With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
And while I’m breaking radio silence, I might as well say that after selling out Marrow earlier this year, I’ve decided to self-publish another flash collection. I don’t know when I’ll be releasing it, though, so don’t get any funny ideas. It’s called Dare, it will contain two poems and twenty-four very short stories, and the cover looks like this:
Here’s another draft of the cover with massive changes to background, font, spacing, colour and contrast. I’ve decided that all this design stuff is HARD.
I found this picture of a walrus skull (odobenus rosmarus, according to my friend Ross) in the British Library archives, cut away the background, made it black and white, lifted it into InDesign, added the background colour, changed the transparency mode so the skull turned shades of blue, found and added the fonts, and exported it.
If you knew what you were doing with Photoshop, this would probably take you about four minutes. But I don’t know what I’m doing, and it took me all night.
ALL BLOODY NIGHT.
Anyway – this is a first draft of the cover of my flash fiction collection Marrow, which I’m going to self-publish in the next few weeks. I’d appreciate any thoughts, positive or negative, about the design. I want something lean, but is it too simple?
It is with tremendous pleasure that I share the cover to The Visitors. It looks like this:
…and I’m utterly thrilled with it. The artist, an outstanding book designer called Leo Nickolls, has captured so many elements of the story in his design. I love the composition, the style, the palette – everything about it.
Most of the story of The Visitors fell into my head while on holiday in Grogport on Kintyre. It’s connected to the Scottish mainland by a narrow isthmus, but it feels like an island. From Tarbert, it’s a thirty or forty minute drive along weaving single track roads to the tiny village of Grogport, which is no more than ten houses and a beach. It was our first holiday as a new family, and we stayed there for a week. Dora was only five months old, and she was unsettled by the change in her surroundings. After sleeping late for most of the previous month, she started waking early – at four or five in the morning. On one of those bleary mornings, we sat in awed silence and watched the sun crest behind humpback Arran, the island pitched into shadow beneath titanic columns of light. I took some pictures. They looked like this:
The first time I saw Leo’s cover, this image came to me as a jolt. Memories shivered at me; the cold tiles underfoot, the grit in the coffee and the grit in my eyes, the herons on the beach. Even now, I feel a little unnerved at the similarity in the mountains. I scribbled out the plot of The Visitors no more than a day either side of this picture. Unheimlich.
Seeing the cover has been amongst the most surreal parts of this crazy journey. The closer I come to publication, the further I feel from reality. Being so immersed in redrafts and work, this often feels as though it’s happening to someone else.