Tuesday, February 28, 2017

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Howard Jay Smith, Author of BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139



Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" -  and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.

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About the Book:

At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life,
so the great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This ghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past. 
As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.

Purchase Information:

Amazon


What first inspired you to write or who inspired you?

I began writing with my very first short story about piloting a Cessna 172 – about half a page long – when I was in elementary school.  And got my first rave reviews! I wrote all though High School and college, everything from the school paper to newspapers and journals.  My Master’s thesis was a draft of a novel about the social upheavals of the late 60’s and an accompanying teaching guide.

In my mid 20’s I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Scholar into Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Conference where I met the late novelist, John Gardner.  John became my mentor and over the next few years I returned to Bread Loaf as a scholar a total of three times. There I worked with other greats of that era, John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. I also studied with John back in DC and Virginia. Gardner was hands down the best teacher I have ever had for any subject ever.  It was through my work with him that I found my essential voice and truly began my career as a writer.  I soon published a dozen or so short stories in literary magazines before heading to what I imagined were the greener pastures of Hollywood and screenplay writing. Years later it was John’s lessons that I reapplied to teaching my own writing class at UCLA.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Around eleven or twelve.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

Always – not written but in my head.  I consider it an occupational hazard.  Having worked for years as a writer, teacher at UCLA and Hollywood Development executive, my mind’s eye is always unconsciously examining everything I read or watch.  Usually I am looking to see whether the story telling techniques work, if the pacing is proper, if the language is appropriate, if the narrative voice is firm and strong and on and on. For example I will rarely watch a movie if I cannot see it from the very beginning as I always want to see if the writer and director did their job of setting up the story and drawing us in properly.

Can you name three writing tips to pass on to aspiring authors?

One of my earlier books, Opening the Doors to Hollywood, published by Random House, is a guide for aspiring writers and is based on classes I used to teach at UCLA for their Writers Program.  Undertaking the researching and then writing a novel, such as Beethoven In Love; Opus 139 is a long journey, every moment of which should be an absolute pleasure. 

I learned ages ago that if you want someone to take the time and effort to read your book and find your work compelling and engaging, you must also be equally passionate about what you create. I absolutely love the entire process of crafting a story, from jotting down ideas and doing research when necessary, to shaping each line, each paragraph, each character, each scene. I want to transport the reader into a vivid and continuous dream that is so powerful, so all-encompassing that the next thing they know is that someone is calling them to dinner.

So my first advice to any other would be writer is this: love what you are doing and let that passion be your motor.

Next read everything aloud.  Listen to the sounds of your words.  Think about the dream you are creating in that readers mind.  Examine every word you put on the page and then throw out everything you have written that breaks that dream, no matter how brilliant or wonderful you think it is.  Your writing and your ability to communicate will be all the better for it.

And lastly, be conscious of what you are actually saying. As one of the fictional characters, Johann Gardner, a writer inspired by my mentor, John Gardner, says to the composer in the course of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, “What is a novel, but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths.” 

Whether we are conscious of it or not when writing, (and hopefully one is always conscious) a book, a story, an article is always about something, it always presents a world view, an attitude, a philosophy of life.  In simple terms, you want the reader to finish your book, and feel as if they have not only been thoroughly entertained but that they have also learned something about life and the way of the world.  If a character does something, it has its roots in their behavior and thoughts and there are consequences that occur because of those attitudes and actions – and this is what I would not only want my readers to reflect upon when they finish but to also consider how those situations, behaviors, and ideas might impact their own lives.

Do you let unimportant things get in the way of your writing?

No. Why would you do that?  But remember, we can often do our best thinking about our stories in progress when not actually working on them.  Some of my best ideas have come while washing the dishes, taking a shower or chopping wood.  Just trust your own mind, even when it is wandering.  Those unconscious wanders will often take you exactly where you need to go – but you must be open to that experience.

What hours do you write best?

Whenever I can. There are twenty-four hours in the day and you can put them all to use.  Some of my best imaginings of scenes, characters and story ideas comes when I am either trying to fall asleep or dreaming or working in the yard.

How often do you write?

As often as possible.

Are you an avid reader?

Yes. As a working professional writer, screenwriter, teacher and TV executive for almost four decades, I am always on the lookout for great stories of historical figures where my potential protagonist wrestles with the same types of profound emotional or psychological issues that each and every one of us can relate to in our own lives.

And once I have that idea, I read everything my choice deems necessary. For example. my initial thought upon coming up with this novel about Beethoven being forced to review the failings of his life by his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” before he could pass on to Elysium or paradise, was to read a single biography, find the empty or white spaces in his life that we did not know much about and then create a totally fictional story. After reading one biography, I quickly grasped that scholars and musicians knew and had preserved a staggering amount of information about Beethoven, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. If I was going to do a novel about such a famous man, I realized that I was going to have to research that life fully and make sure everything I wrote was as accurate as possible.  

My personal dilemma was this: All of my mentors from my early years as a writer, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and the late John Gardner, all won National Book Awards or some similar accolade.  When I committed myself to doing a Beethoven novel, I knew there were two hurdles I had to overcome in order to be successful. First I would need to thoroughly research everything about his life and times and be exceedingly accurate or risk being shredded by historians and critics in the music world.  Given the enormous amount of material on his life, including dozens of major biographies, six volumes of letters as well as his diaries – not to mention his music - I was initially daunted by the scope and size of what I had taken on.  I decided not to proceed unless the quality of the writing line by line was at a level that those mentors would have approved. 

Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only Beethoven’s life, but the life and times of his family, friends, and lovers and of the entire Napoleonic era, no matter how long it took. And then and only then would I write a novel based on that research that could stand up to the weight of any critic or criticism.

I spent nearly two full years researching before writing a single word of fiction. I built a chronological outline that ran over two hundred pages itself. I read all the major biographies; all the volumes of letters to and from Beethoven; I read his diaries and first-hand accounts of his life compiled by his friends. I listened to endless hours of his music. I studied the history of the times, from Voltaire and the French Revolution to the spas of Central Europe and the life of Napoleon – whose ghost plays a central role in the novel.

I read each book at least three times: the first to get a general sense of its content; the second to highlight specific notes (don’t even ask how many yellow highlighters or sticky notes I went through); and the third to transfer key information to my outline. If Beethoven or Napoleon referenced a philosophical text, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the works of Confucius, I would read those as well. I had majored in Asian Studies as an undergrad, so that aspect came easily to me. I should note that the influence of Asian philosophy on Beethoven is unmistakable if one reads his diaries and letters, yet it is one area that musicologists generally miss not having any exposure to Eastern thought. His quotes go right over their heads.

Furthermore every character except for three minor but important ones, is an actual historical figure. I researched them as well.  And of those minor characters, one is inspired by my friendship with the now deceased novelist, John Gardner, and the other two are an homage to my own family’s East European history that I stumbled upon doing my research. I even learned that Napoleon, on his retreat from Moscow, passed through a tiny village in Belarus, the village my maternal grandparents are from, and that critical events in the war took place there.

Shaping the novel out of such a full and rich life had little resemblance to my initial notion of finding the blank spaces in his life and creating a fully woven fiction. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life.

When I was nearly done with a first polished draft, I began showing it around to my friends in the writing community and to a one, their response was, “Yes, you’re there.”  Since that time, the reviews from critics in the literary world, the music world and more specifically, the world of Beethoven scholars and devotees has been wonderful – and gratifying. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference.  There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.

But sadly, during the years I was working on my Beethoven novel, I scarcely had time to read anything else.  That’s the downside of being thoroughly committed to what one is working on.

What are you reading now?

Research materials for my next book.

What are you currently working on?

I am always looking for great stories. After scanning dozens of historical eras and possible new characters from Machiavelli to Brahms, I finally settled on another one related to music. This novel, Mozart, Da Ponte, Scandal, will focus on the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the man who wrote the lyrics for Mozart’s three most famous – and scandalous in their time – operas, ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘Don Giovanni,’ and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte.’ 

Born a Jew in 1749, Da Ponte not only outlived Mozart by some 40 years, he also grew up in and around Venice in an era when people still ran around in capes and masks all year round. After his father converted the entire family to Catholicism when Lorenzo was only 14, he unwillingly became a priest in order to get an education.  He led a rogue’s life; a priest and literary scholar who would say Mass on Sunday while whoring, drinking and gambling the other six days of the week with his friend, Casanova, the infamous role model for Don Giovanni.  

Always too politically outspoken for his own good, he was successively expelled from the Veneto, Venice and Vienna and had to flee debt collectors in London before making his way to early modern New York where he opened an Italian bookstore in Manhattan and a deli across the river in New Jersey.  He started an opera company – the seeds of today’s Met – and was the first professor of Italian at what became Columbia University. Da Ponte was the classic survivor, who in his day did everything he could to staf afloat financially while still writing a collection of operas that were considered scandalous in their day but are today revered as some of the finest works of that genre ever created. His eight decades constitute a life adventure well worth exploring.

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