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Q & A With Elena Delbanco

Bloom: Your new novel, The Silver Swan, draws from your own life experience: your father was renowned cellist Bernard Greenhouse, who owned an extraordinary 300-year-old Stradivarius cello. Talk a bit about how you decided to capture and fictionalize the real experience of growing up with a master cellist and this famous instrument. How did you balance the biographical pieces of the novel with those created completely from imagination?

Elena Delbanco: Of course, I thought a lot about this. I wanted to capture the world of classical musicians, the intensity of commitment necessary to achieve supremacy on a musical instrument–hours alone every day, as a child, and then for the rest of one’s life, the constant need to keep working. My father used to say that for every day he was away from the instrument, he needed two weeks of practice to catch up. Perhaps this was an exaggeration, but his belief that it was true drove him to pick up the cello every single day. Beyond that, I actually think he couldn’t stay away from it; it was the central fascination of his life. Three days after his quadruple bypass, he was working again, though it hurt to lean the cello against his wounded chest.

So I wanted to describe this commitment, the impact on family and personal life, and how the music will take primacy, always. The instrument, the Strad, was the family jewel. Long before I understood why it was such a treasure, I understood that it was something to be proud of, something that impressed people and, therefore, somehow, it was a feather in my own, childish cap. It explained the sacrifices we made to own it, the great reverence we paid to it.

The experience of visiting the studios of famous luthiers and dealers, the smells and sounds, the talk, the glowing instruments…. all of this, so fascinating to me as a child and so little experienced by those who don’t play stringed instruments seemed worth describing. I hope I captured it in the novel.

The way I tried to balance the fictional and real was to write a totally fictional story, starting with the death of the great cellist, involving characters who did not exist and events that never happened which, nonetheless, allowed me to describe the emotional realities of growing up in a world of classical music, with a great cellist for a father and a great instrument for a companion.

Bloom: The cello sold to a woman in Montreal who decided to lend it to a young, talented cellist, Stéphane Tétreault. What was it like to finally see your father’s “soul mate,” as you describe the cello in an article in The New York Times, in the arms of another musician?

ED: Because I felt pressure from so many sources when I met Stephane, literally as he was on stage playing the Countess of Stainlein, I was perhaps more self-conscious and constrained than I might have otherwise been. We were being filmed for a Fox television program called “Strange Inheritance.” I knew I would be asked how I felt and what I thought of Stephane’s playing. I wanted my answers to be “just right.” I think this detracted from my ability to experience the reunion with the cello.

Bloom: You’ve had a fascinating career, including experience as a counselor in a drug treatment program, and a long career in academia, recently retiring from your position as a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Were there particular professional experiences in counseling, politics, or international affairs that fed your writing?

ED: I really only tinkered with writing fiction twice, for brief periods long ago, until I started work on the novel. I never thought of myself as a writer, but as an editor and a stickler for clarity, even in the densest literary fiction. I’d always loved language, reading, poetry, fiction, etc. And my life was spent with writers and endless talk of writing. Without being over-fatuous, all one’s life experience comes to bear on one’s writing, of course. But the most direct and profound professional influence on me, when it came to starting the novel, was the twenty seven years I’d spent telling students of public policy to edit out unnecessary words, cut the fat, find the exact word in the rich language of English to say what you were trying to say. I was way too conscious of being spare. Someday I’d like to try writing something more Faulknerian and expansive–just as an exercise.

Bloom: You and your husband, writer Nicholas Delbanco along with John Gardner, founded the writing workshops at Bennington College. You also helped to create your position in expository writing at the University of Michigan. Talk a bit about education and creative writing: how did teaching the craft inspire your own writing process? Were there moments when teaching others to write hindered your own writing?

ED: As I said, I wasn’t writing fiction during the years I was teaching expository writing, but I know many people who write and teach creative writing, including my husband. I think it’s a real challenge to be so engaged in the work of others while you’re doing your own work. But, of necessity, many fine writers figure out how to do it.

Bloom: Who inspired you when you were first studying language and literature?

ED: At Bennington College, I had extraordinary teachers. The place was awash in artists, many of them writers. I was not a creative writing major, but a literature major. That divide was very blurry at Bennington. Most vivid to me in retrospect were the poet, Howard Nemerov, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, and the novelist Bernard Malamud. But I also studied music and visual art.

Bloom: Who are you reading now?

ED: Most recently, I’ve been reading an English writer, Helen Dunmore. Two of her books, The Siege and The Betrayal are exquisite and enviable! I’ve also recently read my husband’s beautiful new novel, The Years, An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine, Happy Are the Happy, by Yasmina Reza and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. This past winter, I reread Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Chekov short stories, and I also reread our daughter, Francesca Delbanco’s, novel, Ask Me Anything, an enchanting book which makes me laugh. I so admire her ability to be truly witty.

Bloom: You studied music at Bennington, and have mentioned that it was something you loved best, but you realized music was not the field for you. How did you come to that decision? How did your love of music translate to writing?

ED: Growing up with my father, I could clearly see that all of the elements of a successful musician’s life except the making of music, had no appeal to me. I don’t like traveling a lot and I hate traveling alone. I’m domestic. I wanted to have a family and be home with my children. I’m not a natural performer. But, most of all, I wasn’t focused enough on music and I knew that early on. Too many other things interested me and attracted my attention. Unlike most young musicians, I felt isolated by practicing, not engrossed in it to the degree necessary.

Bloom: The Silver Swan moves freely through time, to the far past, to the present, to the near past – what was it about this movement through time that best serves the story?

ED: I wish I had a more complicated answer to this question. I didn’t really know how to do it any other way to capture the wide span of time, the important elements of each character, the various histories, etc. It seems hopelessly complicated, given all the secrets to be aired, to attempt something more chronological. And when your titular subject is a three-hundred year old cello, it’s impossible to escape the presence of the past.

Bloom: The novel also focuses on the individual characters, and the reader gets an opportunity to be close to Mariana or Claude and see the story from their viewpoint. I’m not a musician, but there seems to be something musical in this construction, the way each character contributes to the story like an instrument contributes to a symphony. Why did you choose this character-driven way of unfolding the story?

ED: I’d love to be able to say I had a musical structure in mind. What interests me most in these characters, and in general, is the psychological. I had to find a way to enter the consciousness of Claude and Mariana directly. They’re so different. He has all the makings of a great musician, in terms of personal character. She, with the greater talent, has a deeper struggle which prevents her from the singlemindedness required to live out her promising career.

Bloom: There’s something Mariana says to Claude that I found very interesting, on page 97: “And don’t play repeated phrases in the same way. Use your imagination. Speak to me in the language of the music.” Talk about the language of music – what makes it unique? How do you capture the language of music through writing?

ED: Ah, it takes real genius to even approach the language of music in writing. Music goes directly into the vein, the heart. Writing goes into the brain before it goes anywhere else. If you’re asking about the job of music critics, I’d say they basically fail; it’s terribly hard to make music live on the page. If you’re talking about writers, I’d say William Butler Yeats comes as close as any writer I can think of to making music with words. I didn’t even try to attempt that.

Bloom: What’s next? What are you working on now?

ED: I started a new novel a few months ago, maybe more, and have paid only intermittent attention to it because of other demands. After writing about 120 pages, I got stuck and decided to send it off to my literary agent, who was not encouraging. So I put it away until I have desire or time to try to rework it. This started as a comic novel, but kept getting derailed as something more serious. Maybe, for me, that’s inevitable. At seventy-one, life tends towards the serious.

Bloom Post EndClick here to read an excerpt from Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan.

Featured image credit: Emma Dodge Hanson

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