Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Music, history and the creative process: an interview with author Michael Destefano

Recently I had an opportunity to catch up with Michael Destefano, the author of The Composer's Legacy, a historical fiction novel that ties history and music to our present. I managed to get Michael to answer some questions and here is what I learned!

JDK – You’ve got an interesting background, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

MD – (Laughs) Not one of my better topics of conversation, which is why I strived to instill a portion of myself in the various characters. For instance, I included a flavor of my Air Force experience, composing the USAF 50th Anniversary Fanfare and how I felt before retirement. Both are touched on through the late composer’s memoirs. I employed the main character, David Whealy, as a vehicle to share my love of music and cooking. And using academia and a pop culture journalist as devices, I channeled my evaluation the music, not only of my late composer, but of the various pieces discussed that many people are already familiar with. 

From grade school through college, I played various single-reed instruments like the lower clarinets and alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. I used to drive the neighbors crazy playing familiar songs on my accordion on the large boulder near our home in upstate New York. But my true musical education came during my assignments to Okinawa. My years there allowed me to explore the pantheon of composers at a music store called Fukuhara Music and the coffee house called, Pianissimo. By critically listening to various albums and reading their liner and program notes, the fascinating world of “classical” music was opened up to me. The only thing more addictive than learning about composers and their works was traveling through Korea, Thailand and the Philippines and enjoying their delectable culinary opportunities. I highly recommend the kalbi, red curry (chicken flavor of course) and the Shanghai-lumpia with sweet chili dipping sauce.      

JDK – Give us a brief introduction to The Composer’s Legacy.

MD – Basically, the story revolves around a west coast college professor, well established, well liked, and comfortable in his position as assistant dean of music. Things quickly move into high gear as he receives an unexpected inheritance of original compositions from a stranger who lived on the opposite side of the country. He embarks on a journey not only to reveal a prolific and talented composer to the world, but to unravel a mystery centuries in the making.

There are several side stories involving the politics of musical academia, budding romances, and of course, the history of early colonial America. I blended my own fanciful manifestations with researched facts and weaved them together into the fabric of the story. In this way, I strived to introduce the world of classical music, early American and Delaware history to the casual reader. One example would be in chapter nine. I had David Whealy lecture about the early marriage of film and music, with all the essential facts laid out for the reader to enjoy.

But the real surprise is at the very end when a revelation is shared that only the reader will be privy to. The clues are sprinkled throughout the novel, so if you were paying attention, you might figure out what the characters had not.

JDK – Music, specifically the world of academic, classical music plays a central role in your novel. Can you describe your own relationship to music?

MD – It’s no secret really. I’m a die-hard audiophile. I listen to, perform, and write music. For me, it all started in the fall of 1975, when I began of my freshman year of high school. I happened to play an instrument the wind ensemble director needed desperately; the contrabass clarinet. The group was mainly composed of juniors and seniors due to the artistic complexity of the music they performed, so naturally I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Many of the pieces we performed were band arrangements of full-scale orchestra pieces by some of the world’s greatest composers. At the time, my limited musical vocabulary consisted of what I’d heard on the radio and at the movies or on television. One piece stood out that my parents couldn’t identify; the opening theme of the 4:30 movie. I don’t recall which of the thirteen channels it was, but its musical signature, I later found out, was the introductory phrase to the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

It became apparent that I needed to broaden my knowledge of these familiar pieces with unfamiliar names.

One afternoon, I happened to be in the music director’s office when I noticed his small library of records. He allowed me to borrow one of them, but I couldn’t find the work I originally wanted. I was hoping to find Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, since everybody recognized the first movement’s iconic four-note motive. Since it wasn’t among the choices available, I had to settle for a recording of the composer’s sixth symphony instead. It was nicknamed the “Pastoral.” 

It was the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday and we had one hell of a snow storm. My bedroom window looked out over the front lawn of our rural home in upstate New York. The outside floodlights brightened the snow that cascaded down in clumps over the twelve inch blanket already on the ground. It was the quintessential winter wonderland; a visual amalgamation of a Robert Frost poem and a Currier & Ives painting. 

With the house to myself that afternoon, I switched on my parent’s Telefunken stereo, set the tone arm above the glossy vinyl’s first track and waited with breathless anticipation. The needle slowly lowered onto the record and soon a winsome introductory subject in F major began to unfold. 

I knew the word “pastoral” meant to be at peace and that was the ideal adjective to describe this charming tune. In the season of peace and in such an idyllic setting, the work was musical perfection to me. From the very first phrase of this sweet symphony, I was captivated by it. This symphony was a piece I would forever link with the Christmas season from that day forward.    

That was it. I was hooked. I absolutely had to explore this world of expressive music further. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Tower Records store with a startling array of classical composers and titles to choose from. Relegated to what the town library had to offer, I had to wait until I discovered a better equipped resource for my classical music training.

JDK – You also provide original compositions with the intent that they should be experienced while reading. It’s a powerful addition to the content of your book. How did you come to this idea? Describe how you intend the reader/listener to use the two media together?

MD – The idea of marrying music to a novel is not an original one (the Star Wars novel, Shadows of the Empire for instance), but I thought the composer and author being one and the same person would be a novelty. By using several pieces I had already composed along with a few new ones, the idea was to share my music with the reading public. However, creating a mythical composer who ranked among the greatest composers who ever lived was a daunting and humbling experience. As a result, I had to rethink a few pieces I discussed and only partially completed (Reverently Isabella being one of them). I only offered what I considered my best work so there was something of James Burton West for the readers to savor. 

I went into a short bit of music theory when David analyzed Reverently Isabella, but his analysis really didn’t help the musical novice. The theme I originally came up with was decent enough, but I felt unequal to the task of completing the ensuing variations. Quite frankly, I truly believe James Burton West would have done a much better job.

Two pivotal works, The Sunder and the String Quintet (pictured on the cover of the book), were featured specifically to tie the music with the action of the story. 

When Carla reads the score to The Sunder, she’s so taken by it, she plays it on the piano for David. After playing it, not only does the instrumentation of the music—just 3 oboes—have meaning, but the opus number has such significance, the late composer captures it in his program notes (which you will find in the reading). 

Exactly how the String Quintet finds its way in front of the public I will not reveal here, but the description of the piece and how it unfolds is described in detail while the reader has the opportunity to compare the description with the piece. I thought that would be an original touch. 

JDK – What are your favorite composers and pieces?

MD – Wow, not an easy task to set one work or its composer over another, surely. I do have my favorite styles of music. My musical tastes run from classical and orchestral soundtracks to soft jazz, new age, and pop music of the 70s. I really enjoy the story tellers, like Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Jim Croce and Bob Denver.  

JDK – What motivated you to write this book?

MD – Oh that’s easy. Right after Christmas dinner in 2010, we were discussing the lack of originality in Hollywood, when my eldest niece piped up and asked about the story ideas I was working on. Reading some of them, she lighted upon the one about a music professor who receives an inheritance of music from a complete stranger. She even suggested I could use my own music as the source of the late composer’s work. When my wife suggested that I couldn’t write a book, it was all the challenge I needed to begin writing in earnest. Not only did she change her mind as she saw how thick the manuscript was getting, but she became my most ardent supporter.

JDK – What do you like to read?

MD – Mysteries and historical fiction are the easiest for me to get lost in.

JDK – Who are your favorite authors?

MD – From traditionally published fiction? Hm, let’s see now. There is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Stephen King’s earlier works, Michael Crichton, and Dan Brown. Since my baptism of fire as a self-published author, the interesting world of the Independent Author has opened a new area of discovery I wasn’t even aware of. Just getting to dip my toes in the waters of the Indie world, I’ve found intriguing works and in genres I wouldn’t normally have read. Of the self-published authors I’ve read so far, my favorites include Crystal Heidel, Claudette Melanson, Jacqueline Rainey, Bev Stout, and Em Kaplan (I believe you’re familiar with her).    

JDK – Describe your writing process at a high level. How does an idea become a book in your world?

MD – At a high level? Well, I’m sure about that, but like anything else creative, it begins with a general idea. Before the first word ends up on the page, I spend a great deal of time going over the premise in my head, working out the primary characters, their situations, what the conflict should be, the hook, and why we should care about the characters. I start the writing process by drafting the first few chapters to get the ebb and flow of the story moving. Once I feel comfortable with the opening chapters, I have enough to map out the remainder of the story, generally summarizing each chapter until the end. With “Legacy,” I actually wrote the epilogue first as a way to drive the story to where I ultimately wanted it to go. And luckily, I was able to stay true to the original 43-chapter format with the addition of the completed epilogue to close the novel with its unexpected twist.

With “Legacy,” I tried to make as many aspects of the novel personal to me in the event I never wrote another one again. Examples range from character names that have a direct connection to Delaware (Burton, Fenwick, Bunting, Kirkwood, etc…), the birthday of Klaus von Richthofen—February 6—was my Dad’s birthday. I included both my nieces first names as characters (Shannon and Ashley), and even the box number Shannon was to leave on Giles Radnor’s desk; 37M41 held personal significance. The numbers are the birth years of my parents and “M” meant married.

I even went so far as to draw up a chart creating a mythical family tree for my fictitious composer to make sure all the “details” aligned with the historical facts I researched.

I don’t believe I have to tell another novelist the feeling they get typing that last word, when they finally realize the project that took them so many years to complete was now finished. It’s a wonderful feeling that I look forward to achieve once again, as I finish the manuscript of my next work.

JDK – Are you working on a new book?

MD – As a matter of fact. It’s called, The Old Corsair. The book’s title germinated the idea I actually seeded in “Legacy.” Though it’s historic with regard to whom Captain Vernon “Cyclops” Tunney (the Old Corsair) was, the story takes place in the present. 

The main protagonist, Terrie Murphy, is a junior naval intelligence officer who accidentally stumbles on evidence of an American "Flying Dutchman," a remarkably refitted pirate vessel from the late 1700s. But as she tries to unravel the history of this ship and its enigmatic Captain Tunney, she's pressured by government officials to stop what she's doing in order to safeguard a secret the executive branch of the American government had been trying to keep under wraps for over two centuries.

With any luck, I’ll have the first draft completed by the end of the year, edited and published by mid-2016.

JDK — Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I look forward to reading your next book!

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