A Year After Publishing, What Has Changed?

A few months ago I read a blog post by a woman trying to become a professional writer. The post is funny yet communicates the frustration and embarrassment of the not-yet stage. The blogger, Sandra Ebijer, describes how you feel reluctant to tell people what you do (write), because they’ll ask if you’ve been published, paid, etc. It gets old, saying no. When I read the post, I had to nod in recognition. I’ve been there. And I know the feeling . . .  if only I could get published.

A rough, rough draft

But now that my novel is, in fact, published, I’ve also seen the truth of what experienced writers say: publication doesn’t change your life. Some aspects of it will change somewhat, but you are still the same person. My novel  set in Hungary, The Songs We Hide, was published by an independent press a little more than a year ago, and here is what I’ve noticed about what it’s done (or not done) within me:

  • Confidence: I no longer question whether I can pull off writing a difficult novel. I did it, and now I’m writing an even more difficult novel. There’s been little room for my ego in this. Sometimes people say to me, “You must be proud of yourself.” Not especially. I’ve had to correct my own mistakes so often that the word “pride” seems irrelevant. Last night a woman told me she was amazed by people like me who could write a novel. But this woman has run marathons and hiked up Macchu Pichu—in her seventies. Now that’s impressive.
  • Fear: I used to dread the rejection that comes with writing. I hated the self-doubt and the fear that I was spending hundreds and maybe even thousands of hours on a project that would come to nothing. Post-publication, those feelings are still part of me. Fortunately, they aren’t as big a part. Maybe it’s like being a musician that never stops getting nervous but never gives up playing, either. Fear is a fact of the artistic life, but no way is it the whole of it.
  • Expectations: I never expected my writing to “make it big,” and I still don’t. I expected I would have to do a lot of my own marketing, and that has turned out to be very true. So I guess things haven’t been too different from what I expected. Except . . . I didn’t know how much it would mean to me to see readers touched by my book. Or to hear Hungarians thank me for writing it. I didn’t expect such satisfaction to come from my book events, with readers asking perceptive questions, wanting to know more about Hungary, more about the Cold War, more about music, more about my characters, more about the writing process, more about how writing affects the writer. I could not have foreseen how these book talks would become an opportunity for growth and caring. That’s been a great gift, one I didn’t expect.
Laszlo (Laci) Orban, the Hungarian violinist who played at my book launch

Creating the “Soundtrack” of a Novel

As a writer I’m often asked how I chose my novel’s setting or how I came up with the story line. Last fall, for the first and only time, I was asked how I chose the musical pieces in my book. It’s a great question.

Naturally, the person who asked is a musician: Svend Ronning, the concertmaster of Symphony Tacoma and artistic director of Second City Concert Series. He invited me to read from The Songs We Hide at a Second City performance of Hungarian music. Of course I jumped at the chance. It was an incredible privilege to share the stage with the Girsky Quartet, who masterfully performed Bartok, Haydn, Kertag and Kodaly. In an interview leading up to the joint concert and reading, Svend asked me, “What are some of the works you chose for your book and why did you choose them?” Here is the answer I gave:

In choices like this, writers often go with what they already know and love, and that was the case for me. For the most important songs in the book, I chose some that I could “hear” as I wrote. I used Caro Mio Ben by Giuseppe Giordani as a recurring song in the life of the female character Katalin Varga, because it’s a grieving love song and she’s been deeply affected by a past love affair. The song is also appropriate to her classical singing style. For Peter Benedek, a peasant, I chose a song from the Hungarian folk tradition, Folszallot a Pava. It would have been natural for him to hear the song while growing up, yet it’s musically rich enough that Katalin could use it in voice lessons. The words speak of Hungary’s suffering. 

I also included the Ave Maria that’s set to the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. Katalin teaches Peter this piece when she wants to give him more difficult music. It’s crucial, though, that she doesn’t give it to him until they know each other pretty well, because anything having to do with religion would be politically risky. Sharing a risky song was an act of trust between them. Thematically, the song also connects Katalin and Peter to something higher than their own hardships, so it offers a thread of hope.  

That was what I said in the interview. I’d like to add a few more comments:

  • First off, by very happy coincidence, my editor Catherine Treadgold is a singer and used to give voice lessons. She suggested songs for my character Katalin to sing in an audition scene, and I was grateful to have the advice of a professional on this.
  • Since my characters were young and Peter was inexperienced as a singer, I needed to choose vocal music that wouldn’t have been impossible for them. So I opted for songs that had a manageable range and not too many vocal theatrics. But the pieces had beauty and emotional depth, and that was important for the story. So . . .
  • Finally, I want to say again that I chose songs that I love. I have CDs of Caro Mio Ben  (Cecilia Bertoli singing) and Mascagni’s Ave Maria (sung by Andrea Bocelli), and the beauty of these pieces has haunted me for years. I could picture Katalin singing Caro with pain in her heart, and I could sense that the Mascagni melody, which Peter first heard on violin, would have touched and lingered with him. Likewise, the melody of Folszallott a Pava is mournful but deeply moving, and I felt it captured the longings of my characters, especially Peter.

I want my readers to hear what I hear, and what my characters hear. When I incorporate music into my stories, maybe it’s my way of creating a “soundtrack” for them. So imagine the sound. Nothing is as emotive as music.