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April 11, 2018

Cynan Jones's Playlist for His Novel "Cove"


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

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Cynan Jones's brilliant novel Cove is stark and beautiful.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Jones echoes other survival narratives by keeping his narrator’s voice internal, but he creates a feeling of desperate solitude with wonderfully sparse language. Lovers of poetry and experimental prose will marvel at this impressionistic lament."

In his own words, here is Cynan Jones's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Cove:


Cove is about a man in a kayak hit by lightning out at sea. The strike leaves him alive, but injured and adrift, his memory blasted from him. My character had only a bare sense of himself, and didn't fully understand where he was. The story was a bitch to write.

Having written mostly about solid ground, and characters deeply embedded into their landscape, I wanted to take certainty and sense of place away from a narrative. The sea would do that for me. The question was, what story to tell exactly. For a long time various ideas gathered, until the 'lightning strike' moment lit the way. Once I had the broad idea of sending a man out to sea and debilitating him, all that remained was to write the thing.


I began to build the story pictorially. The original opening scene of the book came fully formed while I was listening to Moby's track Wait for Me from the album of the same name. I was driving at the time, with a view of Cardigan Bay ahead of me.

The man is on the beach in the early morning. He drinks a coffee he's made with a stove top espresso maker on a portable camping stove. When he's done, the light just coming up behind the cliffs that edge the shore, he drags the kayak to the water. There's the lift, lilt, lull of the boat in the breakers. He boards the kayak, settles himself. Then he pushes off, (1 minute 40 seconds into the track) and paddles onto the water.

What was key here, and in other pieces of music that played in the background of my mind as I developed some of the scenes that made the story, was the point of change in each piece. The point of development that shifts the narrative of the music forward, demands attention and engages the emotion. Given the story was so constrained – just a man in a kayak on the water – I had to be able to do this in the prose, and often only with rhythm, tone and emotive momentum. It was very instinctive, and is extremely hard to explain properly.


Ideally, I don't go near the desk until I've built the story in my head and let extraneous stuff sink away (to play its part below the surface). Then I sit down and write like I'm watching.

In the case of Cove, I didn't have time to go through that process. I had a delivery deadline and started to write before I was ready. Because I was building the book at the desk – 'seeing' it, yes, but writing everything I saw down – it started to lose shape. Before long I'd lost anchor and the narrative started to drift.

In the past I'd saved stories by turning to musical form to reapply structure. This is not overt by any means, but as I grew up playing in orchestras and bands, musical form was part of my matrix. In an attempt to give Cove more compositional coherence I tried cutting it into movements.

Initially, I tried symphonic structure. A quick first movement; a slow movement (adrift after the lightning strike); a scherzo, something light (and surreal as his wits fail); and a rollicking finale. Here, Barbirolli's recording of Mahler's 5th was key. Mahler has a way of lulling you, before setting off the dynamite, and I wanted the text to do this. But the four movement structure just didn't work.

I tried a concerto form, coralling the narrative into three movements. Fast, slow, fast, (with cadenzas - 'virtuosi' passages of solo writing that echoed the character's consciousness). Samuel Barber's violin concerto was a strong model. (For their different depth of tone and different energies, both Joshua Bell's and Hilary Hahn's recordings). Like the Mahler, there are turning points and huge points of arrival in the music. But again, the attempt was futile. The story would not conform. It continued to drift.

I wondered if I should let it drift. Perhaps it was a tone poem. Let the narrative beats (which I couldn't call to heel) lap under the 'soundscape'. I bought Bernard Haitink's recordings of Liszt's Symphonic Poems. One listen and I knew. They were formless and had no drive. I was kidding myself to think I could write a good story without directness.

Things got worse. Granta felt the book was close. But it wasn't right. After a meeting in London, my editor Laura Barber sent me a copy of Max Richter's Vivaldi's Four Seasons Recomposed. We'd fallen off the topic of the becalmed novel and talked about music. If sending me the Richter was conscious it was a stroke of genius. If it wasn't conscious, it was still a stroke of genius.

In his treatment, Richter discarded 75% of Vivaldi's material. As well as being mesmeric and powerful, the piece describes a Summer storm, breaking some 11 minutes in. It's followed by a slowed, falling kind of section. Damage. Distance. And, then, (nearly 18 minutes in) everything compresses. The music splits the sky. Here it all was.

I only realised a considerable time after the fact, but it showed me the way. Here was the key. I needed to 'recompose' the book.

Granta were great about it. I took time away from the book to allow it to settle, the extraneous things to fade. Then I went back and rewrote it pretty much from scratch. The result was an 11,500 word novel.


In the story, there is a good deal of silence. Or, not silence, but natural sound. There is no silence at sea, of course. For the procedural writing there was no need for anything other than the lap of water, the slap of a shifting surface on the plastic of the kayak. But at points of action, or crisis, I felt music, a 'score' kicking in.

Having found the right form, it was as if I needed to decide how finally to present each scene. To shift perspectives. Zoom in, zoom out. I needed to choose which camera to shoot each scene with, and sometimes a soundtrack came crashing in to answer that question.

One key piece, which kept me believing in the approach, was London Grammar's Nightfall from their album If You Wait. (I didn't find the piece for its title, but again, like the Moby track, here was 'waiting'. The man hit by lightning leaves a woman waiting behind).

Close up on the kayak. Zoom out. Out. Spinning out.. (1 min 30 seconds) … farther... (2 minutes in)... and farther... (2 minutes 30 seconds...) then, and farther, (with just over a minute to go, the BEAT KICKS IN)... the kayak just a speck now on the ocean.

It was all about timing. The delivery of pace, a sense of scale, and a delivery of connectivity to our primal drive that there is hope in any story. This is what music can bring.


Cove was a tough book to write. And rewrite. And rewrite. The dedication to the shore crew is not literal but to the people close to me who were patient as I drifted farther and farther out to sea with the text. While I did, a few key pieces of music kept me going, and I'm not afraid to admit it. That's the drug of music. The mind-altering substance of it that can get you through. In darker moments, near beaten, instead of slamming tequila, I slammed music.

It was a while ago now, but I remember three key life rafts.

Pink Floyd's Delicate Sound of Thunder. I'd had the concert on CD since I was 16.

Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome. Listening to it turned me sometimes into a human trumpet.

Hans Zimmer's soundtracks to the Batman films. Because if I wasn't a writer, I'd be Batman.

Cynan Jones and Cove links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Publishers Weekly review
Spectator review

Los Angeles Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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