Friday, August 28, 2015

Female musicians in historical fiction - interview with Sarah Bruce Kelly

Greetings, commies! Today I am pleased to feature an author who writes on a subject that's very near and dear to my heart - lives of musicians throughout history. Sarah Bruce Kelly states that her mission is "to tell with truth and love the stories of the unsung heroines and heroes in the history of music."  She is the author of The Red Priest's Annina, the story of Vivaldi and Anna Giro, and Jazz Girl, a novel of Mary Lou Williams.

MJN: Having grown up in the family of classical musicians, I have deep appreciation for historical novels featuring the lives of composers and musicians - and often the lesser known figures who were unfairly obscured. How do you balance the ration of iconic and obscure characters?

SBK: Historical novels about composers and musicians are rare. I realized this when I conceived the idea for my first novel, The Red Priest’s Annina, and consequently I had no real “model” to help guide me. I think the reason for this dearth of music-related historical fiction is the necessity for an author to not only be intimately familiar with musical terminology and techniques, but ideally to have experience themselves in the performing arts. Fortunately my long background in musical performance and education, along with my MA in music history and research, gave me the necessary tools to portray historical musicians convincingly within the context of the time and culture in which they lived.

Balancing well-known characters, Vivaldi for instance, with more obscure characters, such his protégée, Annina Girò, is an intriguing challenge but a challenge nonetheless. Painstaking and meticulous research is the key, with a bit of informed imagination thrown in. Historical letters, diaries, memoirs, reviews, and other documents are helpful, but even more so are the “hunches” that come about unexpectedly from less concrete sources. For example, I spent years studying the music Vivaldi wrote for Girò, and the more I got to know her music the better I got to know her as a person. Not only that, but the touching nuances of the music he was inspired to create for her say a great deal about the nature of their artistic and personal relationship. When such hunches are backed up by documentary evidence something indeed “clicks,” and the story and characters become all the more real.

MJN: The Red Priest's Annina is said to be written for preteen and teen girls. I am happy to see so many historical novels targeted at the young female readership. I have a friend who's an English teacher, and she said that it's very hard to convince teenage girls to read historical fiction. The common complaint they hear is, "What does this have to do with real life?"

SBK: Many historical novels for young readers focus on some sort of physical action or adventure set in a particular time and place and often fall short of creating characters that young people can relate to on an emotional level. These “costume dramas,”as they are sometimes called, stem from models put forth by the entertainment industry, and their lack of psychological depth usually fails to sustain the interest of young readers.

When I first conceived the idea for The Red Priest’s Annina I had envisioned Annina’s story as engaging young girls in particular. When the finished product started to attract attention I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only girls, but boys as well as men and women of all ages were equally taken with the story. I believe this was due to the deeply emotional nature of Annina’s music which, as I mentioned above, made her so real for me that I was able to portray her feelings, fears and desires in ways that made her real for readers. This is what all readers, including young people, love to experience in stories. If they can identify with a character on an emotional level they can relate that character’s story to their own lives.

MJN: This is the second book that features a contralto. Last year I read a novel "Goddess" about a French contralto Julie d'Aubigny. My father was an operatic coach, and he told me that contraltos were not in demand, and it was hard for a vocalist with that range to reach the same diva status seemingly reserved for sopranos. There simply aren't enough leading roles written for contraltos.

SBK: It’s true that there are few starring roles in opera for contraltos. However Annina Girò was a mezzo soprano, a voice type that was quite popular in the 18thcentury. This is why current-day mezzos such as Cecelia Bartoli and Anne Sofie von Otter focus largely on the Baroque era for their performance repertoire.

Keep in mind also that the real super stars of 18th-century opera were the castrati, castrated males. The term “diva” (goddess) didn’t come about until the late 19thcentury, in connection with the “grand operas” of Verdi and others whose works now dominate the stages of most opera houses. Vivaldi himself favored the warmer, richer tones of the mezzo voice and wrote many dazzling prima donna roles for Girò in that vocal range. Orlando Furioso,La Griselda, and Rosmira Fidele are just a few examples.

MJN:  In the past decades, the Catholic Church has been subject of scrutiny. Liberal media loves to demonize Catholic priests as predatory and hypocritical. So when you see a religious figure portrayed in a benevolent, liberating light, it's refreshing.

SBK: An intensive study of Vivaldi’s life and work is indeed gratifying and refreshing, not to mention fascinating. He was a Catholic priest who devoted his life to creating some of the most sparkling and innovative music of the 18th century. His many hundreds of concertos, operas, and sacred works were composed in praise of God and Mary, expressed by the unique monogram he inscribed at the top of his musical scores, which means: “Praise be to God, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, Amen.

He was blessed with extraordinary talents, which he used to put his faith into action. Not only was he a brilliant composer and musician, he was also a gifted teacher who shared the gift of music with countless students. Due to a respiratory ailment he had since birth, he was unable to say Mass. Instead he devoted much of his life to bringing the joy and magic of music into the lives of the abandoned and the unwanted. He spent the better part of his career teaching music at a foundling home, the Pietà, which was a refuge for homeless girls. The all-girl orchestra and chorus he established there became internationally renowned, and visitors from all over Europe came to Venice to hear them perform.

As for his long association with Annina Girò, my many years of research did not turn up anything to indicate they were ever anything more than good friends and artistic collaborators. Vivaldi himself referred to their relationship as an amicizia, which means a “close friendship.”

MJN: You make a rapid switch from Vivaldi's Venice to 1920s Pittsburg. Social norms have certainly changed in terms of religious freedom and gender roles, and yet many of the challenges that musicians face have remained the same. Artists are still vulnerable to the whims of their benefactors and unwanted attention from fans who don't respect boundaries.

SBK: As I see it, there are more similarities than differences between the stories told in The Red Priest’s Annina and Jazz Girl, and I was inspired to write both for much the same reasons. True, Mary’s world—an inter-racial Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1920s—was quite different from the environment Annina experienced in 1720s Venice. But the contrasts between these settings simply provide different frames for the two heroines’ stories.

The similarities between the stories are much more significant. Both Annina and Mary were self-driven to master their musical gifts from an early age. Each had serious obstacles in their way, including disinterested mothers and dysfunctional home situations. Both girls were fortunate to attract the attention of adult mentors who helped guide them toward achieving their goals.

Indeed, the long, hard road to musical stardom has not changed much over the centuries. Young women in particular have always had their own particular challenges to face, and both Annina’s and Mary’s stories exemplify this truth. It was and continues to be an honor and a privilege for me to share the stories of these two unsung heroines in the history of music!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Chasing Scents on the Wind - interview with a Canadian author David More

Greetings, commies!
I have not posted in a while, as my time has been taken up by a theatrical production.  Today I am featuring a Canadian author David More who has two novels with Fireship Press, The Eastern Door and The Lily and the Rose featuring the French and Indian War.  His self-deprecating charm is refreshing. Thank you, David, for joining us today.
I am excited to be a part of Marina’s blog, so a great, big thank-you, Connecticut Commie Soccer Mommy! With a tag like that, you might be right at home up across the northern (no longer so undefended) border with us here in Canuckistan. As the comedians say, we’re just Americans with gun control and universal health care, eh? I truly admire scribes like you, who regularly wind up the necessary energy and time to produce such an outpouring of creative energy as fills your blog, and hence I am very happy to piggyback on your efforts.

As most writers do, I yearn for the breakthrough. Hell, I yearn to sell my first 5,000 books, haha! I have followed my nose more than once, sniffing like a wistful, old coyote at the tiniest scrap of hope rotting away in the gutter, but having gratefully come home to Fireship Press (may it live forever) after passing through the self-publishing mirror, I have grown grumpy with glib, time-wasting scamps preying on us hope-chasers, when they phone and leave the scent of “we’ll put your manuscript in front of the Hollywood movers and shakers … for a mere $6,000.00” (or so).

In fact, I thought my time had come, back in 2007. That year I attended the Historical Novel Society Annual Conference in Albany, New York. My first novel, The Eastern Door, had just won two IPPYs, and, by God, my book was set in Albany! Talk about the stars aligning! I spoke to million-sellers Bernard Cornwell and Diana Gabaldon there. I even got a chance to make a five-minute pitch to two New York agents! And got some return interest from both, too. Sold some books. All very encouraging and heady, but of course, here I am, still bumbling along, little read, no agent, a few bucks coming in, every quarter. Like most of us.

I have accepted that a lightning strike like the one J.K. Rowling received is, indeed, more like winning a lottery than a realistic hope. So, I remain reasonably content that I made the right choice, way back when, after selling my first piece to the Montreal Gazette in 1977 for a head-turning $35.00 (CAD). I did not jump, whole hawg, into the full time writing swamp, but unromantically carried on working full time. I need good, enthusiastic, patient editors. I rewrite quickly and well, but I am the sort of writer that takes ten or even twenty hours to get out a 250-word newspaper piece that pays, er, $35.00 (CAD). Can’t live on that. I could never make a living as a freelancer, so you folks out there who do so also have my utmost admiration. Nor do I make a living from writing now, although I have managed to get out three good historical novels (the first two won three IPPYs) and a commissioned family history.

I truly do count my blessings that I have been able to write and publish almost a half-million words after supper, and on weekends, and that I was fortunate enough to have a wife and daughter who let me do so. I am very lucky. And now, with a fourth novel nearly done and a fifth begun, I have taken advantage of my newly found day time since retiring to start a PhD in history. That will end in a sixth book, albeit a non-fiction one, about a character I discovered in researching the novels. I think there will be time.

Money seems to be ever harder to come by for full time artists of many kinds. We live in an e-world where the very idea of actually paying anything for someone else’s creative intellectual property such as music, art or literature seems to be a quaint and ancient thought. But can one just keep giving it all away, truly? Or perhaps the real question is, “Can one now stop?” And, if not, how does the proverbial bacon get home to table? Beats me all to hell.

As a well-published Canadian writer, Shelley A. Leedahl, recently lamented this all-too-familiar starving author situation in the summer issue of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, Write,

“I’m 51 years old, my most recent book – I Wasn’t Always Like This (essays, Signature Editions) – has just been released, and if I’m lucky, in a few days I’ll be wearing steel-toed boots and an orange T-shirt as I stock shelves at Home Depot in Duncan [British Columbia].”


Monday, August 10, 2015

Woody Allen: Reel to Real (Digidialogues) - film criticism by Alex Sheremet

Last month brought a very pleasant surprised encounter. A young New York based author who has read my previous reviews on Amazon approached me with his book, a recently published comprehensive study of Woody Allen’s work. The young man introduced himself as Alex Sheremet. As it turned out, he was my former fellow countryman. We come from the same town, Gomel, which means we were brushed by the same national tragedy, the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.  Having spent most of his life in the US, understandably, he doesn’t dwell on his late-Soviet childhood. He has a very fresh and unique view of life and culture in New York. I invite you to check out his website.

This is my review of his book on Amazon.

Authored by an extremely brainy and precocious 20-something year old, Reel to Real is not a book to be gulped in one sitting. It's not the sort of editorial fast food that goes down easy. Many contemporary film critics and biographers have a background in arts & entertainment journalism and tailor their style to fit the readers' short attention span. I believe that the upper echelon of "lay" readership will enjoy the book, but the core audience is made up of film students and historians. Given the meaty, dense content of the book, I would like to see it in paperback format. I would also like to see stills from the actual films referenced in the text as well as candid shots from the sets. You really need images to fortify a comprehensive study of Woody Allen's work. In a perfect world, this book would be picked up and reissued by a larger publisher that specializes in illustrated biographies.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When the object of your charity turns against you - review of Sheila Dalton's psycho-cultural thriller "The Girl In the Box"

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Sheila Dalton's recent nautical/historical adventure Stolen in which she explores a string of common though underreported nightmares such as losing one's parents in a violent invasion. So I was not surprised to discover that one of her earlier novels The Girl in the Box also explores common phobias that many people are too ashamed to admit.

What if the object of your charity turns against you? That question passes through the mind of anyone who contemplating adoption or fostering of an older child. Yet it's a taboo for any do-gooder to ask that question openly.  Prospective foster parents are ashamed to vocalize their fears.  From the point of view of self-preservation, it's a perfectly legitimate question to ask, especially since there have been documented cases of violence.  "Who is that person I'm bringing into my home? Am I gaining a friend or an enemy?" and yet, regardless of whether we follow any religious dogma or secular humanist ethos, we are taught not to be boastful while performing acts of charity.  No, we're supposed to be deliberately humble, lest we exalt ourselves above those whom we are trying to help. 

Welcome into the world of Jerry and Caitlin, an unwed, childless, golden Canadian couple with over a decade of international travel, professional success and great sex. Jerry is a psychologist, always one step ahead of his colleagues, and Caitlin is a journalist. They view the events around them from their respective professional pedestals.  Their hedonistic (I don't hesitate to use that word) yuppy paradise is shaken when the arrival of Inez, a Guatemalan peasant girl Jerry had found during his last trip to South America. Having lived through genocide, sexual abuse and isolation, Inez, who had always had problems communicating with the outside world, retreats deeper into her shell. Initially supportive of Jerry's chivalrous urge to bring Inez into the US and ensure proper medical and psychological treatment, but eventually she voices certain doubts about the safety of having a young girl in Jerry's house and Jerry's altruistic fatherly feelings towards her.  What is that charming disturbed creature capable of?  And what if Jerry motivated by something other than duty as a doctor?

The novel is written as episodic dual narrative, a format that has become more popular in the past decade. The same events are told from the point of view of Jerry and Caitlin.  Jerry's parts are narrated in third person, and Caitlin's account is written in first person. The two points of view compete with each other and complement each other at the same time - as real life lovers would. 

I am thankful to the author for highlighting the countless political and socio-economic conflicts in Latin America.  I find that many people who have not studied the history of Latin American countries hold onto this naive myth that there is a sense of "Latin pride" and some sort of collective ethnic solidarity.  In reality, Latin American society is extremely polarized and stratified.  One of the doctors in the novel comments on being "of pure European extraction".  Even though he treats patients of Mayan descent, he is still very conscious of the racial differences between himself and them.  He's actually not afraid of saying, "Yes, I'm superior to them, and they are lucky to have access to my services." It's the very thing that Jerry, who positions himself as an enlightened liberal humanist, would not allow himself to say, yet a Guatemalan citizen has no qualms about vocalizing his sentiments.

The novel is set in 1980s. Psychiatry and psychoanalysis have made some tremendous strides in the past three decades. Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and autism are popularized and advocated for.  In 1980s, the same conditions were still somewhat of a mystery, even to the members of the medical community, let alone pedestrian individuals. No wonder there is so much speculation about the nature of Inez’ affliction.  There are several conversations around the girl’s condition, and not all of them are sensitive or politically correct. I imagine that when doctors talk to each other, they are less delicate and choosy with words than when they talk to the patient directly.

I am not saying this is necessarily a flaw, and it's totally possible that another reader will feel differently, but the fact that Inez is described as this ethereal beauty, this Mayan deity with just the right mixture of sensuality and innocence, brought me very close to rolling my eyes.  The fact that men and women in her vicinity gush over her mystrical and magical aura is unsettling.  Now would the story be drastically different if she looked like a regular peasant girl with wide hips, short legs, coarse hair, broad nose and acne scars?  Would Jerry still feel the same chivalrous pangs? Same goes for Jerry's colleague/rival, who ends up being the villain in the story. He has a cold face with chiseled features, of course.  He looks like Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast".  Again, if he was a puny, bundy-legged, bald middle-aged man with a beer gut, would the story have a different vibe? 

Solid five stars.