Big Classical Music

It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping.  I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.

But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.

Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime.  He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it.  And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school.  So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich.  His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory.  Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony.  In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived.  A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.

And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today.  Why is that?  Why aren’t composers writing big music today?  And what about big literature?  Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?

When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion.  It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music.  And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!

Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts.  His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity.  Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.

The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion.  The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.

It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.

A Brief Hiatus

At least, I hope it will be brief!

On Monday, I begin a new job.  It’s fulltime. And for the first three days, I’ll be at the headquarters office in another city for training. This past week I’ve been busy trying to get my life organized and finish up some things so I won’t feel that I have lots and lots hanging over my head during the next few weeks. I have several blog posts in the pipeline but need more time to finish them, and I’m running out of time this weekend.

Transitioning from part-time work to fulltime will involve a major adjustment, I’m certain, in all areas of my life. The schedule will be the first big adjustment. I expect to be especially tired for at least the first month. I have no idea at this point how much writing I’ll get done, but my plan is to write blog posts at a minimum and perhaps return to journal writing. Getting enough sleep and my health will be my first priority during this transition.

Generic Office Receptionist (Not me!)

The new job is far from writing or anything creative — I’ll be the firm’s front desk receptionist, work I was doing at the part-time gig and really enjoyed. Having a regular paycheck will be most helpful in getting me back on solid financial ground. It won’t be enough, especially before July, to pay off the debt from e-publishing Perceval’s Secret, so unless I win the lottery some time soon, the GoFundMe fundraising campaign will continue. I also have substantial personal debt that I’ll be paying off for a long time.

I will be reading a lot during this transition, however, and I’ve already gotten some ideas for how to solve various problems with short stories I have in draft form. In the meantime, please watch for my return, and please help by donating to Taking Perceval to the Next Level!

Ach, the Liebster Award!

Clipart: Emily McRoberts from Clker.com

Thank you to Adam at Write Thoughts for nominating me for the Liebster Award!  It is like a blogging chain letter of sorts that asks of the recipient a bit more than the conventional chain letter. I’ve responded to a similar award back in 2015 that was set up a bit differently from this one. This will be the last time I participate in this sort of thing. If any of my readers receive such a nomination and think of me for their list of nominations, please just skip me! I would like to keep this blog focused on the Perceval novels, writing issues and interests, classical music, and the occasional book or movie review.

The Rules.

Say thank you to the person who has nominated you for the Award.
Answer the 11 questions the person has asked you
Nominate 11 people (comment on their blog to let them know)
Ask the people whom you have nominated 11 questions

Adam’s Questions for his nominees:

1. What is your favorite book, or if you prefer, your favorite author? I really don’t have one favorite book or author. There are certain authors whom I read faithfully because of the high quality of their prose, plotting, character development, story, and dialogue. Those writers are: P. D. James, John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Madison Smartt Bell, Virginia Woolf, Connie Willis. and Ursula Le Guin. I just added Connie Willis to this list, and if you were to ask me this question a week from now, the list might be a little different.
2. Is there a country you have always wanted to visit, if so where? England. I’ve been to the other countries on my list: Russia, Austria, Germany, New Zealand. I’ve been to Northern Ireland and traveled through London on my way to various places, but have not stayed to actually visit England. I’d also like to return to Finland.
3. What do you enjoy about blogging? When I began blogging, I was extremely nervous about putting myself out there on the internet.  Who would read my posts? Would they like my ideas? Would they read my Perceval novels?  The first few months were a bit nerve-wracking. It’s been nearly 10 years now, and I find that I enjoy getting the ideas for posts, thinking about, exploring and researching those ideas in order to write about them, and then seeing if anyone responds. I love hearing from people so it’s been especially fun when readers leave comments and a conversation has ensued.
4. What’s your preferred writing space? I write at my desk in my living room. The desk faces the wall between the kitchen and the hall that leads to the front door. Behind me is the living room and its windows. I see the windows reflected in the large picture that hangs over my desk.  At least as much as I can see between the multitude of colorful post-its that I’ve stuck to the picture with notes to myself.
5. How do you find inspiration? In life.  In people.
6. What do you like to do for fun when you need a break from writing? Since I’m writing all the time even when I’m not at my desk, it’s rare for me to completely separate myself from it. However, I love movies, theater, and classical music concerts, spending time with friends, and walking around the lake that’s a block from where I live.
7. What started you down the road of writing? I honestly do not remember if there was one spark that got me going. I read voraciously all through elementary school, and I wrote plays and short stories starting in sixth grade. I do remember that one story in particular started in my mind when I was doing my lunchtime stint as a safety patrol kid outdoors and noticed the grill on the storm drain that ran along the curb. I’ve written about that here.
8. What’s one story you keep recommending to others? I do not have one story or book that I recommend to others all the time. I usually recommend authors, or sometimes a book I’ve recently read that impressed me.
9. How do you keep yourself motivated? It can be especially tough when life keeps butting in! I think about the characters. They keep me motivated.
10. What superpower would you choose and why? So, is this a trick question? The geopolitical situation right now is in crazy flux. Russia continues to try to reassert itself as a superpower. China is rising into that status but isn’t quite there yet, especially when they have some interesting issues with other countries that don’t bode well for China to become a superpower.  The US is definitely enjoying a decline in influence in the world, especially after last year’s election. However, the US still has the economy, military and weaponry to remain a superpower. The other countries are in an increasingly stronger position to challenge that status. I live in the US, so I suppose I’d choose the US, but honestly, I’ve lived in Europe and almost prefer that way of life.
11. What four people would you invite to a dinner party; contemporary, historical, or fictional? Ludwig van Beethoven, J. S. Bach, John le Carre, and Queen Victoria.

My Nominations:
I hope you all will respond, but from my perspective, it’s not required at all!

My questions are the same as Adam asked me:

1. What is your favorite book, or if you prefer, your favorite author?
2. Is there a country you have always wanted to visit, if so where?
3. What do you enjoy about blogging?
4. What’s your preferred writing space?
5. How do you find inspiration?
6. What do you like to do for fun when you need a break from writing?
7. What started you down the road of writing?
8. What’s one story you keep recommending to others?
9. How do you keep yourself motivated?
10. What superpower would you choose and why?
11. What four people would you invite to a dinner party; contemporary, historical, or fictional?

 

 

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.