Echoes From The Music Room

9781910208250Not surprisingly, the idea for my novel, The Music Room came to me at a concert on a winter’s night eight years ago. Watching the young solo violinist rip majestically through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides symphony, my thoughts roamed away from the stage. I pondered the tremendous pressures on her to convey the hours, days, perhaps years of rehearsal into a thirty minute moment of performance perfection.  Then the applause. The bow.  Finito. That moment, once passed, is gone— and until the advent of recorded sound, some 125 years ago—gone forever. Performance is finite. Rehearsal goes on forever.

Is the musician’s incessant rehearsing akin to the writer’s eking out many drafts? I don’t think so. Writers write and re-write, and though the book itself passes through many hands (agent, editor, copyeditor, production people, publicist,) it emerges often without fanfare or applause. No bow. Sorry. And once published, the writer does not return to rework it. No second chance to right what was wrong, as a musician can with the next performance.

Moreover, for the most part, writers work alone. Music and drama, on the other hand, are collective undertakings. Musicians and composers and actors and dramatists actively require the input of others to bring any given work to fruition. Without the composer’s work, the cellist has nothing to play. Without the band to enrich the song, the songwriter might as well just sing in the shower. For musicians (and for actors and dramatists) each undertaking creates new professional and often personal relationships. In working together artists connect, come to recognize whom to trust.   These relationships, in turn often open up into future endeavours, broadening everyone’s horizons.

In The Music Room Gloria’s endless rehearsing involves no one but herself. In this she is more like a writer than a musician. Gloria imagines (or remembers) some joyous moment of performance, applause, public recognition for her talents, even her genius. However, in her dedication to rehearsal, to grooming, perfecting her repertoire, Gloria has lost some crucial connection to the world.  She has also lost a central element of musical life. Musicians are not meant to be alone. Even if, and as she achieves perfection, Gloria has atrophied, wizened as a human being.

Gloria Denham seems to me a splendid example of the artist as pathetic character, isolated from anything and anyone who might have given her life richness and savor. Her willful ignorance only underscores her pathos. Her gorgeous music room with its brilliant acoustics ought to have exalted the collective efforts of many musicians, and at one time it did. When that moment passed, it became a sort of cell, Gloria its prisoner in solitary confinement. Ironically, Gloria finally trades that room for the chance to perform, to play in front of an audience of sycophants who are waiting for her to die.

Thematically The Music Room asks:  what do the arts extract from people who practice them? What does the artists’ obsession, their single-minded pursuit, oblige from spouses, children, parents, the people who live with or around them? Musicians, composers, painters, actors, writers must, of necessity, carve time from everything else in life to give to their work. There will be costs and losses, just as surely as there will be moments of glory. The costs and losses in this novel are borne by two children, Marcella and Rose-Renee, detritus, in their parents’ nasty divorce, debris in their family’s egotistical pursuit of the arts.

My two sons, both musicians, have taught me a lot about music, about rehearsal and performance. When they were in high school rehearsals were always at our house. As they moved out into the world, I have attended their various gigs and concerts, recitals and recording dates. While the performances are exhilarating, my favourite part of the experience is rehearsal. I like sitting at the back of an unfilled theatre, a sparsely furnished rehearsal room,  an empty nightclub, or in the recording booth at the studio, and listening to the start-and-stop, the mis-steps, the sometimes tedious repetition leading to the “Let’s move on” moment. Then they begin the same process on the next part of the program or the piece.   I enjoy sound-check just before the show. The guy at the soundboard barks at everyone. The musicians oblige him, but hold themselves in check: every bit of psychic energy must be saved up to walk out in front of the audience. Performance.

In the months just before I went to the Mendelssohn Hebrides concert that inspired The Music Room, I had watched my eldest son Bear conduct an orchestra of some eighty musicians, and watched my youngest, Brendan give his all onstage at a rock venue.  After being part of their bright, communal musical life, to return home, to this well-known room to write, seemed suddenly very lonely. It was winter and the days were short and sunless. The Hebrides concert inspired me to create, at least on paper, the noisy lives of children who live with music lilting through their lives. I wrote for a few months, finished a full draft, but then abandoned the book. Over the course of some seven years, I returned to the novel, and then left it again. The form changed, the title changed, but the story always stayed the same.

I intended to dedicate The Music Room to Bear and Brendan McCreary.  But now I have a little grand-daughter, fittingly, for a musical family, named Sonatine. So, of course, The Music Room is for her. I expect one day to attend her rehearsals too.

The Music Room is published July 2015 by Buried River Press, an imprint of Robert Hale Ltd.

 

New Fiction (Buried River Press): The Music Room by Laura Kalpakian

The Music Room by Laura Kalpakian

9781910208250Young Marcella McNeill’s family are always rehearsing: her father is an actor, her mother Valerie an aspiring opera singer, her grandmother Gloria a renowned violinist. During the summer of 1969 – after their parents’ bitter divorce – Marcella and her little sister Rose-Renee are sent to live with their enigmatic grandmother in her decaying countryside mansion.

Instructed never to disturb the formidable woman as she endlessly rehearses in the music room, the children are left to run wild. They form a relationship with their cheerful neighbour Dorothea, who convinces their grandmother to allow the girls to be home-schooled with her sickly son, Rodney. Dorothea recognizes and nurtures the children’s gifts in ways they have never before experienced.

That autumn, their wayward aunt Linda returns home with a drawling, Arkansas boyfriend in tow. The struggles between mother and daughter – Gloria angry that Linda has abused and denied her gifts, Linda attacking her mother’s musical delusions – create a storm of clashing egos.

The Music Room is a novel of arrogance and artistry, of sacrifice and negligence, of delusion and conviction, of interminable rehearsal and profound performance. It is a story of love muddied with need, expedience, and opportunism – as love always is.

Laura Kalpakian

Laura Kalpakian is the author of twelve novels and three prize-winning collections of original short fiction. Her work has appeared extensively in the UK and the USA. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a residency at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, and her 2007 novel, American Cookery was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A native Californian, Laura was educated on both the east and west coasts of the USA, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

You can find out more about Laura at her website: http://www.laurakalpakian.com

Buy your copy of The Music Room here

New fiction: Three Strange Angels by Laura Kalpakian (Buried River Press)

9781910208120Francis Carson, brilliant British novelist, renowned for his lyrical prose, his drinking, and his womanizing, was a free spirit who crashed through life. In February 1950 he was found dead in the Garden of Allah swimming pool. Diffident Quentin Castle–newly-married, a lowly junior partner in his father’s firm, Castle Literary Agency–must convey this terrible news to the widow in Oxfordshire. Claire Carson’s plight, impoverished, alone with three small children, her dignity, her desolation, her deep blue eyes awaken in Quentin wholly new emotions. In a spasm of gallantry, he promises to escort Francis’s body home to England from California.

Regent Films are making a movie of Carson’s best known book in sun-splashed Hollywood. As a Brit, accustomed to austere, pinched, post-war London, Quentin navigates uneasily through artifice and opulence. The top executives at Regent treat him with conventional sympathy, polite condescension, and something obscure, tinged with evasion. But these few days in California—and a weekend in Mexico—will change Quentin Castle forever.

His subsequent choices—variously brilliant, audacious and unethical—are enveloped in impenetrable layers of betrayal that will crack, crumble, and finally destroy.

Laura Kalpakian is the author of eleven novels and three prize-winning collections of original short fiction.  Her work has appeared extensively in the UK and the USA.  She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a residency at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, and her 2006 novel, American Cookery, was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A native Californian, Laura was educated on both the east and west coasts of the USA, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.  You can find out more about Laura at her website at www.laurakalpakian.com

Order your copy of Three Strange Angels here

Dylan Thomas, Sunset Boulevard and the Beatles: inspiring Three Strange Angels

by Laura Kalpakian

One of the pleasures of being a novelist is to be able to build an entire book from a wisp, a particle otherwise insignificant, an anecdote that lodges in the brain, rather like the grit that eventually becomes a pearl. Three Strange Angels is that sort of novel.

My first London agency was a venerable firm, founded in about 1919 and boasting a list of authors that dazzled me. By association, I liked to think, my work was included in this stellar company. I lived in England, off and on, Oxford and Cambridge, throughout the 80s, and when I first went to the literary agency’s Mayfair offices, I was delighted to step back in time. Amid an ambience of ramshackle tradition, typewriters clacked away, the air hung heavy with cigarette smoke, and manuscripts lolled off every shelf. In an arc across a high wall were a galaxy of author photos, literary sophisticates mostly from the 1930s and 40s. My own agent in this firm was new, a young woman around my age, and we became (and remain) fast friends. The head of the firm was a man of my parents’ generation, dapper, convivial, charming.

One summer afternoon he took the two of us out to lunch at a posh Mayfair restaurant. He was treated like royalty; the drinks kept coming, the service was impeccable, the conversation funny and anecdotal. He told a story about their client Dylan Thomas (no less!) and Thomas’s sad, sudden demise at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. At that time, 1953, this now-distinguished head of the agency was a young man, a junior partner. The firm sent him as their (and the family’s) emissary to New York to escort the poet’s body home to England. This was the era of ocean liners. On that voyage, on learning that the young literary agent was associated with the much-mourned poet, other travelers feted him, fed him, bought him drinks to salute the sadness they felt for the late, lamented Dylan Thomas. The experience made him understand the power of poetry.

After that lunch, on my way back to Cambridge, as the train whistled and rocked, I kept thinking, there’s a novel there

And now, some thirty years later, and spun far from that morselette of anecdote, Three Strange Angels comes to print. I didn’t actually start writing the book until about 2010 when the central character, Quentin, emerged in my imagination: a young man with all his tickets punched, his future foreordained. Francis Carson’s death would draw Quentin into the unexpected orbit of the fascinating widow, Claire Carson, a displaced American. The task of escorting the late Francis Carson’s body home from Los Angeles would change Quentin forever.  As I wrote and read and researched over the years, the central thematics emerged: the tension between Austerity and Desire. For a young Londoner in 1950 to step into Los Angeles would have been a total, cosmic shock to the system.

Gigi Fischer – clever, sassy, shallow – nicely embodies that cosmic shock. The formidable cookery writer, Louisa Partridge, offers Quentin insight, sophistication he could never have come to on his own. And Claire Carson offers him love, the great love of his life for which he was willing to imperil everything. The book’s title, from the D. H. Lawrence poem ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’ (fittingly) came to me years after. I have always loved that line about the three strange angels knocking at the door, and the urgent admonition “Admit them, admit them.”

I filled Three Strange Angels with elements that have been important, even crucial to my own life. Books, of course. Reading. Especially novels.  Music of all sorts. I am especially fond of old, early recordings that hiss and rasp and the singer’s voice wavers up from the past. And films. In my research I sat spellbound through Sunset Boulevard (1950) and a lot of British films from and of that era as well. And then, just before I wrote the (sort of) last draft, I went to the library and spent days with the whirring microfilm machine and reading the London Times, beginning in January 1950, when the novel opens, to have a sense of the world in which Quentin Castle would have actually moved and lived and had his being.

Quentin Castle’s England was indeed pinched and austere. The war, though it ended five years before, was everywhere apparent in still-uncleared rubble; incalculable losses hung over everyone, as Robert’s death remains a vivid loss for Quentin. Rationing didn’t end till 1954; the winters were bitter and coal shortages kept people hunkered in their overcoats. Americans, who did not live with the war on their soil, nor with daily privations, had no understanding of England’s post-war suffering. And frankly (as the novel makes clear) wanted none.

In Britain the grim fifties ground on, and then, as the decade turned, the Beatles emerged!  Boyish, cheeky, energetic, incredibly talented, and tons of fun (A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite movies) the Beatles and the rock scene they inspired in the early sixties seemed to wake Britain up. The old post-war pall lifted, and England was suddenly chic, mod, even enviable. Three Strange Angels ends at this bright moment, June 1965, when Quentin, at age forty, prosperous, professionally acclaimed for his astute literary taste, sits at his desk and once again, risks everything for love.

Three Strange Angels will be published by Robert Hale in March 2015.