic characters in her family, while the gay anthem of La Cage Aux Folles is symbolic of friends in the LBGTQ community and her themes of loyalty and personal autonomy. There’s also a special place for the BBC shipping forecast, which she used to listen to in bed as a child, finding poetry in its strange names. She is Orna Ross – and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.