Musical Mystery Tour (Part II)

Welcome to part two of our Headline authors’ guide to the music that inspires their them. This time it’s the turn of Sheila O’Flanagan and James Forrester to tell us about the music that has influenced their writing.

Sheila O’Flanagan

When I was a child my parents decided that I should learn to play the piano. My music teacher was a slightly eccentric older woman (why this is so often the case with music teachers I don’t know!) but she was also patient and understanding. She led me from mangling a few easy pieces through to playing some of the loveliest works for piano by Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart, and she instilled in me a real love of classical music. When I hear them now, I’m transported – not to the dusty room where she taught – but to the open meadows or crashing seas or quiet countryside that they always evoked in me.

Music has a way of reaching inside us and gripping our emotions in a very immediate way. It can be restful or rousing, mournful or merry, but it’s a medium that always grabs our senses and engulfs us.

Some writers like to have music playing while they work but for me it tends to be a distraction because I drift off into the music rather than concentrating on the work in hand. Yet one of my books, Anyone But Him, has a central character who is a music teacher (not, however, eccentric) and whenever I wrote scenes in which she was involved it felt right to have something playing in the background. And as I did this, the music and the chapters seemed to grow together so that, in the end, each chapter began to reflect the piece I had been listening to at the time.

Some of them are romantic and dreamy – my favourite is Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ with which the book ends; others, like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, are more sombre, but all are pieces that I really love.

Anyone But Him isn’t the only book in which music plays a part. My very first novel, Dreaming of a Stranger, has chapters headed by hit songs of the seventies, eighties and nineties – the decades in which the book is set. Even seeing titles like ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Listen To Your Heart’ has the power to send me hurtling back to the time when I made similar mistakes to my heroine but managed to overcome them.

Music accompanies us on our journey through life. It marks our highs and our lows. It enriches it beyond measure. We would be lost without it.

Sheila’s new novel, Better Together, is out in Hardback, July 5th.

James Forrester

One of the downsides of being a writer is the restriction on listening to and playing music. Music is such a big part of my life that there are times when I resent having to sit in silence at a computer and not play out a few ideas on a guitar, or listen to new albums, or enlarge my knowledge of the classical repertoire. I’ve written in the past about the value of music in inspiring a piece of writing: to describe a medieval battle you need to prepare for several days; then, when ready, sit down with all the sources you need open at the right page, drink half a bottle of wine while listening to Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, and then you’re ready to charge into battle yourself.

One piece of music that inspired a part of The Final Sacrament, the third book in my Clarenceus trilogy, is ‘Man with a Harmonica’ by Ennio Morricone, from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I’m a great fan of the Spaghetti Western, and this film and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are undoubtedly the best two film soundtracks of any Westerns. Harmonica is an unnamed character in the film, played by Charles Bronson, and there is a great line spoken by Cheyenne (Jason Robards), after hearing him play his harmonica: ‘So you know how to play. But do you know how to shoot?’ Later in the film we see Cheyenne spying on Harmonica and watching as he despatches a couple of desperados, and he mutters under his breath, ‘So he can shoot too.’ I had Clarenceux make a similar comment to John Greystoke in the book, as a small homage to Sergio Leone. The main reason for this piece being associated with The Final Sacrament, however, is that I was listening to it one morning and the dramatic chord (at 3.29 in this version) struck me as the perfect accompaniment to the denouement, where Clarenceux  is walking into Thames Abbey, watched by a hundred or so of Walsingham’s men, with the knowledge that he is going to destroy the place and everything in it, and very probably himself. This music was therefore very much in my mind when I came to write that scene.

Another piece of music that I will always associate with The Final Sacrament is an English folk song that I know from a piece of sheet music someone gave me about six years ago. It was written at roughly the same time as the novel is set, in the mid sixteenth century, and was first published in 1611. It is about self-sacrifice, love and loyalty, and tallies so well with the themes of the book that I have one of my characters, a boy called Fyndern Catesby, sing it in the story, and reproduce the words in the text. Until asked to do this exercise I’d never heard anyone else sing it; but there is a version by Pater, Paul and Mary that has some similarity with the way I play it on guitar.

The fun-for-all-the-family listening for the last few years has been the remarkable Mexican guitar duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela. In February this year we all went to see them at Brixton Academy. For my children (aged 13, 11 and 9), it was their first proper London concert. ‘Diablo Rojo’ is one of my favourites – it is regular listening at mealtimes when I cook (cooking and listening to exciting music is the ideal way to stop thinking about history and writing). This is a live-on-TV version – although everything they do is ‘live’; there would be no point in trying to record them separately.

James’s new novel, The Final Sacrament, is out in hardback, August 16th.


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