Friday, February 9, 2024

Q&A with Edward Hamlin




Edward Hamlin is the author of the new novel Sonata in Wax. He also has written the story collection Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories. He lives in the Colorado Rockies.


Q: What inspired you to write Sonata in Wax, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: For some years I’d been wanting to dig deeper into a number of topics that seemed unrelated but eventually coalesced into the book.


I’d been wanting to write about the Sanborns of Chase and Sanborn Coffee, whose story was such a classic American one—the 19th-century patriarch who builds a successful business and brand only to see his hard-earned wealth squandered by a dissipated son, the family home lost, and so on.


It was of special interest to me because I’m actually the last in that particular Sanborn line. My great-grandfather was the one who lost all the money.

I was also really interested in writing about sound recording and restoration, which is a hobby of mine. I compose and play music and have maintained a home studio for years, so the nuts and bolts of it interest me. It was really a lot of fun to create a protagonist who’s a guru in that realm, which I most certainly am not.


The third thread was wanting to learn more about piano music. Like a lot of people, I have some broad-brush familiarity with the major periods and names and works, but I’ve always wanted to know more.


I was especially drawn to Ravel and Satie; in the early stages, Satie was actually a character in the book, which is how his hometown of Honfleur became the hometown of my fictional composer, Garnier.


Writing this book gave me an excuse to drill down into that specific period of French piano music, to do some really concentrated listening and study.


This is actually the only time I’ve ever been able to write with music on in the background. Normally that’s a total distraction—I just can’t do it—but in this unique case I actually found it helpful to have Satie or Ravel or Lili Boulanger playing in the background. It felt almost transgressive in some way, a naughty pleasure…never to be repeated, probably.


As far as how I created my cast of characters, I had my two main protagonists almost from the beginning, though it took time to make Elisabeth as full-blooded as Ben, simply because she lived a century ago and Ben is someone who could easily be a friend of mine.


Ben’s antagonist, Ana Clara Matta, emerged more slowly, in part through my research into contemporary classical players, particularly the ones with diva-like personalities. Ana Clara’s quite a difficult person, which made her all the more fun to write.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: As you can imagine, Sonata in Wax required a tremendous amount of research, which is something I enjoy.


 Of course I listened to a lot of classical music and read up on the period I was writing about. I read a biography of Alexander Graham Bell as part of researching wax cylinders and the history of music recording. I visited a recording studio and interviewed an engineer who also does audio restoration and had an interest in wax cylinders. And I did considerable research on Boston in the World War I era.

Researching my own family was a completely different process. My 97-year-old mother was a font of information and recollections, and had in fact done a lot of genealogical research before it was all online and easy to do. I actually built an extended family tree in, then downloaded and modified it to integrate in the fictional characters.


Along the way I was very, very fortunate to connect with the town historian of Winchester, Massachusetts, Dr. Ellen Knight, who took an interest in the project and fed me archival material—almost daily, at points.


The Sanborns were prominent Boston brahmins in their heyday and generated headlines with various family scandals, so there’s a wealth of material on them.


It turned out that Dr. Knight was also an expert on the classical music of the period, which was an amazing bonus. Her contributions to the book are too numerous to count.


Q: The writer Jane Harper said of the book, “I was reminded of Ian McEwan in the way that small details are used to build a big scene, and in the nuance Hamlin brings to Ben’s conflict over revealing the truth about the sonata.” What do you think of that comparison?


A: It’s highly flattering, of course, especially coming from Jane Harper. I love Ian McEwan, full stop.


In terms of craft, what I know is that the extended wartime flashbacks in Atonement gave me the confidence to make my wartime flashbacks longer, too. That robust, grueling passage in Atonement with Turner slogging across war-torn Europe has stayed with me ever since I first read it years ago.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Of course I want readers to just enjoy a lively story, and to care for Ben and Elisabeth the way I do. But for me the most interesting theme of the novel, and one I hope people are spurred to think about, is lying.


On the surface, Ben needs to solve the puzzle of the sonata’s provenance, but that soon evolves into the more urgent puzzle of how to make his lie right before it destroys him. The search for a solution that he can live with is the moral and psychological engine of the novel.


I’d love it if the book stimulates a conversation about that, because lying is such a universal human behavior, and it’s rarely as ethically clear-cut as our various cultural traditions would have us believe. Which is something we all know but would rather not talk about, right? Maybe literature is a way in.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a novel about a gifted young mathematician who’s closing in on a solution to one of the great unsolved problems in number theory, the Goldbach Conjecture. She has an extraordinary and quite bizarre dream life, which is key to her mathematical intuition but ultimately drives her into a very dangerous real-world situation.


Somewhat like Ben in Sonata in Wax, she has two complex, interlocking problems to solve at once, with real peril if she fails on either score.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For those who read Sonata in Wax and find themselves wanting to listen to some of the music the book mentions, the pianist Natalia Kazaryan has been releasing excellent recordings of solo piano pieces by lesser-known female composers of that period (and others).


The Lili Boulanger piece featured in the book has been recorded not only by Natalia but by several other brilliant pianists, including Emile Naoumoff, who was Lili’s sister Nadia’s final composition student.


For those who enjoy this sort of thing, it’s just fascinating to listen to the very different interpretations of that short jewel-box of a piece (the first of Lili Boulanger’s Trois morceaux). You get a sense of the richness of the composition and at the same time the originality and sheer creativity of its interpreters. I highly recommend that listening journey for those who love piano music.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Edward Hamlin.

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