Posts Tagged writers

The Undercover Soundtrack – Sandra Leigh Price

for logoThe 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 stage and screenwriter Sandra Leigh Price @thevelvetnap

Soundtrack by Christy Moore, WB Yeats, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom

I’ve found that I’ve never been able to write in silence nor think much in quiet. Somehow in the hum of noise I hear my own thoughts flow, like a river in the distance. I always feel if I show up with pen in hand, that a river of words will wend its way to me.

When I started The Bird’s Child I kept finding a song circling through my mind, the lyrics by Yeats sung by Christy Moore, The Song of the Wandering Aengus.

I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head…’

The Undercover Soundtrack Sandra Leigh Price 1and in many ways the fire of an idea was in my head. The song was persistent and undeterred and would not leave me be. I’d first heard the song on the west coast of Ireland in my 20s and Moore’s voice had made the poem come alive to me – his voice carrying, for me, all the weight of diaspora. I thought of Heaney and his idea of fire in the head, the tradition of the druids and their poetry and I started. I wrote about a Jewish pogrom orphan who is lit up by reading the Song of the Wandering Aengus and sees ‘a glimmering girl’ sitting on the back step of an old terrace house in Sydney 1929.

Birds

As I got thicker into the writing, all sorts of images came up – birds, birds speaking, things that shine, magic, faith – when Kate Bush’s album Aerial started to resonate for me. Song after song, the double album almost feels like a novel in music. There are moments on the album where Bush sings in a call and response with a blackbird and for me, this really sparked the heart of what I was trying to write.

The first song that seemed to filter into my book was How to be Invisible. The lyrics  seemed to be an almost magical refrain. The idea of being invisible, of transforming oneself, from hiding in plain sight to metamorphosis really seeped into the novel, each of the three main characters travels from the darkness to the light. Ari moves from being an orphan to knowing his past, from being under the will of his uncle to finding his own. Lily moves from hiding from her past and her grief to being comfortable in her own skin, taking herself from the side of the story to the centre. And Billy shifts from his obsession and lies to the glittering truth that comes with birdsong and the dawn.

Only Skin

The other album that seemed to infiltrate my imagination was Joanna Newsom’s Ys and in particular her song, Only Skin. It’s an exquisite and long song, full of wonderful images, of birds taking hair trimmings, a bird crashing into a window and thought dead, but comes back to life. Also I felt a sort of augury with the cover revealing a raven sitting with a berry in its mouth, almost ready for Aengus to attach his thread, to catch his silver trout.

This song has always been my portal back to the book, through the gaps and spaces between edits, I’d only have to listen to it to find myself back in that world of the novel, of my characters trying to find out what it was to be in their own skin. The novel starts with Billy trying to decipher Ari’s tattoo, which is forbidden in Jewish culture, the mark on Ari’s skin setting Ari apart. Lily has been defined by her skin her whole entire life, a girl with albinism in a small country town. And Billy, like a snake, always trying to shuck his own skin for another until he can shuck no more. Only Skin when I listen to it now, still gives me gooseflesh, it is truly beautiful.

birdThe lyrebird

And lastly the music I listened to bobbed out of the throats of birds themselves. I took to listening closely to the birds in my neighbourhood- the parrots, the currawongs, the magpies, the native doves. I even tried to find the elusive lyrebird, tramping around the bush in the Blue Mountains, but they eluded me. In my research I read of one that could sing Chopin after hearing the radio. A lyrebird is truly nature’s magician.

Sandra Leigh Price lives in Sydney, Australia. She graduated from the Australian National University, Canberra, with a double major in English literature and drama, and co-established a small theatre company before moving to Sydney to pursue a career as an actor, before turning to writing, for both stage and screen. The Bird’s Child, her debut novel, released in the UK in August 2016 and the US February 2017 and is part of a two-book deal. The second book will be released in Australia in 2017. Sandra tweets as @thevelvetnap

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‘A fire was in my head’ – Sandra Leigh Price

for logoMy guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.

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‘Concentration, energy, imagination, comfort’ – Stephen Weinstock

for logoMy guest this week is another returner to the series, which is rather appropriate as the concern of his book series is reincarnation. He is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school. Last time he guested here he wrote about the hidden structures that tell stories. This time, nearly a year has passed and he finds himself questioning the role music is now playing in his writing life. So this is a slightly unusual Undercover Soundtrack, one of questions rather than statements. Nevertheless, you can expect some stirring musical choices. He is Stephen Weinstock and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Clare Flynn

for logo‘Watching the wintry sea and reflecting on a marriage’

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 guest is Clare Flynn @ClareFly

Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys,   Pussycat Dolls

When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 14.47.05Inhabiting another era

When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.

Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.

The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”

I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.

Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.

Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.

When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.

Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:

Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”

Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.

I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.

I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.

I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”

And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.

Kurinji Flowers LARGE EBOOKThe passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.

Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”

The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.

Winding down
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.

Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.

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‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’ – Rebecca Mascull

for logoIf you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably just seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Suzie Grogan

for logo‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’

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 Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb

Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues

An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for author picBritain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.

Gentle despair

The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.

Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide

The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.

He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.

Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.

Wilfred Owen

Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:

Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.

The question

Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in shellthe mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?

We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.

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‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – Suzie Grogan

for logoMy guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Jake Kerr

for logo‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’

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 science fiction author Jake Kerr @jakedfw

Soundtrack by Crosby, Stills and Nash

Jake-Ellen Datlow pic-fullWhen I was 10 years old I had two passions in my life: Music and reading. I was never that good at producing music, so I did the next best thing–gathering up all the 45 RPM records I could, stacking them on my cheap plastic phonograph player, grabbing a laundry clip, and then pretending I was a DJ. Similarly, I wasn’t very good at writing, so I would write reviews and commentary about the books I read. I would discuss what I liked about the stories, what the writer did well, and all the things that I didn’t like and how he or she had failed. I would type these up on sheets of paper, staple them together, and then collect them in a drawer.

I wasn’t really a DJ, and I wasn’t really a literary critic. And I definitely wasn’t a musician or a writer.

Such is how dreams are born.

At the age of 27 I was hired to move to Los Angeles to write a column about music and the radio industry. I told all my friends: ‘I’m not really a DJ playing music, and I’m not really a writer or writing about stories, but I have achieved this amazing thing of merging my two dreams into one: I’m writing about music and DJs.’

It took about six years before I realized that this wasn’t really my dream. Music wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was part of who I was. I lived through music, where it would provide me with solace, understanding, and escape. But I didn’t want to actually create it or write about it. I experienced it. It was me. But I needed more from books. I did want to create. I did want to write the books, to tell the stories.

Such is how dreams are formed.

So I live the dream, and I write the stories. But make no mistake: The music is still there. Sometimes it is the soundtrack to what I’m writing, inspiring me even as it sets the tone and attitude of the words forming in my mind. Sometimes it is the source of the scene I’m writing, providing me with raw material that I never would have experienced otherwise. And sometimes it is the story. But the role of music in my dream is always there.

The song is the story

This is happening right now. I am writing a story for the third volume of Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’ Apocalypse Triptych. As I began thinking of the story I wanted to write, the song Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash was playing, and I immediately realized that this particular song was the story. There are lines in that song that are both heartbreaking and yet oddly hopeful. The more I thought about it, the more it integrated with my ideas for this apocalyptic story. It didn’t just set the tone of the story; it was the story.

So I put the song on repeat and started writing. The song, with its gentle rhythms and bittersweet lyrics took me exactly where I wanted to be for my story. The melancholy, the hope, the dream, the freedom—it was all there.

TB SoL ebook cover 100 dpiIt’s odd. For various rights reasons I couldn’t actually include the song in the story. As a result, no one who reads the story will know of its importance. This is common. For many of us, certainly me, while there is not always this explicit a connection between the music and the words on the page, some kind of connection is always there, and it is powerful. I somehow knew it when I was 10. It just took me many years to understand how to put the pieces together.

After 15 years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr’s first published story, The Old Equations, was nominated for the Nebula Award from Science Fiction Writers of America and shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year’s best collections. A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters. His debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, an adventure story for teen and pre-teen readers was released in 2014. Find him on Facebook, on his website, find more about Tommy Black here, and tweet him as @jakedfw.

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‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – Jake Kerr

for logoMy guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack: Sarah Yaw

for logo‘Music as a space to make sense of life’

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 author Sarah Yaw @SarahYawWrites

Soundtrack by Alexis Zoumbas, Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you’ve ever spent time with kids, you know that they play out whatever event has dominated their recent life. They need the space to do this, to find peace after a new experience. This is how they register and assign meaning to the things they encounter. This is how they create the map of what they know and how they learn to respond to new events in more sophisticated ways. They have context and reference for what occurs. And when life throws them a curve, they play it out and add that curve to their map. In the event of a, b and c, d can also occur. It soothes them. Life becomes known and thus less threatening. Watching my children play recently, I thought how stories and music do this for me. They give me a place to work through experiences so that I can make sense of my own life. Stories and music, in other words, are my play.

YawGet to the heart

In the mountains of northern Greece, there is a religious festival held each year. People attend the festival to cleanse themselves of mourning and rejoice in the fact that they are still alive. This is literal. The person seeking healing will sit in the middle of the sound. The music is played at them. It’s a vibrational experience as well as a melodic one, they say. The music, its vibrations and its intensity, can get into places that words can’t. It helps wash the person free of sadness and loss. Then the music shifts to joy. It becomes a celebration of the life that remains. Follow this link and scroll down to listen to Alexis Zoumbas play Epirotiko Mirologi and you’ll understand how this music gets to the heart.

When I was a very little girl, it was my habit to fall asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to my father play music. He toured the world with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and his own band The Everyman Band, among others. Here he is playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1975 Coney Island Baby. My parents divorced soon after this. I had no words then to work out my grief; I was too young for the kind of play I watched my children doing recently, but I had all that music, and in that way that music can, it got into me, into my places that needed soothing.

Very internal

What I love about music is that it touches everyone who can hear it and while it is an individual experience—the mourner in Greece is on her knees, wiping out something very internal, very personal—all who surround her are connected by the sound and the experience. There was constant live music in both my parents’ homes when I was growing up. Someone was singing or picking up an instrument and filling my space with vibration. When I was old enough, I chose the clarinet and became Woody Herman’s youngest fan (and the world’s biggest dork). The clarinet is a reed instrument. Controlling the vibration to make pleasing sounds was how I spent my youth. I was an only child. Done alone, play was not as fulfilling as music; music was heard by others, shared and, therefore, not lonely. I excelled as a musician because it was my birthright and because it was all I had. I wasn’t a reader. I rehearsed music for hours on end. It cleaned out my head. It calmed me. I went to it the way a swimmer goes to water, the way a yogi is called to asana, the way a runner seeks a path. Then, I developed tendonitis; I couldn’t play.

In college, the instructor of my women writers course said: ‘You can take an exam or you can write in the voice of one of the authors we read this semester’. It was the word ‘voice’ that caught my ear. Voice is musical. I may not have been much of a reader or have been all that good at spelling and punctuation, but I understood sound. So I wrote what I heard and this relief came over me. There was all this blocked up teenage, young-adult stuff that had built up since losing music—my sense of belonging, my value, was I lovable? —that I hadn’t been able to move and it started to move and I had once again found the relief of music. And this idea of voice was why. The sound of words, rhythm, dynamic, all of this mimicked the irresistible tension and release of music. The narrative gave me a place where I could explore paths, work through what it meant to be me.

Silence

In You Are Free To Go, my first novel, I wrote about a prison. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d chosen to write about a musicless place. Right before I started writing the book, my marriage to a musician had ended and so did the music. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by silence. I wrote about a prisoner who was mourning the loss of his friend; I wrote about a town where people wall themselves off from one another; I wrote a narrative with one moment of music: The characters are in a bar, coming together, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is playing. What else? I can’t know the deep forces that drive us to our subjects, but still I have never been alone like I was when I began writing this book, nor as sad.

YouAreFreetoGo-webA friend of mine recently organised the first musical performance in decades in the prison that inspired You Are Free To Go. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performers and said, ‘I haven’t heard live music in twenty-eight years’. My friend, who had just read how the Nazis brought the prisoners their instruments each day so they could perform for each other, said: ‘I think we can do a little better than the Nazis’.

In You Are Free To Go, a condemned man’s death affects countless lives at all strata of society. Yet, none of the story’s characters, in the prison or outside the walls, are given the relief that music could provide to help connect them to each other, soothe their grief, and help them contemplate the ubiquitous desire to understand how we belong in a world that is fundamentally unknowable. And in retrospect, that makes sense. Writing this story, the music was gone from my life when I needed it most. What I had was this book, the joy of writing it, so I used it to make sense of all that silence around me.

Sarah Yaw’s novel (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College. She fell asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to the music of Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and the Everyman Band. She lives in Central New York. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter @SarahYawWrites

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