Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Author Interview: Jeff Sypeck

Listen to the interview here!

Tell me a little about yourself and your writing.
I grew up in New Jersey and now live in Washington, D.C. I work by day as an editor and researcher, but I write about medieval history: my book Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 was published by HarperCollins in 2006.

2. Tell me about the story that you've created a soundtrack/playlist for.
Becoming Charlemagneretells the story of the coronation of Karl, King of the Franks, whom history remembers as Charlemagne. The book is short, almost novelistic in style, and intended for readers who have no prior knowledge of medieval history.
Charlemagne's coronation in the year 800 was one of the most important events in European history, but I've tried to put it in context by taking the reader to Rome, Constantinople, and Baghdad. I've also offered glimpses of medieval Jewish communities and the routines of ninth-century peasants.

3. What is your playlist?

(To get Jeff's playlist all in one convenient place, check out his iMix)

William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson, "Common People"
When you're holed up in an air-conditioned apartment writing an imaginative re-creation of the difficult lives of medieval peasants, only a force as powerful as William Shatner can keep you from taking yourself too seriously.

Fiona Apple, "Criminal"
I listened to this creepy song whenever I needed to write about Irene of Byzantium, the ruthless empress who had her own son blinded. Her power-grab and brief diplomatic relations with Charlemagne earned her an entire chapter in my book. Associating her with this song attributes to her a conscience that she probably didn't have in real life.

Gogol Bordello, "Start Wearing Purple"
This song appears to be about a mail-order bride, but I like to pretend it's about imperial politics. I get a kick out of hearing the band's wild Ukranian singer declaring "I know it all from Diogenes to the Foucault."

Neil Finn, "She Will Have Her Way"
The lyrics are deeply sad, but the music is sprightly. That contradiction is a nice little lens through which to view medieval history.

Thompson Twins, "The Gap"
Stop giving me that look. This song was on my mind as I wrote about medieval Baghdad because of its subtle message about globalization, intercultural conflict, and the need for increased East-West cooperation. Not buying it? Then just dance already.

Anna Nalick, "Satellite"
Although medieval people never had to worry that the star they wished on might turn out to be a man-made object, this pop anthem can, if you let it, evoke images of lonely monks and wistful Carolingian princesses.

Audioslave, "Cochise"
I have no idea what this song is really about, but it makes me want to go conquer somebody.

Toby Lightman, "Angels and Devils"
I first heard this one on the short-lived TV show "Wonderfalls." The song is actually about a woman who plans to ambush her cheating lover, but the angel/devil imagery and the singer's relentless sense of purpose reminded me of the conspirators who attacked Pope Leo III on the streets of Rome. That ambush set in motion centuries of history--and the second half of Becoming Charlemagne.

Colin Hay, "Overkill"
This song has nothing to do with Charlemagne, but it has everything to do with Charlemagne-induced insomnia, especially in its depiction of sleeplessly wandering the streets at night: "Well, at least there's pretty lights..."

France Gall, "Sacre Charlemagne"
There aren't many pop songs about Charlemagne; I take what I can get. France Gall was cute as a button.

James McMurtry, "Charlemagne's Home Town"
Although I discovered this one after the book was published, I was impressed that a singer could tie together such diverse subjects as Charlemagne, international travel, and long-distance relationships in a single country song.

Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"
I prefer this more sentimental cover to Leonard Cohen's original. Packed with images of sex, love, history, and religion, this song captures the intense wistfulness of bidding adieu to figures you've "known" for several years as they fade back into history's shadows.

If you're looking for an unusual creative challenge, try writing new verses to this song. It takes real effort to rhyme "hallelujah" and not sound completely ridiculous.

4. What does music mean to you? To your writing?

I rely on music for escapism. Writing is intense, lonely work, all the more so because writing about the Middle Ages pulls my mind far away from the generally amiable world in which I live. I understand why most writers need classical music or instrumentals to get them going, but I need rock and pop music--songs like those on my playlist--to bring me back to my senses.

5. What kind of music do you like to write to?

I'll often listen to music to get inspired, but I rarely write to music. Strange as it may sound, I write to the noise of television.

6. If this story was made into a movie, who would you want to do the soundtrack?
If Becoming Charlemagne were made into a decent movie, I'd want the music to be reminiscent of the soundtrack to the HBO series "Rome," in all its moodiness and exoticism.

I've often joked that I'd settle for a Sci-Fi Channel original movie, in which case I'd want heavy metal all the way. Any adaptation is bound to be unrecognizable, so it might as well be highly stylized and fun.

To learn more about Jeff, visit his website Quid Plura?.

Next week, I interview author Susan Higginbotham.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Author Interview: Hal Duncan

Listen to the interview here!

Tell me a little about yourself and your writing.
I'm a thirtysomething Scottish writer who's queer in a few senses of the term. I guess I write the sort of pulp modernist stuff that has people confused over which genre it sits in, with SF, Fantasy and Horror tropes all mixing it up with a very literary sensibility (I read too much James Joyce as a kid and way too muc William Burroughs). Thing is, I grew up with the default label for that -- books like Zelazny's ROADMARKS or Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS or Moorcock's CORNELIUS QUARTET -- being SF, but these days it seems to be more commonly called Fantasy... or cross-genre, or slipstream, interstitial, New Wave, New Weird, New Wave Fabulist -- I've sort of given up on all these labels. These days I just call it strange fiction.

Tell me about the story that you've created a soundtrack/playlist for.
VELLUM was my first book, and the first half of a diptych, THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS, completed with INK. I think of it as kind of a "Cubist fantasy". The narrative is non-linear, with the story fragmented across this Moorcockian multiverse, the Vellum of the title, with the characters playing out their roles (or trying to escape them) across the various folds of the Vellum, in different incarnations.

The basic idea is that you've got a language called the Cant which allows humans to "write" reality on that Vellum. Humans who get themselves rewritten by the Cant basically become gods amongst men -- unkin. The downside of this is that you have one group of these unkin, the Covenant, who see themselves as angels of God, and they're basically building up to an apocalypse where they intend to wipe out all opposition. The heroes are rogues unkin who don't want to participate in this War in Heaven on either side; they remember what it is to be human and just want to live like the rest of us. It's basically about their struggle to survive as reality falls apart around them.

What is your playlist?

  1. TV Eye, The Stooges

  2. HoppĂ­polla, Sigur Ros

  3. Tenderness and Scar Tissue, Five Seconds to Self-Destruction

  4. Jumpin' Jack Flash, The Rolling Stones

  5. The Green Fields of France, The Fureys

  6. Fairytale of New York, The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl

  7. The Wrecker and the Wrecked, Five Seconds to Self-Destruction

  8. Search and Destroy, The Stooges

  9. Anarchy in the UK, Sex Pistols

  10. Nancy Boy, Placebo

  11. I Wanna Be Your Dog, The Stooges

  12. Goodbye You Fucking Thief, G-Plan

  13. The Drama of Being With You, Five Seconds to Self-Destruction

  14. Operation Jack Goes Boom, Five Seconds to Self-Destruction

  15. If You Love Me, You'd Destroy Me, Aereogramme (& Hal Duncan)

What does music mean to you? To your writing?
I love music. Who doesn't? If I had the talent to actually sing or play an instrument I'd totally be in a band. It might not be a good band but, it'd be... enthusiastic, if nothing else. The poetry I write is pretty traditionally lyrical because I'm drawn to the musical patterning, I guess -- the rhythm and rhyme. Even my prose has a tendency towards the lyrical at times.

I've actually written a lot of songs -- lyrics and music that exists in my head (but that I don't, unfortunately, have any effective way of communicating to others, given my appalling singing voice.) Hell, I've got a full musical scripted as a libretto, all the songs -- duets, reprises, medleys, the full whack -- and it sounds great in my head. If I could play piano, write sheet music or something, I'd be well up for trying to stage it. But hey ho. The nearest I've got to actually making music is a collaboration with the band Aereogramme for the Ballads of the Book album that came out last year from Chemikal Underground, that and fiddling around on my own with Apple's Garageband software. That's where the Five Seconds to Self-Destruction stuff comes from actually; it's kind of a proper actual soundtrack to VELLUM and INK in the sense that the tracks were put together with the books in mind, scenes and characters. It may not be terribly proffessional at all, but sod it; I like it.

What kind of music do you like to write to?
I don't actually write to music at all, I'm afraid. It's too distracting, I find. I can't focus on my words with someone else's being sung in my ear. And even if it's instrumental music, my attention gets drawn away into it so I lose focus on the text. The thing is, voice is a big part of my writing, and if you're working on prose that has it's own rhythm, even a soundscapey post-rock track that matches the mood of a scene perfectly is liable to clash with what's going on in my head. I mean, if you're working out a sentence, you write down your first version, read it through, change a few words, read it through again, and repeat until it flows right. So it's like editing some piece of experimental music: record, rewind and play; rewind, cut here, splice there, and play; and so on. To me, it's like trying to edit one track with another track playing constantly in the background, and not being rewinded in time to the one you're working on.

If this story was made into a movie, who would you want to do the soundtrack?
Oh, that's kind of a hard one. There's kind of two aspects to the sound I'd want to be there. I'd want the sort of soundscape thing you get from post-rock, from bands like Sigur Ros, Kinski, Aereogramme, Mogwai, G-Plan, mainly instrumental, shifting through quiet and loud phases, really complex and interesting. But at the same time, I'd want some of the three-minute, balls-out garage/punk blast-in-the-face quality you get from The Stooges or the Sex Pistols. I don't know if there's one band that could do that. Then again, Aereogramme's earlier stuff is pretty full-on guitar, so I reckon they'd be fucking awesome. And since they called it quits last year after their latest (and I think best) album, this'd mean they'd have to get back together, right? So, yeah, I'll go with them. They'd do a fucking awesome job.

To learn more about Hal, visit his blog Notes from the Geek Show.

Stop by next week for my interview with author Jeff Sypeck.