The playlist of dreams

by M.J. Hearle

Before I became a novelist, I was an aspiring screenwriter. One of my idols was Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker behind Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. I used to visit his fan site religiously where I’d study interviews with him to try and glean as much information as possible. Information I could use to improve my own writing. In many of the site’s interviews, Anderson confessed to being a huge admirer of Aimee Mann going so far as to admit he couldn’t write without one of her albums playing in the background. Being a good proactive little sponge, I of course went out and bought a bunch of Aimee Mann CDs.

The music was great, unfortunately Ms Mann didn’t help my writing. She might have hurt it if anything. I’d be sitting there trying to work out the best way to phrase a sentence and the lyrics from ‘Freeway’ would intrude. Ultimately, I discovered writing in complete silence was the best way for me to work. However, complete silence is hard to come by. Unless you live alone in the middle of the woods chances are you’re constantly buffeted by noise – the sound of traffic outside, a television on in the next room, your loved one yelling at you to hang the washing out.

I suspected that music could still be used to help me focus, it was just a matter of finding the right kind of music. Aimee Mann didn’t work but after some trial and error I discovered something that did – film soundtracks. Specifically those composed by Thomas Newman, Carter Burwell, Danny Elfman or Jerry Goldsmith (John Williams didn’t work because as soon as the theme to Indiana Jones or Star Wars began my attention would shot to pieces and images of Han Solo firing lazer beams would fill my head). I wrote Winter’s Shadow largely to Danny Elfman’s scores for Edward Scissorhands and The Wolfman, with a bit of Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula thrown in for good measure. The dark fairytale quality of the music was evocative without being distracting.

For Winter’s Light, I decided the sequel should have its own soundtrack so I created an entirely new playlist. Again I used Elfman, but this time I grabbed his score for Nightbreed. I also added Carter Burwell’s scores for Barton Fink (very appropriate as the movie is about the horror of writer’s block) and Millers Crossing. At the moment I’m writing a short story set in the Winter-verse (more to come on this) so once again I’ve created a new playlist. This one has Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for Poltergeist I & II and Thomas Newman’s Lemony Snicket. I find it best to have no more than three or four soundtracks in any particular playlist as part of the effectiveness of this technique is the familiarity of the music. I need to get used to the songs so I don’t notice them so much.

Do you write to music? If so, feel free to list your preferred soundtrack in the comments below.

M. J.

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