The music in Cairo Mon Amour

Music in a novel? Well, if Ann Patchett uses it in Bel Canto, then I’m on safe ground. But am I fooling myself when I weave a piece of music around a scene in my novel Cairo Mon Amour? Just because I get an emotional charge as I bash the keyboard, headphones clamped on my ears, is there any way my readers will share my response?

Well, it depends. Picture my exiled Egyptian actress Zouzou, marooned in a flat in damp London. She sings Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly as she passes the hours. My intention is that the impact of the song is subverted: The words are about the pain of a lovelorn woman listening to a singer. But it’s the gloom of exile that is slowly killing her. Of course, everyone knows this song, and I hope that at least some of my readers will hum along.

But what about the Arabic music? Here’s a passage where I give the reader a little help:

But the last record in the stack was Umm Kulthoum’s The Ruins. He put the record on and let the exquisite Classical Arabic stanzas caress his wary heart, almost against his will. The words told of the capriciousness of fate, the powerlessness of the lover’s heart to follow its destiny. The song – the performance was half an hour long – ended on an ambiguous note, somewhere between hope and resignation.

The truth is that while Arabs swoon over the music of this revered singer, most Western readers would just wouldn’t get it. In this case, I hope my description conveys the emotional impact of the song without the reader having to listen to it. But if anyone is curious, the endnotes to the ebook include a link to a YouTube video. In fact, there are YouTube links to all to the music in the book.

The movie Solaris (the original Soviet version, not the US remake) features in the book, and I’ve referenced Tarkovsky’s arrangement of a J.S. Bach choral prelude.* I use the piece of music as an icebreaker between two characters who are thrown together against their will (no spoilers). One begins to hum the melody, and the other recognises it: They discover they have both seen Solaris; there is a point of connection. If Solaris is on your list of top ten movies, you’ll get it. But even if you know only a little about Bach, what I hope is that you’ll think organ+church, and you’ll be half-way there. And there’s a YouTube link!

Happy listening, even if the music is in your head.

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*BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.

The secret recipe behind a successful writers group?

with gusto coverIn my fourth year with the Write On! writers group in Sydney, it’s time to reveal the ingredients. The basics are simple: A committed convenor, eight writers, a weekly three-hour meeting, and a room in the NSW Writers Centre.

But turning the basics into a successful writers group takes more than just a quick stir and a bit of heat. Here’s my attempt to list the secret herbs and spices:

Simplicity: We do the same thing every week: Each writer reads aloud 1000-1500 words of their work in progress. The rest of us listen and annotate the handout of the text, and then go round the circle giving our critique. We’ve tried varying the model on the odd occasion, but we always revert to the basics.

Time management: We don’t waste time chatting about the weather or politics. We keep a firm but not too firm eye on the clock to make sure that everybody’s work gets a fair exposure.

Diversity: Our group includes traditionally published and self-published writers, as well as what we like to call ‘emerging’ writers. We cover novels, nonfiction, memoir, and poetry. Our novels probably cluster around the upper ranks of ‘general fiction’, but we have our fingers in thrillers, chick lit, historical periods spanning two thousand years, and lots of exotic locations. Our members are professionals, working or retired, with backgrounds in business, diplomacy, academia, design, nutrition, and other areas.

Honesty and respect: It’s not unusual for a few of us to go home each week having been told that what we’ve read is a pile of junk. Inevitably, someone else will go home with a D-minus the following week. We are honest in our critique, and we respect the opinions of our work. It isn’t always easy: I kept bringing back to the group a chapter of ponderous claptrap, cutting bits off each time until just a couple of sentences of the original remained.

Humour: This is reserved mainly for sex scenes. Most weeks we laugh our socks off. Especially when togas are involved.

Leadership: Our convener has been running this group since 2009, and our turnover of members is very small. She maintains it as a closed group, so you have to apply to join when we have a vacancy, and you are admitted only after a trial period. Exclusive and cliquey? Yep!

In my four years with Write On! I have written three novels. About fifty percent of my output went through the critical grinder in our room at the NSW Writers Centre, and it came out fifty percent better. I’m still searching for that final secret ingredient of our success. Is it the serenity of the Centre itself in a Victorian era sandstone building, part of the former  Callan Park Hospital for the Insane? We work surrounded by parkland.  The chairs are uncomfortable. There is no coffee shop. No distractions.

Or is is just serendipity? That sweet spot in life when the right group of individuals comes together with a common aim? I’ve experienced this a couple of times: The brief golden era of a community theatre I once belonged to; the early years in the foundation leadership group of a School in a university I worked at. It’s rare, but you know when you come across it.

I’d be delighted to hear of other experiences of writers groups: Feel free to reveal your secrets.

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You can buy the Write On! writers group collection of essays With Gusto! here.

Learn about Stuart Campbell’s books at http://www.stuartcampbellauthor.com