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February 10, 2011

Book Notes - Rebecca Hunt ("Mr. Chartwell")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Rebecca Hunt delivers a wonderfully quirky and poignant debut with her novel Mr. Chartwell. Churchill often referred to his depression as the "Black Dog," and Hunt cleverly adapts the phrase literally into her novel with a huge walking and talking black Labrador retriever. The metaphor works extremely well in this novel that is as heartfelt as it is witty.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"Hunt nimbly avoids the whimsy invited by her magical realist conceit. Instead she brings to bear a fine artist's lateral sensibility (she's a painter as well as a writer) to deliver a quirkily inspired hypostatisation of Churchill's inner demon. And the later Churchill himself, in his hammy grandeur and Lear-like plight, is a gift for a novelist. By now history had rolled on past this most potent of all 20th-century political beasts, an Edwardian colossus who had so long outlived his era that it is astonishing to realise, as Hunt deftly shows, that he overlapped with the Rolling Stones. "


In her own words, here is Rebecca Hunt's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Mr. Chartwell:


I have never been cool enough to combine work and music at the same time. Even if I think I'm writing, I find that actually my brain is secretly only listening and I'm just sat there, inert. Another problem is that I seem to be heavily influenced by whatever music is on – I could be writing about panda cubs, but if the music was sad then the pandas would be suffering from punishing melancholy, probably on a rain-lashed wasteland. Equally, if I was writing about someone waking up to find their house being broken into by an angry stranger with a chainsaw, and the music was happy, the scene would become confusingly upbeat. You get the idea. So for these reasons I wrote Mr. Chartwell mostly in silence. I say mostly because at times I could hear my neighbour's TV blasting up through the floor from the flat below. That same neighbour was also a mystifyingly devoted fan of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and I would occasionally enjoy an hour of that one endlessly repeated song.

However, all this music-avoidance doesn't mean Mr. Chartwell is without a soundtrack. It has got one, coming in the form of songs that got tied up in the period of my life when I was writing the book. I didn't necessarily choose them to be part of the book, and they don't feature in it, but they are part of it regardless.


"Satan Rejected My Soul" – Morrissey

In Mr. Chartwell, Winston Churchill's "black dog" of depression is imagined as a real and independent character – a colossal, talking and walking black dog who calls himself Black Pat. The novel follows Black Pat as he works himself into the lives of Churchill and a young widow named Esther Hammerhans. If there's ever an anthem for Black Pat, this is it, especially when Morrissey is begging you to take the soul that even Satan backed away from:

"Take it please, it's really sly – come on, come on, come on, come on, come on."

The song teams Morrissey's charismatic witty darkness with summery guitars, making me picture things like a volleyball game in a cemetery, or Mr. Stay Puft from Ghostbusters. In a similar clash Black Pat combines affable charm with an underlying brutality. Dark and funny is a mix I can't resist.


"The Beast in Me" – Nick Lowe

This song became important because Nick Lowe sounds so wearily resigned to whatever demons he harbours, unable to either understand or prevent the actions that stem from them. What I find so potent is the idea of knowing yourself well enough to know that you are locked into a cycle of disappointment, doomed to repeat mistakes, and set to be defeated again in a war you realise you can never conclusively win. The verse which follows is particularly relevant to Mr. Chartwell, when Nick Lowe sings about the danger of allowing himself to believe the beast might be benign:

"Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it's just a teddy bear,
Or even somehow manage,
To vanish in the air,
Then that is when I must beware."


"Former Glory" – Ron Sexsmith

This song is beautiful and hopeful, but it makes me stare out the window, daydreaming wistfully. In my previous flat, it made me stare at the floor as "Beat It" came thumping up from below for the millionth time. It's one of those introspectively happy songs which fuse positive and mournful feelings: Yes, it will be better, but, no, it isn't now.

"For the day is coming soon,
You don't have to worry,
Your light will return in its former glory"

The song's combination of being uplifting whilst gently breaking your heart works on me every time. And the sense of redemption which runs through the track is something I connected to as I wrote Mr. Chartwell – the book may be about depression, but it is equally about salvation.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest theme - Jack Nitzche

The sound of the saw wriggling above the dragging footsteps of the drums has always struck me as curiously gorgeous. I realised that although I hadn't seen the film for years, I had hauled its theme tune out of my memory and was thinking about it almost every day I was writing the book. Mr. Chartwell explores vulnerability and courage, and this music nails the complex relationship between the two, hovering somewhere in-between. Also, the singing saw makes such a kooky magical sound, like a cuddly poltergeist, which can't be said about many instruments.


"Werewolves of London" – Warren Zevon

I'm always happy to hear this song, but I was especially into it when I was working on the book. It's another dark and funny track that perfectly describes Black Pat – capturing his strange contradictory nature. On the one hand he drinks beer and cracks jokes, on the other he's a savage animal. As a man-beast loose in London, he's definitely channeling the same vibe as Zevon's werewolves. Listening to the song reminds me of how much I enjoyed writing the perverted character of Black Pat, especially this verse:

"He's the hairy handed gent who ran amuck in Kent,
Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair,
Better stay away from him,
He'll rip your lungs out, Jim,
I'd like to meet his tailor,
Werewolves of London."


"I Wanna Be Your Dog" – The Stooges

Aside from the dog reference, this song taps into the muscular energy I wanted to transfer into the book. I love how rough and raw it is, and how massive it sounds, and I tried to give the book some of this restless hunger. Although I don't have music on when I write, music can certainly act as a powerful motivator. I listen to this and feel my mind turning into a spike of furious concentration.


"The First Cut is the Deepest" – Norma Fraser

This is a sweet song anyway, but Norma Fraser's innocent voice makes it even sweeter. It's an apt track for Mr. Chartwell because I spent a lot of time thinking about love and the way a life is shaped by its presence or absence. Esther is faced with the absence of love, needing to realign herself in the space that remains now it's gone. A lot of songs deal with this sort of situation, but in a more bitter and damaged way. Norma Fraser's approach resonates with Esther's sense of loss - singing about it with sorrowful acceptance, and with a hard-won sort of forgiveness.


Rebecca Hunt and Mr. Chartwell links:

excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Between the Pages review
The Blurb review
Bookgeeks review
Bookin' with Sunny review
Chick With Books review
Daily Mail review
Dovegreyreader Scribbles review
Financial Times review
Follow the Thread review
Guardian review (by Clare Clark)
Guardian review (by Mary Fitzgerald)
Independent review (by Rachel Hore)
Independent review (by Peter Carty)
Lovely Treez Reads review
Metro.co.uk review
Pages of Hackney review
Park Benches & Book Ends review
A Rose Beyond the Thames review
Sarah's Books review
Scotsman review
Spectator review
Such a Book Nerd review
Telegraph review
Washington Times review

Booktrust interview with the author
Dazed interview with the author
The List profile of the author
Simon Mayo Drivetime interview with the author
Telegraph profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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