Saturday, May 12, 2012

Method to my Madness Music Series #1 : Sonya Clark

Even before I started writing seriously, nearly every book I read had a soundtrack to me. My favorite example of this is James Ellroy. He started out a humble mystery/thriller writer, then became the legendary Demon Dog of American literature with some of the most searing, hard-boiled prose to ever earn the name noir. The LA Quarter - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz - are my favorite books by Ellroy. Spanning the late forties to the late fifties, these four books paint a masterpiece of Los Angeles always overheating with its own unique darkness and frequently bursting into flames. Full of bad guys, tough men, and even tougher women, they also feature some of the most romantic subplots I've ever read, an antidote to all the violence and despair. There's a feel to the books, a sound, a certain type of jazz I'd always hear in the back of my head while reading them. Cool West Coast jazz like Dave Brubek, Gerry Mulligan, one of my longtime favorites Chet Baker. The hard bop of Charlie Parker, a tight frenetic boil threatening to spill over at any time. That's what reading Ellroy sounded like to me - all the complicated mystery of the jazz of that era in which the books were set. When just hearing it in my head wasn't enough I'd play some of it on the stereo while reading.
At some point, I don't remember when, I came across a jazz album from Bob Belden called The Black Dahlia. The album was actually inspired by Ellroy's novel of the same name, which to this music lover is just about the highest honor an author and book could receive. The music fits the novel perfectly too, moody late forties jazz with a cinematic feel best played long after dark. I don't know what Ellroy thought of the tribute. I did eventually learn the author himself is more of a classical music fan, which didn't make a dent in my association of his work with jazz.
When I took my first stab at writing seriously, the book was soaked in music. Perhaps I should say attempted book, it was never finished. The plot was about music, the main character was inspired by a vague name out of one my history books on the blues, and I toyed with an outline that mimicked the verse-verse-chorus pattern of songs. The book went nowhere but I was beginning to find my way with using music as the method to the madness of my writing. Finding songs that suited them became an integral part of developing characters. It's a way of setting the tone for their personality, even if the lyrics aren't quite a perfect match. Sometimes a song will be perfect for a particular scene but I don't need a song for every scene. Mostly what I need is the sound of the book.
Just like with characters, finding the right sound for a book means discovering the tone and the mood of the story. With Mojo Queen that sound was blues, classic and alternative country, R&B and soul, early rock and roll - in short, Southern music. I eventually made a short playlist to encapsulate the book but while writing I listened to hours of RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Johnny Cash, Al Green, and anything else that provided the right background mood. Music that felt like a particular sultry sort of darkness that called up the earthy kind of magic I was trying to evoke in the story. When it was time to write the follow-up, Red House, I went back to that music again.
My latest work in progress, a novel called FreakTown that is still in the revisions process, is very different. For one thing it's set about fifty years in the future, which led to a real dilemma in finding music to suit it. I wound up going back to the past. The first piece of music I found that sparked inspiration for this project was a track from Bob Belden's The Black Dahlia album. It fit the noir-ish mystery I wanted as a big part of the plot. It fit so well in fact that one of the main characters suddenly had a collection of hundred year old jazz. That happens a lot with my characters - I can't keep my own love of music out of them. The other main character has more of a Depeche Mode and Faithless feel, so I wound up with a pretty diverse playlist for this book too.
In fact "diverse" is a pretty good word to describe my taste in music. My next writing inspiration could just as easily come from Led Zeppelin as Florence + The Machine. A character whose favorite music is the Flying Burrito Brothers on vinyl is likely to be a different sort than one who has the entire catalog of Thelonious Monk on their mp3 player. I'm always on the lookout for music that's new to me too, and more ways to weave music into my stories. Music is the most powerful form of magic there is, so it makes perfect sense to me that someone who writes about magic would also be writing about music.
Sonya Clark grew up an Army brat, living all across the United States as well as Japan and Germany by the time she graduated high school. Books were one of the few constants in her life. An eclectic reader, she always had a special love for the paranormal and is a lifelong fangirl of all things that go bump in the night.

A deep love of music is another constant thread in all of her fiction. She writes at a desk equipped with High John the Conqueror root and a mojo hand. She has worshipped at the mother church of country music, traveled the back roads of the blues highway, been to the crossroads at midnight, and though she’s never cooked up a mess of polk salad, she has been to Graceland four times.

She lives with her husband and Yorkie in Tennessee.

Learn more about Sonya Clark at her blog found at


  1. Oh Sonya, you and I bleed from the same vein. I suspect more than a few authors find their words via music. I agree on finding a 'sound' for a book, and embedding a WIP with whatever you want feels so empowering. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Carrie, I knew you would totally get what I'm talking about. :)

  2. Synde, thank you so much for having me! You are definitely the hostess with the mostest. :D