Music to Listen to While Writing a Novel: Our Lady of Kaifeng

Most people imagine that writing a book is accomplished while sitting. The author dips his quill or taps on the keys of his typewriter or the keyboard of this computer. Naturally, he is sitting down. But not all writers do it that way. Some stand as they write, some dictate their works to stenographers, and many, many others just go for a walk or do whatever task is before them, while composing their novel in their heads.

You didn’t really think that a book had to be written down in order to exist, did you? It’s the words in the right sequence that make up the literary work, and if you want to, you can keep them hidden in your head for a long, long time. For instance, I composed the first sentence of Our Lady of Kaifeng years and years before any of it was written down. It wasn’t any less real for being all in my head.

I would take my daughter to preschool or change my baby chimpanzee’s diaper, and all the while this sentence would be playing in my head: “Marah Fallowfield, a virgin and a mother, arrived in Kaifeng, Henan Province in the year of Our Lord 1941 aboard a wheelbarrow.”

I composed this sentence in just this way because I wanted to fill as many grammatical slots with noun phrases as I could and I wanted to let the reader know exactly what sort of book it was going to be, so they wouldn’t take issue with me later about genre.

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But, of course, I didn’t have all the other sentences arranged in quite this way when I was busy composing Our Lady of Kaifeng in my head. A lot of the book was first experienced as scenes, scenes that I saw like visions on the screen in my mind, and whose narration was left to be put together much later. The dialogue, on the other hand, was already present in the scene.

Not only do I not sit down to compose a novel, I find that it helps to be moving. If I’m not busy with something else, I like to pace and listen to music, and I find that it helps me to get into the right mood to see my visions.

What music do I like to listen to when I am working on Our Lady of Kaifeng? One of the songs that I played over and over again was Joan of Arc by Leonard Cohen. I would play it at home while pacing up and down. I would play it in the car while bringing Bow to his playtime sessions at Orchard House. Bow has heard this song many, many times.

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Don’t let all the fancy musical footwork confuse you.  Joan of Arc is a very simple poem set to a very simple melody, and that’s why I enjoy it. It has a lot to say, and what it has to say is very much related to what I feel about Marah. Not that what happens to Marah is at all similar, but the feelings are.

Another song that I like to listen to in order to conjure up the world of Our Lady of Kaifeng is Rod McKuen’s Jean, Jean.

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One of my influences in composing Our Lady of Kaifeng was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The theme song of the movie based on that novel is related to, though not entirely congruent with the story. Again, it’s not the thoughts that are helpful, but the feelings that put one in the right mood for calling up a magical apparition of one’s own.

Another song that is part of the very fabric of Our Lady of Kaifeng is Rudyard Kipling’s The Female of the Species, here set to music composed by Leslie Fish and with Julia Ecklar as lead singer.

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I am still writing Our Lady of Kaifeng. The process is not yet quite over, though Part One has already been typeset. Important for the latter half of Part Two is this Kipling/Fish classic:

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Writing is not about literacy.  Many people are literate, but are not writers. Many writers are not literate. Writing is about the process of composing. It is not about the medium in which the words are preserved. It is a process that requires no tools and that we can engage in anytime, anywhere, with only our minds as the canvas on which we paint the pictures that compose the vision that inspires the words.

That is the secret to writing. That is the power that cannot be taken away. It does not matter if a child needs to be comforted or a non-human primate requires our constant presence. It does not matter what other battles we are fighting all at the same time. Writing is our comfort and our consolation. It is not something we do because we want to.  It is not because there is any profit in it, or because we perceive a market or the need for it. We do it because we must!

Reciprocity in human relations is highly overrated, as Marah will tell you. It plays no part in real love or true religion and no part whatever in art. Love and religion and art spring from impulses and thoughts that no one else may share, from experiences we have — not while interacting with others — but when we look inward into the imagined life that we do not lead, but must experience.

When it’s all over and we crash down back to earth, it’s then that the need to share with others arises. It’s then that we think, I want others to see what I saw. And only then do we start to ask ourselves about other people’s feelings and thoughts and needs and the markets they create. It’s only after we have crashed and burned that we reach out to others again.

Do you want to know what Our Lady of Kaifeng feels like? Well, you could buy Part One when it comes out. Or … you could just listen to these songs and imagine for yourself! You, too, could have a vision.


Copyright 2012 Aya Katz


About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.

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4 Responses to Music to Listen to While Writing a Novel: Our Lady of Kaifeng

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    It is interesting to hear more about the process you go through when writing. Also, some of what you have written here gives me more insight into Our Lady of Kaifeng.

  2. What does Bow think of the Leonard Cohen song JOAN OF ARC?

    • Aya Katz says:

      Good question, Kate. He’s never expressed an opinion about it, but I think he is very comfortable with it. He does not get upset when he hears it, the way he does with some loud rock songs. He’s heard it so many times now that it must seem very familiar.

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