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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’s post is by US National Book Award winner William Alexander @williealex
Both of my novels, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, are set in the same city and unfold at the very same time. They also share a soundtrack. The first is about a goblin theatre troupe. The second is about a girl who loses her shadow and becomes a musician.
First let me tell you a bit about this shared setting. Zombay is a playfully broken place, its pieces repurposed and cobbled together. The noise of and voice of this city clanks and clamors. One single bridge — the Fiddleway — connects two halves of the city (barely), and various musicians play at all hours to keep that bridge from falling over.
Luce Strumgut the sailor explains how and why in Ghoulish Song:
“You can shape music to reshape the world, just as words do in charms and curses. Sailors learned that first.” Luce proudly tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “We sang chanties to the rhythm of oar and hoisted sail. It’s madness to trust your own weight to a bit of bark adrift on water. It’s only ever possible to face up to that madness with a song. So we made the music necessary to hold a barge together—or a bridge. The madness of the bridge, of walking and living and building whole houses high above the River, is only possible with many songs. You can hold anything together with the proper tune—or you can tear it apart.”
Two albums in particular helped me map out my city and hold it together.
First I used Real Gone by Tom Waits. I often started a writing session with Hoist that Rag. It’s a working song, a sailor’s song, and it has an urgency and a clanking, jangling rhythm that I found especially useful.
Once Tom forced me awake and growled at me until I started working the album would fade into background noise. That’s no criticism of its quality. All of Real Gone rewards close listening, but the songs didn’t seem to mind humming and muttering between themselves while I mostly ignored them and went about my writing business. There’s one track I couldn’t ever ignore, though: How’s it gonna end? Every time it came up I would write faster. Tom needed to know the ending, and so did I.
Lyrics can be distracting, though, and the stories told and hinted at in the rest of How’s it Gonna End don’t really match up with the stories I was working on. The other album I had set to endless repeat was Zoe Keating’s Into the Trees—an absolutely gorgeous album, played by a single cellist looping and accompanying herself. Keating composes ideal soundtracks for dark fairy tales. You can stream the tracks from her site, but pay particular attention to Optimist.
Take a moment to imagine both Tom Waits and Zoe Keating guest-starring on The Muppet Show. That sense of unsettling playfulness is pretty much what I was aiming for. If I hit the mark, then I owe it to those two musicians.
William Alexander won the US National Book Award for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. He read the audiobook for that, too. Will studied theatre and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He lives in the Twin Cities, right in the middle of the States. Find him online at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter under @williealex.
Brief hiatus: The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break and will be back in two weeks’ time on 13 November. See you then!
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by books podcaster and Nikolas & Company author Kevin McGill @kevinonpaper
It’s midwinter in Texas, which means mild winter. A buddy and I have done what my 13-year-old self did with a few crumpled up dollar bills in my pocket and a vacation day: see a movie.
Carlyle and I sit in the movie theater, chatting on about our expectations of Tron 2.0. Disney had taken a gamble on reviving the Tron franchise, hoping that my 34-year old nostalgia would translate into box office sales. As the movie plays on, Disney’s gamble pays off in an unexpected way. The soundtrack, which had been composed by Daft Punk – a band reminiscent of New Wave, flipped a switch. Suddenly, old childhood movies flicker across my mind’s eye. Blade Runner, Mad Max, Ghostbusters, E.T., Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai, Stand By Me. Then came the bands. Talking Heads, The Ramones, REM, Madonna, Michael Jackson. Finally, it just starts pouring out: Punky Brewster, Family Ties, Pong, Alf, jelly shoes. Nite Brite! Hi tops! Sweat bands! By the power of grayskull, I have the power!!!
Yes, friends. I was a child-of-the-80s sleeper agent, and had been activated by the Tron 2.0 soundtrack.
As a writer, I use music constantly to activate emotions, mood, character qualities – it is a crutch I happily lean against. I used no less than 15 different albums and soundtracks to guide me through Nikolas & Company.
Earth: Paradise Lost
The first 100 pages of my story jumps between a fantastic version of Moon set in the past, and a dystopian version of future Earth. It is in this imagined Earth that we meet our hero, Nikolas, and his company. Since my main cast is made up of teens and preteens, I had a bit of a challenge. I had to find music that hinted at a space age, while also tapping into my 13-year-old self. And no, I don’t mean what 13-year-old boys have in their Ipods today. I needed to drum up those teenage feelings about life, adventure, and parents who just didn’t understand me. Oddly enough, the best music turned out to be retro New Wave and other slightly quirky bands. A few favorite songs from the list were Arcade Fire’s Wake Up, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek (that’s for the girl scenes), and of course, Daft Punk’s Derezzed from Tron (which I’m listening to, right now). Also, the soundtrack for Firefly (Greg Edmonson) and the new Star Trek (Michael Giacchino) movie popped in and out.
Eventually, the story comes together in the magical world of Mon. For this fantastic version of Moon, Yann Teirsen and Bruno Coulais aided me in scenes about remedial classes filled with mythological students, half-marionette, half-arachnid guardians, and volcano-born nymphs. Loreena McKennitt and Zoe Keating provided the mystical, sombre moments. They got a lot of play during the winter months in Huron, or as Monites called it, Blue Moon days. Of course, let’s not forget the movie soundtracks. Any scenes where Nikolas is sleuthing or traipsing through the underground world of Huron required the new Sherlock Holmes’ Discombobulate (Hans Zimmer) and the Triplets of Belleville soundtrack (Benoit Charest).
What about you? What music awakens the sleeper agent in you? Where does it take you?
Kevin McGill is the mad writer of the Nikolas & Company series where the Moon is much more than we think, mermen walk on automaton legs and 14-year-old boys talk to cities in their heads. When not spinning Lunar yarns, Kevin hosts a weekly books podcast Guys Can Read along with his college buddy and co-host, Luke Navarro. Find Kevin’s blog here and contact him on Twitter @kevinonpaper
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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 2011-2016. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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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'