Creating the “Soundtrack” of a Novel

As a writer I’m often asked how I chose my novel’s setting or how I came up with the story line. Last fall, for the first and only time, I was asked how I chose the musical pieces in my book. It’s a great question.

Naturally, the person who asked is a musician: Svend Ronning, the concertmaster of Symphony Tacoma and artistic director of Second City Concert Series. He invited me to read from The Songs We Hide at a Second City performance of Hungarian music. Of course I jumped at the chance. It was an incredible privilege to share the stage with the Girsky Quartet, who masterfully performed Bartok, Haydn, Kertag and Kodaly. In an interview leading up to the joint concert and reading, Svend asked me, “What are some of the works you chose for your book and why did you choose them?” Here is the answer I gave:

In choices like this, writers often go with what they already know and love, and that was the case for me. For the most important songs in the book, I chose some that I could “hear” as I wrote. I used Caro Mio Ben by Giuseppe Giordani as a recurring song in the life of the female character Katalin Varga, because it’s a grieving love song and she’s been deeply affected by a past love affair. The song is also appropriate to her classical singing style. For Peter Benedek, a peasant, I chose a song from the Hungarian folk tradition, Folszallot a Pava. It would have been natural for him to hear the song while growing up, yet it’s musically rich enough that Katalin could use it in voice lessons. The words speak of Hungary’s suffering. 

I also included the Ave Maria that’s set to the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. Katalin teaches Peter this piece when she wants to give him more difficult music. It’s crucial, though, that she doesn’t give it to him until they know each other pretty well, because anything having to do with religion would be politically risky. Sharing a risky song was an act of trust between them. Thematically, the song also connects Katalin and Peter to something higher than their own hardships, so it offers a thread of hope.  

That was what I said in the interview. I’d like to add a few more comments:

  • First off, by very happy coincidence, my editor Catherine Treadgold is a singer and used to give voice lessons. She suggested songs for my character Katalin to sing in an audition scene, and I was grateful to have the advice of a professional on this.
  • Since my characters were young and Peter was inexperienced as a singer, I needed to choose vocal music that wouldn’t have been impossible for them. So I opted for songs that had a manageable range and not too many vocal theatrics. But the pieces had beauty and emotional depth, and that was important for the story. So . . .
  • Finally, I want to say again that I chose songs that I love. I have CDs of Caro Mio Ben  (Cecilia Bertoli singing) and Mascagni’s Ave Maria (sung by Andrea Bocelli), and the beauty of these pieces has haunted me for years. I could picture Katalin singing Caro with pain in her heart, and I could sense that the Mascagni melody, which Peter first heard on violin, would have touched and lingered with him. Likewise, the melody of Folszallott a Pava is mournful but deeply moving, and I felt it captured the longings of my characters, especially Peter.

I want my readers to hear what I hear, and what my characters hear. When I incorporate music into my stories, maybe it’s my way of creating a “soundtrack” for them. So imagine the sound. Nothing is as emotive as music.

Heart and Understanding: Adopting a Foreign Culture as a Writer

My son Brendan is a missionary in Peru. He and his wife and children live high in the Andes among the Quechua people. He uses the Quechua language daily, as well as Spanish. Brendan and his family eat the foods of the region (including guinea pig) and are observant of Quechua cultural expectations, which may or may not make sense to Americans. He has adjusted to this life out of love and respect for the Quechua people and his calling among them. Although he knows that to some extent he will always be regarded as a foreigner, he also knows that the people trust him.

Hungarian peasant house

Although I am not living in a foreign culture as Brendan is, in my work as a historical fiction writer, I had to learn similar adjustments in my mindset and heart. My novel The Songs We Hide is set in Hungary in 1951. As I wrote the novel, I had to “become” as Hungarian as I could, which was a greater challege than I could have known. It was also a greater reward. Here are some thoughts on both the struggle and the discovery, as described in my author’s statement  for the book:

I didn’t know at the outset how hard it would be to write about a time, place and culture not my own. As I spent endless hours reading, interviewing, listening to Hungarian music, negotiating the streets of Budapest, and especially writing draft after draft, I struggled not only with understanding it all but also with setting aside my modern American assumptions. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are optimistic and entrepreneurial, counting on opportunity. We take pride in speaking our minds and making our own choices. But what if, as in Cold War Europe, opportunity barely existed? What if speaking up meant endangering not only ourselves but others as well? What if social constraints were so tight that every choice carried a high cost?

As I wrote The Songs We Hide, I had to think with the guardedness, and sometimes bitterness, of post-war Europe.  The mental adjustment wasn’t easy. Still, at some point my frustration turned to understanding. I learned to appreciate dark Hungarian humor. I’ve come to love Hungary’s beautiful folk heritage and especially its rich musical tradition. This culture that is not my own has nonetheless become part of me, and that’s been my greatest reward in this project.