The Next Big Thing: An Interview About a New Novel

The historical fiction writer Mary Biddinger created an on-line interview called The Next Big Thing.  I was tagged for this by Claire Gebben, whose historical novel about a German blacksmith will come out early next year. (It sounds very interesting!)  Meanwhile, here are my “Next Big Thing” answers regarding my own book, which is in the revision stage.

What is the working title for your book?      Voice.


Where did the idea come from for your book?     For a previous writing project I had CIMG0549interviewed some Hungarians about their memories of the siege of Budapest during World War II.  They were willing to talk about the war, but they kept digressing to the Stalinist period that followed.  Their strange, harrowing stories stayed with me, prompting more research.  The novel that emerged from that is Voice, a story about two singers in communist Hungary in 1951.

What genre does your book fall under?     Historical fiction.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?     This is two sentences, but here goes:  Set in Stalinist Hungary in 1951, Voice tells the story of 22-year-old Peter Benedek, a shy peasant forced by political pressures to go to work in the city, and Katalin Varga, an unmarried 20-year-old with a baby whose father has disappeared, most likely at the hands of the secret police.  Drawn together by singing, Peter and Katalin form a bond that helps them each to face their worst fears.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of the characters in your book?     Interesting question.  For my story, how they sound is at least as important as how they look.  So maybe dub in some good singing voices.  Here’s the cast.  For Katalin VargaAlicia Vikander, the actress who recently played Kitty in Anna Karenina.  For Peter Benedek:  I can’t think of an actor who would be perfect for Peter.  But maybe Elijah Wood.  (When he played Frodo he did a great job of looking stressed out.)  For Fredrik Zentai, the father of Katalin’s baby:  Ralph Fiennes, when he was younger and had more hair.  For Jansci Benedek, Peter’s father:  Jeremy Irons, at a little younger stage of his life.  And for Andras Varga, Katalin’s brother:  If there’s a young version of Colin Firth who can play violin really well, that would be Andras.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?     About four years, but that included a lot of research and some significant changes in my vision for the story and the characters.  I’m now revising the book heavily and expect to finish within the next few months.

What inspired you to write the book?     The idea of people doing something beautiful(singing) in the midst of fear and loss, thereby giving expression–voice–to hope.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?     I think anyone interested in music or eastern Europe would enjoy this story, and so would people with an historical interest in the Cold War.    But this isn’t really a political story; it’s a deeply human one.  People who have read the manuscript have told me they really came to care about the characters.

Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?  I will soon begin looking for an agent.

And now I want to tag my friend Ruth Tiger for a “Next Big Thing” interview!  She is writing an historical novel about the bubonic plague in Norway.

The Last Sentence–For Now: Thoughts on Finishing the Rough Draft of a Novel

On Easter Sunday I did something I’d been fantasizing about for a long time:  I wrote the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last period of my novel.  As it happened, the day was warm and sunny, and I wrote this long awaited conclusion (long awaited by me, that is) with a pencil, sitting at an outdoor table drinking coffee.  It was about as idyllic a literary moment as one could wish for. 

Then I got up, went to my non-idyllic laptop, typed the conclusion into the huge Word file that contains my novel, and I thought, “Okay, 610 pages to revise, chop, edit.  But not today.” 

This has been a long project.   The novel is set in Hungary in 1951 and is tentatively titled Voice.  I have been writing this novel for about three-and-a-half years, although if I include research in the calculation, five years might state it more accurately.  The preliminary chapter I wrote back in the beginning has long since been thrown out; I once read a quote from an author that said you basically have to sacrifice the first 100 pages to figure out what you’re doing, and that certainly was true in my case.   After dumping a lot in the electronic trash I came up with a beginning that sort of worked as a launch point, and I managed enough of an outline that I could at least aim at something as I wrote.  Along the way I continued to do more research.  Historical details and the needs of the story began reshaping my original vision:  I ended up changing the age of the male protagonist, Péter, and deepening his problems; and I threw more challenges to Katalin, the female lead, than I had first planned for her.  Subplots arose and in some cases ended up going into the trash like my original first chapter.  But this is all part of improving the work.  If I weren’t willing to make adjustments—sometimes big ones—I would be wasting my own time.

Rory and Connie in Peru

Connie and Rory Connally in Abancay, Peru (a far cry from the setting of the novel)

The finished manuscript is pretty ungainly.  The second half, not surprisingly, is a lot more focused than the first half, because by the time I had written 300 pages I was doing less wandering in the dark.  Now the daunting task of revision lies ahead of me.  Some of my writer friends, as well as a professional author, will be reviewing the manuscript for me and helping me refine it.  (My husband has already read the manuscript, and like a loyal husband, he loved it.)   I know that in some parts of the book the revisions will need to be pretty deep, and I don’t expect this work to go quickly.  But I’m very excited to have come to this point.  The diamond is still rough, but there is enough sparkle there to keep me hoping and honing.

The problem with having finished the rough draft is that I miss my characters.  I was so used to dealing with them on a daily basis, checking in with them and handing them more aggravations.  Well, there is always the revision stage.  Péter and Katalin, see you soon.