Victoria Briggs talks about her Unthology 8 story, A Beautiful Noise.
In the late noughties I was working in the music industry. It was the least glamorous side of the business, where all the industry’s bean counting takes place, and where long discussions about songwriter royalties and copyright law fills up everyone’s day.
Unlike most organisations stuffed with lawyers and accountants, the place was not awash with cash. It did splurge though when it came to sending a small army of its employees over to Cannes every year to attend Midem, the industry’s big international trade show, which effectively mounts a four-day takeover of the top-end hotels along the town’s main beachfront drag.
Midem is the backdrop for A Beautiful Noise, my story in Unthology 8. It’s the story of Harry, an old-school music publisher, who’s grown up in an industry that’s refused to do the same. Harry’s just arrived in town to cut some deals when, on the way into Cannes, he meets Sachiko, a young Japanese rock promoter headed there for the first time.
As a story, it’s more anchored in reality than most I tend to write. The art deco hotel where Sachiko stays, for instance, is The Martinez, favourite of the film stars. Its penthouse is the price of a small mortgage (around £30K a night when Hollywood comes to town). Its ballroom the place where Amy Winehouse performed her Midem 2007 set, a warm-up gig, before she headed off to tour the just-released Back to Black.
Just a little way along from the Martinez is the Carlton hotel. At an earlier Midem, a young Ray Davies sat on one of its balconies watching music chiefs do their business deals below and wrote Big Sky on the back of it. The Carlton has provided the set for Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief as well as music videos by the likes of New Order. The Carlton is also the place in my story that Harry pops to for a 5 star nightcap, leaving behind his own crummy hotel overlooking the train station (2 star – I’ve stayed there).
If there was a lot of real life detail kept in the story, there was also a lot kept out. When a place has so much meaning for you and significance beyond you, how not to overload the story so it doesn’t sink under its own weight?
My time in the music industry coincided with what tech entrepreneurs like to call ‘digital disruption.’ It’s a short way of saying that in the new music economy, one dominated by streaming services, digital download platforms and micropayments, the music creator – the source of all the songs – ends up getting stiffed on a very big scale. It’s the real story behind the made up one: When Harry and Sachiko board their coach to Cannes, it is against the backdrop of an industry in disarray.
Truth be told, the music business was in trouble long before the new digital reality began to bite. It was just that it didn’t know it, and didn’t want to know it. At around the same time, the world’s economy went and threw itself off a cliff. For those who had lived by their ears and wits alone, who had no interest in or talent for corporate discipline, who couldn’t act in their collective best interest even if they tried, for them the party was all but over.
That’s what I was trying to pull into the story. That sense of something irretrievably lost, but still loved and longed for. It’s why the past exerts such a nostalgic pull over Harry. It’s why Sachiko always remains just out of Harry’s reach.
The story’s title is taken from a song of the same name (Neil Diamond – blame my mother). While Warhead, the rock group in the story, have more contemporary influences. They’re an amalgamation, a mash-up if you like, who sound a little like Melt-Banana and look a lot like Bo Ningen. If you don’t know those acts, check them out. Only do it knowing that every time you hit the download button, the writers of those songs won’t see anywhere near the same kind of equitable royalty share that Neil did back in his day.
Unthology 8 is available from Foyles, Waterstones, LRB Bookshop and all good booksellers, and is available for Kindle and iDevices.
Martin Monahan talks to Laura Darling about her Unthology 8 story, ’10,000 Tiny Pieces’.
Martin: The most striking sentence for me in your story ’10,000 Tiny Pieces’, in Unthology 8, is: ‘The clothes in her wardrobe swung blithely on their hangers now they had so much room…’ A good short story often has these notes of perfect observation. Are these small details key to your writing? Where did this particular detail come from? Did you think of it in isolation and put it in a notebook?
Laura: Yes, I think small details are hugely important – I dog-ear novels to mark glorious sentences and return to them after I’ve finished the story. This idea came from a novel I’m working on, where garments hang like uninvited guests. I like the idea of clothes carrying vestiges of the wearer’s animation. So this idea flowed quite naturally, but many more go into a notebook – only some make it out.
Martin: The saddest thing about the image is ‘so much room’; that when someone has left, a once snug wardrobe starts to rattle. Do you tend to build a story out of a notebook, or is it mainly constructed as you write? Do you know where you are heading when you begin? (And might I have details of the notebook, size, type, is it always with you, how often do you use it, how many do you have, what kind of things do you put in it, are there any pictures—sorry, I’m an anorak for that kind of detail about a writer!).
Laura: On the whole, I have an idea for short fiction and write it quickly – it’s an immediate thing for me. This story was written at a sitting but with many subsequent editing sessions. So while I don’t use a notebook for short fiction, I do for novels. The current batch is mostly black A5 moleskine and I have a few on the go at the same time. There is a system but it’s not an orderly one – plenty of scraps of paper stuffed inside and scores from holiday card games in the back. No pictures but some doodles. If I’m out walking I use my phone’s voice recorder.
Martin: Your story is about the breakdown of a marriage. I wonder, as the writer, if you have taken a side as to who was to blame for the breakdown?
Laura: Ah well…I think he got too comfortable and stopped trying; she built up simmering resentment that she failed to communicate. Interestingly, many female friends who’ve read this story have sympathised with her. But I think her core is bitter, hardened by years of being sanctimonious. I’m just their observer.As I’m walking the dog I’m thinking more about the unexpected and curious world of other people’s marriages. So scrap my last line, I am of course doing more than observing.
Martin: That’s interesting, the reactions of other readers. How much did you intend to influence those reactions, and how much did you think: this is what this is, it’s up to you to judge who’s at fault. I wonder if the jigsaw playing is the symptom or cause of the decline in the marriage? In a way, her behaviour in the timeline of the story is worse than his? But then, we don’t know what has gone on before?
Laura: I hope the reader will judge. Did you come down on one side or the other on first reading? The jigsaw is the final brick in the wall she’s erected between her and her husband, and yes, perhaps he settled into comfortable slipper-hood too soon/easily. Perhaps her expectations were too high in the first place. This marriage has gone wrong because of a gradual accretion of blame rather than a cataclysm. I guess it will be the reader’s experience of their own (or others’) marriage that will sway their opinion.
Martin: The quality in the story is that you can’t be sure who is to blame, that both and neither are. Yes, the story is much sadder for what doesn’t happen, there’s no big explosion. I like the suggestion that she might carry any problems into a new relationship, though she has the awareness to keep the more detached side of herself silent for the time being. I think the story very much allows for the reader to project on to it. A Rorschach text, so to speak. Do you often give your work to friends to read? Do you have a set of trusted readers? If so, do their comments lead to revisions or are you pretty protective of your edits?
Laura: I’m in a writing group and that’s been invaluable for me – their advice is measured and intelligent and does fuel revisions. At first I was completely open with everything I wrote, I guess I’m getting a bit more reticent with certain projects – simply because at some point you have to stop revising and put your work out there. There’s a balance isn’t there, between your confidence to stick and your confidence to makes changes? And there’s value in critiquing others’ work – you learn a lot about your own.
Martin: The dominating image of jigsaws works well through the story, with it representing a picture that can be controlled and completed and made perfect, as opposed to the ending of the marriage. Are you normally motivated towards a story through a single starting image like this, or do you begin with plot, or with a character? Is there a starting point you particularly prefer?
Laura: Good question. Image, almost always. This story came about because I bought a jigsaw for my children who exhibited no interest and I got sucked in – horribly compelled until I’d finished the bloody thing. I thought, what if someone got lost in this, walled themselves up in it? The image was a woman on her own, poring over something pointless, ignoring everything else. I originally thought the story would be a funny one, until I started to write it.
Martin: I think it has a dark humour to it. She is there putting pieces together as her marriage is falling to pieces. I recognise that temptation to give yourself over to that kind of task, with an ordered finite system. But as you show, it can be destructive. Can I end by asking what you are working on now? You mentioned you were working on a novel at the moment, would you be happy to share what it’s about?
Laura: Why is that always the hardest question to answer?! The idea came from a fascination with synaesthesia – it’s the story of a woman who uses her extraordinary perception of colour to assist a colourblind scientist. While working with him on the science of camouflage, she’s propelled from conventional 1930’s society into pre-war Marrakesh, a ill-fated love affair with a French soldier and the mystery of his disappearance. Right, I’m off to work on my pitch now.
Martin: Sounds very intriguing! Thanks for speaking with me.
Laura Darling’s ’10,000 Tiny Pieces’ and Martin Monahan’s ‘The Toasted Cheese Sandwich of Babel’ both appear in Unthology 8.
Top Unthologist Judy Darley talks about what inspired her Unthology 8 story, ‘The Sculptor’.
All my life I’ve had a curious obsession with water – the way it can change form according to temperature; how it refracts or reflects light and sound. The tranquillity of it, or the threat of it; the power it has to reshape landscapes over centuries, or in one dramatic day. In many ways it reminds me of human emotions and how they can simmer just below the surface, then suddenly explode violently into the air apparently without warning. Perhaps that was my starting point with this tale. To be honest, I’m no longer sure.
Certain stories haunt me for a while, before developing the shape in which I can begin to write them down. In this particular case, I found myself juxtaposing something I was dealing with in my own life with an image that my feelings about it had created in my head – of ice and snow and the way noises swell in a frozen winter landscape just as your breath does. I carried out some research to find away to tackle this, and found myself preoccupied with how silence can help you think through the things that frighten you, yet how those thoughts can grow alarmingly loud until you have to retreat – seek voices and life to bring you back to yourself.
And I thought about how silence can be addictive, until we become so much a part of it that venturing out of our own space can feel as dangerous as climbing down to lower ground when you know a river has burst its banks.
In my story, Isha is an ice sculptor, working daily to free the statues she believes nestle inside vast blocks of ice. Her father, who she has a special bond with, has been diagnosed with semantic dementia, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that erodes the part of the brain that deals with language. My own dad suffers from this condition, and writing it into the story was a way for me to explore my own feelings about his slow deterioration. Watching someone you love struggle for the words that once came so easily is a particular kind of sorrow.
As Isha works, she contemplates this, while carving a tribute to her father from the ice.
The ideas came together quickly, and before long I thought I’d finished the story, but when I read back through it I realised I needed a spark of hope for the future to thaw Isha’s frozen heart. I couldn’t decide the form that hope would take.
Then I was on a train one day, gazing out at the countryside between Bristol and Bath, and I overheard a conversation between two friends. One, an apprentice glassblower, was describing his new passion to his bemused mate. Suddenly I had exactly what I needed to warm the whole story up.
Unthology 8 is available from all good booksellers, Wordery, Book Depository and for Kindle and iDevices.
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