Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Gerald Elias

A graduate of Yale, Gerald Elias has been a Boston Symphony violinist, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1988, Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and Music Director of the Vivaldi Candlelight concert series.

His novels include Devil's Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, Playing With Fire, and Spring Break.

Elias's new novel is The Beethoven Sequence.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

For The Beethoven Sequence, I took my cue from the master of the thriller, Robert Ludlum, he of The Bourne Identity and dozens of his other best sellers with a similar title structure. As a reader, when I see a title like that, I think, "Hmm, that's intriguing. I feel a secret conspiracy coming on, or an international plot, or power behind the throne lurking somewhere in the darkness. I wonder, "What that's all about?"

Of course, the title has to have an integral relationship to the story, whether it's the name of the main character or whatever device it is that functions as the drama's trigger. In the case of my book, the Beethoven Sequence is a musical construct that was created by the mentally imbalanced protagonist, Layton Stolz, whose obsession with Beethoven's vision of liberty is so perverted that in the end he becomes a monomaniacal despot. I hope the prospective reader will look at the title and say, "Ooh, The Beethoven Sequence. Now that sounds interesting!"

What's in a name?

As I write a book, I constantly change the names of the characters until I've settled on names that really fit their personalities. On occasion, I've sometimes confounded my editors when I've neglected to correct every one of the changes, and they write back saying, "Who the hell is so-and-so on page 168?" Whoops.

During a first draft, I often just plug in names as place holders, knowing that I'm going to change them. But that doesn't always happen. In my Daniel Jacobus mystery series, for instance, I took my son's name, Jacob Daniel, switched the order, and plugged it in. It stuck! Six books later, and it still works. Not that my son will ever forgive me.

For The Beethoven Sequence, here are the names of two of the main characters I eventually settled on, and why:

The protagonist: Layton Stolz. It's a blunt, working class name. Nothing poetic about it. What you see is what you get. Someone you wouldn't expect to get very far in the world. In a nod to Dickens, many of whose characters' names "sounded like" their personalities, someone with a strong imagination might construe "Layton Stolz" as sounding like "Latent Dolts." In any case, you can tell that for someone with a name like Layton Stolz to become president of the US, there would inevitably be a mountain of challenges to climb.

Stolz's loyal assistant: Ann Smith. I couldn't think of a plainer name. (Apologies to all those beautiful Ann Smith's out there.) The tragedy of Ann Smith is that she has no personality of her own, and the only way for her to find meaning in life is to attach herself to Stolz like a barnacle to a killer whale. It's only at the bitter end that she realizes the horror of her choice and the emptiness of her life.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I recall reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager (long before 1984 and not long after Joe McCarthy) and thinking, "Oh, my God, this is so horrifying because it's so plausible!" and counting the years left until we reached the title's doomsday date. Because Orwell's literary approach was so rooted in the here-and-now and so mundane it made the terror of Big Brother eminently believable. For years, I looked over my shoulder everywhere I went (and am starting to again).

With The Beethoven Sequence, with its own dystopian direction, my teenage reader self would be asking the questions, "Can this really happen? Can a deranged political outsider with no experience in governing really become president? Can someone in that position consolidate his power, eliminate his enemies, and destroy democracy while purporting to defend it?"

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Typically, my books start with a central idea and a rough plot outline, but I allow myself the latitude for that idea to morph into something substantially different or bigger. For The Beethoven Sequence the initial idea was: What could the potential ramifications be if the extraordinarily popular Suzuki Method of violin playing were given an injection of super-steroids? The book actually started out as a short story, but as I developed the characters, I found I had no choice but to expand it into a full-fledged thriller.

As I always do, I sketched a basic plot, Point A through Point Z with some stops in between, but as I got to know the characters more and as the complexities of the story began to reveal themselves, both ends of the book evolved, especially the ending.I hope I will have convinced the readers that the ending seems inevitable. But it certainly didn't start that way!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

As my Daniel Jacobus mystery series takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world, I’ve seen the world from many of my characters’ perspectives, so I find a little bit of myself in many of them, even the villains. One time, giving a talk at a bookstore, I introduced Jacobus as "a blind, curmudgeonly, over-the-hill violin teacher," upon which the bookstore manager quipped, "Does that mean, Jerry, that the book is autobiographical?" Before I could reply, he corrected himself. "Oh, of course not. You're not blind."

There's no possibility I'll fall into that trap with The Beethoven Sequence, in which all the characters are totally the products of my decidedly macabre imagination and of reading the daily headlines.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Call it prescience rather than inspiration, but believe it or not, I really did write much of this book before the current administration in Washington.
Learn more about the book and author at Gerald Elias's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Beethoven Sequence.

--Marshal Zeringue