Sunday, 18 September 2016

Sky's Musical Corner - Stella Birrell about How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right?

‘… between church and folk sessions, I am twenty-three going on fifty-three.’ 
How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right?

Music has always rooted, focussed, healed and energised me. So it was only natural that the main character in my debut novel, Melissa, would be a similar, funny-old mix: chart-dance fan, choir-girl, reluctant performer, harmoniser and, latterly, folk-singer. I used music, what Melissa is listening to, and where, as a way of showing her development and maturity across the chapters.

As the book opens, Melissa has just moved house, and as the reader you already get the idea that she was at a stage in her life where she really needed to move on. I wanted to create a sense of that point in your twenties when you are finally leaving your teens behind, and Melissa’s ill-health has definitely caused some Arrested Development – no, not the band!

Caption: Altogether now: ‘Aaaaaa-aaaahm, ahm everyday people.’

With the physical move, it’s almost as if Melissa’s life splits into two distinct halves: town to city, bar work to office work, new friends to old. But the music was always going to be a constant, which helped enormously, because it meant I could make sure Melissa was still the same person, despite all the changes to her situation.

Writing about music threw up some problems at first. There were a few ‘real’ songs I had in mind, but in order to avoid potential copyright issues, I changed band names, song titles and lyrics. An example, at the risk of getting into trouble: the band Vertical Horizon became Horizontal Tower. I did use some lines from ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (a traditional folk song) and ‘Just as I Am’ (a very old hymn) because I was fairly sure there would be no existing copyright! And I used a line from a song I’d written myself, attributing it to another character who is a songwriter.

Caption: My song words notebook: the equivalent of the family recipe book.

Music permeates even the central theme of ‘looking for love’ when Melissa meets and falls for James, and muses:

‘If he says he likes Queen or heavy metal I’m not saying it’s not going to work out between us, but ideally he’ll like some kind of obscure pop bands that are melodic but not too charty. And he won’t judge me when he finds out I like chart dance music. And ABBA. And ... well, actually, let’s not go there.’
Later on in the book, Melissa still wants to go clubbing: when she hears some of the old tunes, when she has a drink in her. Of course she still listens to ABBA, every now and again. But she’s taken up folk music as well – as a way of meeting some musical people in her new home in Edinburgh.

‘… the atmosphere created by the music? The picking of a guitar, a strong voice, a quiet but determined one, others joining in the chorus. It spins a uniting web of sound around us. The unseen guest of honour is song itself; the alchemy of music, words and rhyme is intoxicating.’
The folk session scenes are the opposite of ‘loosely based’ on real life, but fortunately my folky friends were amused, rather than enraged, by being immortalised in these pieces. My friend David even came to the launch of my book, and actually sang ‘Tie’, the ‘satirical song about the drudgery of work’ that Melissa hears at a session.

Caption: ‘and he is wearing a tie, to boost his integrity … David at my launch.’

I knew I’d pitched it right when a reader asked if I could include a list of all the songs I had mentioned throughout the book. Of course, I had to confess that I had made most of the song titles and bands up! But it was proof that I had done what I set out to do. I spent so much time drafting and redrafting with my headphones on, iTunes playing song after song in alphabetical order, it seemed absolutely right that the music had seeped right through each page.

How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? is available from the following outlets, and from Amazon as a paperback.

Stella Hervey Birrell was born but not bred in a market town in Fife, Scotland, just before the winter of discontent in 1978. Writing success came early when at the age of 13 she won the Class Prize in the National Bible Society of Scotland's Annual Competition, with her poem 'Mary's Donkey.'

After various distractions such as an Open University degree, marriage, several years working as a Committee Clerk, and children, Stella began writing in earnest in the early hours of the morning and during naptimes. Her first novel, How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? was published by Crooked Cat books in 2016.

Stella writes a weekly wordpress blog about her tinylife, and regularly guests on bookblogs. Other short pieces have been published, (or are coming soon) in The Guardian, The Ropes Journal, East Lothian Life, the Lies, Dreaming podcast, The Dangerous Woman Project, From the Lighthouse, and a collection of writing about the island of Unst. She blogs at atinylife140 tweets at @atinylife140 and can be found on Facebook here. Stella lives in an East Lothian rural idyll with her cats, husband, and children. In that order.

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