A Harvard study published last year in the journal Science concluded what many have long assumed to be true: music is universal. Every society uses music, and it may inspire us to dance, worship, relax, or cry.
But how can it inspire us to write? I turned to Susanne Dunlap, author of several music-oriented novels, for answers.
SLR: What is your music background?
SD: I could read music before I could read words. I started piano lessons at the age of 4 and continued through college. I was a very serious pianist, playing a concerto with the orchestra etc. After college I moved to London to study with a famous pianist—Peter Wallfisch. That ended when I ran out of money…and then I worked as an advertising copywriter for 13 years until I went to graduate school in musicology back in the US. All this time I was also writing, but not in a very focused or productive way.
SLR: What prompted you to use musical themes in your novels?
SD: Fast-forward to the end of my grad school years (eleven of them), when I had a PhD in music history from Yale University. I couldn’t get a teaching job I could afford to take, even after a year as a visiting assistant professor at Columbia. I had all these amazing musical stories, especially about women in western music in the modern era (16th-20th centuries) that I was longing to share. So I started writing novels about them instead—which was a lot more fun than writing scholarly articles.
It gave me such joy to bring the world of music and women’s changing roles in it to life. My first three novels were on musical themes, but I was nudged away for the second three. Now I’m back to music and women!
SLR: What challenges did you face in presenting musical ideas in a reading experience?
SD: It’s really hard to evoke music with the written word. I had to reach deep inside to my own emotional and physical experiences of music, how it affected me, what it meant intellectually, and its effect on all aspects of my life. I’m told I’ve been successful at it, but I suspect it also depends on the reader’s individual experience of music in her life.
SLR: Were you satisfied with the results?
SD: It’s ongoing! I’m still working, writing, learning, and each novel presents different challenges.
SLR: Are there other authors who have written music-related novels, memoirs, etc. that you recommend?
SD: Some of my favorites are Marrying Mozart, by Stephanie Cowell, Bel Canto, by Anne Patchett, The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt. Most people who write about music concentrate on the history of the people, not so much on trying to evoke how music felt to them. The history is important too, because music is as fundamental to the human experience as storytelling. I try to do both.
Many thanks to Susanne Dunlap for her insights. I recommend her books. You can learn more about her writing here.
I’d love to hear how you have been inspired by music. My brother is a blues music fan and recently spent time in Clarksdale, Mississippi, known as the birthplace of the blues. Here’s a scene from Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, a place oozing with music, with my thanks to Glenn Reed for the photo.