Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Talking Books with Howard J. 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.




Author: Howard Jay Smith
Publisher: SYQ
Pages: 385
Genre: Literary Fiction/Biographical Fiction

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.

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Thank you for this interview!  I’d like to know more about you as a person first.  What do you do when you’re not writing?

I am fortunate at this stage of my life to live in Santa Barbara, a place that is as close to paradise as one gets in this country.  Weekends we will often walk the rugged coastline north of town or kayak outside the harbor.  I also love classical music and opera and we catch every concert possible here – of which there are many. I am also on the Board of the Santa Barbara Symphony – the best small city orchestra in America – and the responsibilities associated with running it take a fair amount of my focus. Using my past business and finance experience I oversee development and planned giving for the Symphony. 

When did you start writing?

I began writing with my very first short story about piloting a Cessna – about half a page long – when I was in elementary school.  And got my first rave reviews!

As a published author, what would you say was the most pivotal point of your writing life?

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 two more 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. 

If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why?

In short order I would head to Venice, Vienna and Prague.  My next novel which I am actively researching is also 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,’ (both of which premiered in Prague) and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte,’ which played in Vienna.

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 stay 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. 

If you had 4 hours of extra time today, what would you do? 

My taxes.

Where would you like to set a story that you haven’t done yet?

There are other parts of Italy, the Piedmont, Sicily, Florence, Rome, Naples, some of which I have already visited or lived in, that would be an excellent setting for something, especially if there’s enough expresso, gelato and wine.  Machiavelli, the Borges, Vivaldi, Verdi and Andrea Zani all come to mind as possible historical personas to explore.

Back to your present book, Beethoven In Love; Opus 139, how did you publish it?

My friend and fellow writer, Russell Martin, author of the non-fiction bestseller, Beethoven’s Hair, also runs a small independent press, SYQ.  The publisher of my previous book, Opening the Doors to Hollywood, was Random House. It was however not only a non-fiction work based on film and writing classes I taught at UCLA, it was also a long time ago.  After a number of attempts to reach out to literary agents and other publishers, I realized that the publishing world had vastly changed since Opening the Doors to Hollywood was released in the 1990’s.  Every agent I spoke with wanted either a celebrity driven piece or an easily commoditized book of 250 pages.  Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is neither. I ultimately decided to go with SYQ and found the process much more to my liking.  I was involved and had control over every aspect of the process, including the layout, design and cover.  I should add that the cover art was done by my son, Zak Smith, a well-known artist in his own right with five published books and paintings hanging in eight museums around the world.

In writing your book, did you travel anywhere for research?

Yes and no.  Although I have traveled extensively in Europe over the years and felt comfortable setting my novel there, I had intended to make my way to Vienna and Bonn on a trip but for personal reasons at the time was unable to do so.

Why was writing Beethoven In Love; Opus 139 so important to you?

As one of the fictional characters, Johann Gardner, a writer inspired by my mentor, John Gardner, says to Beethoven in the course of the novel, “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.

When I came across the story of Beethoven’s death -- how at his last moment a bolt of lightning strikes the side of his building, rousing him from a coma; his eyes open, he sits up right, he shakes his fist at the heavens and then collapses back to the bed and is abruptly gone -- I found the contrast to my own near death experience stunning. 

When I was not yet twenty-one and going to school overseas in Singapore, I had a severe motorcycle accident. As my body somersaulted through the intersection, time stopped and a great and profound sense of peace and tranquility suffused my consciousness.  Fear, especially that fear of death we all share, disappeared.  My biggest surprise was landing very much alive – and in pain – on the other side of the crossroads and not the “other side” of life.

Beethoven’s death throes were so different from my calm transition.  That led me to wonder what it would have taken for this great man to come to peace with all the turmoil and failings of his life – and there were many.  In that nugget of a thought, Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, was born.

In the novel, at the moment of his death, Beethoven must find a way to come to peace with all of the failings of his life in order to order to enter Elysium, be rejoined with his Immortal Beloved and find his one moment of joy. I would hope then that my readers reflect upon these greater truths and in their own way find their moment of joy, their passion for life and a greater degree of peace and contentment for having gone on this journey with Beethoven. And although those injuries still ache decades later – especially when it rains – researching and then writing this novel was an absolute joy. 

Where do you get your best ideas and why do you think that is?

I read a lot and often skim news articles from around the world – not just current events but historical as well. 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.

Any final words?

Yes. To everyone who reads this interview, please buy a copy of “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139” – you will not be disappointed.  Researching and then writing this novel was a long journey, every moment of which was 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.   Given all the wonderful critical press reviews and comments I have received regarding the novel, I am confident my readers will be fully satisfied when the reach the end of Beethoven’s journey to Elysium.

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