Sound the timbrels, bang a gong, today the focus is on music. Welcome to the internet’s laziest interview series, where I ask just one question. My thanks to our five guests: Chris Tebbetts, Matt Phelan, Yvonne Prinz, Charles Smith, and Michelle Knudsen. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to visit past editions.
99% of the time, I write alone and in silence. That said, I’ll add that some large percentage of my non-writing time is filled with music. And some amount of that time is filled with bad singing and (yes, I’ll own it) not-half-bad dancing. I sing in the car all the time, and I dance like a fool around my house whenever I get the chance. Because here’s the thing. I once heard a writer at a conference talk about using other artistic pursuits as a way of maintaining her connection with the kind of free-flowing creative mindset that can become elusive at the keyboard, when the job of writing is a daily requirement. And I totally agree. I love to sing and dance anyway, but more to the point, I believe in the tangible benefits of putting myself into that creative mindset on a regular basis, where there are no mistakes, no revisions required, no deadlines, and no audience to pass judgement. For the woman I mentioned above, it was knitting that got her there. Maybe for someone else, it’s doodling, or painting, or designing roller coasters. For me, it all flows from my love of music, and more specifically, from the way I use music to make a private fool of myself, every chance I get.
Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents started me off with The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jackson 5 records when I was a kid and I just went from there. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life playing in bands, and a day rarely goes by without me fooling around on a ukulele, guitar, or piano.
I often make a playlist to listen to when working on specific books, both in the planning/writing stage and in the final drawing stage. The right music can instantly put me in the “space” of the story. I will usually include music from the time period of the book, but I’ll also go beyond that if the music fits the mood or spirit of the story. For example, Snow White takes place in the 1920s and early 1930s, so my playlist had pop songs from those decades, but also included some darker film scores from the 1930s and 1940s, like Max Steiner’s score for King Kong and various soundtracks by Bernard Herrmann. And for fun, I also included the Bryan Ferry Orchestra which is a great record that takes Roxy Music songs from the 1970s and 80s (which I love) and arranges them like 1920s hot jazz. Sometimes the music is not from the period but inspires the right mood anyway. I wrote and drew the climactic ending of The Storm in the Barn while listening to Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” Whatever works. For my latest book Knights vs. Dinosaurs, I had a song called “Swords of a Thousand Men” by the fairly obscure early 80s band Tenpole Tudors stuck in my head.
I just started listening to the newly released demos for The Beatles’ White Album and I imagine I’ll be obsessed with that for the foreseeable future. Luckily, no matter the book, The Beatles are always a safe bet.
I think a lot of authors don’t give a thought to music as they write but in my case it shapes the story. In some cases it is the story.
My head is full of music.
I was raised by a classical musician who vacillated between Shostakovich and Abbey Road. Music played around the clock in our home. I worked for minimum wage in record stores and now I own three of them with my husband (and a bunch of other music nuts). That in
spired The Vinyl Princess, the story of a cheeky girl who works at Bob & Bob Records and judges people by the music they listen to. I took breaks from the story just to build the soundtrack (I can’t listen to song lyrics while I write).
All You Get Is Me is a social justice story about farm workers set in Northern California. My character “Roar” (short for Aurora) is a reluctant farm girl. I listened mostly to plaintive pastoral soundtrack music like Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder as I wrote. When it was finished I created a soundtrack with a lot of Tex-mex, Hispanic artists, Mariachi, things a migrant farm worker might listen to.
If You’re Lucky is a thriller set on the dramatic coastline of Northern California. My main character is a schizophrenic teenager named Georgia. I listened to Django Reinhardt and modern gypsy jazz players. My secondary character is a Juilliard trained guitarist of Roma heritage. It’s a dark story. I fantasized about being the music supervisor on the movie a lot.
Music plays a crucial role in my creative process as a poet. Different poems call for different types of moods and music helps me convey that mood. In my book, Brick by Brick, it focuses on how slaves built the White House. To reflect the back breaking work, I looked to negro plantation spirituals sung during slavery and prison work songs. There’s a specific cadence and there’s call and response. This helped guide the pacing. The use of repetition also helped with emotional impact. In most projects, I’ll often use music to establish a rhythm that conveys what I want to say. For instance, in the case of a non-fiction project I’ve been working on that focuses on a motorcycle rider, I wanted the words to move fast like a motorcycle so I looked to fast paced hip-hop. But sometimes I’ll go very traditional and look at the structure of a song and mimic it in a poem. For instance, using a chorus to hammer home a point or image. Overall, the biggest role that music plays is acting as grease to loosen up the creative wheel to help me say what I want to say.
When I’m writing picture books or early readers, I generally can’t listen to anything. But for novels, I’m nearly always listening to music while I write. I like to create a playlist for each novel filled with songs that capture the feeling of the book for me. The playlist for my upcoming novel Curse of the Evil Librarian (book 3 in my Evil Librarian trilogy) includes songs like Tool’s “The Grudge,” Bryce Fox’s “Horns,” and Melanie Martinez’s “Tag, You’re It.” There are a couple of tracks by Halsey and a few by Depeche Mode and a whole lot of My Chemical Romance. I’ve also got a few songs from Les Misérables in there (this year’s fall musical in my characters’ high school) and one from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was the featured musical in book 2. (There’s more, too, but that seems like a pretty representative sample to go with.) Listening to this playlist instantly puts me in the right mental/emotional/creative place to work on the book, whether I’m actively writing or outlining or going for a walk to try to work out tricky plot problems in my head. The only rule is that I’m not allowed to listen to it at any other time—it’s book music only, no matter what.