Today on Violin and Books is talented author Kristy Kiernan, whose first novel, CATCHING GENIUS, has garnered some stunning reviews. Kristy talks about inspiration, music, her working habits, finding a publisher, and her other works. At the end of the interview is a review of CATCHING GENIUS by author/violinist Terez Rose.
Please tell us about your book, Catching Genius. What was your inspiration for this story and what prompted you to make the protagonist an amateur violinist?
Catching Genius is about sisters; Estella was diagnosed as a genius at seven, and Connie, five at the time, became a violinist in an effort to draw her father’s attention back to her. Now in their forties, the sisters must come together and work things out, which is made harder by the facts that they’re both hiding the reality of the current lives from each other and that Connie’s youngest son, Carson, seems to have inherited some genius of his own.
Connie being a violinist was a decision made right at the beginning of my brainstorming. I have always yearned to be able to play the violin, but in many ways, the yearning itself was enough. Sort of like a crush on a movie star, I felt that the fantasy of it was likely more exciting and mysterious (for me) than the reality. I knew that even to become proficient a player must put in hours of work every day, and that sort of passion in my life was reserved for writing. I’ve never been good at multi-tasking when it came to creative energy, so this was a great way for me to explore that other fantasy life I occasionally indulged myself in, in the medium I chose to express myself in.
Sneaky way to live your dreams, huh?
Tell us about the writing process while working on this novel. How much time passed from the actual idea to the published book? Did you get caught up at times or did it flow evenly from start to finish?
Hahahahaha…ahhhh, sorry, it was that whole “flow evenly” bit that got me! From actual idea to published book? Five, six years maybe? But keep in mind, that an actual idea might fester for years before it becomes impossible to ignore, and that the publishing process itself (selling, editing, proofing, typesetting, production, distribution) often takes over a year. This book, from first word on the page to selling to a publishing house took two years.
And yes, I absolutely got “caught up.” I got caught up in the research for months at a time, for both the math aspects as well as the music aspects. Perhaps an eighth of what I learned during that time is in the novel. Maybe a sixteenth. At one point I was sitting in bed at three in the afternoon, still in my pajamas, hair wild, surrounded by open books on Tesla, math theory, and the nature of genius, and watching “Pi” a black & white movie about numerology, Jewish mysticism, and the stock market, and I realized that I thought I might be on the verge of decoding the secret of the universe.
That was when I knew it was time to put the research away and finish the book!
From violin-related novels I’ve read, I know it’s very difficult for a non-violin player to write effectively about the violinist’s ‘soul’. What type of research did you have to do in order to get into the mind, heart and soul of a violinist, and to get all the details right?
You and your readers might find this horribly egotistical, but hear me out first: I didn’t find the violinist’s soul at all difficult to write effectively about. I would find it incredibly difficult to write effectively about the soul of someone who wasn’t deeply invested in the creative process. Don’t you, as a violinist, feel connected to others who make their living (financially or emotionally) in a creative field?
Our disciplines might be different, but I can’t help but feel that our passions are the same. We want to get lost in the beauty of what stirs us, we strive to perfect it to the best of our ability, even when we know perfection is an illusion, and we come back to it, over and over, even when our imperfection breaks our hearts.
What is your working environment like? Do you write in longhand or at the computer? Are you disciplined?
My hand cramps even when I just sit down to write out bills! No, no longhand for me. I love the computer, I love the decisive sound of the keyboard. I started out on computers fairly early, in the eighties, so it’s a very natural thing for me. My working environment, aside from a keyboard, is pretty fluid. I work on a laptop, so at any given moment I am working on my sofa (as I am right now, two throw pillows behind me, legs up, TV on, glass of chardonnay on the coffee table), or I could be in bed, on the patio (I live in Florida, so I can work outside most of the year), in a hotel room, on a plane, etc…
I am disciplined when I need to be. I tend to take discipline in doses. Deadline? No problem, never missed one. Lots of time? Well, then I’m a daydreamer. I think a lot before I sit down and do the thing. When I know it’s time, I set a daily word count goal rather than a time limit, usually 2,000 words a day, and then I am militant about it. I swear my husband has to call to remind me to eat.
Some authors walk for inspiration, others keep daily journals or listen to music. What helps you to unleash your creativity?
Music is huge for me. Most often rock, heavy rock. AC/DC inspires me, as does Eminem and Metallica. The I have my Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel times, and my dear friend Terez Rose, a violinist and an extraordinary writer in her own right, made me the most exquisite classical CDs that I put in when I’m need another mindset. I find that my musical tastes change with what type of scene I’m writing or what stage I’m at in the book.
If I’m stuck, thinking too much about the business end, or growing despondent about my abilities it’s: Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, Lose Yourself by Eminem, You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC, Here I Am (Come and Take Me) by Al Green, Rosalita by Bruce Springsteen, I Feel The Earth Move by Carole King, Wooden Ships by CSNY, The Cover of the Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook…yikes, there’s a lot of them. Maybe I should do a whole article on the angry music of determination?
Anyway, different music for different parts of the book, the different stages of the process.
The competition is tough in the publishing world, and a lot of new authors have tremendous trouble finding an agent or publisher. How was this process for you?
Tough. I found an agent on my second book. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any contacts, just did it the old fashioned way by sending out a single-paged query letter explaining what my book was about to agents and hoping for a reply.
We (my agent and I) didn’t find a publisher until my fourth book, which was Catching Genius. From the first word on my first book, to holding the published version of Catching Genius in my hand was seven years.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever got?
The best business advice I got was from Pat Conroy. He encouraged me to help others, which I was already doing, but then he cautioned me that helping others couldn’t come at the expense of my own writing. I spend a lot of time encouraging other writers, especially debut authors, but I try to remember that if I take too much time away from my own work, I won’t have any wisdom to impart to them. It’s a difficult balancing act, and I’ve had some tough times working it out.
The best advice about the craft came from my husband. He told me to stop worrying about what his mother would think when she read it.
Would you like to tell our readers about your other novels?
Well, I don’t know why I wouldn’t and thanks for the opportunity! My next novel is called Matters of Faith and it’s coming out August 5, 2008. It’s about a dysfunctional Florida family (seeing a trend here?), and here’s the description from the back of the book:
Kristy Kiernan made a stunning debut with Catching Genius, her compelling depiction of two sisters facing their mutual past. Now she explores the life of a boy whose search for faith threatens to drive his family apart.
At age twelve, Marshall Tobias saw his best friend killed by a train. It was then that he began his search for faith; delving into one tradition, then discarding it for another. While his parents were at odds over his behavior, they found common ground with his little sister Meghan, whose severe food allergies required careful attention.
Now Marshall is home from college with his first real girlfriend. Meghan is thrilled to have her around, but there is more to Ada than meets the eye—including her beliefs about the evils of medical intervention. What follows is a crisis that tests not only faith, but the limits of family, forgiveness, and our need to believe.
The only music in this one is the daughter, Meghan, is a pianist, and her concentration takes a different turn toward the end of the book, but it’s not a main theme. However, I can’t imagine any book I write not having music, ion one way or another, in it. It’s too important to me, always has been from the time I was a small child, just like writing.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about you or your work?
Buy it or I can’t keep doing it? *sigh* Sad, isn’t it? No, I suppose there comes a point where you have to let the work speak for itself. I hope people enjoy it. I never wanted to write a book, I just always wanted to be a writer. I imagine it must be like being a musician. Do you want to play just one piece? Or do you want to immerse yourself in the music itself, do you want to surround yourself with music, glean what you can from other musicians, talk music, breathe music? That’s how I feel about writing. It’s not The Book, it’s every book, every story, every character.
Is there any violin-related book (fiction and/or nonfiction) that you’ve read and would like to recommend?
Wow, I wouldn’t want to presume to tell a musician what to read, as I imagine a musician might be loathe to tell me what to read about writing, so I’ll just tell you what I did read, and what I enjoyed: 1) The first, the obvious, An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, lovely 2) The Savior by Eugene Drucker 3) The Rosendorf Quartet by Nathan Shaham. There were more, many more, both fiction and non-fiction, but those are the ones that stand out.
Hey, thanks so much, Mayra! I enjoyed this, several questions I’ve not been asked before!
I’m glad you did, Kristy. Thank YOU for taking the time to answer my questions!
Interview by Mayra Calvani, author of The Magic Violin.
Short review of Catching Genius
by Terez Rose
“I’m sick. I might die,” seven-year-old Estella confesses her younger sister Connie, in the prologue of Kristy Kiernan’s debut novel. “I have eyecue. It’s bad. I have a lot of it.” When Connie rushes to her beloved sister and friend, Estella holds up her hand. “Don’t. It might be catching.” And thus begins Catching Genius, the irresistible story of two sisters whose relationship and lives are irrevocably altered after one is diagnosed as a math genius.
Fast-forward thirty-five years. The sisters, who haven’t spoken for eight years, must meet, as per their mother’s request, to pack up the family’s Gulf Coast home and ready it for sale. Both sisters are reluctant—their lives have taken divergent paths and Connie still harbors resentment over the way Estella and her genius “stole” their father’s attention and affection. Connie’s youthful attempts to regain her father’s attention by playing the violin—which she learned to do with great proficiency but never brilliance—fell short, relegating her to the sidelines throughout her youth.
The two sisters, now pressed into each other’s company, must address the memories and contentious issues that separate them, as well as dealing with new issues springing up. Estella, currently a math tutor, suffers from a mysterious malady. Connie is struggling with her husband’s infidelity and the challenges of raising two boys. Her teenaged son, an increasingly hostile stranger, is failing math, of all subjects. Carson, her youngest, has been listening to the music Connie still plays and performs, absorbing it and creating his own. When Carson’s music teacher raves about the boy’s prodigious talent—both as a clarinetist and a composer—Connie, well aware of the havoc such a diagnosis can wreak on a family, reacts violently, rejecting both teacher and his words.
Kiernan writes about family, forgiveness and the allure of the Gulf Coast with authority and assurance, producing a smoothly plotted story peppered with revelations that lead to a rousing, heartfelt finish. Alternating points of view between the sisters help the reader understanding the key issues of contention and misunderstanding. Connie’s troubled relationship with husband Luke is brilliantly depicted—complex and achingly real. Likewise, Connie’s mother is well portrayed as a firm but loving matriarch who’s lively, outspoken, and reacts to her daughters in a way that is never clichéd or overdone.
Humor punctuates the story nicely, lending levity to tense moments, such as the scene where Connie speaks with a lawyer over the phone regarding her husband. She stands surrounded by the orchids that Luke enjoys presenting to her, always first “running his fingers along the lips, caressing the throat, gazing at me slyly.” Upon hearing the details of his financial irresponsibility, however, Connie tears up the entire orchid collection, in a Hitchcock-esque frenzy, that afterwards leaves her staring at the petaled carnage. “All around me plants lay unrecognizable, a battlefield of awful dismembered limbs. My fury settled into something approaching satisfaction when I realized that at least I no longer saw sex when I looked at the orchids.”Estella’s method of narrating—short musings that are focused, economic, almost geometric in their precision, offers the reader fascinating glimpses into the mind of a gifted mathematician. She experiences and processes life through the filter of her numbers, a trait Kiernan depicts brilliantly.
I walk back down the stairs. Passive-aggressively. Purposely hitting every squeak I know—there are six of them.
Three facts about six:
Six is the first perfect number.
All numbers between twin primes are evenly divisible by six.
Six is the product of the first four nonzero Fibonacci numbers.
I reach the tile, step carefully to the center of each one. Every third one, I skip one to the right—forty-three in all.
Three facts about forty-three:
There are forty-three three-digit emirps.
Forty-three is the smallest prime that is not the sum of two palindromes.
There are forty-three verses in Beowulf.
This kind of writing is what makes Catching Genius rise above the pack in the crowded women’s fiction market. Clearly meticulous research was required, but the novel never suffers from an excess of academic explanation or mathematics jargon. Kiernan’s successful melding of math and lyrical prose lends the novel invisible depths that provide an intellectual as well as emotional charge to the novel.
Kiernan’s description of Connie, as a violin player, offers an equal amount of insider information about playing the violin—the hickey on the neck, the clipped fingernails, the frustrations of tuning a recalcitrant violin and the sacred nature of a good bow and its hair. Scenes between her and the trio members she performs with are true to life. Connie, however, falls short of demonstrating the intensity that turns a violin player into a violinist. And yet this flaw is perfectly in line with the story. Connie admits she isn’t the most dedicated violin player, and is never to be found immersing herself in the hours-long daily task of scales, études and arpeggios that most violinists see as mandatory. She leaves her violin behind in the car (violinists, cover your ears: in Atlanta, in the summer). Playing the violin is a diversion for her, not a calling. Her son Carson, however, it becomes clear, lives to play music, to experiment with music, to find music in everything. He can’t not play music. He is indeed the music prodigy in the family, an irony that affects Connie on many levels.
The story might have profited from a flashback scene that would have “showed not told” Dad’s rejection of Connie in favor of Estella and her gift, but aside from this, it is well-balanced and focused. Chosen as an Ingram Reading Group Selection for February, Catching Genius is a novel that will appeal to music and math enthusiasts, women’s fiction readers, and anyone who wants to escape for a few hours, pull up a beach chair, smell the sea and enjoy a good story.
-Terez Rose’s stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and various anthologies. She has reviewed book for Mid-American Review, Peace Corps Writers, Midwest Book Review and MostlyFiction.com. An adult beginner on the violin, she maintains a violin-related blog at http://www.violinist.com/blog/terez. Visit her at http://www.terezrose.com.