I know that many fellow authors listen to music while they write or associate particular songs with what they’re currently working on and I love how this adds a different dimension to the story – and how it might even affect the rhythm of the prose. Music has often featured in my novels, though it’s only when I came to write my latest Young Adult novel, As Far As The Stars that I really understood how powerful music can be in the lives of my characters – and in my own life as a writer, creating a fictional world.
Blake, the beloved older brother of my protagonist, Air, is a talented singer-songwriter and Air’s sister is about to get married in the musical capital of the world, Nashville, Tennessee. Blake is due to sing a special song he composed. As I was writing this story I thought about the artists who would have inspired Blake and the songs that he and Air would have listened to together. I also thought of songs that reflect the mood and the themes of the novel. Below are some of these songs and the reasons I chose them.
- Flesh and Bloodby Johnny Cash
The is the song on the special CD that Blake made for Air – and the song that makes her nearly crash the car when it comes on after driving away from Dulles airport. Johnny Cash was one of Blake’s idols and came from Nashville, a place which plays an important role in the novel. The theme of the song is about the importance of having real, physical, living people to love in your life: people with flesh and blood, not just ideals of people. On another level, together in the car, at the beginning of a long road trip – and the beginning of a relationship – Air and Christopher are each other’s new ‘flesh and blood’ – and then need each other, more than they’ll ever know.
- Rocket Man by Elton John
The themes of space, flying, the solar eclipse – and even Air’s name, all interconnect in the story. I imagine Blake and Air listening to this song together. It’s also about family and identity and how people don’t always understand who we really are, which applies to just about all the characters in the novel, especially to Christopher and his dad who don’t really understand each other. The song reflects the time Christopher’s dad spends away from him because of his job and the impact this has on their relationship.
- Nashville by Noah Gundersen
Nashville is the destination of the road trip and the novel. It’s also the place that Blake loves most in the world, the place where Air’s sister is getting married and an important place for Air’s family as a whole. Nashville is also, arguably, the centre of the musical world, a kind of musical mecca. The song is about travelling away from Nashville but promising to be back one day – and the final line also, sadly, connects to the outcome of the novel.
- Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
This is one of my favourite songs – I well up nearly every time I hear it. It has a haunting, spiritual quality that goes right to the heart. The clash of emotions in the song embody what I feel the Air and Christopher are going through: mourning, regret, brokenness, lost love and found love. Bringing together the power of first love alongside the tragedy of grief was one of the hardest things about writing this novel – this song captures both perfectly.
- Wild Thing Jimi Hendrix
In the novel Air says of Blake: ‘He sees himself as the blended reincarnation of Jonny Cash and Jimi Hendrix – with a bit of Dolly Parton thrown in for good measure –.’ Jimi Hendrix is a music icon for so, so many young people and he also lived, for a while, in Nashville Tennessee. Blake was just the kind of ‘Wild Thing’ that Hendrix sang about – an untameable spirit to whom so many were drawn.
- Summertime sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
As Far as The Stars takes place in August, when the summer is winding down. Like Air and Christopher, we often have our first kisses and first loves in the summertime, when everything is slightly out of the usual pattern of things, when we’re travelling, displaced, on holiday, when the sun is shining and our minds and bodies and hearts are a little looser and open to new experiences. I remember singing this song with my French cousins on the small island of Corsica during long, hot summers when I was growing up – and where I had my first kiss! For me, this song epitomises summer, in particular summer in the southern states of America.
- Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell
This beautiful and complicated song about the paradoxical nature of life and our limited perspective and understanding of the world captures, perfectly, the place where Air and Christopher find each other in the novel. As they take a long road trip together across America, they have to reconcile their ideals, their hopes and their illusions and the realities they are having to face in the light of the tragedy which has thrown them together. Joni Mitchell is exactly the kind of beautiful, complex singer-songwriter that Blake would have loved.
- Tennessee Whisky by Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton is another singer-songwriter who would have inspired Blake. The fact that he lives in Nashville, Tennessee is also significant – I imagine Chris Stapleton and Blake crossing on Music Row, talking about music and maybe even heading to maybe heading to a bar to perform together. My firstborn daughter is called Tennessee so this song has always had a personal resonance for me – and, serendipitously, it was often playing in the small juice bar in Concord, New Hampshire, where I wrote much of As Far as The Stars.
- Tennessee Skies by Aaron Daniel and Milo Gore
Milo and Aaron are singer-songwriters who were students at the last school where I taught in the UK: they were a huge inspiration for my creation of Blake and for featuring Nashville, Tennessee in the novel. When my daughter, Tennessee Skye, was a few weeks old, they did a concert to raise money for their trip to Nashville that summer and my husband stayed up all night to support them. They were streaming the concert live and, knowing that he was up in the middle of the night with my daughter, listening to them, they improvised a song for her called Tennessee Skies. When they went to Nashville that summer they performed the song live on the streets of Nashville and recorded the song in one of the oldest recording studios in the world. I hope that it will be out for you all to listen to one day, it’s a beautiful song.
I’d love to hear about how you might use music both as a writer or a readers – and whether you liked the way in which music was threaded through As Far As The Stars.