Author Tore Renberg explains the significance of music–from Haim to Aerosmith–and why it’s so important in his novel, See You Tomorrow.
I am a great believer in organic processes when it comes to writing. By this I mean that whatever the material gives or craves from the writer, I will serve it, because it comes from the nature of what I am writing. Therefore I am equally sceptical of the opposite: inorganic literature. A forced literature, a literature based on ideas, on those clever concepts laid out on beforehand. However great the idea I do not feel this is the right way to operate when it comes to fiction. Ideas, I think, we should leave to politicians and philosophers.
I have experienced this several times in my life as a writer. Waking up one thrilling morning, electricity bouncing in my temples, a certain itch in my fingertips, because a great idea is shooting through the system. The desire – no not desire, the need – to write. Like the summer of 1998 when I woke up one of these mornings with the idea of rewriting old Shakespeare´s Hamlet. It felt amazing to me. Hamlet was to wake up in our contemporary society and walk this earth, amazed at what he saw around him.
So I started writing.
I wrote half a page: Hamlet opening his eyes. He lay stretched out on the shore of Iceland where time had washed him away. He looked straight into the blistering sun. He thought: “Where did Horatio go?” He felt the sand beneath his body; he started to rise. He stumbled over the sand, he cried out: ‘Horatio, where art thou, my great friend?’
And then there was nothing more.
I had nothing to write about.
Maybe it could have been a great novel?
But no. It was just an idea. I have a thousand such ideas.
This has happened again and again: It is all want and need, and of course this is fine, but it is not organic.
I am sure many writers would disagree on this. I am sure many great writers out there find that they can achieve what they want in a fashion that for me is strange and not unintelligible. I can only speak for myself: over the years I have come to experience that when I write at what I consider my highest level it is always because the writing is organic and not speculative. I never sit down and think: okay, this is going to be a book about the environmental threat, or a novel about terrorism, or a novel about feminism, or a novel about Duran Duran. If it turns out to be a novel concerned with one of these topics, lovely, but don´t blame it on me, blame it on my characters.
They are my creators.
If anything, I am their servant.
Don´t blame it on me, blame it on my characters.
And if I get it the way I want, they become so real that it feels to the reader – and myself – as if they are alive and kicking, and that their author was just was their stenographer. I will admit failure if the reader feels as if I made them up. I never try to make things up; I see characters, I live with them, I see them perform, I see them speak, I see them love, I see them disappoint their dear ones, I watch them get blood on their hands. And it is when my own writing feels like this – as if it happens outside of my creation – that I believe in it myself. The plot, the actions, must come from the characters.
With See You Tomorrow I experienced this – what shall we call it, the organic creation? – in an uplifting fashion. I must admit to walking this earth with more than an average interest in music. To quote Damon Albarn, ‘Music is my radar’. I can’t remember one day in my life passing without experiencing the wild sensation of music. That rush through the stomach ignited by a bassline (hey! Fleetwood Mac! The last part of “The Chain”!), a vocal turn (Bryan Ferry, you slick lizard — that vibrato, that glissando!), a liberating refrain (you Haim-sisters. “Take me back”!)
For a writer such as myself, so drowned in music, both as listener and performer, it is obvious that the reader will find music in all my books. But when writing See You Tomorrow this emerged in a new fashion. I noticed at an early stage in the process that every character´s identity was closely bound to musical taste. And, to their own musical taste, not to mine. In previous novels I have written quite autobiographically about growing up, and as a result I have written about the music that has moved me and the music of my own coming of age: The Smiths, Nick Cave, The Kinks, The Cure, The Clash, Blur, Pulp, R.E.M., The Stone Roses, Pixies …
See You Tomorrow revealed itself as a whole other kind of novel. After so many years of writing with my own life as the inner engine of the text, after so many years of staring down the abyss or up at the heavens of my own life and from this trying to make a literature that could be important for other people, this new novel was the opposite. No more autobiography, no more self-studying. Back to the joy of storytelling, I thought, onwards to a colourful celebration of the power of fiction.
See You Tomorrow took six years to research and write, and a really astonishing amount of this time was concerned with what we could call music as personality. It is a collective novel with 11 main characters and I noticed, time after time, that music was essential to their worldview, to their understanding of themselves and the others, and to their actions. As the reader will see, Coldplay vs heavy metal is a driving force in the plot of a contemporary novel, perhaps for the first time. Quite strange on paper, but very effective in the novel.
As I wrote about these characters it quickly became an obsession. I started buying a lot of records that I did not like; I bought awful songs on iTunes that I never before would have let into my house without receiving payment for it. Ghastly porn-rap because Shaun, the glue-sniffing slacker in See You Tomorrow, is a die-hard fan of this dubious genre. Terrible emo-songs because Tiril, the fierce teenager in the novel, is such a big Evanescence-fan. And so it went. I ventured into worlds I never would have visited, and if I now have quite a substantial collection of both old country and western songs and power ballads of the eighties, do not blame it on me, blame it on Jan Inge, the petty criminal leader who is in love with Kitty Wells and Dolly Parton; blame it on Cecilie, the pregnant criminal who has a thrusting heart for Scorpions and – of course – Aerosmith.
I bought terrible songs on iTunes that I never before would have let into my house without receiving payment for it.
I keep finding myself singing “Dream On” in the shower.
Before writing this novel it used to be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”.
Sorry, Morrissey, Steven Tyler just was too strong.
Finally, I created individual playlists for each of them. Up to 60 songs per person that I listened to while I wrote: a different musical taste for every character, some of them quite strict genre-wise, some more varied.
In fact, when I come to think of it, what is lacking in this novel is a character with my own taste for music. Although all of them – well, almost, not Shaun with his porn-rap – have some songs on their playlists that I like.
This process might perhaps seem a bit obsessive or silly, but in fact was enormously rewarding. Writing is difficult. Creation is difficult. The greatest enemy a writer has – paradoxically – is experience and skills. As the years fly by you get good at what you do, but you also start to automate. Been there, done that. A remedy for this could be in finding a new form. Finding new tools. Get something in your hands that opens the world and its sorry inhabitants again.
Indeed it can really just be a little thing.
Like playlists for each character.
I gave them some fat on their skin, so to speak; my dear ones felt ultra-realistic with all their peculiarities, and it was all very joyous, entertaining and inspiring, lending the text an uncalculated energy and therefore some fine authenticity and quirkiness.
Whether I´ll do this again, I don´t know.
Been there now.
Gotta move on.
PS: Spoiler-alert. Coldplay vs heavy metal. I had the utmost fun with this one, because the heavy-metal fan Rudi finds himself facing the most difficult problem the day he realises the terrible fact that he is in love with – aaargh! – a piece of pop music. The wonderful “Viva La Vida”.
Tore Renberg, for Waterstones.com/blog