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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick
Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe, Gustav Mahler
I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.
I mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.
Births and inspirations
I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.
This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:
The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.
That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.
Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.
There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps. Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is debut novelist Liz Fisher-Frank @LizFisherFrank
I’ve been a lawyer for many years. I’ve had a fairly unusual legal career as for much of it, I specialised in representing teenagers in care. I’d regularly go out to foster placements and children’s homes to meet with my clients and take instructions. Often there could be problems around contact with family and/or siblings or maybe concerns about placements, where homes were not working out. Christmas always made me think about my clients, particularly those living in children’s homes, as no matter how hard people try, for some children, Christmas Day, family, presents, sacks, dinner, TV is quite a different experience to that which many children have.
Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea – although this is not my favourite Christmas song by a long shot – makes me think of families at Christmas time. You can’t argue with a good power ballad and it’s no wonder that this song is such a yuletide favourite, topping Christmas playlists up and down the country. But it’s Lucy Rose’s amazing cover that helped me understand my two central characters. Her haunting voice in this pared-down version brings to mind those children and young people whose family life is so very different. In Losing Agir, my two key characters, Alice (a 15-year-old from the UK who is in care) and Agir (a 16-year-old Kurdish boy smuggled into the UK) have both faced family loss, separation and tragedy and this factor somehow unites them despite their very different cultural backgrounds.
Alice, a teenager wanting to fit in at school, pretends to like the music the popular girls are into but secretly, would listen to something with more meaning. Alice reads and loves the classics – a copy of Wuthering Heights plays a important role in linking Alice and Agir. I decided Alice would listen to songs and really think about the poetry of their words – the simplicity of Cat Stevens’s Morning has Broken would give her the message that although difficult, life goes on and tomorrow is another day.
A village torn apart
My book starts at the violent destruction of the Kurdish village of Ormanici, which was situated in the mountains of South-East Turkey. The village was destroyed by Turkish soldiers in the 1990s and formed the basis of a human rights case which was later taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It is the story of the villagers, who won their case, which inspired me to write. My story starts as the soldiers attack the village and Agir and his family, along with the rest of the villagers, are pulled from their home at gunpoint. This part of my book is, I hope, dramatic. Livestock are shot, homes are burned to the ground, families are pulled apart, women scream, men are dragged away and forced to lie blindfolded, face down in the snow. Having read the case transcript and written the story, this scene is about emotive music, where music, without words, far better explains the terror of the people. I found the mood I was looking for in Michael Kamen’s soundtrack to Band of Brothers.
From the dramatic areas to the developing love story between my characters, my ideas, plotlines and characterisation are largely affected by my thinking time which for me, works best when I am running. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve had various moments of getting stuck and for some reason, Freddie Mercury somehow seems to get me past it. In Losing Agir, I was struggling to work out how Alice, a young person lacking confidence, would connect the ‘bad’ characters to enable her then to smash a child smuggling ring. I can remember the moment as I was running with Barcelona gently starting in my iPod. I’d been thinking and thinking about how I could tie the story together. But as the song began to build, my thoughts did too. Then, as Freddie and Montserrat Caballe reached the final ‘Barcelona,’ an idea which had been gathering somewhere in the background burst at high speed into my head. As the very distinctive bells signified the end of the track, I stopped, almost expecting to see fireworks at the realisation that I could possibly make my story work. Muttering a thankful ‘yesssss,’ and ignoring the awkward glances of a couple out walking their poodle, I then carried on my way.
Liz Fisher-Frank has for many years worked as a children’s rights lawyer. Specialising in representing teenagers in care, Liz has also campaigned to improve information about and access to law and rights. Drawing on these themes, Liz’s first book, Losing Agir, is a teen thriller published by Red Lion Books and is the story of two young people from different cultures and backgrounds who unite to seek justice. For more information see www.lizfisherfrank.com, read her blog or follow her on twitter at @lizfisherfrank and facebook.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2020. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'