Monday, March 13, 2017

PUYB Virtual Book Club Chats with 'Beethoven in Love' Howard Jay Smith

Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" -  and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.




About the Book:

At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life, so the great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This ghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past. 
As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.

Purchase Information:


Before you started writing your book, what kind of research did you do to prepare yourself?

Researching and then writing “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” was a long journey, every moment of which was an absolute pleasure.  I learned ages ago that if you want someone to take the time and effort to read your book and find your work compelling and engaging, you must also be equally passionate about what you create. I absolutely love the entire process of crafting a story, from jotting down ideas and doing research when necessary, to shaping each line, each paragraph, each character, each scene. I want to transport the reader into a vivid and continuous dream that is so powerful, so all-encompassing that the next thing they know is that someone is calling them to dinner.

The novel both opens and closes at the moment of Beethoven’s death from illness at age 57 on a snowy afternoon in March, 1827.  He pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. In a metaphorical sense, the novel takes place in that moment, the moment Beethoven faces death.  In order to find that joy Beethoven must confront the many failings and disappointments of his life. In that manner – finding joy in our lives -- the entire novel becomes a universal quest about the ways in which each of us comes to terms with the meaning of our own lives and finds peace.

My initial thought upon coming up with this notion about Beethoven being forced to review the failings of his life by his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” before he could pass on to Elysium or paradise, was to read a single biography, find the empty or white spaces in his life that we did not know much about and then create a totally fictional story. After reading one biography, I quickly grasped that scholars and musicians knew and had preserved a staggering amount of information about Beethoven, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. If I was going to do a novel about such a famous man, I realized that I was going to have to research that life fully and make sure everything I wrote was as accurate as possible. 

My personal dilemma was this: All of my mentors from my early years as a writer, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and the late John Gardner, all won National Book Awards or some similar accolade.  When I committed myself to doing a Beethoven novel, I knew there were two hurdles I had to overcome in order to be successful. First I would need to thoroughly research everything about his life and times and be exceedingly accurate or risk being shredded by historians and critics in the music world.  Given the enormous amount of material on his life, including dozens of major biographies, six volumes of letters as well as his diaries – not to mention his music - I was initially daunted by the scope and size of what I had taken on.  I decided not to proceed unless the quality of the writing line by line was at a level that those mentors would have approved.

Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only Beethoven’s life, but the life and times of his family, friends, and lovers and of the entire Napoleonic era, no matter how long it took. And then and only then would I write a novel based on that research that could stand up to the weight of any critic or criticism.

I spent nearly two full years researching before writing a single word of fiction. I built a chronological outline that ran over two hundred pages itself. I read all the major biographies; all the volumes of letters to and from Beethoven; I read his diaries and first-hand accounts of his life compiled by his friends. I listened to endless hours of his music. I studied the history of the times, from Voltaire and the French Revolution to the spas of Central Europe and the life of Napoleon – whose ghost plays a central role in the novel.

I read each book at least three times: the first to get a general sense of its content; the second to highlight specific notes (don’t even ask how many yellow highlighters or sticky notes I went through); and the third to transfer key information to my outline. If Beethoven or Napoleon referenced a philosophical text, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the works of Confucius, I would read those as well.

Shaping the novel out of such a full and rich life had little resemblance to my initial notion of finding the blank spaces in his life and creating a fully woven fiction. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life.

Did you pursue publishers or did you opt to self-pub?

After I had a finished draft of “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” I made a number of attempts to reach out to literary agents and other publishers using my old networks of contacts and business connections.  “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” is my third published book. I have also published or written for hire innumerable business articles, short stories, radio pieces, commercials and screenplays.

Soon, I realized that the publishing world had vastly changed since my prior book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was released years earlier.  Every agent I spoke with – and there were many of high caliber - wanted either a celebrity driven piece or an easily commoditized book of 250 pages.  “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” is neither.

My first book “John Gardner: An Interview,” was published by the now defunct New London Press. The publisher of my second, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood” was Random House. It was a non-fiction work based on film and writing classes I taught at UCLA.  We had great distribution through bookstores nationally and it was a great kick to walk into a bookstore and to not only find it on the shelves but to also be asked for autographs.  That book sold in excess of fifteen-thousand copies but the profits were all gobbled up by Random House in shipping and distribution costs.  “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was also in terms of the history of the publishing world, ancient history and of little use in obtaining a new publisher for my Beethoven novel.

That’s when I turned to my friend and fellow writer, Russell Martin, author of the non-fiction bestseller, “Beethoven’s Hair.”  Russell also runs a small independent press, SYQ.  I ultimately decided to go with SYQ and found the process much more to my liking.  I was involved and had control over every aspect of the process, including the layout, design and cover. 
If published by a publisher, what was your deciding factor in going with them?

Trust!  I knew Russell Martin, the owner of SYQ, well enough that I trusted him to get the work done professionally, on time, on budget, while allowing for me to have far greater control over each and every aspect of the assemblage of the book.  And that is exactly what happened. Russell pulled the whole team toether, including web page artists, a publicist, proof readers, editors, and a top notch book designer, Hans Teensma. Hans selected the fonts, did the layout of each and every page and created the overall look of the book, right down to the high quality European style paperback that has folded over flaps much like the slip cover of a hardback.  I was extremely happy with the physical product and was personally able to sign off on each phase.

If published by a publisher, are you happy with the price they chose?

Yes.  Recalling my experience with Random House where the profits were gobbled up by shipping, SYQ and I decided to limit sales to online outlets such as Amazon and to pick price points for book print and electronic versions that were not only reasonable relative to the marketplace but were also set high enough that I would actually earn money from their sales.  Though I have as yet to reach the sales levels of “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” my personal returns have been significantly greater.

How did you choose your cover?

Long before I finished the first draft, I asked my son, the internationally known painter Zak Smith, if he would do the cover art.  Zak is an artist and writer – with five books of his own - whose paintings and drawings are held in major public and private collections worldwide.  He has been exhibited in at least eight major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art., the National Portrait Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery in London. Knowing his style intimately, I was certain he would come up with a Beethoven portrait that not only captured the theme of the novel but would also set the standard for an iconic image of the composer for the 21st century.  It took him several months to come up with the perfect portrait, but once he delivered, we trusted Hans Teesma to integrate it into his overall book design.  The result was most pleasing.

Another important element of the cover was endorsements. Russell sought out and was successful in finding established key figures in both the music and literature worlds for their quotes. We used several on the cover, others on the website and in promotional materials.

Did you write your book, then revise or revise as you went?

Years ago, when I taught fiction at the Writers’ Program at UCLA, I would constantly remind my students to think of their first draft as “The Ugly.”  By that I meant that it was more important to get your basic ideas, thoughts and story out onto paper than it was to immediately create a smooth and polished version.  You do not share an “Ugly” with anyone except yourself.  You know what you want to say and you probably know you are going to get there eventually – but no one else knows what is in your head and if you show that draft around, you will not get the reception you want.  If you accept that it is going to be “Ugly” the self-imposed pressure to reach perfection instantly is removed. Once relaxed, you can take your time getting it in shape – and only when you are close do you begin to share it.

As I noted earlier I created a rough outline and a notes file that was more than half as long as the novel itself before I ever started writing. Structurally I also wanted to mimic the musical form of a concerto where Beethoven was the soloist and his friends, lovers, associates and family represented the orchestra. Therefore I composed each chapter and would work through and revise it enough each day until it felt complete – not perfect, not polished but complete.  Whenever I started on a new chapter, I would go back three or four chapters into the draft and start re-reading and gently polishing the older chapters to get a running start so to speak on the new material.

When I had a complete draft I went back innumerable times to polish again and again.  I should note too that I too many opportunities to read parts of the draft aloud at either public events or to small circles of friends so that I could get a sense of the flow, rhythm and lyrical strength of that segment.

When all of that was done, I showed the draft to other writers and editors whom I trusted for their feedback – and there were a fair number of good notes that I incorporated.  Some were minor edits, others involved re-ordering whole chapters to shift the emphasis and highlight important themes.

Did you come up with special swag for your book and how are you using it to help get the word out about your book?

We kept this fairly simple.  SYQ designed postcards, business cards, and a website as well as Twitter and Facebook pages.

What’s your opinion on giving your book away to sell other copies of your book?

When we first approached a traditional book publicist to help bring the book to the attention of newspapers, magazines and radio stations, she insisted we first print a “Review Draft” for submission to these media outlets and then hold off a formal release of a final print and e-book edition until six months had passed.  She sent out about 100 copies but failed to personalize her approach, do much follow up or do more than I could have done on my own.  The result of these free submission was that most of them ended up on Amazon for sale as used copies.  The submissions did bring in a few radio and press interviews but were too few and far between and mostly in minor markets.  After our release date she then wanted to send another one hundred to the same places but I deferred realizing it was just going to be another waste of time and effort.

Since then we have selectively given free copies to people who have the power to be influencers and that has been far more successful. This way I continue to get good press and publicity.

What are three of the most important things you believe an author should do before their book is released? 

First and foremost is the key lesson I tried to teach writing students at UCLA when I was there was to recognize the fact that “Show Business” and the “Publishing Business” are just what their name implies: businesses.  This fact is all too often ignored or neglected by writers who only view themselves as suffering artists. There’s too much of that attitude around and it is damaging to the career of anyone who writes. 

Much of my career work has been related to not only writing, but business and finance. I have always been described as one of those “Left Brain – Right Brain,” kind of guys who goes back and forth between these two worlds. 

The first five years I spent researching and writing “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” were clearly the creative side.  Once done though I switched gears and treated the printing, marketing and sales of the book as a business proposition.  What good is it if you write a great novel but no one reads it?  I focused on marketing and treated the costs and time spent as one would a business start-up, imagining that it would take a while to recoup those expenses. 

Clearly publishing and bookselling are industries that has been radically transformed by the web. Once I committed to a small press, I knew we had to maximize the use of electronic mediums to generate real business.  The old models didn’t work and I don’t think anyone has figured out the very best methods to deal with the new reality just yet.  Understanding that world remains a work in progress.

Once you commit to being a business person, you have to act.  That’s the second lesson. For instance, I created a large web and Facebook presence and then used publicists to promote the book to national newspapers and radio stations.  In the first few months following the release I did a lot of public readings and interviews on radio, in print, on podcasts and through the web. 

One needs to examine your target market and find ways to reach them.  This is a critical third step.  One of the beauties of a book about Beethoven is that I was able to target diverse markets through Facebook. We focused not only the world of book readers and clubs but also to the music world and have had a fair amount of success in both those realms. 

For example I have also performed in numbers of classical music venues in conjunction with Grammy Award winning soloists, small ensembles and even a full orchestra and choir.  The musicians would perform Beethoven’s compositions and I would read related selections from the book. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference.  There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.

Now I not only have a following of devoted fans all over the world, I have also made a number of connections with the descendants of some of the true-life characters in the novel, such as the great grandson five generations removed of the woman, Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight Sonata and is one of the women consider as a candidate to be his mysterious Immortal Beloved.

What are three of the most important things you believe an author should do after their book is released?

Marketing, marketing, and more marketing remain the three most important thing one does after publication.

The first marketing step of post release sales follows closely on the last point above. All of these creative activities, interviews and press releases have to then be feed into daily Facebook posts and Tweets and those in turn have driven sales.

Events like those above - as fun and important as they are, remain “one-off happenings” unless you give them a second life by then converting them into additional publicity for Facebook, Twitter, your Web Page, etc.  The more you are out there, the more credibility you create for your product.

You need to learn Facebook, learn to use their advertising models, find ways to build groups, friends and so forth.  Once established you can then feed your releases and news through those mediums.

What kind of pre-promotion did you do before the book came out? 

As I noted above, I created a Facebook presence, booked speaking engagements, hired the first of two publicists and began to use advertising on Facebook to targeted markets both prior and subsequent to publication.

Do you have a long term plan with your book?  

 Yes, simply put it is to sell lots of copies.

What would you like to say to your readers and fans about your book?

If you want to understand the passion I feel about “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139,” and in so doing find your own heart, then listen to Beethoven himself:

“Dear Reader…

Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now joyfully, and then sadly, waiting to learn whether fate will hear us. I can live with you totally or not at all. Yes, I am resolved to wander so far away from you until that moment when I can throw myself into your arms and say that I am really at home with you. And I can send my soul wrapped in your presence to the land of spirits. Yes, unhappily there is no other way. You will not give in, since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart, never, never. . . .

Why this deep sorrow when necessity speaks? Can our love endure except through sacrifices? Can we do anything to alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, and I am not wholly yours? Oh God, look at the beauties of nature and comfort your heart with that which must be. Love demands everything and rightly so. Thus it is for me with you, and for you with me. But you forget so easily that I must live for me and for you. If we were wholly united you would feel the pain of it as little as I do?

But today I cannot share with you the thoughts I have had during these last few days touching my own life. If our hearts were always close together, I would scarcely have made such observations. My heart is full of so many things to share with you . . .

Ah, there are moments when I feel that words amount to nothing. Have courage, remain my true, my only treasure, my all, as I am yours. The gods must send us the rest, what for us must and shall be ordained. . . .

You are suffering. Oh, wherever I am, you are with me. I would arrange it so that we can live together. What a life! Thus! But without you—pursued by the goodness of mankind here and there—which as little I deserve or want to. The humility of man towards man pains me. And when I consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I? And what is he whom we call the greatest? Within us lies the divinity of all.

 Oh God, why must I be parted from the one I so love. And yet my life in Vienna is now a wretched one. Your love makes me at once both the happiest and the unhappiest of men. At my age I need a steady, quiet life. Is that possible in our situation?

My angel, I have just been told that the mail coach goes every day, therefore I must close at once so that you may receive the letter without delay. Be calm, for only by a calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our goal of living together. Be calm.

Love me today, yesterday . . . .

What tearful longings for you, you, you. My life, my all. Farewell. Never cease to love me. Never misjudge this most faithful heart of your beloved.

Ever yours . . . Ever mine . . . Ever ours. . . .”

Ever faithfully yours,

Ludwig van Beethoven”

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