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The Sirens of Suspense

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Elsa Hart was born in Rome, Italy, but her earliest memories are of Moscow, where her family lived until 1991. Since then she has lived in the Czech Republic, the U.S.A., and China. She earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. A fascination with early 18th-century interactions between China and the West inspired her to research and write her first novel, JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN, a historical mystery. Its sequel, THE WHITE MIRROR (Minotaur, September 6, 2016), follows former librarian Li Du into the snowy borderlands of China and Tibet.

 

Find Elsa on Twitter.

http://www.elsahart.com

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Lijiang, a small city in southwest China, is a noisy place. Not only is it loud, but its sounds are as erratic as the rapid, large-scale development that generates most of them. Backhoes stutter over unexpected obstacles in numerous construction sites. Fashion boutiques pump dance hits through outdoor speakers into the streets, where lilting, looped melodies advertise souvenir flutes for sale. Every day, wheezing buses disgorge thousands of tourists in various states of enthusiasm and dissatisfaction.

This was my home from 2011 to 2013. I was staying in Lijiang with my husband, a biologist, while he studied the alpine plants of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Inspired by old trade routes, an astronomical observatory, and the inhibition-lowering effects of high altitude, I began to research and write a novel.

Just before going to China, I had graduated from law school. Even though I had not written fiction before, I was used to long hours of focused composition. I had always worked most comfortably in silent places, preferring my apartment to coffee shops or the law school library, where the creaking chairs and stressed-out exhalations of fellow students alerted me to my own anxieties and insecurities.

In Lijiang, I could not find or manufacture a cocoon of silence. I tried ear plugs at first, but they made it more difficult to concentrate. I could still hear the chaotic hints at narrative around me, but now I was involuntarily straining to make sense of them through the ear plugs. Is that person drunk or just excited? Is she speaking English? Is that music coming from a garbage truck? Is a jackhammer supposed to sound like that?

Without the option of silence, I experimented with music. I didn’t expect replacing noise with more noise to work, but to my surprise, it did. A curated, composed soundscape effectively blocked out the urban cacophony. Not all music was successful. Anything with lyrics was no good. Classical music demanded too much attention. Uplifting ambient music was almost right, but when listening to it I had a tendency to insert dramatic epiphanies into every scene I wrote. Eventually, I found three albums on which I could rely, all three written by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, and Atticus Ross.

The first, the soundtrack to David Fincher’s The Social Network, is anxiety-ridden without being anxiety-inducing. Its pacing aligns nicely with typing. There are periods of intensifying energy that remind me of what it feels like to attack a keyboard with an idea that must be converted to words before it gone. Network balances impetuousness and urgency with moments of quiet condemnation from a piano, as if the music’s older self is looking back with regret at its destructive youth.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a more threatening soundscape that conjures machinery, but machinery that is a little bit alien, a little bit broken, a little bit out of control. There is an unselfconscious twistedness to it. Pensive chimes hover around sweetness before giving way to violent, ebbing distortion.

Finally, there was the soundtrack for Gone Girl, which was released a year or two after I started writing. It offers a soothing atmosphere that becomes claustrophobic as themes repeat themselves, then turns grotesque as melodies disintegrate into static. There is artificiality—a daydream of tropical water and diaphanous cloth—and awareness of danger in an unraveling world.

While plugged into this music, I wrote a historical mystery that takes place in 18th century China, a setting that does not suggest dark ambient rock. But historical fiction is inseparable from contemporary reality, and these three albums helped me access fundamental human tensions central to the story I wanted to tell. From Network, I absorbed the anxiety, energy, fear and anticipation of a city awaiting the arrival of its emperor. The discordant industrial clanging of Dragon Tattoo deepened my engagement with technological innovation and attuned me to the eerie complexity of self-regulating mechanisms, themes relevant to early exchanges between China and the West. The Gone Girl soundtrack evokes madness that can drive even the most polished fašade to murder. It conjures the evil with which a detective must identify in order to catch a killer, but from which we hope the detective can emerge physically and philosophically intact.

Four years, two novels, and hundreds of listens later, these albums remain present in my writing routine. I’m not living in Lijiang anymore. St. Louis, Missouri has its own acoustic patterns, some conducive to concentration, some less so. I still prefer silence when I write, but I’ve learned not to fight so hard against sound.

 

 

 

 

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC TO WORK BY? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of THE WHITE MIRROR! (US entrants only, please.)

 

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