On music and writing (and a HUNTRESS playlist)

I grew up with music in my house because my mother is a pianist. Before we immigrated to the United States, she was a professional musician in China. After we moved here, one of the first things my parents bought was a little upright piano. I began having piano lessons when I was about four or five years old, and now, my mother is a piano teacher with her own studio. But, though I had piano lessons for about eleven years total, and I wasn't bad at it, music did not come naturally to me at all. I wanted to be a writer, not a musician, and for pretty much the entire time I had piano lessons, I fought against them. When I finally gave up piano when I was in high school, I promptly forgot (probably on purpose) how to read music.

It's interesting, then, to realize that music has become an integral part of my writing. I'm sure it's because I grew up with it embedded in my life.

I don't always listen to music when writing. Sometimes I have to write in silence — often at the beginning of a project, when I'm trying to figure out the right style to write in. But once I get going, I really like to have some music playing to maintain the mood I'm trying to evoke. Usually I have to begin with wordless music — orchestral or electronic. Songs with words tend to disrupt my writing voice at first, but the deeper I get into a project, the more I'm able to listen to songs with words. By the time I finish a book, I usually have a pretty long list of songs that I associate with the book.

When I have writer's block, I like to take long walks while listening to the songs on the playlist. The music helps to put me into the space of the story, and sometimes actively searching for songs that "feel right" can also help me to understand my characters. I totally go by gut instinct here, and discovering the right music can be such a great light-bulb moment!

With Huntress, I knew from the beginning that the book would be based in Chinese culture, so I started listening to some traditional Chinese music that I had. However, I quickly realized that it was too Chinese. I wasn't going for an accurate recreation of Imperial China in my novel; I was going for a culture that felt much more like a hybrid of Chinese, Japanese, and Western influences. So I needed to find music that was created at an Asian crossroads.

The first music that really got me thinking about Huntress was the album Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon, from Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. One piece that just gripped me from the beginning was "Summer in the High Grassland," composed by Zhao Jiping, who has also composed a number of film scores for Chinese director Zhang Yimou. This piece really captures the feeling that I wanted to evoke in much of Huntress. Which, um, may be a spoiler if you're into music interpretation. :)

On Silk Road Journeys, the piece is performed by Yo-Yo Ma, but I couldn't find a rendition of that online. Instead, I found this amazing live performance by duo Jalal on YouTube:

That piece just gets me every time! It's so incredible!

I also listened to parts of various soundtracks, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composed by Tan Dun, and Memoirs of a Geisha, composed by John Williams. Yo-Yo Ma performs on these two albums, too, so clearly I was really into the cello!

In addition to the orchestral works above, I listened to a lot of songs. Here is a pared-down list of the songs I most associate with writing Huntress (videos provided when available):

1. "Common Reaction" - Uh Huh Her — I actually listened to Uh Huh Her's entire album, Common Reaction, repeatedly while writing Huntress. I love it!

2. "Maps" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs — I love the intensity of this song, and its certainty. "They don't love you like I love you."

3. "Open Your Eyes" - Snow Patrol — For me, this song is about a slow build to a grand conclusion.

4. "In My Place" - Coldplay — I also like this song for the slow build.

5. "Frozen" - Madonna — This song reminds me of [name redacted] in the book. Guess who? Also: one of the coolest videos ever!

6. "Little Wild One" - Joan Osborne — I just love this song. It is achey and beautiful.

7. "Moment of Surrender" - U2 — Also achey and beautiful. "I’ve been in every black hole/At the altar of the dark star."

8. "Angelhead" - Supreme Beings of Leisure — This is a makeout song, albeit a kind of melancholy one.

9. "The Full Sentence" - Pigeonhed — Another makeout song. (You can't have just one.)

10. "Explode" - Uh Huh Her — This is the song I associate most with Huntress. I will let you guess why. (It has nothing to do with the video, which I find kinda weird!)

11. "Starts With One" - Shiny Toy Guns — I like this song because of the percussion driving it forward, but actually the lyrics are kind of appropriate for the climax of the book.

12. "White as Snow" - U2 — This song encapsulates, for me, the end of Chapter 37.

13. "Skeletons" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs — This song just felt right to me.

14. "Wait Another Day" - Uh Huh Her — Bittersweet love song alert!

15. "With Every Heartbeat" - Robyn — Another bittersweet love song. Hopefully with hope at the end?

Hope you liked some of the songs! And don't forget, you have until May 1 to get a limited edition signed bookplate for Huntress.