What inspired “The Slavesinger” and the process of writing it?
As a singer, I specialized in American repertoire for my recitals, and that meant spirituals. I grew up with that music, and the texts and melodies and the oral tradition that kept them alive through generations of slavery has always had special meaning for me. Slaves in America clung to their music as a way of believing there would be a better day, a day of freedom. “The Slavesinger” came out of my awareness and respect for that history.
I found that, next to Linya, the Patroness, “as much a slave to the Word as Linya herself,” was the most fascinating character for me. She appears only a few times but has a very strong presence and fulfills one of the prophecies in the slaves’ songs. Did you draw inspiration for her from a particular person or several people? Or did she develop in the course of writing the story?
The Patroness wasn’t a character I envisioned when I began the story, but developed as I tried to develop a mythology which would work for the slaves of Arquin. In my view, she is no more in control of her destiny than Linya, and therefore is, in a way, also a slave. Being a woman of privilege can be (as Gloria Steinem points out) just as restrictive as being a servant. Steinem quotes someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) who says that a pedestal can be a very small cell. As I think about the Patroness, I remember the look on Barack Obama’s face when he won the election. Everyone was so joyous around him, celebrating, weeping, but his expression made it clear he knew his work was just beginning. Obama was not my inspiration, but I think sometimes those who “have greatness thrust upon them” bear a heavy burden. Both Linya and the Patroness bear the burdens of the slaves of Arquin.
The minstrel is the one to connect the crone to the Hero. Even most of the other slaves did not recognize Linya as the Hero before she sang. In your experience, are people unaccustomed to heroes in their midst or skeptical about truths in myth?
I think both are true, and with good reason. I’ve sung those African-American spirituals many, many times, and the texts promise a land of honey, a time of peace, freedom and respect and love, all to come at some undetermined time in the future. I wonder how many slaves sang those songs, but doubted their veracity? Faith is a fragile thing. Hoping, believing there is truth in various myths—whether they have roots in religions or in simple traditions—takes a lot of faith. And of course, Linya, as a female, must have surprised those who were expecting a male Hero!
As to the minstrel, I think of him as a musicologist, one who studies and collects music that is normally passed on only through an oral tradition. He has studied the slavesongs, and understands their power. He was in the right place, with the right background, to recognize the Hero when he encountered her.
In “The Slavesinger,” hope, freedom, and individuality are interconnected. None of the slaves are free, nor are they allowed to use the first person pronoun that would assert their independence and individuality, yet each of them are distinct characters. How much does a person’s individuality depend on others recognizing it?
The oppressors are the ones who forbid the use of the first person pronoun. It is, in a way, a device by which they can refuse to see the slaves as people with individual needs, desires, dreams. The wonderful novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, explores this issue with sensitivity to the characters on both sides of the situation. In banning the word “I” for the slaves, my intent was to make concrete the need of oppressors to not see their victims as individuals, but as one amorphous group. I keep talking about the circumstance of slavery in America, but the same principle applies to women being hidden behind veils or people of a different religion or culture being dismissed because they are “other”. It is, sadly, universal.
The slaves’ songs preserve the hope and the history of the people of Arquin, but they fade with the final generation of singers. You have a wonderful background in music. What would you recommend to people who are interested in studying music? How or when should one start?
In an ideal world, every child would have a chance to learn an instrument! I did, as an elementary school kid. I started with a funny little plastic flute called a Tonette, and worked my way up through piano and French horn until I was able to go to college and study voice. Many schools no longer have the budgets for good music programs, and it’s a great loss. There’s music all around us, of course, on the radio, the television, through iPods and MP3 players and so forth. I just think it’s wonderful if children learn they can make their own music, and not simply be consumers. It’s never too late, though! I have an adult friend who just took up the violin (a very hard instrument!) and she’s having a blast.
Before we conclude, could I ask you to speak about your newest book Mozart’s Blood? Could you tell me about one of your favorite aspects of it? What will you be working on next?
Mozart’s Blood is a novel I never expected to write, but had a wonderful time writing. I may have had more fun with this book than any of the fourteen or so I’ve done! For those who might not know, an opera singer’s career is a short one. We spend years studying and training, and then, if we’re lucky, we have perhaps twenty-five, at most thirty years to actually perform. It’s too bad, because by the time a singer retires, she has learned a tremendous amount. I wanted to write about a singer who can have multiple careers, each building on the knowledge and skills of the last. The obvious device was a vampire, which meant opening a Pandora’s Box of trouble! I’ve written about Mozart before (The Glass Harmonica) and it was fun to revisit him as an adult, and to envision a completely different reason for his untimely death. (I figure that’s not a spoiler. Pretty much everyone knows by now that Mozart died!)
I’ve just turned in an unsold novel to my agent called The Sapphire Estate, which is mostly historical, with a minor speculative element. Now I’m at work on the first of two more novels for Kensington. This one is The Brahms Deception, another paranormal historical based on a significant musical figure. I’m at the “What do I do now?” stage with it! Fortunately, both my husband and son assure me I reach this stage with every book, so I’m trying to be calm. I love working with Kensington Books, and they’ve done a beautiful job with Mozart’s Blood, so I’m thrilled to be doing two more novels for them.