Gerald Elias  

An Interview with Gerald Elias, Violinist and Author

Gerald Elias
December 1, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

I met Jerry Elias when we were both graduate students at Yale, he at the School of Music studying with Joseph Silverstein and I in the International Relations program. I played regularly in the Yale Philharmonia and got to know many of Silverstein's students. Jerry went on to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and then moved to Utah to become Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony.

I was stopped short one day at Barnes & Noble when a "staff pick" display featured a mystery novel, Devil's Trill, written by Gerald Elias. Sure enough, it was the same Jerry. I've read and enjoyed all three of his novels, and arranged to interview him in the fall as he embarked on his book tour for his third novel, Death and the Maiden. (His second novel, Danse Macabre, was selected as the 2010 Utah Book of the Year in fiction by the Utah Humanities Council and one of the top five mysteries of 2010 by Library Journal.)

- Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan: I know you’ve just spent the summer at Tanglewood. Where will your book tour take you?

Gerald Elias: To Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Oxford Mississippi, Houston, Scottsdale, and many more cities. For my previous books, I didn’t have time to do as long a book tour because I always I had to get back to Salt Lake City from the Berkshires for the beginning of the Utah Symphony season.

AD: And this year you do have time because…

GE: I retired from the Utah Symphony last May. My fourth book, Death and Transfiguration, is already in the editing phase, and will be released next June, so I’ll be able to do another tour then.

Devil's Trill cover Jerry Elias' first novel, Devil's Trill (Click to enlarge.)

AD: How did you get interested in mystery novels?

GE: I’m retelling my experiences over the past 35 years in a form that I’ve always enjoyed reading. It’s been a real creative experience for me.

I have an older brother and sister; when I was a kid, my brother had all the Hardy Boys adventures and my sister had all the Nancy Drew series. I’ve always found reading mysteries to be a very relaxing and entertaining escape.

AD: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers?

GE: Some of my favorites include John LeCarré; Donna Leon, who has written a series of crime novels set in Venice that are very evocative of the city; Walter Mosley; and Dick Francis – I really admire the skill he has used to hone his template.

AD: What made you decide to start writing a novel?

GE: I've written for pleasure since I was a kid. I never had anything published, but I enjoyed writing essays for homework assignments, and doing creative writing exercises in high school. It’s always been something that came naturally to me, even though I never considered the possibility of being a serious professional writer.

When I first began writing Devil’s Trill, I had no idea where it would lead. That book started out primarily for my own students – I wanted to write about the challenges, both technically and career-wise, that young musicians encounter.In fact, it was first called Violin Lessons. To make it entertaining, I wove the story around a stolen Stradivarius. I started writing Devil’s Trill in 1997, it went through lots of rewrites, and ultimately it became transformed into a traditional “who done it.”

AD: Tell me about your main characters: Daniel Jacobus, a blind violin teacher who’s basically a hermit in the Berkshires; Nathaniel Williams, a former ‘cellist who is a renowned insurance investigator into fine instrument fraud; and Yumi, Jacobus’ best student.

GE: All the characters are composites. A few, like Nathaniel Williams, are more or less a replica of someone I know in real life. Jacobus or Jake, as his few friends know him, is the most complex composite; he’s the one who really has no direct correspondence in real life. He’s truly a fictional character.

When I first conjured him up, I didn’t have much of a biography as to why he is the way he is. But over the course of the four books, we learn more and more about why he acts the way he does.

AD: Is Yumi based on one of your students?

GE: I’ve been teaching for about 40 years and I know how students and former students respond to instruction. She is a real composite character. I’ve been to Japan many times on tour, and I lived there for five months in 1987. There are some personality traits of people I know there that I imbued in Yumi.

AD: Your books have a lot of violence in them – some of it perhaps a bit “over the top.”

GE: I don’t start out seeking violence in a book,and I try to keep it to a minimum, but murder is murder, and in a mystery, there needs to be something creative about it. Another of my favorite mystery writers is Lawrence Sanders, who wrote the Seven Deadly Sin series – he came up with very novel ways of people getting offed!

AD: How do you create your villains?

GE: Victoria [the villain from Devil’s Trill] is certainly a composite. There are teachers who are really more interested in their own reputations than in their ability to teach. I super-imposed that upon the reputation of the renowned Dorothy Delay – not that she taught that way or had that personality, but upon the notion of the superstar teacher. Then I combined it with someone who is excessively narcissistic.

Jacobus’ manner of teaching Yumi is extremely harsh but it’s the old school: if you can get through this, then you can get through anything. It’s sort of like being in the Marines and going through boot camp. The positive thing is that she did appreciate him for what he did, and they created a strong and enduring bond. One my friends referred to them [Jake, Nathaniel, and Yumi] as the Mod Squad!

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