Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Authors To Watch: Howard J. Smith, author of 'Beethoven in Love'

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.




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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Tell us a little about yourself.

As one of the fictional characters, Johann Gardner, a writer inspired by my mentor, John Gardner, says to the composer in the course of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, “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.

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. 

Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is my third book.  I am a former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar.  I grew up on Long Island, spent time in D.C. and Los Angeles with stops in upstate New York and Singapore, and now live in Santa Barbara, California.  I have also taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and have lectured nationally. One of my earlier books, Opening the Doors to Hollywood, published by Random House, is a guide for aspiring writers and is based on those classes I used to teach at UCLA.  My 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, I worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. I currently serve on the Board of the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Orchestra in America” – where I use my background in business and finance to head their Development and Planned Giving Committees.  I am also a member of the American Beethoven Society.

When did you begin writing?

When I was in elementary school I began writing with my very first short story about piloting a Cessna 172 – about half a page long –  and I got my first rave reviews! I wrote all though High School and college, everything from the school paper to journals and newspapers. My Master’s thesis was a draft of a novel about the social upheavals of the late 60’s and an accompanying teaching guide.

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 a total of three 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.  I soon published a dozen or so short stories in literary magazines before heading to what I imagined were the greener pastures of Hollywood and screenplay writing. Years later it was John’s lessons that I reapplied to teaching my own writing class at UCLA.

Can you tell us about your most recent release?

Although my novel begins and ends in a metaphorical sense at moment of Beethoven’s death on a snowy afternoon in March, 1827, when the composer pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy, it is the critics and reviewers who have covered the book who can offer up the most apt descriptions.  In their comments that one can truly get a sense of the depth and scope of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139.

“This book is an absolute masterpiece . . . There aren't a lot of times that we get a book to read where the author lets the reader get a good look at the heart and soul of a genius. We all know some of this amazing person, Ludwig Van Beethoven, but we haven't had the inside look at what life has dealt him and his trials and struggles. We all have those demons that haunt us, but we don't stop and think that someone as brilliant as Beethoven would have them too. The author not only shows us the man but how this man saw the world around him. I never knew that Beethoven had love in his life. Beethoven was a complicated man and took his music to a level few will ever achieve, if any ever do. Everyone should sit down and seriously read this book. It doesn't matter if you're a lover of music, romance, history, the man himself, it's a good novel and it shouldn't be by-passed. The pace is steady so you have time to take it all in. Remember, you're seeing things about a musical master that you may never have known. Everyone, genius or not, must come to grips of what our life is, what it means and where it's going.  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." - Gayle Pace
“A tour de force, brilliantly conceived and executed. Howard Jay Smith’s Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is wildly inventive, yet steeped in historical accuracy, a Beethoven novel worthy of the genius himself. It’s a novel about the ways in which each of us must come to terms with the meaning of our own lives . . . a must-read for Beethoven aficionados and for all readers who love the bold and immensely creative power of language.” -- Russell Martin, author of Beethoven's Hair.

"Every significant new input and thought on Beethoven's life often find it's special reflection in my conceptions as a performer, making me reconsider and re-analyze many things in his compositions.. Reading your wonderful novel on Beethoven’s life - it is truly amazing!! It caused me to rethink many things in my own interpretations of his works." Vladimir Khmyakov, pianist, conductor.

“Do we really need another book about Beethoven? A resounding ‘Yes!’ if it is Howard Jay Smith’s , Beethoven in Love; Opus 139. Smith’s novel abandons the assumed and fabricated ‘truths’ of the Beethoven life. This is a Beethoven of the imagination: irascible, argumentative, difficult, and yet passionate and tender. Smith treats Beethoven like the human he was, augments the faults, diminishes the virtues, and the resultant humanity only serves to create an even larger larger-than-life hero.” -- Douglas Dutton, Professor of Music, The Colburn School of Performing Arts & formerly owner of Dutton's Books

Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is a great pleasure, and a beguiling fictional interpretation of the tragedies and extraordinary accomplishments of one of the greatest composers in history, a novel that reminds us of Beethoven’s true genius—and his humanity.” -- Nir Kabaretti, Conductor and Artistic Director of the Santa Barbara Symphony
Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is a welcome addition to the myriad poems, novels, short stories, and dramas inspired by the composer and his music. The novel’s portrayal of Beethoven as he reflects on life, comes to terms with imminent death, and longs for one day of pure joy is a captivating blend of biography, history, philosophy, music, and fantasy. The author’s imaginative approach encourages the reader to take a fresh look at Beethoven the man and discover new significance in his music.” -- Donna Beckage, Ph.D., author of Beethoven in Literature

“Smith’s provocative novel begins at the moment of Beethoven’s death and transformation into a state of limbo, where he must confront his life’s triumphs and transgression with Napoleon as his guide… Smith’s considerable research for this literary novel draws not only on Beethoven’s biography but also the lives of a wide cast of true characters from the composer’s circle of friends and associates. Beethoven’s looking back at his life from outside the gates of Elysium, including his varied romantic experiences with the women in his life, constitute the core of the story. Smith chooses an Immortal Beloved for Beethoven based on his research as one of those conquests. But Smith also brings in influential men – friends such as Ferdinand Ries, foes such as Napoleon and romantic adversaries such as Goethe. Before he can be granted a day of pure joy, Beethoven must recall the most intimate and difficult experiences of his life. Smith’s daring version of Beethoven engages in fights, arguments and numerous romantic encounters. Though as flawed as any human, his humanity and genius shine through the eyes of those who loved him and his music…” (The Beethoven Journal is a publication of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University; Volume 30, Number Two)

Describe your writing process. Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants? When and where do you write?

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. Although those injuries still ache decades later – especially when it rains – researching and then writing this novel was an absolute joy. 

My initial thought upon coming up with this notion about Beethoven being forced to review the failings of his life by his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” before he could pass on to Elysium or paradise, was to read a single biography, find the empty or white spaces in his life that we did not know much about and then create a totally fictional story. After reading one biography, I quickly grasped that scholars and musicians knew and had preserved a staggering amount of information about Beethoven, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. If I was going to do a novel about such a famous man, I realized that I was going to have to research that life fully and make sure everything I wrote was as accurate as possible. 

My personal dilemma was this: All of my mentors from my early years as a writer, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and the late John Gardner, all won National Book Awards or some similar accolade.  When I committed myself to doing a Beethoven novel, I knew there were two hurdles I had to overcome in order to be successful. First I would need to thoroughly research everything about his life and times and be exceedingly accurate or risk being shredded by historians and critics in the music world.  Given the enormous amount of material on his life, including dozens of major biographies, six volumes of letters as well as his diaries – not to mention his music - I was initially daunted by the scope and size of what I had taken on.  I decided not to proceed unless the quality of the writing line by line was at a level that those mentors would have approved.
Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only Beethoven’s life, but the life and times of his family, friends, and lovers and of the entire Napoleonic era, no matter how long it took. And then and only then would I write a novel based on that research that could stand up to the weight of any critic or criticism.

I spent nearly two full years researching before writing a single word of fiction. I built a chronological outline that ran over two hundred pages itself. I read all the major biographies; all the volumes of letters to and from Beethoven; I read his diaries and first-hand accounts of his life compiled by his friends. I listened to endless hours of his music. I studied the history of the times, from Voltaire and the French Revolution to the spas of Central Europe and the life of Napoleon – whose ghost plays a central role in the novel.
I read each book at least three times: the first to get a general sense of its content; the second to highlight specific notes (don’t even ask how many yellow highlighters or sticky notes I went through); and the third to transfer key information to my outline. If Beethoven or Napoleon referenced a philosophical text, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the works of Confucius, I would read those as well. I had majored in Asian Studies as an undergrad, so that aspect came easily to me. I should note that the influence of Asian philosophy on Beethoven is unmistakable if one reads his diaries and letters, yet it is one area that musicologists generally miss not having any exposure to Eastern thought. His quotes go right over their heads.

Furthermore every character except for three minor but important ones, is an actual historical figure. I researched them as well.  And of those minor characters, one is inspired by my friendship with the now deceased novelist, John Gardner, and the other two are an homage to my own family’s East European history that I stumbled upon doing my research. I even learned that Napoleon, on his retreat from Moscow, passed through a tiny village in Belarus, the village my maternal grandparents are from, and that critical events in the war took place there.

Shaping the novel out of such a full and rich life had little resemblance to my initial notion of finding the blank spaces in his life and creating a fully woven fiction. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life.
When I was nearly done with a first polished draft, I began showing it around to my friends in the writing community and to a one, their response was, “Yes, you’re there.”  Since that time, the reviews from critics in the literary world, the music world and more specifically, the world of Beethoven scholars and devotees has been wonderful – and gratifying. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference.  There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.

Of all your characters, which one is your favorite? Why?

I did in fact spend almost five years with Beethoven, so clearly it would be the composer himself that I would choose.  Much of the novel is written in “first person” from Beethoven’s perspective, consequently I spent a lot of time trying to be Beethoven by getting into his head.  I did that by reading all of his letters, listening to thousands of hours of his music, reading his diaries and trying to capture his thoughts, words, phrasings and so forth. 

Which authors have inspired your writing?

First and foremost is Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, to my mind the greatest novel of all time.  To write such a brilliant work, one would have had to have had all of the collective insights into human life and the ability to put that wisdom into a marvelous fictional story as Cervantes did. In fact, the South American writer, Jorge Luis Borges, another favorite wrote a short story about a writer who wanted to – from scratch – write the Quixote.  Not another version mind you, but the original, word for word, line for line without copying or memorizing but rather from his own consciousness.  Borges work is clearly surrealistic, but it is driven by that same desire, to be able to be as wise and skillful as Cervantes.

Among modern writers, I am drawn to two in particular, Haruki Murakami, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who wrote Shadow of the Wind. All four of these authors share a love of brilliant language, a flair for storytelling, profound insights into human nature and when their stories open, you are immediately transported into their respective worlds of imagination.  The reader at once senses they are not in Kansas anymore.

What projects are you currently working on?
As I noted before, I am always looking for great stories. After scanning dozens of historical eras and possible new characters from Machiavelli to Brahms, I finally settled on another one 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, and Cosi Fan Tutte.
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.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring authors?

Have passion for what you are doing. 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. So my first advice to any other would be writer is this: love what you are doing and let that passion be your motor or you will most-likely fail.

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