Friday, May 16, 2014

Interplay: An Introduction

I was always going to be a novelist. The question was, what were my novels going to be about? Looking back, it’s clear that I never really had a choice.
It all began when Maurice Jackson told me I wasn’t cool enough to be in the men’s glee club. Seriously. Peterson High was like a Disney musical. Men’s glee had 125 members, including half the football team. We sang like gorillas, occasionally like dogs. We rewrote “Winter Wonderland” into a celebration of sex, drugs and booze (“…to face unafraid, the chicks that we laid…”). But we also toured other schools, encouraging boys to sing. And we once had to postpone a playoff game because the entire baseball team was playing baseball players in Damn Yankees.
I went to college at San Jose State largely because it was close to home - and proceeded to klutz my way into a world-class choir. Our first performance was in San Francisco’s brand-new Davies Symphony Hall, and we sang on a regular basis with the San Jose Symphony, including a memorable Beethoven’s Ninth. The department also had a gamelan ensemble that performed with composer Lou Harrison, a young jazz instructor named Bobby McFerrin, and Irene Dalis, a twenty-year star of the Metropolitan Opera who had returned to her hometown to start an opera workshop.
As a singing journalism major, I wrote about these things for the Spartan Daily, and I also received some tickets from the San Francisco Opera for a touring production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The performance had two intriguing angles: Mark Rucker, a black Rigoletto (at a time when colorblind casting was still a new concept) and a third-act storm scene that benefited from actual thunder and lightning just outside the semi-covered Concord Pavilion. The subsequent review – plus an interview with Rucker – won that semester’s award for best arts feature.
It was becoming apparent that I had the specific ability to write about music. This is not a talent to be overlooked. Music is ruthlessly temporary, existing only in the present, as difficult to pin down as a butterfly on speed. “Writing about music,” says a quote attributed to just about everyone, “is like dancing about furniture.” (Reflecting this difficulty, the last thing the average music magazine addresses is the actual music.) On the bright side, music is endlessly diverse, forever fascinating, and the challenge of describing it never lessens.
And still, even after I decided to write about it, music stalked me. The year I graduated, Irene Dalis’s workshop became Opera San Jose, and Silicon Valley’s new weekly, Metro, needed someone to cover it. Metro’s jazz writer, Sammy Cohen, sold me a used drum kit, sparking a journey through a dozen jazz, blues and rock bands, plus one memorable drum circle. A local arts center, Villa Montalvo, needed a publicist – preferably someone who could write about music – for its 50-concert arts season. I emceed performances, escorted Harry Connick, Jr.’s fiancee, rapped backstage with Jon Hendricks, introduced my dad to his idol, Al Hirt, and appeared over Charlie Sheen’s shoulder in a Clint Eastwood movie.
With all this raw material beating me over the head, it was no surprise when my first novels featured artist protagonists. My first, Frozen Music, took place in a college choir. My next two – accepted by separate publishers in one very memorable week – featured a young opera singer (Gabriella’s Voice) and a theater center modeled after Villa Montalvo (Courting the Seventh Sister).
Thirteen  novels on, I am still drawing from the well – poets, drummers, painters, composers, jazz singers, actors – and I am still thirsty. But it’s not just a matter of harvesting themes like an arborist picking fruit. There’s something more dynamic at work. Every time I pick up a pair of drumsticks, begin a painting, sing a Sinatra tune or review an opera, I give my internal turbine a spin, creating new energy for my fiction.

Beginning in 2005, the editors of Writer’s Digest handed me a number of assignments that challenged me to explain this and other phenomena surrounding the creative act. “Creative Lollygagging” describes the act of finding inspiration by not seeking it. In “Vice-Versa,” three noted authors describe the divine interplay between poetry and prose. The culmination is “Meeting of the Minds,” an exploration of the visual-linguistic synergy between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Encouraged by WD’s reprinting of these articles, most recently in a book-length collection of fiction writing, I began to visualize a book that would bring all of my worlds together, a collection of articles, short stories, novel excerpts and poems reflecting a quarter-century study of the creative act. For dessert, I have included quotes from some of the artists I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing along the way. My attempt to sort these pieces into discrete categories lasted perhaps five minutes. I have opted instead for a subtle narrative thread, a trick I learned from my friend Calder Lowe, masterful editor of The Montserrat Review.

I hope that you will find in these pieces the same entertainment, fascination and creative spark that I found in the artists who inspired them. I have had a hell of a lot of fun.

Photo by MJV

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