Our heads are stuffed with experiences: that cheesy song at the school disco when we first fell in love, that book whose characters have stuck by us through thick and thin, our mother’s cooking, those Freddy Kruger movies we snuck and watched around a friend’s house when we were 14 but really shouldn’t have, that first pet we cried over for two weeks when they died suddenly; we are who we are because of the experiences we have accumulated and what they mean to us.
It seems natural then that when we write we call forth a wave of sounds, scents, and visions.
In addition to personal experience, it’s often impossible for me to write without reference (however unconsciously) to other forms are art. In addition to books, music, paintings, and films are always in the back of my mind. And as writers, sometimes we have to take our inspiration wherever we can: ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal,’ said T.S. Eliot.
During the process of writing my novel I’ve found that I’ve built up a little ‘mood board’ in my head that I constantly draw inspiration from. This serves to remind myself of the feelings and motifs I wish to capture and depict in my story.
I thought it would be easier if I get these items out of my head (getting a bit cramped in there). Here are some of the items on that ‘board’. I’ve deliberately excluded fiction writers and books so I don’t try (and pathetically fail) to emulate my heroes. But if I did it would be stuffed with references to Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon, and Martin Amis.
First up on the list is David Lynch’s 1997 noir mystery Lost Highway. This movie contains Lynch’s trademark dreamlike sequences wrapped up in a dazzling, and frankly scary story of sex, sleaze, murder, mobs, and parallel lives (or was it all a dream?) It’s an underrated film in my opinion (with a great soundtrack), overshadowed by the later masterpieces Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (which draw on similar themes of dreams and identity).
Regular readers will know that I often refer to the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Ray Bradbury once said: ‘Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough’. And Eliot is my usual point of reference.
This poem forms part of the Four Quartets, is a culmination of Eliot’s life’s work, and concerns our comprehension of reality, self-awareness, the need for redemption, and the impermanence of time. Here is an extract:
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
It was difficult to pinpoint one Bowie album — let alone one track — to add to my list. But 1995’s 1. Outside is probably closest to the feel I want to achieve.
This album marked a dazzling return to form (dare I say: his best since Scary Monsters) and reunited Bowie with Brian Eno. The album (set in the then future of 1999) features a bizarre host of characters set against an unfolding story of malevolence and art: a minotaur ‘body artist’, the kidnapped 14-year-old little Baby Grace, detective Nathan Adler, prime suspect Leon Blank, and other wonderfully named misfits such as Algeria Touchshriek and Ramona A. Stone.
It’s All Deranged
I could have chosen any song from this album (the slow and brooding ‘The Motel‘ and ‘A Small Plot of Land‘ are particular favourites; or ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson‘, which featured in the equally dark and brilliant movie Seven). But the one track best encapsulates the feeling of dread and insanity is perhaps ‘No Control’ — ‘Stay away from the future/Back away from the light/It’s all deranged — no control.’
Nothing Has Changed
The other track that informs the mood and feel for this book is ‘Sunday’ from 2002’s Heathen. This slow burner describes a moment of realisation where unwilling transformation is forced upon us; where the past has lost its meaning, the future has become uncertain. ‘Nothing has changed,’ sings Bowie, ‘everything has changed.’ Although this album was released post 9/11, and feels like a reflection upon those awful, life changing events (Bowie lived in New York), the song was actually written in early 2001.
Loving the Alien
Although I am not writing a science fiction book as such, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth captures that feeling of alienation of an outsider lost in time and space trying to make sense of the madness around him.
This poem written by William Hughes Mearns in 1899 still has the power to unnerve. It concerns a man who sees a person who may or may not be on his stairs. Is this the man’s own imagination, himself, is it a ghost, has he gone insane? It has been widely referenced in popular culture and featured in the 2003 psychological thriller Identity. Personally it always reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s The Double.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…
The Damage I’ve Done
Post Talking Heads Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison got together as The Heads and employed a host of other artists to replace David Bryne for vocal duties including Debbie Harry, Shaun Ryder, and Michael Hutchence.
They released an album in 1996 called No Talking, Just Head. My chosen track, ‘Damage I’ve Done’, features Johnette Napolitano. It is the first song on the album and has always been a particular favourite. It is dark, jarring, and infused with a sense of loss and regret — how do we make good the things we’ve done wrong? How do we change and not repeat the same mistakes?
If I did include a Talking Heads song it would probably be the paranoia filled ‘Lifetime Piling Up‘; or the slow brooding ‘Sax and Violins‘, which featured in Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until the End of the World (which itself has a wonderful soundtrack additionally featuring Julee Cruise, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode, and U2 among others).
‘There is nothing funnier than unhappiness,’ Beckett wrote in Endgame. And he should have known. Beckett was a master of black comedy. It’s my favourite kind of humour. It highlights the absurdity of the world, people from Kafka to the Cohen Brothers understood this. (The Cohen Brothers’s The Big Lebowski should get an honourary mention on this list for its themes of mistaken identity and small time crooks — I’m sure the dude would abide.)
My pick for this list is Martin Scorsese’s underrated and often forgotten about movie from 1985, After Hours. This deliciously screwball, Kafkaesque tale tells of a simple office worker who becomes embroiled in a series of misadventures over the course of a single night. He is constantly thwarted through circumstance, first trying to get to a girl’s apartment after he meets her in a cafe, and then trying and failing to get home while being mistaken for a criminal.
Bowie aficionados among you may have noticed the Bowie links two other references here — ‘The Man Who Sold the World‘ is often seen as a nod towards Antigonish (‘We passed upon the stair/We spoke of was and when/Although I wasn’t there/He said I was his friend’); and Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged’ also from 1. Outside featured in the opening credits of Lost Highway.
So, there you have it. What we can take away from this is that my book is endeavouring to capture a feeling of lost/merged/messed up identities, parallel lives, fear, madness, the nature of reality and time, perhaps a bit of crime, and all with a dash of black humour. Ambitious? Yes. Will I pull it off? I bloody hope so.
Image Credit: Tracy Thomas via Unsplash.