Saturday, 7 May 2011

What is on your playlist? Celia Rees



I was listening to Radio 4 the other day when I heard the author, David Nicholls, talking about his novel, One Day. Now, I haven't read the book, although my daughter has and recommends it highly, but I'm always interested in writers talking about their writing, especially ones who are selling shed loads. For those, like me, who have not read the book, it follows the lives of two people from their student days in 1988 to near present day. As I understand it, the device that Nicholls uses is to have them meet every year on St Swithin's Day. In this way we can follow their lives and changes, kind of When Harry Met Sally, but more organised and British. Do Americans know about St Swithin's Day? Anyway, what interested me was the way he described going back to these past years. He used the music, what he and everyone else was listening to in 1988, say, 0r 1992. He found this one of the best ways of getting into the feel of the time. Songs are like scents, they bring back detail, the kind of detail a writer needs to make a time come alive.



I have always used songs and music in my writing, not just to evoke different times, but also moods and states of mind. My first novel took its title from a song: Every Step You Take. I was listening to it in the car one day and remember thinking how creepy it was, the perfect way to get into the head of an obsessive stalker. Another early novel, Midnight Hour, also owes its title to song lyrics, Wilson Pickett singing, I'm going to take you girl and hold you, do everything I told you, in the midnight hour. 'Do everything I told you...' that was the line that chilled me. And it doesn't even matter if it is not the right words, that's what I heard, so it is what my killer heard, too.





I first heard the Ballad of Sovay, sung by Pentangle, more years ago than I care to remember. I had no idea then that I would ever become a writer, much less that this song would provide me with the title and main character for a novel. But the haunting melody stayed with me, as did the story of the daring young woman who dressed as a highwayman to test the fidelity of her lover. Many years after that first hearing, I was having a conversation with fellow novelist, Susan Price, about folk ballads and Sovay came up. We both said how much we loved the song, and the girl. By the end of the conversation it was more or less decided that I would make Sovay the heroine of my next novel.



Songs do not just provide titles, characters, basic plots and starting points. When I'm writing historical fiction, they give me a powerful way into the world that I am trying to create. When I was writing Sovay I listened to John Gay's The Beggar's Opera over and over again, not just for the beauty of the lyrics and the music, but for the moods and emotions that they evoked and the deeply subversive, satirical view of a corrupt society where the heroes and heroines are thieves, murderers and prostitutes. John Gay gives us a view into an 18th Century underworld that he knew well. At the same time, he is letting us know that respectable society was also under scrutiny by those who would seek to change it.



You cannot beat contemporary sources for insight into any past time. Popular songs and street ballads are often the only way we have to see into the lives and minds of ordinary men and women, allow us to hear the words that they used, the cadences of everyday speech. For me, they help to 'raise the spirits of the age', to evoke a sense of love, loss, danger and excitement. When I was writing Pirates! , I listened to songs of the sea, of dark eyed sailors and female sailors bold. When I was writing The Fool's Girl, I listened to Elizabethan street songs, jigs and bawdy ballads, as well as Shakespeare's own songs and court music. Each of my books has its own soundtrack,. Sometimes the music gets mentioned in the text, sometimes it doesn't. That is not important. Neither is exact authenticity. What is important is how this music, these songs have sustained and fed my imagination and freed my creativity.



Anyone else care to share their playlist?

23 comments:

Anne said...

When I wrote my first novel BIG GIRLS SHOES I listened to Tamla Motown songs that I'd loved as a teenager. I bought a collection of Smokey Robinson songs and played them over and over. I got the great idea that i would start each chapter with a couplet of lines from the songs and I even chose the name of the main character BRENDA because it was in a line from a song by the Four Tops. This music took me back to my teens where yearning and injustice were my two main emotions. Perfect for my heroine. The book got published but all the quotes from songs had to go. They would have cost too much! Sad.

Stroppy Author said...

That's fascinating, Celia. I am not as rigorous, but music matters. I write fiction best to opera. It doesn't have to be from the right period, but has to have the right mood for the bit I'm writing. I listen to radio 3 a lot, too.

Helena said...

What a great piece! Back in the day when I was a teacher I often used lyrics from songs as stimulus for creative writing. 'She's Leaving Home' by the Beatles was an obvious one. As a writer I often want to quote songs but am prohibited by the legalities. In my book Never Ever it would have cost thousands to quote a line from the All Saints' song of the title.

Rachel Connor said...

I completely agree that music has that ability to inspire other worlds, instantly. Sometimes this happens in a way that words can't explore, I think. Brilliant to read of how Sovay came into being. Thanks for a great, thought provoking post, Celia!

Charlie Butler said...

I often slip odd phrases from song lyrics into my own writing, wondering if they'll be picked up - not so much plagiarism as a kind of Easter egg hunt, I like to think! It's fun to invent "fictional" song lyrics too.

I just read the lyrics to the "Sovay" song, and I have to say that if her boyfriend had any sense he would have run a mile! She seemed thoroughly unhinged. I'm sure yours is much saner, Celia!

Julie P said...

It's fascinating for me to read your post and the following comments as I don't tend to listen to music while I'm writing and I've never used song titles or lyrics in my writing. But now I've read this post I can't get song titles out of my head! Maybe they will feature in my writing alot more now!

Julie

Lynne Garner said...

I live with a musician so music tends to be filling the house in some way. If not playing then being played (with the odd 'bad' word thrown in when a mistake is made). However I've never used it in my writing. I tend to shut the world out and just tap away. But then again I'm either writing non-fiction or dealing with the problems of mice or trolls with very bad habits. Perhaps when I write that novel I keep saying I'm going to write I'll give it a go.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

SOUL LOVE- title inspired by Bowie, written listening to Gillian Welch's Soul journey and Herman Dune.One mention of 'Because the night' allowed.
Before I begin writing (and if husband is not in earshot) I love a quick burst of early music or Dolly Parton to get me going.
Currently listening to 'Hang in in there baby'by Johhnny Bristol for latest tale.

Katherine Langrish said...

I sing a lot of folksongs, but after I'd read Celia's marvellous 'Sovay' I went out and learned the song - it was new to me - and it's stunning! (So nice to sing about a girl with attitude, Charlie, rather than one about to die for love!)

I don't usually listen to music while I work - perhaps because my first three book were set in the viking age, and I don't think we know much about what the Vikings sang! But for 'Dark Angels' I listened to a lot of troubadour songs. Coincidentally there's a link to one up on my own blog now!

Charlie Butler said...

There's attitude, and there's psychotic-cum-abusive! First she holds up her poor inoffensive boyfriend and scares the life out of him then, when he passes her "test" with flying colours, she leaves him penniless on the plain. Finally, when he discovers the truth, instead of apologizing or congratulating him on his steadfast loyalty and bravery, her only comment is to call him a "silly thing" and say that if he'd done anything different she'd have shot him like a dog.

Run boy, run like the wind, before it's too late!

Susan Price said...

Have to agree with you, Charlie, but it's still a great song!
When writing the Ghost World books, I listened to lots of Russian music and Russian choirs - and when writing about Sterkarms, my playlist is bloodthirsty border ballads. A lot of the lyrics find their way into the Sterkarm books too - no copyright fees!
Great post, Celia. I loved SOVAY - and I must read THE FOOL'S GIRL!

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Listen to music before I write rather than during, to get me in the mood. A tendency to write in absolute silence. Like to talk the words to myself as I write. But listening to people play live, even if it's just snatches of my friend playing his fiddle, I find especially inspiring, emotionally and creatively. When my heart sings, then I can write with feeling.

jongleuse said...

I also love listening to music when writing. I've recently been on a Bonnie Prince Billy (dark folky Americana) binge recently though and think it's all come out a bit too introspective, without enough action, violence and tension. May have to switch to hip hop...

jongleuse said...

Apologies for double post, I meant to add I am so looking forward to the Arvon week you are teaching on writing for young adults!

Helena Halme said...

I too use music to evoke the era I'm writing about. When I wrote How I Came to be in England on my blog, music was vital in reminding the reader I was writing about the 1980's.

Helena xx

PS. One Day is indeed a big seller - we keep running out of copies in our book shop.

Katherine Roberts said...

I first saw "One Day" on Kindle, thought it had an eye-catching cover but didn't sound like my sort of book so I've not downloaded it (yet).

BUT I've just got a super hardcover of "Sovay"! Looking forward to that...

Celia Rees said...

Great to see so many varied responses. I can't agree with you Charlie, but maybe that is the psychotic bitch in me. One thing. The music I mean is not an accompaniment. It is inspiration. So I might listen before, during, even after the time when I'm working on a book, but when I am physically writing, I normally work in silence.

adele said...

Loved this post, Celia! And yes, I often listent to music....some of it goes into the book and some not. But my memoir 'YESTERDAY' is meant to conjure up that Beatles song, as well as telling you that it's about the past! I was pleased with that title. Schubert goes all the way through OTHER ECHOES and ballet music through my novel HESTER'S STORY....Thanks for the post!
ps ONE DAY is very enjoyable but I thought it was only the brilliant technique of taking slices through the years that made it different from many other novels and I did object very strongly to the ending!!

Linda Newbery said...

Great post, Celia. I nearly always have a soundtrack, but more important is the music I have as background while I'm writing, which usually isn't the same. Currently it's Ludovico Einaudi. Recently, two of my favourite songs and titles have been used by other authors, making me wish I'd got there first: SMALL BLUE THING (Suzanne Vega) and the traditional folk song LONG LANKIN.

karen said...

I have read 'One Day' and absolutely loved it. David Nicholl's social observation is superb because it's all in the detail - he'll reference, yes, a song I'd forgotten or a type of T-shirt we all used to wear in the Eighties or a chain of shops that's now defunct. I spent a lot of the novel thinking, 'Oh yes, I remember that!' The author also put together a playlist of songs 'from the book' for enthusiastic readers that can be found on Spotify. Music is a great source of inspiration and can evoke a strong emotion in seconds. I often find myself tearing up on my walk to the tube when a random song comes on from my playlist. I'd never thought about looking at songs from way back, though. I'm going to do that! Thank you.

Celia Rees said...

Karen - I didn't know there was a real playlist for One Day. Maybe the book's popularity lies both in the one day a year device which gives it that different, 'stand out' quality (like Adele says), but also in the evocation of the near past for readers who have all lived through the same time and will enjoy that frisson of recognition. Hmm, food for thought, eh?

Ann Turnbull said...

Fascinating post, Celia. I often use music for inspiration - though, like you, not when actually writing. Joan Baez' folk albums from the 1960s helped with the love-longing for No Shame, No Fear, and for my current book I bought a CD of Kpelle music from Africa, which is haunting and strange.

Lucy Coats said...

Loved this, Celia, but I'm a 'silent writer' and can't bear any musical distraction, except maybe a very turned down Mozart mass. I keep seeing 'soundtrack' acknowledgements in books and thinking I ought to be listening to something--but I just can't!