My latest guest on The Undercover Soundtrack was inspired by just one musical work – Mount Pleasant, an album that commemorates a vanished suburb of Sydney, Australia. However, the suburb didn’t vanish; the name was changed by the council in an attempt to erase its reputation for violence. But the people remained, and so did the environment with all its troubles. The members of Solkyri, a band who grew up there, set to capture Mount Pleasant old and new, and writer Adam Byatt found himself so moved by the tracks that he also created Mount Pleasant, in a set of 10 short stories. Music and stories, preserving a vanished place that never really vanished. Adam is on the Red Blog now.
Most of us, when we use the term ‘formative years’, are referring to our teens, the time we began to discover who we would be. The music from that time is always stitched into our identity. My latest guest on The Undercover Soundtrack has a second set of formative years, with its own soundtrack – which began on the day he suffered a catastrophic stroke. The memoir he published was one of The Scotsman‘s Scottish Books of 2019 (and he is now a big noise in the world of edgy live storytelling… just look up Interrobang?!) Ricky Monahan Brown is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – and watch out for the special discount for readers of the column…
Guy Mankowski’s new novel Dead Rock Stars has been brewing a long time. He draws on his experiences growing up in the 1990s, teaching himself to play Nirvana songs on the guitar. (It worked. He went on to play in several bands, including Alba Nova.) Guy says the 1990s was a time when musicians seemed mysterious, and seeing a band poster was like a glimpse of another world. From those feelings and recollections he has created a punky period piece, centred around a teenage boy navigating love and life, helped by the diaries of his dead sister. It’s a coming of age story with first hangovers, first dances, first loves, a sense of hope and optimism. And also, the struggle to find your voice and get it heard. Find him on the Red Blog sharing his Undercover Soundtrack.
Although our medium is words, our inspirations don’t have to be. In this episode, we talk about ways to use pictures and music to help our writing along. This was such a creative episode – storyboards to help map out plots, collecting photos of strangers who suggest mental images of our characters. And music – so much to say about that. (As you’ll know if you’ve seen my blog series The Undercover Soundtrack.)
Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
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PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books, especially my workbook, which includes prompts to help you build your own personal inspirational library. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
If you’ve followed my series The Undercover Soundtrack for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Come and see her on the Red Blog.
It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you can meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Hop to the Red Blog to hear more.
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog to hear more.
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’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has been here before, in the relatively young days of the blog. And it seems appropriate to introduce her with that slightly mystical flavour because her novel is about a woman who sees an alternate life. She wrote it in a creative blast, fuelled by dreams, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and haunting Shamanic music. But this book’s world also includes a hefty dose of humour, with a zany set of invented complementary therapies such as Japanese Forest Bathing. She is Vivienne Tuffnell and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.