The writer of this Atlantic.com article interviewed me about books and soundtracks, since all three of my Ambergris novels come with soundtracks: Robert Devereux’s Fungicide (for City of Saints), The Church’s Shriek: An Afterword, and Murder by Death’s Finch. (I have copies of the MBD soundtrack for sale.)
The reporter couldn’t use everything I gave her, of course, especially as the article is mostly about Booktracks, a company that provides “book scores” for your listening pleasure—something I’m a little dubious about. So I’ve taken my full answers and posted them below.
On the Finch soundtrack, listening to music while writing, and augmented books…
I’d had soundtracks for the two previous novels in the series–Robert Devereux’s experimental “Fungicide” CD for my City of Saints & Madmen mosaic novel and then the classic Australian rock-pop band The Church did a CD of original music for my second novel, Shriek: An Afterword. So in one sense, I kind of had to complete the cycle by having a soundtrack for the third book.
But all three of these experiences were very different. In Devereux’s case, he had already created music before he approached me and then I just gave him permission to use story excerpts and contributed a spoken word part as well. With The Church, I directly commissioned them since I was doing a short film based on the book and needed first a soundtrack for that…which then became a soundtrack for the novel, of course. (I must say, one of the great experiences of my life, being a huge Church fan, was meeting them all in Australia before they agreed to do the project.)
For the Murder by Death CD, it came about a little differently. I’d been listening to their music while I wrote the novel, and then I approached them with an advance reader copy asking if they’d be willing to do a soundtrack if we could work out the details. They liked the novel a lot, liked the idea, and so I was able to work out a deal with my publisher to have the publisher initially finance the soundtrack. Basically what they did is, even though they were offering a normal trade edition to bookstores, etc., they also did a limited edition that came with the CD, and sales from the limited paid Murder by Death. And then Murder by Death was free to also sell it to their fans, in vinyl and CD versions. Also streaming it over the internet, of course.
With Murder by Death, I love their music so much I just basically said as far as I’m concerned you’re free to do whatever you like, and I think I just pointed out that there is a band playing in one scene in the novel. Finch as a novel is something of a chimera. It’s meant to have visionary and phantasmogorical effects within the context of playing with the tropes of noir and literary fantasy. So the music had to be kind of noirish, and have an edge, but also be able to have a kind of surreal beauty to it, which I thought was something that glimmers through on Murder by Death’s music, even if it’s not acknowledged as much as it should be.
They then kind of conceptualized it like a movie soundtrack. So that the main character, John Finch, has his own theme music, and his nemesis does as well. There’s a scene that’s a little William Burrough-esque where he’s experiencing a dead man’s memories accessed by basically eating a mushroom, and they gave that scene it’s own music. A kind of Reservoir Dogs scene with several different groups getting caught up in a gun battle they did a three-part song for that’s the prelude, the event itself, and a kind of aftermath. They also did something really cool and they read the scene with the makeshift band in it and they created a song using only the instruments mentioned in the novel, including a trash can lid! And it sounds great. In fact, it sounds so much like what I thought the band in the novel would sound like that it’s incredible. Perhaps, of course, because I was listening to Murder by Death when I wrote that scene, but still…
What they’ve managed to do for the most part is create something that texturally matches the style of the novel in such a way that even though it references specific scenes, the soundtrack serves both purposes. Readers have reported playing it in a continuous loop in the background or playiing the specific tracks at the point where they’re reading those specific scenes. That might not have been the case if the band hadn’t obviously thought really hard about creating a cohesive experience across tracks even as they tried to capture those particular moments that most captured their imaginations.
I’m not sure I would use something like Booktracks, which sounds a bit like it’s riffing off of the more dramatic audiobooks. As someone who loves reading and music, I like to find organic, unexpected confluences between certain bands and musicians I like and certain books, where the synergy is really about something similar or in conversation between imaginations. For example, The Church were a good fit because they read a lot of really great SF and fantasy–and that translates into their songs. They have quite a few songs that have that element. Indeed, when I met them on the beach one of them was reading The Master and Margarita.
I also don’t want a soundtrack for some books, or sometimes when I’m writing. The great thing about music when you’re writing is it’s so direct into your brain that it also tends to overwhelm the critical element, the bit where you sometimes have difficulty getting into the fictive dream and are standing outside of it too much and editing. So music is an aide there. And it can be very, very powerful when reading. There’s an album by Robbers on the High Street that I listened to while reading Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series, and I would never have thought that album went with those books, but…something about the music was evocative of cold and snow and winter, and it just fit so perfectly that it enhanced the experience and I can’t listen to that music now without thinking of scenes from the book. On the other hand, I read Graham Joyce’s amazing novel The Silent Land earlier this year and I had to have total silence for that book. The style of the book, the way it envelops you, you can’t have anything playing the background. The book is about stillness in some ways, and about the significance of silence, and it doesn’t work with anything on in the background.
But I provided that myself—silence or not-silence, and chose the full context. I made those connections on my own, and I think that might be the most important element here. When we read it’s a two-transaction and the reader’s imagination is supplying something, meeting the writer in the middle, if the writer is smart enough to leave space for the reader. And the same has to hold true for music in the context of reading.