Infidelity was making headline news in the Carolinas long before Tiger Woods reportedly got chased down with a golf club.  Both North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have admitted to possessing a cheating heart. And since art is want to reflect culture, Elise Blackwell's latest novel, An Unfinished Score, takes the reader into the heart and head of unfaithful ones. Blackwell, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, discusses her fourth novel with author Karen Spears Zacharias, whose own book, Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'cause I need more room for my plasma TV will soon be released.
 
Elise Blackwell

 

Q: Where did the idea for An Unfinished Score come from?

A: Like most novels, An Unfinished Score didn’t spring from a single incident or idea but from several small moments and thoughts. The early image that remains strongest for me, and that fueled the initial writing, came from a symphony I attended in Philadelphia. One of the viola players seemed at once engrossed in her work and fundamentally sad. I wondered how she could play so beautifully if she was indeed deeply sad. It’s the fiction writer’s job to wonder why people are how they are, and I wondered why she was sad, whether she was grieving something. I felt an odd personal connection, too, because I had briefly played viola (only as a child) and retained a love for its sound, and perhaps a slight envy for those who had a talent for it (which I did not). I’d been interested in writing about music since I touched on Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in my first novel, and so I started to think more about it, including composition. Among the ideas I considered was what it would be like to have a talent and love for an art form with a such a small audience. Would your life feel special or wasted?

Q: The musical knowledge in this book is impressive.  A person without a musical background might be hard-pressed to understand some of the references such as the comment that "Perhaps it's a nod to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra..." or "no one plays Harold as beautifully as you do." Did you intend this book for a niche audience or did you have some other intention in making your main characters musicians?

A: I did a lot of research for the book, but I don’t have a specialized background. So if I could write the book’s musical content, I think anyone can understand it, at least in broad strokes. My hope is that even if something isn’t fully known by the reader, the context will make it clear enough. For instance, the reader doesn’t need to know that Bartok piece to understand the passage, and the Harold reference is explained. (It’s Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.)  The reader need not have even heard of the piece, much less know it well, to understand what it means to the character. Yet I hope it won’t seem too naïve to a musician reading the book. Some nights I wake in the middle of the night terrified that a musician will read the book and laugh at my ignorance. I have a friend who is a composer, and I’m wondering how I can hide the book from him….

Q: Do you play an instrument or have you performed in an orchestra yourself? If not, how difficult was it to write about?

A: I had brief, early encounters with the viola and the oboe—both instruments that are the butt of a lot of jokes. Alas, I have no real talent for music, though I love to listen to it. I didn’t know all that much when I started, but one of the fun things about being a writer is that you have an excuse to learn about anything that interests you. It’s okay to be a dilettante. Research aside, though, my way into the material was more personal: I know what it’s like to commit my life to an art form and to risk financial and sometimes other forms of stability to do so.

Q: Your previous work has been based on historical events -- a flood, a famine. Your research for this book led you to study with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and with the Conductor's Institute of South Carolina. How did this research differ from that of your previous work? Was it more of a challenge? Or, perhaps, a lot more entertaining? 

A: I should say quickly that I didn’t study with the quartet or the conductor’s institute. I merely observed, uninvited. What was great about the research for An Unfinished Score is that I had to imagine the world of musicians, but not the whole period. The book is set now, more or less. In some ways that was more of a challenge (deciding how much contemporary culture and technology to include in the book) but in many ways much easier (no worrying about anachronisms). And—you nailed it—it was more entertaining to do live research. I had an excuse to go to concerts and buy cds, and I didn’t walk around feeling like I was living in the past half the time, as I did with my first two books.

Q:  The music aside, the novel is about betrayal. Suzanne, a concert violist, has been cheating on her husband, an obsessed composer. When her lover, Alex, dies in a plane crash, his wife, Olivia, blackmails Suzanne into completing an unfinished score that Alex was composing for Suzanne.  Suzanne agrees to do this because she doesn't want her husband, Ben, to know that she's been unfaithful to him, and she keeps her secret from her best friend, Petra.  What are your observations about women and their friendships and the rules we break when it comes to relationships?

A: Suzanne agrees to work on the unfinished score for complicated reasons. Of course she wants to avoid having her secret revealed not just to her husband but to everyone in her life, but she also works on the music to be closer to Alex. She hopes that if she can finish his score she can understand their relationship and find some closure to move on. She’s both afraid of and fascinated by Olivia, both as Alex’s wife and as a forceful woman. At moments she thinks Olivia could almost be her friend, and perhaps she’s drawn to the older woman because she herself lost her mother too young. The other important woman in Suzanne’s life is Petra. Both relationships offer the possibility for support and friendship, and yet, as too often happens, women hurt each other—sometimes due to romantic competition. And yet there is so much shared experience there, and what holds Suzanne and Petra together when tensions arise in their friendship, and despite the deceit between them, is that shared ground, together with their love for Petra’s daughter, Adele.

Q: In addressing the issue of infidelity -- no small matter to Carolinians lately -- you create a character with a lot of similarities to Jenny Sanford. Suzanne is composed, always keeping her emotions in check. She doesn't even break down when she learns of her lover's death, nor when she meets her lover's wife. Was your work informed at all by what was happening at the Governor's mansion in South Carolina at the time?

A: My novel was fully drafted before Mark Sanford took his mystery trip to Argentina, so that news item didn’t influence the book. Yet it’s true that public infidelity surrounds us. (I was at a dinner party recently at which the parlor question was, “If you were Elin Nordegren, would you leave Tiger Woods? Not everyone answered “no.”) If you reach a certain age these days, infidelity is likely to have come up as issue in the marriages of friends and colleagues, as well as of politicians and athletes. Your reading of Suzanne is a good one: she’s not a character who doesn’t experience emotions deeply. I think she does shatter when Alex dies, albeit quietly and internally. But she is skilled at hiding her emotions and sometimes is partially shut down by them. Her work as a performer helps her in this, if “help” is the right word. She’s accustomed to channeling composer’s emotions through her viola—and also to putting on a public face. Her somewhat unhappy childhood, her often cool marriage, and her long affair have also given her extended practice in hiding what she feels. I think, though, that her ability not to break visibly comes at a steep cost, part of which is her separation from those she loves and could make her happy, and ultimately she can’t sustain it even at the physical level. I don’t think this is uncommon, either. So many women—and I suspect plenty of men—have a valve on their emotions they learn to turn off to get by or because it seems easier in the short run.

Q: There is a wonderful, albeit uncomfortable, scene when Suzanne enters her lover's home for the first time and sits in the red leather chair that was his: "She sits on Alex's chair, small within the depression made by his absent form, looking through the window, listening to his wife offer her coffee ... She settles further into Alex's depression, trying to feel the shape of his embrace, wondering if she will smell him if she presses her face into the leather."  Lover or wife, daughter or sister, we do that, don't we, when someone has passed? Search for ways to recreate the presence of the loved one now gone?

A: No matter how vivid our memories are, or how clearly our mind’s eye or our heart holds the loved one, we miss their physicality. There’s a wonderful, heartbreaking moment in Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing, in which the main character is devastated by the idea of his deceased wife physically in the ground, beginning to decompose. We want to hold on to people however we can, and it’s often through objects and pictures. I chose smell in my novel because it’s the aspect of a person’s physicality that’s hardest to describe and retain. We can take someone’s photograph to keep, record their voice, save their written letters, but we inevitably loose their unique smell. When my husband is out of town, it comforts me to smell his pillow. How awful it would be to lose that, and that’s the notion that occurs to Suzanne when she is confronted by the space in which Alex lived.

Q: You manage to weave in some other important issues, such as the debate over cochlear implants. This is a big debate among the deaf community, isn't it?

A: While cochlear implants are nearly a miracle for an adult who loses hearing, there’s a real disagreement over whether they are good for children who were born deaf. Many in the deaf community feel that the implanted child doesn’t gain real hearing but nevertheless loses deaf culture and the beautiful form of communication that is American Sign Language. Other people, particularly outside of the deaf community, consider this view selfish or misguided. I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t learn enough first-hand to have a solid opinion. Luckily for me, the novel is (as Milan Kundera and other have argued) the art form most capable of holding ambiguity, so I don’t have to take a side. To me it was fascinating to explore a related set of questions: What does it mean to hear? What is the world like for those who cannot? What does it mean to be responsible for a child’s future? What does it mean to make a huge decision for someone else? What would it be like to belong to two worlds?

Q:  What's your advice to your university students who say they plan to write full-time for a living? What's your writing routine? How do you manage to carve out time to write? 

A: This is advice I’ve given before, and it’s not particularly original, but it’s honest and it hasn’t changed much. Don’t write because you want  to be “a writer” (whatever that is), but because you take pleasure (most of the time) in the writing itself. If you enjoy talking about writing more than you enjoy sitting alone in a room doing it, the effort may not be worth it for you. Second, read a lot and write a lot, and keep your eyes and mind open while you read and write. Third, think carefully and creatively about what kind of day job and life situation will best accommodate your writing over time. Find a way to support yourself, keep reading and writing, and then be patient. Gymnasts may be past their prime at twenty, but you become a better writer across an entire life. I also encourage students to write something that matters to them—emotionally or intellectually or aesthetically. Otherwise there’s no point in it, with the exception of those few purely mercenary writers in it only for money—in which case there are easier ways to make a better living. As for my own routine, it changes across the year according to my teaching and travel schedules. I use to require large blocks of uninterrupted time and a sparkling clean house to write, but life taught me to write when I can and even when the dishes need to be washed. You have to put the writing first, but if you can’t write in the morning you learn to do it at night. I’ve also trained myself to think about a book I’m working on when I’m running or driving or shopping or cleaning so that I’m ready to work when I get to sit down.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’ve begun work on my fifth novel, tentatively titled Water Damage. It is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and one of the main characters is an art conservator who specializes in the restoration of water-damaged paintings. Another is an artist, another works for the Art Loss Registry, and another is a troubled young man from a prominent family. My idea is that each of these four major characters is damaged in some unseen way that makes them dangerous to each other, even when they are well meaning. The plot centers around a stolen painting from the past and a murder that was overlooked in the chaos of the Katrina evacuation. One idea I want to explore is how some people’s lives are dramatically altered by external forces (such as a natural disaster but also emigration, incarceration, crime, and other life-changing events that may be out of their control), while other people act on their own destiny’s in ways they aren’t fully conscious of, often because of pasts that haunt them. There’s a mystery to the plot of An Unfinished Score, but Water Damage will come even closer to reading like a literary mystery.