Some novels take their cues from history; others, from the author’s own life. For her new novel Ceremonials, Katharine Coldiron opted for a very different muse: in this case, the Florence and the Machine album with the same title. The resulting work is an expansive and constantly-shifting piece of fiction, one in which desire and identity blur together in a world that feels both archetypal and realistic. I spoke with Coldiron about the genesis of her new book and the process of translating music into words.
Ceremonials draws inspiration from the Florence and the Machine album of the same name. What first drew you the idea of writing a book based on it?
Listening to the album over and over, I felt like there was a story in it that the album wasn’t quite telling. Somewhere in the subtext, not quite in the text. I doubt that the story I thought of was the same one Florence had in mind when she wrote the songs, of course, but I definitely think there are ghosts in both stories, for instance. The album was so compelling while still being so elusive that I felt the need to tell the story in the subtext. It seemed like a crazy idea when I first started, but the more I wrote, the better I thought the work was, the more worthy it seemed.
What was your process like as far as figuring out how to, essentially, translate the images and themes of the album into prose?
I printed out the lyrics and read them carefully, and I listened repeatedly to the layers of music and the different instruments. I wrote almost in a trance, shaving the language of all the superfluous words I could – even necessary ones like articles and helping verbs – and thinking all the time of the experience of the lyrics and music of the album. Then I compared the lyrics and music to what I’d written and tweaked a few things to make my work go along with Florence’s. I have to be honest: I don’t remember the order all this went in, whether I read the lyrics carefully before writing or after or in the middle. But that was the process.
To me, the experience of the album is…I mean, how to put it in words? Aside from how I already did! When I listen to it, between the voice, the lyrics, and instrumentation, I think of ghosts, and echoing hallways, and old buildings, and long hair, and moonlight, and whirling in circles, and gossamer dresses, and dark nights full of stars. The profound strength of Florence’s voice, but the little tremble that is her vibrato. I wanted a story that had all those elements in it. But I also wanted to use some of the touchstones of the album: the word “concentrate,” for instance, and water and the ocean. And love.
As you worked on Ceremonials, was it challenging to balance alluding to the album with making sure the book would stand on its own for someone without knowledge of the record?
That was hard. I can’t really tell whether the book stands on its own, because for me the inspiration, the music, is such an important part of the full sensory experience of the book. I always hear the echoing piano from “Only If For a Night” in my mind when I read the first chapter, and I always think of Florence singing “in the arms of the ocean” when I think about Corisande almost drowning at the beach. An early reader found the book completely baffling because he didn’t know about the album connection. He liked it anyway, but he’s a pretty particular audience.
I do worry about this sometimes. What if the book can’t stand alone? But I also think of how Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and his sister Poe’s album Haunted kind of lean on each other, how the two works make more sense of each other just by coming out of two minds in the same family around the same time. They are both fine alone, though. Maybe Ceremonials is okay alone. It’s nearly impossible for me to determine.
I think the album is full of mysteries, and the book deliberately is too, but I hope that they support each other. Kind of like two cards tented together.
Ceremonials traverses the borders between life and death and between reality and myth. How did you establish the — for lack of a better word — ground rules of the novel?
Ha! I didn’t have any. I appreciate books that set up a universe and make sense of it across the page count – I’ve even written a couple – but that wasn’t my goal here. I imagined a world with permeable boundaries set vaguely in the early 20th century, and that was basically the end of my establishing ground rules. Time doesn’t really work for ghosts, I don’t think, so it couldn’t really work for my novel. That kind of guideline was as far as I went. Maybe there are vampires and werewolves in this world, too.
The narrative voice shifts throughout the book, and takes on a group quality towards the end. What led you to choose this approach for the book?
This was mostly about the songs. Some of the songs felt like they were from Amelia’s perspective, and others felt like Corisande’s. Of course I gave some thought to storytelling, to how I’d like to give voice to different parts of their tale. Corisande was collected enough to offer backstory, while Amelia offered emotional immediacy. One or two slivers of the story felt like they should be told from the ghost girls’ perspective, because they have more knowledge, and they’re more neutral about Amelia and Corisande’s relationship.
I followed the songs, but I also followed my nose. Some of what led me to choose this or that voice was instinct, rather than craft, or devotion to the album.
Are there any other records you’d like to translate into prose in the same way you did this one?
I’ve been chewing over this question, and the only one I can think of is Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins. There’s enough elasticity in their music to allow someone else’s interpretation to take flight. That’s another one where I’d try to capture the feeling of the music in words instead of doing something faithful to the lyrics. (As if you could, because the Cocteau Twins’ lyrics are deliberate nonsense.) I would not do this again, because Ceremonials was a natural inspiration rather than a gimmick, and I feel like if I did it again it’d be a gimmick.
But that’s my selection, not necessarily the best selection. I imagine someone could write an interesting novel after Achtung Baby, because Bono’s lyrics are just generic enough to apply to all kinds of situations, and you could build an actual narrative out of them. I couldn’t, or it would be a boring novel. Because I tend toward the surreal, it’s tough to find an album that gives me the kind of freedom I want as a storyteller while still being compelling. Still, I think plenty of albums lend themselves to other people’s stories, or we wouldn’t love them so much.