The author of a striking new novel, Cuckoo, on her inspirations…

Music does it for me.

I’m a runner. I’m not fast and I don’t do competitions and I only do it if the weather is behaving. But, three or four times a week, I run three or four miles along Brighton seafront and while I do I listen to music. It helps with keeping my weight down but more importantly it is a brilliant way of seeding ideas for my work.

It was out on one such run that I had the idea for Cuckoo. I was listening, as I often do, to Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, which was partly inspired by his relationship with PJ Harvey. After I got over my usual fantasy about literally running into Mr Cave – he also lives in Brighton – I got to thinking about what would happen if you had a friend who came to stay and inspired that dark sort of passion in your husband.

So that was the germ of the idea for Cuckoo, and from that, with much obsessive listening to and watching PJ Harvey – most particularly her first album Dry – the character of Polly emerged. While there are elements of Polly Novak that may bring the PJ Harvey persona to mind, she is clearly separated from her as a character. At one point she even bemoans the fact that PJ Harvey was around in her own music-scene heyday, making real stardom impossible for her – "same name, and everything".

But it is that raw, elemental energy that Harvey and Cave’s music possesses that underscores what Polly is. And, from the outside at least, Rose could be seen as the opposite to all that. So the music was at the very heart of the generation of the characters, and from that, the story.

My second novel, title not yet fixed, has comeback Morrissey lying at the start of its story-making process – the virtuoso, self-pitying Bigmouth Strikes Again, sung post-Smiths on the Live at Earls Court album is key. The construct that is Morrissey really interests me, and I have drawn on elements of that for one of the main characters.

I also listen to music while I write, and I choose it to go with the stage I am at. If it’s fast and dirty first drafting, I fuel the process with music that fits the mood of the scene I am working on. During second draft, which needs more careful structural thought, I either have silence – often a tall order in my house – or something like Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Philip Glass’s Metamorphoses. The logical construction of this sort of music really helps me to think clearly. Rather childishly, I like listening to piano music as I type – someone like Glenn Gould – because I indulge myself in the fantasy that, as I type, I am also hitting the keys of a piano. But don’t tell anyone about that.

I guess it’s because I like to keep my ears busy. For many years I worked as a graphic designer and illustrator, and constantly had Radio Four on to keep the word part of my brain busy while the visual bit did its business. Nowadays I write all day, so I fill the space that used to be occupied by drawing with music. Usually the lyrics don’t put me off, because when I’m writing the music takes all of that part of my attention and I only hear snatches of phrases. I do miss Woman’s Hour though.

With the help of my musician son Owen, (you can hear his work here: and I put together a Spotify playlist ( of the main songs that influenced Cuckoo. It’s a diverse list, but each has its place in helping me along at some stage in the writing process.

So I’d like to say a big thank you Nick, PJ, Florence, JS, Patti, et al. Thank you musicians for all your work. Without you, I really don’t think I would be able to write. Or run.

Cuckoo is published by Headline

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This