By Brian Bandell
For anyone who took the time to read the acknowledgements page of my novel Mute before the story starts, you might wonder why I thanked Tori Amos. No, Tori wasn’t my editor. She was more like my muse.
I do most of my writing with a nice jolt of caffeine and music playing. The music sets the mood and helps the words pour out of me. Sometimes I link certain artists with characters in my stories. For Mute, most of the book was written listening to Tori’s golden pipes and her fingers dancing across the ivory.
The most obvious genres to associate Tori’s music to are romance and drama, but that’s my story at all. Mute is a murder mystery that delves into science fiction. The story centers on detective Moni Williams sheltering young girl Mariella, who went mute after she witness the bizarre murder of her parents. I’ve tapped into the darker themes of Tori’s songs to bring these characters to life.
The story is set along Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, a long body of water that Tori, coincidentally enough, has a home alongside. Unfortunately, the lagoon has been plagued by toxic algae blooms this year. The water turns pretty nasty in my novel as well.
I kept notes on the Tori songs I listened to while writing Mute. Check out the YouTube links to the songs so you can listen along.
Take the Prologue and Chapter 1. They were written to Tori’s “Little Amsterdam.” Not only does it have a seedy Southern mood as she moans, “Little Amsterdam in a southern town,” the lyrics have a nice connection to the story. “Girl you’ve got to know these days, which side you’re on.” Moni must decide. Is she on the girl’s side or will she serve her badge first?
Then in Chapter 4, when officer Moni brings Mariella to her house for the first time, I listened to “Girl.” It’s about a woman finding independence and getting beyond the monotony of her life. “Everybody else’s girl. Maybe one day she’ll be her own.” This is Moni’s chance to step up and show she can do something big.
Many of the chapters where Mariella was in school having troubling fitting in and getting tormented by the boys were inspired by “Precious Things.” The song starts with boys teasing her as ugly, but then Tori roars into, “I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys.” Fans will recognize that the song has sexual undertones that my story doesn’t, but I pick out the parts that fit.
The scenes with Moni in police task force meetings getting grilled by Sneed over her failings and trying to prove she belongs at the table with them were inspired by “Code Red.” The song opens with the jaw dropper, “Some say that I will and some say I won’t. Victory is an elusive whore.” Any song about a six pack of Coke and a bottle of Jack is cool with me. As Tori says, “Slip and slide my way through this charade.” Kind of what like Moni’s doing, not walking on solid ground.
When Moni is threatened by her abusive father or her intimidating boyfriend, I played “Silent All These Years” to capture the mood. It’s about enduring a bad relationship, being powerless to do much about it, but still being defiant. “I got the anti-Christ in the kitchen yellin’ at me again. Yeah I can hear that.” No matter what, she doesn’t give up loving herself. “But what if I’m a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it.”
What about Chapter 24, the one that was turned into an audio slide show? That was written to “Girl Disappearing.” This is the first time someone seriously confronts Moni with the accusation that Mariella isn’t a normal girl. Holding the girl in her arms, Moni denies it, but she’s afraid her accuser is right. Tori sums up the feeling: “With girl disappearing. What on earth’s occurring? ‘Cause she’s right in front of me.” Then she drops a little hint of what’s to come: “So I’m running to a constellation, where they can still see you.”
In the chapter where the authorities come to take Mariella from Moni’s home, I went with an emotional, delicate song. Why not an angry song? Of course, Moni is angry about the situation. But in order to channel that anger, I have to understand what she’s afraid of. Tori’s “Mother” is about a girl forced to leave her family, “Mother the car is here. Somebody leave the light on. Green limousine for the redhead dancing, dancing girl. And when I dance for him somebody leave the light on, just in case I like the dancing, I can remember where I come from.” By feeling the desperation of a parent trying to prevent a child from being taken away, that triggered the desperate rage needed for this chapter.
There’s a chapter with Mariella running through the woods followed by her teacher. It was inspired by “Black Dove (January Girl).” The mood and the lyrics just fit. “She had a January world. So many storms not right somehow. How a lion becomes a mouse. By the woods.” And then another hint as Tori rips into the chorus: “You don’t need a spaceship. They don’t know you’ve already lived on the other side of the galaxy.”
I don’t want to describe much of what happens in the latter part of the book, because that would spoil all the fun, but I will say this. There are many creepy parts and otherworldly scenes. Many of these passages were written to songs from Tori’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin. One standout is “Give” – “So you heard I crossed over the line. Do I have regrets? Well, not yet.” My soundtrack for these chapters also included “Strong Black Vine” and “Flavor”. The latter song really hits it by opening with this: “Battle of the minds. Cries Below. Cries Above. You must pick a side. Will you choose fear? Will you choose love?”
Now Mute wasn’t written completely with one artist. I also listened to Coldplay’s “Spies” and The Raveonettes’ “Aly, Walk With Me” for many of the creepy chapters. I needed something to make my spine tingle as I imagined fearsome things.
I used a similar technique my other novel Famous After Death, except no single artist dominated. This story follows three Miami teenagers as they plank deadly pranks on people and post them online – murder gone viral. I mostly listened to fast-paced rocking during its writing, but I needed Tori for a highly emotional chapter. When one of the teen’s mothers confronted him about his horrible crimes, I listened to “Father’s Son.” When she sings, “Plant another seed of hate, in a trusting virgin gun,” it makes me think of how the teenager was influenced to spread violence and laugh at a suffering of others.
The energy that flows through me when I listen to music and write is favorite part of being a novelist. For my next creation, I’m preparing a sequel to Mute. It’s tentatively titled Silence the Living. I don’t want to give everything away, but much of it is set in New Mexico so there’s definitely some of Tori’s “Sweet Sangria.”