Instead of an interview this week, I'm thrilled to bring you a guest post by Jessica Duchen, author of Ghost Variations which you can pre-order now at https://unbound.com/books/ghost-variations Welcome Jessica!
Ghost Variations: a journey into the past
When I first decided to write a historical novel, I thought it was the best idea I’d ever had. Honestly, I did. I’d already brought out two biographies and four novels, including one partly set in the first half of the 20th century. Why not give it a go? Thinking back five years later, even with the completed book in front of me I sometimes wonder what planet I was on.
I was attracted by the strangest true story I had ever come across in my years as a music journalist: the saga of the Schumann Violin Concerto’s rediscovery in the 1930s, after eight decades of suppression. It all began when a famous violinist, the Hungarian-born Jelly d’Arányi (pronounced Yelly), allegedly received a spirit message via Ouija board asking her to find and play the piece. This occurred early in 1933, a month or so after the Nazis came to power. The manuscript turned up in Germany; and after it was found, the incident snowballed until it reached the highest echelons of the British government and the Third Reich, the piece acquiring astonishing layers of significance and symbolism along the way. This seemed a book waiting to be written. Jelly is our heroine; and the title Ghost Variations is taken from a work by Robert Schumann that shares a theme with the concerto.
The obvious approach might have been non-fiction. But even the most gripping historical psychological thriller could, if rendered as pure fact for a specialist audience, turn straight to sawdust. Besides, it’s impossible to present anything involving the paranormal as “pure fact”. I’m no spiritualist and must reserve judgment as to whether or not I believe in such things; but there’s no doubt that the incident’s protagonists believed entirely in their spirit messages. What we think doesn’t change what happened. The important thing for the book is that we should believe they believed it. That could best be conveyed in fiction.
If you choose to write fiction about real people of the past, though, you face not only the usual difficulties of structuring a novel, developing theme, character and plot, and hopefully enticing the reader to keep turning the pages. You have also to deal with the challenges of biography: all of the above, plus depicting the setting, understanding people’s outlook at the time, trying to grasp which of that era’s thought processes might have been similar to today’s and which have been long forgotten; and making the whole lot colourful and believable. How do you balance research and imagination?
Any halfway decent fiction editor is going to tell you not to let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Moreover, getting too close to reality can risk sapping the energy from your writing. The more you look, the more you will find; every layer you peel away will probably reveal another, of a slightly different hue. If you stuff in every little point you’ve found interesting, where’s your story? Buried alive. Lost in the type of hoard that, were it made of glass or pottery, you’d keep in your highest cupboard in case it might someday come in handy.
There’s more of it than you think. You might find it fascinating to trace forward a minor character’s family to the point at which one of his descendants found fame as a supermodel, but you can’t put that into the 1930s. Along the way I chucked out:
- The coronation of King George VI;
- A visit to Glyndebourne;
- A holiday in Scotland;
- A scene in which Jelly and Donald Francis Tovey, a legendary musicologist, have dinner and listen to music;
- Jelly’s motherly instincts expressed towards her young assistant, Anna. I’d tried to build up Anna into a more substantial character, but since she drops out of the action quite early to recover from tuberculosis, it never quite worked…
- A scene in which Jelly visits her old friend “George” Yeats, the wife of WB Yeats, and hears about her “automatic writing”, developed to fuel her husband’s poetry. This seemed important context for the spiritualist element – which didn’t take place in a vacuum – but it remained tangential. Some 12 pages are reduced to a few sentences.
- A lot more that you needn’t know about.
I’ve also added much that was not in the first draft. The rise of British fascism became increasingly important; the xenophobia Jelly encounters in the country that has been her home for nearly 20 years casts a shadow, showing how precarious her existence could become. Small points such as the status of women at Oxford University, or the number of married women who used to succumb to “nervous” troubles, pointed to the need for an exploration of Jelly as a single woman, mourning a loved one killed at the Somme, now essentially married to her art and desperate for a chance at self-determination in an era when it was still uncommon. Her friend and duo partner, the pianist Myra Hess, was more successful at this; but she seems to have been a tougher, more grounded character all round.
And there’s the question of what happened to Jelly’s playing in the years following the Schumann incident; her career foundered, but why? Her one biography suggests she had arthritis. A former acquaintance says she walked awkwardly, as if her hip was damaged, possibly by a stroke. A former chamber music partner of hers told me that in 1939 she had a nervous breakdown. The biography suggests that some of her physical problems may perhaps have been psychological. I know from my own experience and those of many musician friends that physical problems in playing a musical instrument are often related to psychological ones – and some less sympathetic medical practitioners might occasionally find it hard, or unappealing, to decide which is which. We’re musicians, therefore we’re neurotic, right? Er, wrong... This is one of many areas in which I hope the book, set in a bygone era, reflects matters that are still current today.
Researching Ghost Variations involved books, articles, internet trawls, archive searches, tangential library browsing, listening to music (it’s not every novel in which you can put on your heroine’s own recordings), photos and portraits, and, best of all, conversations or correspondence with people who had personally encountered the characters.
They could cast light on questions that no existing books or articles could answer in depth: the dynamic between the two sisters, for example; the nature of certain relationships; how they spoke, moved, dressed. On some points, my contacts were unanimous: Jelly and her sister Adila believed unquestioningly in those spirit messages. But elsewhere, consensus was less clear. What really went wrong between Jelly and Myra Hess? Nobody is sure. There may be more to it than we think, or significantly less. I’ve tried to strike a balance, to draw upon the suggestions that have been put my way and show how easily they could be misunderstood in the context of 1938.
Some particularly valuable information came from an academic German journal, a paper tracing the progress towards print of the Schumann Violin Concerto via its publishers, Schott. The article explores everything a musicologist would wish to know. But how does one transform an extended, technically detailed correspondence into a gripping piece of fiction?
A particularly liberating facet for me was the creation of an entirely fictional character named Ulli Schultheiss: he works at Schott’s, is captivated by our heroine, tries to help her and observes everything from a good vantage point. Now, if you have a naïve, infatuated young man facing down a team of top Nazis, trying to argue a case for someone he adores who happens to be partly Jewish, the opportunity for drama is much enhanced (and the scene includes Goebbels – this is fiction, so why not?). Yet many of the points raised during it are drawn from the letters quoted in that article.
Even when everything was supposedly finished, though, I came across yet another potential problem. The sheer length of time this book has taken – around five years, what with one thing and another – meant that by the end you may have forgotten what you wrote at the beginning. You can find you’ve put the same thing in twice. Hopefully you catch and correct that. But you may also be convinced you did check all those points before, only for the copy editor to point out that the radio programme ‘In Town Tonight’ did not launch until autumn 1933 and you’ve got someone listening to it in March. Be assured, eagle-eyed editors are more precious than rubies. I’m enormously grateful to mine.
There comes a point where you have to stop the researching and the tweaking and hand it over. Even if you’re an atheist, you might then start praying. And when the book finally emerges, though you hope the historical details are OK, there’s something you wish for even more: that the readers are going to love it. That’s something you can’t achieve by research alone.
Thank you, Jessica for your wonderful article. I know I'm going to be buying this book!
Ghost Variations is published by Unbound. Order the e-book here: https://unbound.com/books/ghost-variations . Paperback available from late September and may then be ordered from Amazon or your local bookshop.