Posts Tagged writing with music
My guest this week had quite an epic journey to write her novel. It began with her experience of music as a graduate student, which made her want to write about the romantic and artistic relationship between a pianist and a conductor. She began to listen to more music to imagine the characters, imagining that within a few months she’d have it done, but the more she wrote, the more craft she realised she had to learn. This will be a familiar situation to all of us who’ve fallen for a story idea and then struggled to do it justice. Certain songs became talismans – Bob Dylan, Air Supply and the Rolling Stones – keeping her in contact with her original purpose and the characters who were so strong in her mind. Ten years on and her persistence has paid off: the novel is published by Blue Moon and has earned a prestigious award. She is Kris Faatz and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week says she usually finds music a distraction. She lives with music makers, and finds ‘other people’s sounds’ are too intrusive. But that changed when she started writing a crime novel about a teenage friendship in the 1980s/1990s. Listening to the music of the time helped her re-understand what life was like at that age. Gradually, it helped her tune into the characters and became a place she chose to be rather than an irritant to tune out. From listening to music about her characters she finally discovered, as she puts it, ‘music for me’. She is the award-winning poet, novelist and novella-ist Heidi James and she’ll be here tomorrow with her 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 I’m proud to welcome back an author who last posted here in 2012 – Vivenne Tuffnell @guineapig66
Soundtrack by Debussy, Carolyn Hillyer, Medwyn Goodall
It’s been something of a blast from the past, trying to remember the music behind Little Gidding Girl. The novel was written during a period of unprecedented (and sadly, so far unrepeated) creativity probably triggered by hypergraphia (a beneficial by-product of my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder – I wrote seven in a little less than three years).
Little Gidding Girl was the product of a series of intense, mystical dreams, an obsession with TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and a variety of music that teased and prodded my unconscious mind into both the dreams and the conscious working out of a story that delved deeply into old memories and experiences, of lost love and of all-but-forgotten hopes and ambitions. Like many writers, I’m not a planner; I’m very much someone who furtles around in the unconscious, gives it a jolly good stir and waits to see what rises to the surface. Music helps with this furtling and stirring process.
Little Gidding Girl is the story of Verity, who at 17 lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At 35, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be.
The first piece of music is a classical piece that is probably so familiar as to be almost a cliché. L’après-midi d’un faune has a dream-like feel to it, soft and sweet and yet with an edge that’s easy to miss. You can float along on the melody, swaying and day-dreaming as if you were in a hammock strung between trees. Giving myself over to this piece induced a near-trance state that calmed and centred me back into the right mental space for writing, after walking the dog, seeing clients or performing household tasks. It holds that dreamy, unfocused state that the heroine of Little Gidding Girl slips into quite often, just before reality shifts and she finds herself living an alternative time-line.
One of my favourite musicians is Carolyn Hillyer (and her partner Nigel Shaw). Her work includes some powerful, raw chants and is used in a lot of women’s workshops, and she runs her own on Dartmoor. I’ve never had the courage to attend any but I have long loved every piece of music, art and creative writing that emerges from their partnership. Nigel’s flute music mixed with natural sound recordings from Dartmoor are often the backdrop to my writing now, but it was a couple of albums that fed into the powerful soup that created Little Gidding Girl. Old Silverhead (samples available from their website but for various reasons little of their music is on You Tube) is a journey of life, through rites of passage from babyhood to old age and into death. One song really got under my skin. It’s called Meet the Mirror. (I blogged on this song here.)
The other album by Carolyn was also very much a part of that creation. Cave of Elders is a haunting, sometimes a little frightening journey into the soul. Shamanic and powerful, I listened to this a great deal, both before the writing and during. Like the Debussy, it induces a trance-like state that allows the images and words to flow.
My final choice is one that links to the novel in several ways. During those years of intense writing, I also worked as a complementary therapist, largely doing reflexology but with occasional forays into other therapies. I had a small but loyal client base but I was often quite uncomfortable about the world of alternative and complimentary therapies, and especially about the extreme levels of what’s best described as woo-woo. Too often people seem to abandon all rationality and education and it’s a shame because my experience is that many therapies are beneficial but that too many claims are made about how they work and how well they work. I was good at what I did and clients really benefited from it but I still have reservations about almost all such therapies.
In Little Gidding Girl, the main character Verity works in a new-age shop and her boss offers a variety of wacky and way-out therapies as well as the more well-known ones. The wacky ones I made up for the purposes of the book include Egyptian Rejuvenation, Japanese Forest Bathing, and Mayan Heart Retrieval. Many of them seem to have been invented for real in some form since then. For my own practice I used a lot of different new age music, and I had to like it enough to keep using it. I also tended to get bored and need a change. One I used both for writing the book and for reflexology was Medwyn Goodall’s Return to Atlantis, especially if I didn’t want the client to fall asleep, as this one has a faster tempo than many. Listening to it was a good way into the scenes set in Juliet’s shop and therapy rooms, reminding me of the more commercial aspects of the new age industry, as Goodall has produced a vast number of albums, both under that name and also the name Midori. His fans tend to buy everything but I have only a few, as there’s too little variation between them to merit buying many. It seems even now to epitomise the world that Verity stands on the edge of, with the mind-set, beliefs and expectations that her boss Juliet would impose on her.
Vivienne Tuffnell is a writer who seeks to explore the hidden side of human existence, delving into both mysticism, the paranormal and deep psychology in her stories. She writes character-driven fiction, soul-filled poetry and blogs about soul growth. She also writes short stories and one novella and has a collection of essays on mental health as well as a book of meditations using fragrance. Little Gidding Girl is her fifth published novel. Her Amazon page is here, her Facebook aura is here and you can tweet her as @guineapig66 .
My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’ll be on the Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
When I invited this week’s guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’ll be sharing the Undercover Soundtrack for his latest novel on Wednesday.
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.