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Writing historical fiction: sometime journal of a New York City novelist

a new Indie novel about a young singer debuts

I am so delighted to welcome novelist Susan Dormady Eisenberg to my blog. Susan is the author of THE VOICE I JUST HEARD, a coming-of-age story about a young soprano who wants to sing musicals on Broadway and the rather lost, utterly appealing baritone with whom she falls in love.

In addition to asking Susan a few questions about the story which readers are just discovering, I’d like to ask her how, after a few years of being a near-miss in traditional publishing, she turned her back on that struggle and decided to publish on her own, as many gifted writers are doing today.

Stephanie: How did you come up with the idea to write a novel about a young woman who wants to sing in musicals in the 1960s? And to place her apprentice years in one of the old tent theaters in suburban areas, now mostly defunct?

SUSAN: I grew up during the golden age of Broadway musicals, such as Camelot, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and She Loves Me. My mother bought all the cast albums and when I sang along, I noticed that I had a soprano voice similar to (if not as rich or beautiful as) the sopranos I heard on those recordings. For a long time I studied voice and dreamed I might perform on stage, and my first job was as the PR assistant at a tent theater in Latham, New York, near my parents’ home in Clifton Park. By then, the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I knew I probably didn’t have the vocal brilliance to sing professionally, but I soaked up all the sights and sounds of backstage life at that “straw hat” theater where “packaged” musicals stopped on their tours. When I decided to write my first novel in the early 1990s, twenty years later, it seemed wise and normal to draw upon my personal experience, though my novel is not mostly autobiographical.

Stephanie: Do you identify with your heroine Nora? Did you ever know anyone like her magical first love, Bart?

SUSAN: I identify deeply with my heroine, Nora Costello, because she spends the novel trying to discern and embrace her vocation. I think this is a universal struggle for all of us, and some people employ a trial-and-error approach as to how they’ll spend their lives. Some of us have several talents, so it can be initially hard to determine which one should be central and which ones should be pursued as hobbies. In Nora’s case, she has a gleaming voice that she can’t quite control, mainly because she lacks vocal training; at the same time, she discovers she has a knack for theatrical PR, which makes her wonder if she should choose a safe and reputable field—public affairs—and leave the thorny climes of show business to more confident performers. My personal struggle involved both singing and writing, and writing won out when I launched a freelance writing business in 1980 and began taking classes so I could also write fiction.

Did I know anyone like Bart Wheeler? Yes, I did. I worked for several theater companies where I met charismatic singing actors, and Bart’s character is a composite. Nobody I knew in theater made the switch to opera as Bart eventually does in the book, but some classical singers I’ve profiled have “crossed over” to musicals.

Stephanie: Can you tell us how grieving her dead brother and the various pulls of her family all support or hinder her desire for a theater career and her love for her actor/baritone?

SUSAN: Nora is caught in a terrible bind in my book. She has always admired her older brother Liam, but she slowly uncovers truths about him that don’t track with her former perceptions of who he was. She meets Bart Wheeler, her soul mate, at the worst moment of her life—she’s just 21—and as she grieves for Liam, she feels guilty to find herself in love—and happy. Bart is nine years older and the divorced father of two young girls, and Nora knows that her conservative Catholic parents may reject him as her potential mate, so this also plays into her unconscious behavior as their relationship progresses.

Stephanie: Since musicals are so popular, I would think there would be a lot of novels about them but there are not. Any reasons for this in your mind? Are you a great fan of the early musicals?

SUSAN: I think it’s difficult for a novel to show the texture and artistry of acting and singing, whether in musicals or opera, which may explain why so few books are written about this subject. It’s hard to find rich and evocative language that brings a performance to life on the page. As for early musicals, they remain my passion. I remember seeing Camelot with Biff McGuire and Jeannie Carson in 1963, one of the greatest thrills of my life. I’ve collected the cds of golden age musicals for years, and I never miss revivals. Right now I’m looking forward to Washington’s Arena Stage production of The Music Man this May starring two Broadway stars, Burke Moses and Kate Baldwin.

Stephanie: VOICE took a long time to write, going through many drafts to find its deepest version. There are many people who work on a novel over ten or twenty years, but how did you keep the strength to persist? Would you have been miserable to put it away?

SUSAN: I began the novel in 1990. Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit how many drafts it went through. There was a much longer version which ran 650 pages in manuscript that many agents read (and some liked). Their criticism, though, was always the same: the book needed more “focus.” I decided to cut the ms. in half and develop the aspects of the story that test readers and a few astute agents loved best: Nora’s drive to sing and her relationship with Bart, a washed-up Broadway actor who gave her the key to her performing future. My own persistence came naturally. I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—give up because I believed so fervently in Nora. I felt that readers, especially Baby Boomer women, would empathize with her plight and perhaps gain insights from seeing their own struggles in her struggles. I was motivated to keep going until the novel was the best it could be, and I honestly feel the current indie version is my finest work. And, yes, I would’ve felt miserable setting it aside. I didn’t think I could successfully move on to another book until I’d done right by this one. I learned a great deal from writing so many versions and seeing all my own flaws and tics, and some mistakes I won’t make again—this I have promised myself.

Stephanie: You are aware that some independently published novels can grow suddenly into great successes. Is it a better financial model for the author than the traditional route where an author gets sometimes less than one dollar for each book sold? What is advantageous in publishing independently? In what way is it harder?

SUSAN: Independent or “indie” publishing gives an author total control—a real advantage in my opinion—and the return on each book sold is significant—probably a good deal more than authors receive for books that are published by large houses. At the same time, the indie author must be willing to wear all the hats for functions that a mainstream publisher would provide, or hire freelancers for those services. I was under contract to a literary agent for three years, and she was a superb editor. My book benefited greatly from all of her suggestions. I did my own copyediting and proofreading, and hired talented designers to do the front/back cover of the ebook and print version, and the formatting of the ebook. Indie authors must be prepared to work long hours to make sure their product is professional in every sense of the word. I can’t speak for others, but I feel immensely proud of having sent the novel into the world with a cover I adore and a book that is truly my vision of Nora’s story. I have no regrets about being a pioneer in this new publishing frontier.

Stephanie: How does it feel to finally have THE VOICE I JUST HEARD out there and receive wonderful reader comments daily as it begins its journey as an e-book?

SUSAN: I feel sincerely humble when someone writes to tell me my story has touched his or her life. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction and pride. (By the way, the print version will be available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble on April 10.)

Stephanie: What would you say to anyone else who felt they HAD to write a novel and it took a long time?

I’d advise any writer to follow his or her dream and to do whatever it takes to release the book, whether through a mainstream publisher or indie portal. Writing is a journey. The loveliest part for me is making discoveries along the way, and my daily encounters with my characters. Now that Nora and Bart are out in the world, I’m working on a new book, and I already feel the excitement of the process again. For me, it’s also great fun.

Stephanie: Congratulations on your book!

Susan Dormady Eisenberg is a music and arts journalist who has published articles in Classical Singer, Opera News, and the Huffington Post. Earlier in her career she studied singing and sang in musicals, was a professional public relations person in theater, and headed a small promotional writing firm in the Washington, D.C. area. THE VOICE I JUST HEARD is her first novel. It is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (BN.com). Susan’s website is www.susandormadyeisenberg.net.
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