Music in My Work: The Fortune Teller’s Factotum by Nick Sweeney

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fortune teller's factotum

By Nick Sweeney

Songs in Our Heads, Music in My Work . . .

Being a musician as well as a writer, I’ve always had the luxury of playing both roles when working. There is a balance between being with people, and being scrutinised by them, or involved in the social side of gigs and rehearsals, and their boring downsides, of course, and living the classic writer existence of sitting in a room, solitary, silent, tapping away.

Music has always been important in my life. Long before I read a book that left an everlasting mark on me, music took up residence in my head. My dad liked jazz and blues, played the harmonica and sang, albeit only to us, and the radio was always on. When TV gradually took over our lives, the mid-sixties music on shows like Ready Steady Go, Juke Box Jury and Top of the Pops lingered note-for-note and, often, image-for-image. In the 40-year period between those shows coming and going, and then being repeated all over again on retro shows and YouTube, acts like Julie Driscoll, Keith West and the beehived Supremes were always with me, more or less intact.

I was in a band in the late seventies – because ‘everybody was’, at least in my circles: post-punk, proto-New Romantic. And in the 80s too, persuading decent musicians to play my songs. I gave it up for 20 years to focus on teaching, but went back to it in the mid-2000s, in a large act called The London Gypsy Orchestra, and then a ten-year stint with the smaller but still unwieldy 15-piece Trans-Siberian March Band, both of which satisfied the love I’d come to feel for Balkan music, and the music of Russia, Turkey and the Klezmer of wandering Jewish musicians in all the lands east of Berlin. Back to my roots, I still play with Clash covers band Clashback, trying to do justice to Mick Jones’ nifty riffs.

It almost goes without saying that music is going to find its way into my writing, and The Fortune Teller’s Factotum is no exception. Ashley Hyde, the heroine of the first part of the book, gives no thought to music, and nor does Mary Dorn, part two’s star, not really. After a find in her chaotic home, she notes:

In a closet in that room a Gretsch guitar lay in its case, creamy and pristine, its fittings a dull gold. It was stolen from an inattentive Elvis Presley outside a Tucson venue as he signed his name for a crush of fans.

Mary is ferreting out secrets a lot more remarkable and shocking, so can be forgiven for her nonchalance even in the face of an instrument with a legend – which may or may not be true – attached to it.

The women in the book are faced with serious choices, so it is the men who have the leisure, and frivolity, for music, with the exception of Mary’s legendary great great aunt  Aleksandra, said to have hotfooted it to Mexico with a dope-dealing guitar player. Deedee, Mary’s opportunistic but hopeless dad, dabbled in the management of notorious feminist punk band the Parma Violents, and Pennsylvania’s only Indian Elvis impersonator, Bob Shawadi.

In the second part of the book, Judith Dorn appears out of the past to rescue her hapless brother Deedee, and her niece Mary, leading a life of contented neglect – an almost feral existence, albeit in the confines of the crumbling Dorn mansion. Echoing her great aunt Aleksandra – if that family yarn is indeed true – Judith stepped off the track of her life 20 years previously to live with Tudo, a Gypsy musician, in the oppressive society of Ceaucescu’s Romania.

“Tudo was an amazing guitar player,” Judith told Mary. “But his kind of music went through a bad time in the seventies. Everybody wanted beat music, electric guitars, drug music, loudness. I sometimes think he played the guitar only so he could go to Paris one day and impress a girl. He had a very special guitar,” she reflected, almost to herself.

“How was it special?” Mary was thrilled at the idea of things or people described as special. She had not been exposed to too much advertising at that point, or the fact that special could be a very overused word.

“Well, at one time the guitar had belonged to the greatest ever Gypsy guitar player of all time.”

“Really? Who was that?”

“A Belgian, called Django.”

Alas, this seems to be another guitar with a legend of dubious provenance, but at least there is a cue for a list of famous Belgians – I think we all need reminding of them. Judith’s recollection of Django Reinhardt and his invention of Gypsy Jazz leads to mention of Adolphe Saxe, inventor of the saxophone ‘maybe not the most famous person called Adolphe, but the only one you could introduce to your parents without them reaching for a gun. There was also Jacques Brel, the greatest ever European songwriter not from Britain.’

I’m biased, but I think more or less anything is improved by the right kind of music presented the right way and at the right time, and novels and stories are no exception. The music in the background of The Fortune Teller’s Factotum works as an occasional counterpoint to its more serious side. Do you ever remember where you were and what you were doing and who you were with when you heard a particular song? One great thing about music is that it has a power that goes beyond the notes on a score or the words you can now look up instantly on the web – the simplest songs vie with the most complex forms to produce similar effects on listeners, working directly to get the feet tapping and a smile on the face or on a lower, more subtle level that burrows into the brain and comes back to haunt the listener. In that way, music is the perfect thing to include in a novel – not the blatant quoting of lyrics which sometimes lands the novice author in both artistic and financial hot water but the presence of it in a book’s background, gradually emerging for the reader as part of its fabric.

(c) Nick Sweeney

About The Fortune Teller’s Factotum:

fortune teller's factotum

Twenty year old Ashley Hyde is happy not to know the ugly secrets in her showbiz family. She needs to escape her smalltown existence and the gossip that follows her misfortunes. While she can almost see the funny side of getting very publicly dumped by a man not worth her trouble, and writing off two cars in as many months, it’s really time to kickstart her new life studying medicine at Columbia.

She has a bad day, losing not only her stepmom’s celebrity daytime TV cat but her dad’s precious car, while inconveniently dressed as an 18th century farm worker. The theft of a replacement cat from the local fortune teller brings Ashley face to face with that lady’s factotum, the frighteningly competent Mary Dorn. Their ensuing friendship brings to light a terrible shared history, of suspicious disappearances and deaths, and of a family of arms dealers bought whole by the CIA, in an American tale that spans a turbulent century.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Nick Sweeney is a freelance writer and musician who lives on the English coast. Much of his writing reflects his interest in Byzantium, bike racing and Eastern Europe and its languages, people and places. Having played in many bands over the years, including a big touring Balkan band called The Trans-Siberian March Band – he’s currently lead guitarist in a Clash tribute band, Clashback. Nick loves to travel, speaks several languages and has published a series of novels, novellas and short stories. The Fortune Teller’s Factotum is his first psychological thriller.

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