Posts Tagged writing with music
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 Zürich-based Australian novelist and short story writer Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol), who is one half of ‘Christoph Martin’, a collaborative writing team, with Swiss writer and entrepreneur Christoph Martin Zollinger (@expansionbook).
Soundtrack by Nicky Jam, Benjamin Clementine, David Bowie, Zoe Keating
Before embarking on The Expansion project with Christoph, I hadn’t written fiction collaboratively, apart from working with beta readers and editors. I found the process a fascinating one, in which two minds bring ideas and experiences and skills to the table, and somehow, over time, a new expression of a story is built and honed, and eventually handed over to the world.
The Expansion is a political thriller; a fictional account of a conspiracy around the expansion of the Panama Canal, with storyworlds spanning Panama, Washington, DC, London and Switzerland. It’s the first of a four-part series that interrogates the global political landscape, and asks questions about power and corruption, and the broadly impacting deals and investigations that go on behind closed doors.
Both Christoph and I need silence to write. But our story has a massive scope, and there’s no doubt music has acted as both a useful anchor during the writing process for me, and as a ‘language’ of sorts, as Christoph and I sought to explain to each other the ‘feeling’ or ‘atmosphere’ we wanted to evoke in a certain scene.
As part of our research, Christoph and I travelled to Panama in 2015, where we visited the site of the Panama Canal expansion (mind-bustingly enormous), as well as numerous other locations that formed the setting for our story, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As part of that experience, I made sure I ate local foods and listened to local radio, and in fact it was the continuous wallpaper of Spanish-language pop music like Nicky Jam’s El Perdón (which I heard blasting out car windows in downtown Panama) that helped me get pumped and in the mood to write the good-times, party scenes. Or really any scene that contained one of our key characters, Godfredo Roco, who seems to bring the party with him wherever he goes.
One morning, Christoph turned up to one of our plotting meetings with ‘Condolence’, a song by British artist Benjamin Clementine, on his laptop. We’d been putting together the events around the darkest hours in our protagonist Max’s journey, and I immediately knew from listening to that track where Max’s head and heart were at that moment. The fact that Clementine’s accent is British (he’s from London) was an important anchor for me, because Max is a Brit who winds up in Panama City in a viper’s nest of political corruption and conspiracy between characters from the US, China and Panama. And at the very moment it’s all falling apart for him, he receives news from London that will break his heart and take him to a place he’s been and ‘seen before,’ as Clementine would put it. It’s a pivotal moment, as Max will need to decide whether he has it in him to stand up and fight for his life. (Again.)
What I love about Clementine’s track is that, as it heads for the second verse, it sounds like it’s about to resolve, break into a major key … and then it slips back into a minor key … So you don’t really know which way it’s going to go. And I had the distinct feeling from hearing that track that this was how we should be writing Max. (Metaphoric and literal spoiler: major key resolve after second verse.) Not only that, but the driving rhythm under the lone piano gave us the ‘visual’ of Max, stranded and utterly alone in the hustle and hubbub of downtown Panama City.
I think the Obsessive Creator Award needs to go to Christoph, who was far above the world (on a plane between Panama and Switzerland) when he first had the inspiration for The Expansion series. In a prolonged, one-finger typing frenzy on his iPhone (about six hours straight) he outlined the entire story and fleshed out most of the main characters and their backstories … all to the monotonous hum of the aircraft engine.
And (just to give myself the Obsessive Co-Creator Award) there were times when I was doing a lot of writing on my own, and at those times it was useful to have some musical inspiration. One such instance was when I was spending a lot of time in the headspace of one of our characters, a very tough and disciplined woman who is also terminally ill. That was a challenge for me, and in writing the events before her death, I appreciated David Bowie’s final gift to the world, Black Star, which I had on high rotation in between writing sessions. It’s a pretty discombobulating track—musically, lyrically, and visually (if you watch the video clip)—and I’ve observed that some people find it jarring, and off-putting. But I think, as a writer, you can benefit from staring uncomfortable things in the face. And it makes your writing stronger, too.
One of the most intriguing things about Black Star, for me, is that even though it is thematically quite intense, it has a surprisingly light touch—playful, almost. That was clarifying for me while writing our character; not that our character is necessarily playful or ‘light’—in fact, to the contrary, she’s ruthless and she has regrets—but, having listened to people talk about their own impending death, and having talked with friends whose loved ones have died, I notice there are many interesting preconceptions about what the ‘journey’ towards death will be like, but the actual experience seems to be very different for everyone, and in that sense Bowie’s track inspired me to stay firmly in our character’s head and in her heart as she started her journey towards her demise.
Of course, nobody knows what Bowie was going through in private, but I found the fact that he had written and recorded an entire album while sick and dying compelling. The performance of a lifetime, really. And so we gave our character the performance of her life as she headed into the eye of the storm.
Max […] surveyed the village below. Its narrow, stone streets had been laid hundreds of years before the first growl of a motor, and snow lay thickly on neat, fairy-tale rooftops. Twinkling Christmas lights delineated eaves and chimneys, and wisps of wood smoke hung low in the valley.’
This is the scene in which we first meet Max and his best friend, Godfredo: they’re teenagers, and they’re trudging up the mountainside at night from the tiny, village train station back to their exclusive Alpine boarding school. It’s a moment that forms the prelude to an event that sends their lives spinning off in different directions, and it’s also a moment that stays with them through the ‘dance’ that becomes their long-lasting, if at times mutually exasperating, friendship.
When it comes to writing the Swiss Alps, Zoe Keating is high on my list of inspiration. There’s something about lyrics-less cello that is very spacious, and yet Keating’s arrangements also have a powerful edge to them, and this element acted as a reminder to steer clear of stereotypes: to embed words that defy expectations, and to tell the story with a fresh eye. I put her music on whenever I feel like I might be veering towards ‘tidy’ or ‘cliché’.
On the one hand, The Expansion novel is a genre piece, so we needed to bow to the dramatic, and to the fast pace of a thriller, but we also wanted to take the time to do justice to our story and our characters—after all, it’s a star-crossed love story, too. So part of attaining that balance was to give the prose—the language—an edge, where possible, when the pace was slower. Like embedding the word ‘growl’ in an otherwise peaceful, fairy-tale, twinkly-lights night.
Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol) is an Australian novelist and prize-winning short story writer. Her young adult fiction, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She has lived in the UK, USA and Malaysia, and she now lives with her family in Zürich, Switzerland, where she is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly online publication, and WriteCon writing workshops. You can also connect with Libby on her Facebook Author Page and Goodreads. You can read more about The Expansion four-part series on The Expansion website, and find Christoph Martin on Goodreads and Twitter @expansionbook.
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 poet and debut novelist Stephanie Gangi @gangi_land
Soundtrack by Van Morrison, Talking Heads, The Lumineers, Rihanna, Adele
The 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.
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.
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!
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
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 prizewinning short story writer and Costa Awards finalist Annalisa Crawford @annalisacrawf
Soundtrack by Cherry Ghost, REM, Gary Jules, Queensryche, Colin Hay, Fort Atlantic, The Shins
I envy songwriters—it’s such a wonderful gift to be able to say something important so concisely and memorably. I’ve tried it, and it’s really hard. I’ll leave that to my singer-songwriter husband, and all the other talented musicians out there.
Music inspires me, allows me to delve into realities I never knew I could create, and elicit the deepest of emotions. The melodies flow into my writing and I have a penchant for repetition and alliteration, which I edit into more manageable pieces for the final draft.
So far, I’ve had a lot more success with shorter fiction. A lot of the time one song hits just the right note for that particular piece—either it’s there at the beginning, guiding me along, or I’ll hear it while struggling with a certain scene or character, and it’ll make sense of my story. Isn’t it strange that whenever a song takes on a special significance, you hear it everywhere you go?
In 2013, I wrote two stories that were set in the same town, featured the same pub, and contained characters that leapt from one to the other. I was trying to write a third story, because I knew they’d work perfectly as a trilogy, but that third story was being elusive.
One of my favourite songs was False Alarm by Cherry Ghost. Every time I heard it, I had a very heartwarming feeling, like arriving at home after a hard days’ work or snuggling up with my husband. I knew there was a story within those chords—I could sense it, I could feel my fingers tingling.
The first verse talks about being dragged down, and I had the image of a woman submerged in a river or lake. I was commuting a lot at that time, an hour’s journey each way, including a 30-minute walk, and inevitably I’d hit this song during the walking part—I remember muttering to myself, “There’s a story here, I know there’s a story.” (Luckily there was never anyone around!)
But it hung in the air, just out of reach.
One morning, I stopped mid-stride because I had it. And, oh it was perfect. I went home that night and the story fell into place, evolved, became something so exciting, and the submerged woman was the centerpiece of it all. In my head, this story and this song are inextricably linked. Our Beautiful Child became the title story, and definitely one of my favourites out of everything I’ve ever written.
I don’t mean to write sad stories, but my characters are usually broken in some way. Everybody Hurts could be the soundtrack to most of my stories. I once described it as the soundtrack to my own life! I see it as an uplifting song, that we all have times when we suffer, but there are people who will help.
There are two stories that were inspired by this—one directly, one indirectly.
In Omelette (from That Sadie Thing and other stories), Josie’s friend is gravely ill and she’s in need of support. She’s hurting, her friend is hurting, and a waitress—by doing nothing more than offer her an alternative to her usual lunch order—gives that comfort. I wrote Omelette, listening to this song, with tears running down my cheeks. I could imagine Josie sitting at her table, listening intently to the song on the radio, singing softly to herself.
The indirect story is Cat and the Dreamer. Julia hurts, enough to attempt suicide, which fails. The book is about her life afterwards—the refrain about holding on is just so perfect for her, because around the corner everything changes, she just needs to wait just a little bit longer.
The Girl who is Good (That Sadie Thing and other stories)
I grew up listening to—and loving—the Tears for Fears original of Mad World, but some of the covers have a more emotional impact. The Gary Jules version, used on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, is the one that resonates with the main character, the unnamed girl in the title. She’s torn between being the person her parents want her to be and the person she wants to be—she’s completely overwhelmed by her own reality. All around her, there are definitely familiar faces, but she stares at them as though they are strangers, isolated. At one point in the story, she’s looking at the reflection of herself and her parents in a window, and doesn’t recognize them.
Mad World, in all its incarnations, has a dreamy, surreal feel—try to listen past the lyrics and allow yourself to float away with the tune. The ending of this story would not exist without this song. I didn’t know where I was going with it, writing myself into a dead end. Then suddenly The Girl did something completely unexpected, but totally fitting for this track. You’ll have to decide what happens for yourself, though.
Some of my characters just need a hug, and Beth is definitely top of the list. Silent Lucidity by Queensryche is the musical equivalent. Right from the opening lines and with a voice that reminds me of melted chocolate.
Beth’s life is preordained, she wanders through the big moments, not really taking part. She marries her first boyfriend, and has three children with him—but her affair is unplanned, and changes her life in ways she couldn’t possibly imagine.
Again, this track has a surreal quality, drawing the listener along into a crescendo. Reading the lyrics for this post, I realised how perfect they really are. Beth wants to fly, it’s all she ever wanted—to soar high and achieve her dreams—and this song carries her.
Finally, recently I published my fourth short story collection, You. I. Us. I wrote the first draft of these stories very quickly and spent most of the time listening to all the best songs from the TV show How I Met Your Mother—fast, upbeat, quirky, they perfectly fitted the short vignettes I was writing. Two of my favourites are Let Your Heart Hold Fast by Fort Atlantic and Simple Song by The Shins. As they’re more upbeat than the rest of the songs I’ve featured, I’m going to finish with them. If you’re a fan of the show, you know exactly which scenes these tracks come from, don’t you?
Annalisa Crawford lives in Cornwall UK, with a good supply of moorland and beaches to keep her inspired. She lives with her husband, two sons, a dog and a cat. Annalisa writes dark contemporary, character-driven stories. She has been winning competitions and publishing short stories in small press journals for many years, and is the author of four books, Cat & The Dreamer published by Vagabondage Press, That Sadie Thing and other stories, Our Beautiful Child published by Battered Suitcase Press and You, I. Us published by Vine Leaves Literary Press. She won 3rd prize in the Costa Short Story Award, 2015. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @annalisacrawf
To 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.
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 theatre practitioner Deborah Andrews
Soundtrack by Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Bjork, REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens
The further I write my way into my second novel, the more I realise the extent to which my debut novel, Walking the Lights, is drenched in music. Music is at the emotional heart of the novel. It initially speaks of Maddie’s relationship with her absent father – the songs she remembers him singing to her – and it goes on to illuminate her relationships with her friends, her lovers and, ultimately, with herself.
Walking the Lights is set in 1996/97. I was looking for connections between the personal and political – and a time that would echo Maddie’s emergence – and the culture and climate around the general election of ’97, along with the lead-up to devolution in Scotland, fitted perfectly. To help re-create the period, I read archive copies of newspapers; watched movies and read books from the era; and listened to music: Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Björk…as well as to music that Maddie would’ve listened to as a teenager: REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg.
Music plays a large role in my life. As a child, I wanted to be a dancer and I trained in dance for ten years. To me, dance was a way of giving music physical form, of being a conduit for emotion. As an adult, I love listening to music as well as singing and playing the mandolin. I can’t write while listening to music though – my attention will be drawn away and my emotions pulled by what I’m listening to. I enjoy walking and mulling over what I’m working on, and will often put my earphones in and spend time getting inside my characters’ heads and hearts.
There were two key tracks that really helped me to get to know Maddie from the inside out. The first of these was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The song relates to a carefree time in Maddie’s life when she used to go out clubbing with her friends, Jo and Roger, and it reappears – after a few dark years – with the prospect of a new romance with visual artist, Alex. I find the track hopeful yet full of longing, and I wanted to reflect something of the swelling strings in Maddie’s feelings of anticipation.
The second track was The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. This song helped define Maddie at the end of the novel: she’s been seeking love and validation, often looking in all the wrong places, and she’s been searching for her father, leading her to uncover family secrets and testing her hold on reality. She’s in recovery, and she’s reconnecting with her work in the theatre and her sense of purpose. Again, the hopefulness of the melody was important, the string motif, but also the lyrics: being held in one body while playing many parts aligns nicely with the life of an actor.
I could wax lyrical about music in the book, but in terms of music behind the book three main tracks come to mind. In 2011 I was busy rewriting, changing the novel from first person present tense to third person past tense and experimenting with free indirect speech. This was particularly important to help me create some of some of the larger, political canvases, and to take the reader close in to Maddie’s breakdown without causing confusion as to what was going on. I went to see one of my favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens, touring The Age of Adz at the Manchester Apollo. In I Want To Be Well I heard the chaos and fighting spirit that I was looking to portray in the third part of my novel. The gig itself was significant too – the massive hallucinatory spectacle, that became increasingly wild, and ended with a shedding of costumes, fancy lighting design, video and performance theatrics for a beautiful and tender acoustic rendition of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. This was the kind of spectrum I wanted my writing to encompass, and the kind of emotional adventure I wanted to take my readers on.
The second track, Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, arrived as part of a compilation from a friend while I was editing my novel. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it had a big impact on me. Again, it really resonated with what I wanted my novel to achieve, both in terms of storyline – becoming an adult and coming to terms with the loss of a father – and in terms of emotion: the sense of struggle, strength, fight and defiance. I found the power of the cello, the rising voices, the drums, the layering in the track, like a call to action. I spent several train journeys with the song on repeat, and I think it helped me find the determination to make the novel as good as I could, as well as providing true north for Maddie’s trajectory.
The third track, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ There She Goes My Beautiful World, served a similar purpose. The lyrics are poetic and talk of literary figures and inspiration – the sentiment, tune and arrangement are really kick-ass. Daft as it might sound, this track also helped me get ready to let go of my manuscript and my characters.
Novels can take years from first fragments to publication. I started writing scenes for what became Walking the Lights back in 2007. Playing a musical instrument reminds me that the basics are important, to build strength and improve technique: a lifelong development of craft. I’m always looking for my writing to have musicality – rhythm, flow, timbre, texture, growth, counterpoint – and at least one stage of my editing process involves reading my work aloud. The doubt I often feel when I start work on a new tune reminds me to keep chipping away at my writing, it shows me time and again how commitment and steady work can slowly build something complex and complete and, hopefully, moving and meaningful.
Deborah is an award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist. Her knowledge of the theatre world inspired her debut novel Walking the Lights, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. She has an MLitt (Distinction) and an AHRC-funded PhD in creative writing from Glasgow University. She now lives in Lancaster where she teaches creative writing. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently writing her second novel. For more info. please visit her website and her Facebook page.
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 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.
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head…’
and 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.
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.
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.
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
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.