Posts Tagged writers and music

The Undercover Soundtrack – Dwight Okita

The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Dwight Okita @DwightOkita

Soundtrack by Kate Bush, World Order, U2

On January 11, 2018 I will have my book launch party at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, reading excerpts of The Hope Store accompanied by ambient music. The music will be an overt soundtrack, not the undercover soundtrack I am about to describe.

The duet in my mind

This speculative novel has always been structurally a kind of duet:  the chapters of the book alternate between the voices of pessimist Jada who is a customer and optimist Luke who is one of the store’s creators. At times those voices harmonise, are dissonant, or simply collide. How do two characters with different worldviews see the same event, the same story? Are some realities more real than others? And most importantly: what is hope and how do we make more of it?  The Hope Store tells the fable of the first store in the world to sell hope over the counter, the creators of this procedure that opens new paths in our brains, and the individual lives that are changed as a result. As often happens, complications ensue.

Jada Upshaw’s character is broken and hope-starved. The music of Kate Bush helped to conjure Jada for me.  Bush’s music is dark, witch-like, desperate.  In her classic song, Running Up That Hill, we first hear a siren’s call, then propulsive percussion, finally a lyric fragment.  The lyric alludes to some deal she is in the process of making and it feels ominous. Coincidentally Jada comes to the store with a deal in mind, an ulterior motive which we will discover later. Her first words on the page are:

My name is Jada Upshaw. I started out as a girl without dreams and grew up to be a woman without a future. Mind you, it’s not a story I’m especially proud to tell, but if I’m at a party and someone asks me what my story is…

Luke Nagano’s character has a chequered past but he has reinvented himself, partly through hard work and partly through undergoing a ‘hope installation’.  For me, Luke began to manifest on the page with the music of U2’s anthem With or Without You.  Bono’s voice and words embody an unshakeable confidence. There is a steady beat, the whine of steel guitars. The music projects a feeling of determination equal to Luke’s commitment to bringing a new kind of healing into the world. His first words, however, start tentatively:

My name is Luke Nagano. I arrived on this planet as a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it. It took me years to learn how to throw my voice out into the world and wait for it to come boomeranging back to me.’

The revolution will be televised

I always pictured that the climax of this book would take place at a townhall meeting hosted by CNN. And that is exactly what I wrote.  Toward the end of the novel, it is almost Christmas, almost the new year. The auditorium swirls with opinions articulated by The Enhanced Hopers who bow down at the altar of science — and opinions of The Natural Hopers who believe one should only have the hope you were born with. This latter group hates science and secretly fears it. During this long night, the arguments range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The audience is filled with skeptics, believers, and everything in between. The whole world is watching.

The song that ignited this scene as I was developing it was a Japanese pop tune called World Order by World Order. The words were gibberish to me as they are in Japanese but the passion of the singer coupled with the danceability of the tracks made this scene percolate. As if it was now time for a dance-off between opposing views.  And so there is a choir of angry voices echoing through the auditorium, the Japanese pop tune only adding to the chaos. World Order, indeed. (By the way, the music video is quite entertaining as all the band members are choreographed to perfection. The leader of World Order, Genki Sudo, was formerly an MMA fighter who turned his focus to music and dance videos after an injury.)

Hope is the belief that the thing you most want – you can have

Where did this book come from? At some level, this book is a metaphor for my own healing. In years past I’ve battled generalised anxiety disorder which is characterised by relentless dread, debilitating social phobia which at times kept me home-bound, and a relentless moodswing that lasted over two years. In many ways I am both Luke and Jada, the healer and the person who needs to be healed. The shelves of my own unique hope store have been lined with an array of modalities including Buddhist chanting, therapeutic cuddling, and pharmacology. If Nichiren Buddhism has taught me nothing else, it’s that each person at some point must confront their own fundamental darkness — and conquer it, or at least tame it. Failing that, the person is doomed to a life of incessant suffering. To me, every story is about that:  A hero coming face to face with that terrifying darkness — whether it resides within him or lurks somewhere outside himself.

When my book launch party finally occurs, I will not read to music that causes a story to happen, but to music that immerses the audience in the experience of the story. Think of children around a campfire late at night, how the flames add light, heat and even danger. Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I loved writing it.  Namaste.  The hope in me honours the hope in you.

Dwight Okita lives in Chicago where he designs websites and works for a nonprofit.  His first novel, The Prospect of My Arrival, was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Tia Chucha Press published his poetry book Crossing with the Light.  He is working on a new novel called Every Time We Say Goodbye which is about love, reincarnation and gun control. The Hope Store is available now. Find him at his website and tweet him at @DwightOkita

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Claire Scobie

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 award-winning journalist, travel memoirist, writing coach and novelist Claire Scobie @ClaireScobie

Soundtrack by Bangarra Dance Theatre, AH.FM trance radio, James Blunt, Adele, Govinda, Joi, Handel, various Indian temples

Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel 

A year into writing The Pagoda Tree I went to a performance by Bangarra, Australia’s leading Aboriginal contemporary dance company. Known for hard-hitting stories about dispossession and colonialism, spiritual resonance and mesmerising soundtracks, much of their music has been composed by David Page, one of Australia’s most brilliant and original Aboriginal composers.

And yet, my book is set in India. So why did Bangarra’s Earth & Sky soundtrack have such an impact?

When I first saw the performance in Sydney, where I live, I was just starting to navigate between the two different narratives of my novel: the Indian story largely told by Maya, a girl living in Tamil Nadu in the eighteenth-century and the story of the arrival of the British. Maya is a temple dancer and it is expected that she will become a royal courtesan for the prince himself. The year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change.

On the day of her initiation into the temple, she sees a stranger ‘dressed all in black [wearing] an unusual triangular hat. He was a foreigner. His long hair was dishevelled, his pallid complexion ghostly.’

Maya fears this is a bad omen.

The man is Walter Sutcliffe, an English reverend, who has come to Thanjavur to be a moral guide to the rabble of the English army. Over the coming years their lives will intersect – ultimately with disastrous consequences for her.

From Bangarra to Bharatanatyam and back again

Still, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I didn’t know all of this when I started.

What I did know, though, was that nine-year-old Maya was destined to be a great dancer. Dance is the pulsating rhythm of this book: it is dance that offers Maya an escape when family tragedy strikes, enabling her to flee to the steamy port city of Madras where she meets a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce. Maya dances for the gods as well as men and her dance – Bharatanatyam – is still performed around the world today.

But initially I couldn’t connect to the intricacies of her art form. I watched many dance performances in south India during my research and I bought a stack of Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – videos as a way to understand the moves. It didn’t chime, though, and I sat and stewed in front of the keyboard.

Then I saw Bangarra’s Earth & Sky. In particular I put Weaving Part 2 from the soundtrack on repeat because its simple, rhythmic beat that builds and falls seemed to tap into the young innocence of Maya – and the misguided kindness of my English missionary character, Walter.

Walter was actually the first character who ‘came to me’ when I was visiting Thanjavur. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, in a monsoonal downpour.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Walter even if he was a man of his time. India works her magic on him, though, stripping away his moral Christian prejudices so he can face the demons of his past.

Broken Wing

In the Bangarra performance, there is a dance sequence about the harmful impact of Christian missions in Aboriginal communities, captured in Bible Man, Broken Wing and rising to a pinnacle in the piece Victim.

All helped when I was further into writing Maya’s character and she starts to understand what the arrival of the British is going to mean for her family, community and people. Thanks to Victim, I was able to write the final climactic sequence of the novel.

Victim is like a performance song that combines the eerie sound of footsteps, prison doors locking and unlocking, violent swearing and Aboriginal voices, intercut with the monotone recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Kingdom Come / Thy Will be Done…’

Just re-listening to it now makes my heart beat faster. When I was writing the novel, it helped bring my plot strands together. In fact the entire album of Earth & Sky encapsulates this element of brokenness which I explore.

Getting into the zone

In general when I write, I don’t like music with lyrics as they stop the words that I’m trying to find in my story. Instead I like AH.FM trance radio because there are no ads and the tunes are uplifting and often anthemic. Then, once I’m writing, I tend to switch the music off and work in silence. If I get stuck, the music comes back on again.

As my novel is set against a pretty dramatic backdrop of war, famine and natural disasters, I did enlist some big pop songs to help with writing some scenes. After I’d been working on the book for around two years, I realised I was avoiding writing a particular scene with Maya’s aunt, Sita. I know enough now that if I keep avoiding something, it’s the thing that MUST be written.

It would be a plot spoiler to say what happens to Sita but James Blunt’s No Bravery got me there. Blunt served in the army before turning to song writing and this tune is about how war degrades our humanity and makes monsters of men.

Similarly, Adele’s roaring Rolling in the Deep helped as I was limping towards the end of my novel. I’d seen the last scenes very clearly 18 months before I actually wrote them. Adele’s emotional, piano-thumping beats and feisty lyrics galvanised the words to reach that fever pitch I was looking for.

Daily life in India: my main soundtrack

And then of course, there’s all the Indian music I turned to when I was writing the book in Sydney or London: Govinda’s A Modern Mantra and Joi’s India became favourites. I didn’t need it when I wrote in India because real life there provides its own sound track: temple drums wake you at four o’clock in the morning, then there’s a call to prayer from the minaret, crows cawing, monkeys shrieking, a Bollywood soap opera from the woman’s television next door, political rallies blaring out slogans on loud speakers… and so it goes throughout the day.

Throughout the process, though, the impulse was the same: to find ways into my characters that would reveal their different worlds; to explore and evoke the East and the West.

Except my goal wasn’t to pit these worlds against each other, which is the well-worn narrative we read so often about Raj India. Instead it was seeing how the cultures interlink and where the crossovers are. The future of the British in India wasn’t written in the 1770s and there was still a possibility of exchange between people. And at its heart, that’s what the music helped me discover – that space in-between, in that liminal world of spirit and matter, between love and hate, fear and joy. In the space between the words.

Claire Scobie is an award-winning British journalist and author who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. She has just indie published a new memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, co-authored with her mother Patricia Scobie. Claire runs writing courses in Australia, Asia and the UK, and mentors writers one-on-one. In 2013, she completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel. Her website is here, this is her Facebook page, and you can tweet her as @clairescobie

 

 

 

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‘Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel’ – Claire Scobie

My guest this week might be familiar to you if you follow the Purple Blog. I  featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat high up in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by for her post on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Victoria Dougherty

The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty

Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks

I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.

Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.

I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.

And I used to be right there with them.

It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.

I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.

It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).

Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.

Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.

Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.

A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.

And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.

Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.

Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:

He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.

 

Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.

Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).

And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.

These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.

And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.

So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.

Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty 

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Gwendolyn Womack

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 supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack

Soundtrack by Phil Thornton, Gerald Jay Markoe, Dead Can Dance, Lana Ross, Caryl James Thompson, Mikael Sapin, Nigel Stanford, James Wood

Music is a wonderful companion while writing. I’ve often found writing to the right song can help deepen a scene, kick start the solution to a problem, or spawn a new idea. Sometimes before I sit down to write, I’ll search for over an hour sampling songs on iTunes, YouTube and the internet to find what I’m looking for. I don’t even know what that is until I’ve heard it. All I know is it has to be the perfect song to evoke the emotional state I’m trying to capture. Does it conjure a specific time or place? create a doorway to a culture? help foster the emotions I want my character to be feeling? —or me to feel as I write? The reason for the song constantly changes.

Once I find the perfect song, sometimes I’ll loop it for days while I’m writing. Looping helps to create a flow so there is no interruption in my train of thought. I’ve also found in general the music needs to be instrumental, otherwise the lyrics become a distraction.

Knowing I would want to share my playlist for my second novel, I kept close track of the songs. The Fortune Teller is a romantic thriller that revolves around an ancient manuscript and the world’s first Tarot cards. The novel alternates between present day and the manuscript’s story, which is both a memoir and a prophecy spanning 2000 years. Because the memoir journeys to different lands and lifetimes as it moves forward in time, the music I chose to listen to changed dramatically as well. When I finished the novel the entire playlist was quite extensive, but I’d like to highlight the songs and albums that were a driving force while I wrote.

For the memoir, which begins in Alexandria, Egypt, I listened to the album Pharaoh by Phil Thornton, which evoked the perfect setting. As I wrote scenes taking place in the secret vaults of the great Library of Alexandria I looped this song: Meditation Music of Ancient Egypt by Gerald Jay Markoe. The song felt like a time machine taking me to those underground chambers.

During the memoir chapters I also wrote a lot to Dead Can Dance, one of my favorite groups. The memoir was written by an ancient seer and she conjures her own magic and mystery as she tells her story. I found Dead Can Dance perfectly tapped into that world. I listened to the album Toward The Within and favored tracks #2 – Persian Love Song, #4 Yulunga, #5 Piece for Solo Flute, and #14 Sanvean for weeks as I wrote her memoir on seeing the future.

I’ve also found film soundtracks can be a wonderful resource to find the perfect instrumental song. A prime example is in the memoir when the story reached Milan in the 1400s, I listened to specific tracks from the soundtrack to Dangerous Beauty. Although the film takes place in 16th-century Venice, the music still helped strike the setting in my mind for that chapter.

When the memoir moved to the Russian Revolution and then onto World War II, I was playing Lana Ross nonstop. Lana Ross was a lucky find on one of my internet hunts. She is a guitar soloist who has an album of Jewish folk music that is exquisite. I also listened to this theme song repeatedly from the documentary The Lady In Number 6, played by Caryl James Thompson. The poignancy of this song just swept me away and captured an essence I was looking for while trying to write about the war. I highly recommend watching the documentary too. It follows the story of the world’s oldest pianist and Holocaust survivor.

For the present day storyline of Semele Cavnow, who is attempting to unravel the mystery behind the ancient manuscript, there were three key albums I listened to: Far Away by Mikael Sapin, Solar Echoes by Nigel Stanford, and Pure Ceremony by James Wood.

Far Away is some of the most heartrending piano music I’ve ever heard and I remember looping it on a long plane ride I took and writing several scenes for Semele. After that I just kept going back to the music for her. There was an emotional aspect that it captured—a sadness, a longing.

For Solar Echoes, I remember my favorite track being Dark Sun, though I am a super fan of Nigel’s and all his songs. But Dark Sun captured the energy of Semele’s quest. The story is ultimately a thriller and Semele is on a journey to find answers, and this song has a driving quality. I listened to it a lot as I wrote the last chapters with Semele traveling across Europe.

And the third album, Pure Ceremony by James Wood, is phenomenal singing drum music. My favorite track was Timebomb which I looped too many times to count as the story’s supernatural elements came to the fore. There is some bending of time in the novel and Timebomb was the song I wrote the majority of those scenes to. (I also thought the title of the song could not have been more appropriate.)

Those are the main pieces to the musical puzzle that helped shaped The Fortune Teller. It’s quite wonderful to look back on the playlist and remember what I wrote to the songs. If I could send each artist a Book Valentine I would.

Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers that explore a spectrum of metaphysical subjects. Her debut novel, The Memory Painter, published by Macmillan/ Picador, was an RWA Prism Award winner and Indie Next Pick. Her second novel is The Fortune Teller. Gwendolyn lives in LA and paints as a hobby. Find out more at her website and watch The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter book trailers on YouTube. Tweet her as @Gwen_Womack

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Theresa Milstein

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 MG/YA novelist and vignettist Theresa Milstein @theresamilstein

Soundtrack by Coldplay, Madonna, Seal, Nik Kershaw, the Smiths, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure, Colin Hay, Seatbelts, Arcade Fire

My new collection of vignettes, Time & Circumstance, was written over the span of five years, so many songs influenced its creation. I honored this connection when I named the two sections of the book. The first section, filled with prose pieces, Tempo Adagio, evokes a slower pace. The second section, filled with poetry, Tempo Allegro, evokes a brisk pace. I couldn’t imagine this collection coming together without musical influence.

Coldplay’s song Violet Hill inspired my early flash fiction piece Violet’s Hill. The darker sound and the first lyrics about a bleak December and his plea during the melody set the right mood for the story of unrequited love. I originally wrote the piece for an anthology, 100 RPM: 100 Stories Inspired by Music.

For the short story Injustices, a stalker is watching a woman dancing in the apartment across the alley as he imagines her listening to Madonna. I heard the song Like a Prayer because it has the right tempo for someone getting ready for work in the morning. Although it’s different than the music I usually listen to, the song helped me pictured the scene more vividly.

When I wrote the story Left-Behind about death and Birthday about a miscarriage I experienced, I listened to Seal’s 1994 album, especially the song, Don’t Cry. A few songs are about mourning, which helped me deal with the feelings of loss.

The poem 1986 brought back my days as a punk girl hanging in New York City. Because I mention the movie Pretty in Pink, I thought about the soundtrack’s influence on me. Two songs from the soundtrack I especially connected with are Wouldn’t it Be Good by Nik Kershaw and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths. I was an angst-ridden teen.

Steam Punk is about a caustic relationship. To get in the mood for that, I listened to one of my favorite songs, A Forest by The Cure because of the strong beat and mood.

I recalled my first years of marriage when I wrote First Apartment. Grunge was big then, and I especially loved Smashing Pumpkins. Their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness played when I wrote it. My favorite song from that album is 1979. It was a coming of age into adolescence song for songwriter and singer, Billy Corgan, and here I am using it as a coming of age into adulthood song for me in the 90s. We’re both experiencing nostalgia.

I actually credit the song Waiting for My Real Life to Begin by Colin Hay for the Revision poem, which humorously portrays writer’s block. In a moment when I was feeling particularly down about my work and thought I’d never become published, I listened to his song over and over.

The song Measure is about my son practising his sax. When he joined jazz band, he always warmed up with the same tune. One day, it struck me how much he’d improved. The song started as an intrusion into our home, and then became pleasant background. When he goes off to college, I will miss it. I don’t have a clip of him practising, but I do have Tank by the Seatbelts.

The last song in the collection that inspired me was The Suburbs  by Arcade Fire from the album The Suburbs for the poem Boundaries. I wrote it in response to the hateful political rhetoric I’d been hearing to contrast it with my experience working with immigrant children in a school and also compared it with my children’s experience living in a suburb. For me, the song symbolizes the destruction of the west. It became the perfect background for the feelings I needed to express.

The back cover of Time & Circumstance states: ‘the unrelenting passage of time connects the vignettes’. Reviewing my song choices as a soundtrack, I have a strong sense of nostalgia tying the collection together. It was nice to relive some of my favorite teen songs when writing some of these pieces. I also appreciate the tone of the songs reflecting the many poignant moments throughout the collection.

Theresa Milstein writes middle grade and YA, but poetry is her secret passion. Her vignette collection, Time & Circumstance, is published by Vine Leaves Press. She lives near Boston Massachusetts with her husband, two children, a dog-like cat, and a cat-like dog. For her day job, she works as a special education teacher in a public school, which gives her ample opportunity to observe teens and tweens in their natural habitat. Find her website here, contact her on Facebook, or tweet her @theresamilstein.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Wyl Menmuir

redpianoupdate-3The 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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir

Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel

In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.

the-undercover-soundtrack-wyl-menmuir-1When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.

I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.

For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).

When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’

The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.

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And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.

He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’

themany11And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.

A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.

Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Stephanie Gangi

redpianoupdate-3The 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 award-winning poet and debut novelist Stephanie Gangi @gangi_land

Soundtrack by Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Lumineers, Rihanna, Adele

the-undercover-soundtrack-stephanie-gangi-1The Next is a classic revenge story. Joanna DeAngelis is betrayed by her younger lover, becomes obsessed following him on social media, and decides to make him pay for what he’s done to her. The twist is this: she dies in this state of rage and her ghost carries out the revenge mission. But it’s another kind of story, too, a journey out of the dark for all the characters — her daughters, Anna and Laney; the betrayer, Ned McGowan; and even her loyal dog, Tom — and into a kind of enlightenment brought on by moving through grief. The Next is filled with music, from my head and on the page, but these in particular.

The Philosopher’s Stone by Van Morrison

This song kills me, and I’m not the world’s biggest Van Morrison fan. I think it’s fair to say that every single time I hear it I well up with tears (or if I’ve had a glass of wine or two, I burst). There is something so poignant and elemental (and Irish!) about Van’s voice full of resignation and longing, such a powerful combination. When he sings about searching for home, quietly but relentlessly, it speaks perfectly to my ghost protagonist Joanna’s quest. All our quests! After a certain age, after life has thrown everything at you, after you understand how to pick yourself up and keep going, how to honor the sorrows and the joys, you – and Van — know in your bones that it’s a hard road.

This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) by Talking Heads, covered by the Lumineers

For some reason, the Talking Heads called to me during the writing of The Next. I don’t always know what they’re on about, but there’s something timeless and quest-y and unique about the band’s songs – there’s a Wes Anderson vibe to the Talking Heads. The song Naïve Melody lyrically communicates to me the complexity of long-haul love. The Lumineers’ version is one of those covers that, to my ears, surpasses the original. Wesley Schultz has a boyish quality to his voice that sounds like yearning, whereas David Byrne’s insistent, yelp-y delivery is wonderful but feels almost ironic. The Lumineers capture the exhilaration and challenges of being in love, the longing to find “home” within the lover, and also, the inevitability of regret. I don’t know – it’s a complicated song brimming with humanity, the struggle to be known, and seen by a lover. The unbearable disappointment when love leaves – my character Joanna is driven to rage and a quest of revenge because of the depth of that disappoinment. And yet, I can’t put my finger on exactly what the song means – which is probably just what David Byrne intended.

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Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna

You can keep Beyonce, I am wild for Rihanna. I love her effortless Carib-girl swagger and her unapologetic (yep, it’s an album title of hers, too) persona. She does badass like nobody else, except maybe Helen Mirren. One of my favorite lines of my book (can I say that?) is: “Bitches are made, not born,” and Bitch Better Have My Money gives us Rihanna at her most insistent, bitchy, bitch-slapping finest. The track is both rapped and sung, and it’s got a pounding beat with a lot of repetition that just kind of gets under my skin. I can’t say I love the video – it’s gratuitous and violent and misogynistic and kind of racist – but the angry song makes me want to take revenge on anyone who’s done me wrong. Of course, I’m too chicken for that, so I get up and dance instead. When I was writing The Next, Rihanna helped me “try on” the anger I don’t normally feel in real life, and the dance breaks energized me so that I could get back to the chair and stay put and drive on!

cover_promoRolling in the Deep by Adele

Is there any better revenge song? It was released at the end of 2010 and coincided with the end of a relationship for me. For the next year it came at me from everywhere –car radios, doctor’s offices, the earbuds of the person sitting next to me on the subway, every store I stepped into including the grocery store and the dry cleaner’s. I am not kidding: I had a root canal and the nurse put headphones over my ears to drown out the drill and distract me, and what song comes on first? Yep. I am as captive as anyone else to Adele’s power and I could not get that tune out of my head. When I sat down to read the actual lyrics, I was pleasantly surprised at how vengeful they were and even a little bit violent, with the talk of taking every piece of this guy, and making his head burn. I was having dark thoughts I would never, ever act upon but listening to Rolling in the Deep helped me let myself fantasize about a woman who is so betrayed and broken that she can not let go of her anger, even as she lay dying. And that anger traps her – as anger does. I had to write it. Adele does a vocal deep dive into the dark blues with a ticking strum and pounding behind her. What a vocal performance! It still gives me chills. She attacks and mourns at the same time – exactly what I wanted my protagonist to do.

Stephanie Gangi lives, works and writes in New York City. She is an award-winning poet, and The Next is her debut novel and is published by St Martin’s Press. She is at work on her second novel. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter @gangi_land

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Josh Malerman

redpianoupdate-3The 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 contemporary horror/thriller author and songwriter Josh Malerman @joshmalerman

Soundtrack by Richard Band, White Lies, Between Music, Allison Laako

You ever seen the 1986 movie Troll?  There’s a bonkers scene in which Sonny Bono (the very same) gets touched by the troll and turns into a forest. This scene scared the living piss out of my brothers and I growing up; watching the poor guy morph into an apartment full of plants (and the pain on his face, man o man) had me asking Mom if he was going to be okay. She said yes, he was gonna be fine, and then she laughed because, of course, she was thinking about Sonny and Cher, not “the poor plant man”.

Now, years later, I think about that conversation with Mom and I wonder if horror has a way of freezing time, trapping moments in amber. The Troll soundtrack came out on vinyl recently and I listened to it quite a bit while writing A House at the Bottom of a Lake, not because the music sounds like it’s underwater (that’ll come later here), but because Richard Band’s music has both the innocent freak and the wonder of youth. Cantos Profane best encapsulates this on the album. It’s the song most of us Troll-lovers remember the most from the film. (Recently I had a documentary crew at my house, filming a short about my first book, and I had Troll playing and when Cantos came on, he stepped out from behind the camera and said: “TROLL!”)

First date

A House at the Bottom of a Lake is about two 17-year-olds, Amelia and James, on a first date. It sounds perfect: canoeing across a chain of lakes, sandwiches and beer in the cooler. But the pair discover something below the water’s surface that changes their lives forever. It’s a house at the bottom of the lake.

Although most of the music informed the writing of the book was without lyrics… soundtracks… ambient noise (my cats included), there was a dollop of rock n roll. And nothing seemed to fit the mood I spotted between Amelia and James better than White Lies’s Death from the soundtrack to the movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I suggest you strip down to a t-shirt and underwear and dance alone like alone to this one.

Now freak

Because A House at the Bottom of a Lake is a first date story, a teenage love song, I gravitated toward movie soundtracks that do both the freak out and the wonder. Because that’s what teenage life is. (That’s what life is like now, too, but let’s focus on the past for a second here, eh?) The whole ‘gravitating’ thing becomes clear after the fact; I can’t imagine lining up a series of albums with a mind that this or that is going to influence the story because really why not listen to something that feels the opposite of your book idea and see what comes of it? But in this case, and in hindsight, it’s clear to me that I was thinking of teenagers in love and the horror of “firsts”: first kiss, first sex, first love. And, in a skewed way here, first home, too. So Troll worked because it came out about the time I was experiencing some firsts of my own. But about halfway through writing the book, my girl Allison discovered a band that changed the whole process.

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Yes. They’re under water

Now, before I introduce Between Music and their project AquaSonic, I feel it’s necessary to say that if I were making a movie, I wouldn’t be the type to play a song whose lyrics matched up perfectly with the scene. Too literal. Too cheesy. It just doesn’t feel right to play Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter if a character of mine is named Mrs Brown and she actually does have a lovely daughter. But when Allison showed me a youtube clip of Between Music I said screw my own rules.

a-house-at-the-bottom-of-a-lakeThe band has an entire under water show. All their instruments are underwater, recorded under water, played underwater. Hell they even sing underwater. While working on the book I knew the setting was a naturally horrifying place: it’s dark, wet, distorted, cold, and claustrophobic. The only details of the house you see are by the end of your submerged flashlight beams, and that’s through the prism of your facemask. About 60 percent of the book takes place in the submerged house. So to discover a band who has shown us what music sounds like below the waves was, for me, a step deeper than kismet.

It was magic.

Here’s another clip (it’s too good for just one).

Courtship song

Lastly, I wish I had a clip of Allison performing the song she wrote based on A House at the Bottom of a Lake. “The Courtship of Amelia” is a gorgeous, freaky, hit and you’ll have to believe me when I say it’s an earworm. A worm that, I discovered, can live long under water.

Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box and the forthcoming Black Mad Wheel (May, 2017, ECCO/HarperCollins.) Along with a half dozen published short stories, Malerman is also the songwriter for the rock band the High Strung. He lives with Allison Laakko and their pets (including a brilliant weimeraner named Valo) in Michigan. Find him on Twitter as  @joshmalerman and on Facebook.

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‘A song that makes sense of my story’ – Annalisa Crawford

redpianoupdate-3To introduce this week’s guest I’ll quote the opening line of her post: she says she envies songwriters because they are masters of the concise. She writes short stories and quite often doesn’t know where an idea will go, but finds her way by listening to a song, letting the words flow, trusting the music. A cover version of Mad World gave her a particularly dreamy, haunting tale about a girl struggling with identity. The post captures so well what we do, whether short or long form. From conciseness – a spark or a song – we get depth, a whole world. Anyway, do drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford.

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