Music, me, and Love Songs for Sceptics by Christina Pishiris
I was quite obsessional as a kid. I didn’t just like a band or singer, I lived and breathed them. I kept a scrapbook filled with cuttings from magazines and papers, I blu-tacked their faces to my bedroom walls, and I painstakingly copied their dance routines. (I can still do Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ if enough wine is available – not for me; for the poor sods who have to witness it.)
It was hard work being a fan in the years BI (Before Internet.) Even something simple like singing along to a song wasn’t straightforward. If you were lucky, the lyrics came on the liner notes of the album, if not, it was stop-start on the tape deck, frantically transcribing while playing a terrifying game of chicken because each rewind upped up the risk of the tape getting mangled. Arrrghhhh!
So, in the great tradition of ‘write what you know’, I created a heroine whose big passion in life was music.
Obviously, I couldn’t write about someone who spent her time sitting in her bedroom sighing at her posters, so I gave her a job that involved getting paid to listen to music – I made her the editor of a music magazine.
Zoë’s not based on me, but I did give her a semi-inappropriate obsession with an artist she’s idolised since she was a teenager: a reclusive Steve Nicks/Daisy Jones-type figure, who hasn’t recorded an album for ten years and never talks to the press. Zoë’s not one to shy away from a challenge, and fixates on getting an interview with the enigmatic Marcie Tyler.
It’s risky but she can justify her goal. The magazine she edits – something else she’s loved since childhood – is struggling financially. She bets the house on turning things around with that one interview which is where we meet Zoë in the first chapter.
But this is fiction so, of course, as a reader you’re waiting for some sort of delicious complication to crop up. And it does.
The first form it takes is her other teenage passion: Simon, the boy next door and best friend, but also the boy she was secretly in love with. Simon showing up after 20 years is terrible timing, not when she’s trying to save her magazine, but he’s newly single – and so is she. Has the universe brought him to London for a reason? (The reason being she can finally confess her feelings for him, and possibly jump his bones, but in, like, a sexy, cool way. Not like a horny teenager.)
The other complication might look delicious, but that’s all he’s got going for him. He’s rude and patronising, and Zoë happily tells him so, but the problem is he’s Marcie Tyler’s new publicist. The one person she really shouldn’t get on the wrong side of. Still, there’s more than one way to snag an international superstar, you know, like accidentally bumping into them when they go shopping for pianos…
Music crops up throughout the book, and one of the most satisfying tasks for me as a writer, was naming every chapter after a song. I got a real kick choosing tunes that fitted with what was happening in the story although I was limited to recognisable hits because there’s nothing more annoying than someone banging on about a song you don’t know. So, the ‘title tracks’ were mined from classics: from Carole King to Abba; from Madonna to Frank Sinatra. But even then, I couldn’t be sure everyone would recognise the songs, so the title itself had to evoke something for readers. Maybe you don’t remember Nathalie Imbruglia’s worldwide hit from 1997, but in the chapter titled ‘Torn’ you don’t really need to. If you fancy listening along, you can here.
People often ask writers if they need silence to work, or if they prefer a soundtrack. I used to be firmly in the quiet camp, but over the last few years I’ve enjoyed having Spotify on in the background. And for this book, it made sense, especially when writing scenes that involved real music. What song reminds Zoë of Simon? What is she forced to perform at a karaoke bar? The answers are ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and ‘My Heart Will Go On’, but you’ll have to read the book to find out which is which…
The bulk of the book was written in 2017, and during that time I made two playlists that I listened to endlessly. You’d think that I’d be sick of them now, but I was on such a high when I finished the book that I still get a thrill when I hear those songs. (If you’re curious, the playlists featured a bit of everything – from The Bros. Landreth and Blues Traveler, to Seal and Marvin Gaye.)
I mention real bands and musicians in the book, but it was also great fun inventing my own. In fact, in a ‘story within a story’ device, Zoë and Simon invent their own rock star: the wildly cheesy – but always sexy – Zak Scaramouche, who also moonlights as a secret agent. He has long hair, never leaves the house without eyeliner, and has a wardrobe that consists solely of leather/ spandex/ snakeskin. Although these days he’s seen the error of his ways and prefers pleather and cruelty-free alternatives. He’s also got rid of his private jet and makes do with flying first class. He makes sure he offsets his carbon footprint, however, although it’s unclear if growing hemp counts. The jury is still out (literally).
But I have something to confess. I thought Zak was a figment of my imagination so imagine my surprise when I discovered (while Googling the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody) that Zak Scaramouche is REAL! Awks. Thankfully my publishers came to an agreement with his management regarding the use of his name, but the legal wrangling had me worried for a bit. One of his original stipulations was that the book be named after him, but we talked him down from that, thank goodness.
He might not have released much new music in a while – four divorces take up a lot of time, ‘thanks’ former Mrs Scaramouches: SJ, Emma, Bec, and SJ again (he married her twice), but he’s plugging away, living the rock and roll dream, and maybe if enough of us write to him, we might convince him to tour again - send all correspondence via my website!
Until then, you’ll just have to enjoy his appearance in Love Songs for Sceptics.
For those about to read, he salutes you.
Keep doing the Fandango © Zak Scaramouche 1982. (Whatever that means.)
Love, Christina x