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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 10 July 2010

How I Became a Novelist

by Norman Lebrecht / July 1, 2010

Flash version here.

The story begins in 1999. I had delivered a book, my tenth, to a large publishing company that proved incapable of supplying copies at its launch. My US publisher had gone bust, owing me $19,000. The market for music books was in downturn. I needed to get an agent. I needed a change of life.

Easily done. All my life I have walked around like Peter Kien in Canetti’s Auto da fe with stories and characters in my head. The agent wanted synopses. I went home and wrote the novel that rushed first to my fingers.

It was tougher than I had imagined, eleven months of living inside my head with people I got to know better than my loved ones. Then, first thing you have to surrender, I learned, is control. Writing non-fiction, you follow rules: do the research, analyze it and then recount the story in some kind of thematic or chronological order.

In a novel, anything can happen. You put characters on the page and set them loose. They have a will of their own, true to their traits (if they don’t, the story’s a fraud). How hard is that? Let me demonstrate. Take four characters. Anything A says or does can elicit one of four responses from B, C and D. That’s 256 possibilities. B’s action multiplies the possibilities by a further 256. Before you have two lines of dialogue you are juggling with 65,536 aleatory sub-plots. You can either give up, or sit back and enjoy the story as it unfolds. The sense of helplessness can be exhilarating.

I sent the novel to my agent, prepared for polite rejection. He called back after the weekend. He liked it and was sending it out to six editors. “Don’t worry if you hear nothing for six weeks,” he warned. “It’s the end of July, people are away.”

We went on vacation the following Monday. Checking in at a small hotel beside the Mediterranean, I was handed a fax: the first offer, a three-book deal. I was more confused than ecstatic. It couldn’t, surely, be that easy.

It wasn’t. And I won’t share the tangled saga on human vanities that followed—not for the moment, at any rate. Some of it still hurts. But the book came out in July 2002 and went on to win the Whitbread First Novel Award, one of the most prestigious of its kind. But I’m racing ahead.

Within a week of the first copies reaching the bookstores, my agent called to say there was a film producer demanding to see me. Could I spare the time for a lunch? He was a young man, barely 30, with only one feature to his credit, but his mother had bought the book, read it all night and told him ‘this is for you’ and he was not going to let up until I agreed to give him a shot. The Song of Names is about two boys, a brilliant virtuoso and a competent fixer, who grow up in wartime London and take more from each other than any person has a right to demand. Nick, the producer, got it. He seemed to move and breathe with my characters. Ignoring a tentative approach from Hollywood suits, I gave Nick the go-ahead.

Eight years passed. My second novel, The Game of Opposites, came out in deep recession and was quietly received. I wrote two more books about music and am finishing a third novel. Life goes on.

But Nick did not let up. At the Cannes Film Festival this year it became known that Dustin Hoffmann and Anthony Hopkins had signed on for the lead roles, a dream casting by any count. Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) will direct. All being well, the movie will go into production this fall. And I cannot wait to see what will become of Dovidl and Martin, who came out of my imagination and now inhabit the fantasies of so many others.

Once again, I surrendered control, asking only that the script stay close to the essence of my characters. From what I have seen so far, it does. Fiction, people sometimes say dismissively, is no better than fairy-tales. In my case, expect a happy ending.

Norman Lebrecht presents three lectures at the Music and Beyond festival, July 5, 6, 7. www.musicandbeyond.ca

(c) La Scena Musicale