Research Notes · 06/05/2015

Green Glowing Skull

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gavin Corbett writes about Green Glowing Skull from 4th Estate.

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Research for my new novel, Green Glowing Skull, began while I was living in New York City. I knew little about the book I was going to write at that stage, other than that it would be about Irish tenors. So I went down to the Strand book store on Broadway to buy everything they had — two books — on the most famous Irish tenor of all, John McCormack. One these books, Gordon Ledbetter’s The Great Irish Tenor, had beautiful illustrations, and a fascinating first chapter on the early years of recorded music, and it helped me identify a specific atmosphere I was looking for. It was an atmosphere of certain colours — rich dark reds, browns, and twilight golds and purples — with a dusty sound to it, and with a dust that swirled within those twilight golds.

There was a stiffness to the language of that book, too, that reminded me of Joyce’s Dubliners. I went back to Dubliners and savoured again the stories, very carefully. My new novel would be set today — albeit (although I hadn’t fully decided yet) a parallel today — but because one of its subjects would be an antique and dowdy kind of music and the world of filigree and flock from which it diffuses, I wanted to use an arthritic late-Victorian/Edwardian language to describe it. But Joyce’s early accessible style was more than just a depiction of how people in the 1890s or 1900s spoke — it’s uncertain, tense, careful and fearful; it gropes its way along sentence by sentence, padding its boundaries, even using clumsy repetition to its advantage. I didn’t want to copy Joyce, but I did want to find a way of making this technique work for me.

Ballads and art songs and music-hall ditties and opera saturate Dubliners. Joyce wrote his stories when this was the popular music of the day. He was intimately acquainted with it, because it was everywhere, and because he was a skilled singer himself. I, however, had just a glancing familiarity with the tradition. I felt I needed to know more, and not just from books. An opportunity came one night, by chance, at the Half King bar on West 23rd Street, where I’d come to see a discussion on — I can’t remember — by, among others, the Joycean expert Frank Delaney and one of Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughters. The event closed unexpectedly with a song — an Irish-American tenor called Robert White gave a full-wellied rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ that would have stirred the stoniest heart. Afterwards I introduced myself to Robert, explained the work I was engaged in, and ended up with an invitation to his apartment at a time of my convenience.

Before I travelled up to Robert’s place on West End Avenue, I googled him. I found a clip on YouTube from a TV series he used to present about the Great American Songbook. It was clear from the set, from the clothes and from the graphics that the show had been made in the early 1980s. The title sequence featured a fantastic nighttime scene of Manhattan. Everything about the clip so warmly evoked for me the America with which I first came into contact through TV and film in my childhood. When I asked Robert about this show, he explained that it had been made for BBC Northern Ireland, and that the set — a mock-up of a New York apartment — had been created in a studio in Belfast. Thinking about it, I remembered that the shows and movies of my youth that most strongly represented America — Star Wars and Superman and Indiana Jones and the Muppets — had all largely been made in British film studios.

When I arrived at Robert’s apartment, he told me he was sorry, but that he could only give me a couple of hours, as Irving Berlin’s daughter was due to call around for tea. I said a couple of hours was more than enough time. His apartment looked different to the apartment in his TV show, but still oozed New York character — an older New York character, of the early 20th century. It was small but comfortable, softly lit, full of warm wooden surfaces, and packed with mementoes of earlier times — photos, paintings, prizes and ornaments. From the instant I entered the living room, I knew that I would take the ambience of the place with me and infuse my book with it. We enjoyed a long discussion on the art of tenor singing, particularly Irish tenor singing, and Robert told me why the great exponents — John McCormack in particular — were so great. It turned out that Robert’s father, Joseph ‘The Silver Tenor’ White, had also been a successful singer.

I learnt a lot from that discussion with Robert, but I felt slightly guilty that he might have thought I was writing a serious, realist book on tenor singing. I had already decided by this stage that my novel would be something else completely.

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Gavin Corbett is from Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of three novels. His second, This Is the Way (4th Estate, London), was named Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year in 2013. Green Glowing Skull (4th Estate, London) was published in May 2015.