Monday, May 8, 2023

Q&A with Brendan Slocumb




Brendan Slocumb is the author of the new novel Symphony of Secrets. He also has written the novel The Violin Conspiracy. Also a violinist and music educator, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: In Symphony of Secrets’ Author’s Note, you write that you are seeking to highlight voices that have been silenced. Can you say more about that?


A: It’s of course pretty obvious that there are billions of people, of all races, nationalities, genders, and so forth, whose contributions to art, culture, and society will never be known.


Sometimes they’re too shy to take credit; sometimes their work is hijacked by others, either knowingly or unknowingly. Sometimes it’s just that one little nudge that sends an inventor down a new path to a new discovery; sometimes it’s a professor putting his own name on a graduate student’s work; the examples are endless.


I started thinking about this in the past couple of years, as more and more people became aware how racial tension can silence certain communities, and how people from underrepresented communities may not have had the voice to make themselves heard.


But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that what I wanted to explore wasn’t specifically “racial” in nature. All of us long to be heard and acknowledged; and for various reasons – sometimes innocent, sometimes nefarious – we often cannot be. 


Q: The author Eli Cranor said of the book, “Symphony of Secrets is more than just a mystery—it’s an overture, a mingling of the past and the present and the problems that still plague America today.” What do you think of that description?


A: Eli nailed it. Receiving such high praise from a guy like him is truly validating.


Part of what I hoped to do in the book was to show that the problems that confronted us in 1920 still confront us in 2020, and confronted us back in 1820. But if there are problems, there are also solutions. I have to believe that human nature can also rise above the noise and find a way to implement solutions together. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and how did you create the scenes set in the New York of the 1920s and ‘30s?


A: I spent a lot of time reading up on language, food, music, attire, and general life in the 1920s. Watched a lot of movies and documentaries. Taped Jazz Age slang on the wall next to my desk. But it was vastly more important to think about the characters than their world.


For me, everything was about Freddy and Josephine, and I spent more time imagining them than trying to figure out what shoes they wore. I think that readers read books because they fall in love with the characters, and I sure fell hard for Josephine and Freddy.


Q: The novel conjures an entire world where your character Freddy Delaney is the greatest 20th century composer, his foundation is very prominent, and his music is everywhere. Was Delaney based at all on an actual composer? And was your character Josephine Reed based on anyone in particular?


A: Freddy Delaney is very much a product of my imagination, but I did read about a lot of composers – Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and several others, but probably the character is more based on Gershwin than others – a song plugger who appropriated other people’s rhythms and melodies.


That said, I really just used, lightly, the outline of his biography. Nothing of his character. I wanted Freddy to really live in my imagination and not be beholden to another historic person. Freddy is how I imagine a composer would be, who’s just starting out. Optimistic, a little cocky, and definitely in love with what he does.


Josephine Reed, however, is wholly mine. I wanted Freddy to steal from someone who had everything going against her – and a Black neurodivergent woman in the early 20th century seemed to check all the boxes. From the moment I thought of her, she’s been more alive to me than many other characters, real or fictional.


Now every time I pass a nasturtium flower (and it’s spring here in DC!) I think of her. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Josephine thinks about nasturtiums in several critical moments in her life, and now the flower has a special resonance to me: blooming before many others, elegant and fragile and, ultimately, hopeful. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m about to dive into Book #3, which – like my other books thus far – a suspense novel that tackles class and societal issues from a musician’s POV. That makes it sound way more highfalutin than it is, though. I’m trying to write a page-turner that gets people to think. The protagonist of this one is a cellist, and I think he’s going to be doing interesting things in the next few months. Buckle up!


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: One of the other themes of Symphony of Secrets is about the limits of knowledge. I felt like all of the characters had different pieces of the puzzle, and none of them were ever able to assemble them fully – only the reader has the bigger picture. 


But more important, I really wanted to write a fun engaging book that people would want to read.  I absolutely love it and hope readers love it too.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Brendan Slocumb.

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