It’s a game I’ve played for some time, creating a soundtrack for each of my novels. I suppose once it was solely a distraction activity, and certainly an indulgence, but now it feels an important part of my writing process. After the first draft, and during the first readthrough to take stock, I start gathering tracks that evoke the tone of the novel, or the characters, or particular scenes. I often include references to specific music in my stories and books, and often they’ll make it into the soundtrack playlist, but not always – the soundtrack is usually less literal than that.
Like many writers, even if I begin a novel with a clear, detailed plan, that may only really cover plot and structure, whereas themes only emerge after the first draft. During a readthrough I’ll spot threads or commonalities, which will often have been included unconsciously, and then I’ll determine what the story is really about. On the second pass, I’ll end up drawing out these particular aspects. While I make notes about these thought processes, the soundtrack is very useful as an oblique reminder about my mindset. That is, if a piece of music begins to stand for a character or a scene, then increasingly I’ll find myself leaning towards that tone somehow each time I revisit it.
A nice outcome of all this is that I’m left with is a playlist that feels totemic, and which I think ought to support the novel in odd ways. There are no spoilers, and the soundtrack ought to work well as a teaser, I hope.
My novel, HOPE ISLAND, is about a British mother trying to reconnect with her daughter after her partner leaves them. Nina takes Laurie to Hope Island, off the coast of Maine, but is soon caught up in strange goings-on – creepy island children, an odd artistic retreat, an archaeological dig. Sound and soundscapes are very much a central concern of the novel, and like the novel, my soundtrack starts light and gets increasing weird.
Click here to listen to the HOPE ISLAND Spotify playlist. And here’s my reasoning behind the choices:
- Every Breath I Take – Gene Pitney
While this track starts in a soaring fashion, the lyrics constantly undermine the bombast – they’re all phrased negatively: I hardly ever thank the stars above / For sending me your very precious love, and later, And every time we have to be apart / I hardly ever find you in my heart. While Gene tries to claw back the sentiment in the chorus, the damage is already done. In HOPE ISLAND, these statements echo Nina’s feelings about her daughter – as much as anything, she’s trying to convince herself she loves Nina unconditionally. At the end of the track, the violins skitter like in Bernard Herrman’s PSYCHO score, hinting at real distress to come.
- Sin Nanna – Sunn O)))
After the conventional-but-then-queasy start to the playlist, this seals the deal: there’s something malignant lurking on Hope Island. This magnificently creepy ambient track features Oren Ambarchi on production duties. Along with several other experimental musicians, Ambarchi was a big influence on the sound-recording aspects of my novel.
- Nina – Ennio Morricone
I often write to Morricone soundtracks, though never the films I’ve actually seen. This track is taken from Metti Una Sera a Cena, about which I know nothing. It gave Nina Scaife her name, and represents her investigation into the island community and, later, a suspicious death.
- Early Morning Breeze – Dolly Parton
One of two tracks that actually feature in the novel. This song represents Nina’s ambitions for the trip to Hope Island – a respite, a fresh start, Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun. But at the point she plays the song on her ex’s old stereo, the dream is already shattered and Parton’s voice suggests hysteria rather than calm.
- As Sure as There is a Space Infinite – Gavin Bryars
This track, from Bryars’ The Fifth Century, is the sound within the archaeological site on Hope Island, a cave within which she hears an ethereal song. Unbelievably, this track is performed by a saxophone quartet, but sounds like… I don’t know. Nothing on earth. I think it’s absolutely beautiful.
- Feux – Mika Vainio
After the beauty of Bryars’ composition, this is the counterpoint, when Nina becomes attuned to the soundscape around her, and not for the better. I write to often punishing music by Mika Vainio (a Finnish electronic musician with a prodigious output under many aliases, who died far too young in 2017) when I’m writing action scenes. I think ‘Feux’ is still very beautiful, though maddening too, and it takes stamina.
- Everybody Knows This is Nowhere – Neil Young and Crazy Horse
The second track that actually features in the novel. In all honesty, I think I’ve ruined this song for myself, because it’s tied so closely to the scene in which it features.
- Nina (alternative version) – Ennio Morricone
A slower reprise of the earlier Morricone melody, corresponding to a woozier, far less methodical investigation by the Nina of the novel.
- All My People – Maria Somerville
The title track from my favourite album of 2019, and a track that sums up my feelings about the landscape of Hope Island: stunning and claustrophobic at the same time, hopeful but introverted. And, increasingly, deeply weird.
- Washing Your Heart in Filth – Fire!
One of my favourite tracks by the Swedish free jazz collective, and the wildest of rides. it’s all happening at this point in the novel – a stumbling, terrified chase and rocks beating on rocks.
- Mother of Death – Teresa Winter
If any artist has managed to capture dread in a recording, this is it. And this is what HOPE ISLAND comes down to, ultimately: a fear of parenthood, disorientation and a loss of any sense of self…
- Tempest – Low
…but it’ll all turn out all right, right? I can’t tell you how much I love this track, with Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s gorgeous vocals drowned in distortion and, ever so briefly, emerging with a promise of hope.
[Editor's Note: TIM MAJOR is the author of Snakeskins, You Don’t Belong Here, Blighters, Carus & Mitch, the YA novel Machineries of Mercy, the short story collection And the House Lights Dim, and a non-fiction book about the silent crime film, Les Vampires. His shorts have appeared in Interzone, Not One of Us and numerous anthologies including Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year. He lives in York, UK. He tweets @onasteamer.
Learn more about Hope Island at: https://titanbooks.com/70004-hope-island/ ]