Gerald Elias  

An Interview with Gerald Elias, Violinist and Author

Gerald Elias
December 1, 2019

Death and the Maiden cover Jerry Elias' third novel, Death and the Maiden (Click to enlarge.)

AD: You’ve just published your third book, Death and the Maiden. Tell us about it.

GE: The concept of the third book came from Schubert’s quartet and song of the same name. For each book I use the title of a piece of classical music that deals with death. I got the idea of having a quartet where each member disappears, then I drew upon not only the music from the string quartet but also the song Schubert wrote, which deals with the concept of when am I going to be approached by death. When will my moment arrive? Building on that point, I played with the notion of when that moment does arrive, will I struggle to live another minute, day or year, or will I bow out graciously? That’s a question that’s central to the book, especially the climax. The music and the text were both very motivating.

To have this quartet that’s disintegrating from within perform the piece as a do-or-die moment in their careers seemed to jibe very nicely.

The situation of the quartet in my book really has parallels in real life with the tribulations of the Audubon String Quartet. I myself auditioned for that position in the quartet [first violin] a few years before the other guy, who was fired and sued, got it. I wonder how everyone’s lives would be different today if I had gotten that position. [Click here for a summary of the Audubon Quartet’s legal problems.]

By the way, the legal fees of the guy who won the suit were so high that,my understanding is, he didn’t benefit from the legal suit either – lose-lose all around.

AD: What was the genesis of the scene with the older Russian musicians and the Circle of Fifths drinking scene?

GE: I’ve had so many wonderful Russian colleagues, both in Boston and Utah – I’m indebted to them for all their stories and their personalities. I amalgamated them into the book's original string quartet – some were stories they told me shortly after they arrived from the former Soviet Union. For example, the mother of a violist colleague came to visit after he’d been in America for a few years. He took her to the Star Market in Boston and she passed out. She couldn’t believe that there was all this food!

I tried to take some of those stories and put them into the characters to give them that air of the reality of that time.

Some who have read the books say that the charactersverge on becoming caricatures, but they must not have ever met exuberant Russians, especially after a few vodkas! One of our guest conductors in Utah, Pavel Kogan, was a terrific and exciting musician, and he wore his heart on his sleeve. He’s the one I got the experience of being whopped on the back from.

I made up the Circle of Fifths drinking game. That chapter was the one I've most enjoyed writing. There are hints about everything in the plot that come out later, and lots of information that gets intentionally blurred over because they’re in a drunken haze. Some of the comments between Lensky and Jacobus aver to what’s really going on with my fictional quartet.

AD: What’s your writing process been like over the course of the three books?

GE: Devil's Trill took me about ten years from when I sat down to write to when it was in print. People have asked me how I could be so patient to rewrite over and over again and not get frustrated. My response is that I’m a musician, and there’s music I started to learn when I was in high school – Bach sonatas and the Beethoven concerto, and I’m still working on them 40 years later to make them better. So the fact that it took ten years doesn’t seem like a very long time. The proof is that I wrote the next couple of books in a year and a half each. There are lots of similarities between writing and playing music, in terms of the skills involved. It’s not as if I’m embarking on a totally different career – it’s more or less a continuation of the same kind of creative process; I’m just redirecting it.

Many of my BSO and Utah Symphony colleagues have been eagerly waiting the fourth book in the series, Death and Transfiguration, because in that one, the conductor gets murdered. My contract with St. Martin’s Press is for four books – they may extend it if they’re happy with the sales. But I also have some ideas about other books, going in a different direction.

AD: How have sales been? Do your books appeal only to people who know the classical music world?

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