Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Beethoven in Love Opus 139: the interview Part Three

Welcome back for the third and final interview with Howard Jay Smith, author of Beethoven in Love Opus 139. 

Beethoven, Beethoven in Love, Howard Jay Smith, Opus 139, classical music, composers
In  Part One, Howard talked about his background as a writer, his interest in music, and the triggering moment of his novel. In Part Two, he talked about Beethoven and what his life has to teach us--drawing the universal out of our stories.  Today, we talk about some of his other interests, and how multiple creative interests might play together.

You've also had some photography in multiple publications. What kind of photography do you do, and do you feel that working in multiple artistic fields helps each individual endeavor?

The common thread is creativity. You can tell stories with words or with images in different fashion. I used to pride myself on using my old film Cannon AE-1 with a bag full of different lens. Now I use my cell phone. My son, Zak Smith, who did the cover art for the book is an internationally renowned painter with works in 8 museums. He is also a writer of great ability and I often think he is a better writer than painter. The two mediums just seem to go well together.

I very much agree that images, too, tell stories.  It's one of the things my colleague and I are doing with our work at Emmanuel's Light, a photography collaborative.  Tell us about your other two books.

My first book was An Interview with John Gardner that came out a long, long time ago,and is equally long out of print though copies once in a while surface on Amazon. John was not only a brilliant writer, he was also the best teacher I have ever had for any subject ever, hands down, no comparison.

My own writing and short story classes at UCLA were based on his concepts, many of which also worked their way into the Beethoven book in the guise of one of the few fictional characters in the novel, ‘Johann Gardner.’

The second, Opening the Doors to Hollywood, is a non-fiction book published by Random House that is a guide for writers, producers and others who want to break into the entertainment industry. It is based on some of my classes at UCLA that focused on teaching students how to navigate the maze that is Hollywood.

And where can readers find you? Twitter, Facebook, blog, website, etc?

Beethoven, Zak Smith, Howard Jay Smith, classical composers, great composers
I have a website,, but do most of my posting on Facebook under “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” and my personal page, “Howard Jay Smith.” I am currently posting every day, something called,“The Music Behind Beethoven in Love; Opus 139.” Each day I put up a paragraph or page or two from the book along with a YouTube clip of the music that inspired that segment. Given the astonishing number of high quality performances available of the more than 600 pieces he wrote during his lifetime, I am thoroughly enjoying bringing many of these to my fans’ attention.

I have enjoyed those daily postings.  I think 'classical music' is intimidating to many--too much to wade into, and no idea where to start--and your daily postings give direction and insight.  What about the Beethoven portrait?

People can buy copies of Zak’s Beethoven portrait online.

Thank you, Howard!  It has been a pleasure hosting you and learning more about your work and about Beethoven!

Find Howard at:
His website

See related posts involving music:

Coming tomorrow: My further experiment in medieval cooking, Sorcha's Turnip Pottage

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Howard Jay Smith on Beethoven in Love Opus 139: 2nd Movement

Welcome back to Howard Jay Smith for the second movement of his interview about his new novel Beethoven in Love Opus 139.  To learn more about Howard, see the first movement.

Why Beethoven? What drew you to him? Why Opus 139?

Beethoven’s deafness for me was the key. Just as the world’s greatest composer could not in his later years hear his own music, so too have I been denied the ability to play, write or compose music due to my dyslexic tendencies. I have always loved his music and found in Beethoven’s struggles, the path to understand his suffering. He was a flawed human – just as most of us are – and in him, I saw the universal.

Just as Beethoven’s music and its relationship to his life’s challenges resonant with those universal truths that add insight into our own lives, so, too, can we ask: How does any of us come to terms with the failings of our life and find peace at the moment of our death?

Finding the universal: This is part of the power of knowing history, of telling stories.  We learn and grow from them, as we see how others have handled--or failed to handle--pain and adversity.  Can you tell us a little about the research you did for the book?

At first, when I considered doing a novel about Beethoven, I thought I would be able to read a biography and then create a story to fill in all the blank spaces. I very quickly realized that scholars collectively knew an enormous amount about him. There were very few blank spaces. In order to do a proper novel I knew I would have to fully research his life before writing a single word. And that would prove to be an enormous task in and of itself.

When I grasped the size and complexity of the task before me, I thought about all of my mentors, John Gardner, John Irving, Tim O’Brian, etc. They had all won National Book Awards or garnered similar honors. If I was going to devote the next five years of my life to this task, I decided not to go forward unless I could write the book at a level of quality such that the completed novel could arguably be in the competition for a National Book Award. Given the feedback I have had so far from a cadre of fellow writers, I believe I have achieved that goal.

Still, before writing a single word, I devoted myself to researching every aspect of his life for a solid two years. I read every major biography; his diaries; all six volumes of the letters; and every account of his life as described by his friends and associates. I studied the entire historical era, from Voltaire and Mozart through Napoleon and the Archduke Rudolph. I bought recordings and listened to every major piece of his music I could find and I attended every concert in the region whenever Beethoven’s music was on the program. I lived, breathed and even drank a “Beethoven” branded white wine.

I read each of these books a minimum of three times. Once to get a sense of its overall content. A second time to highlight with a yellow marker those parts I though relevant to the story I wanted to tell, and a third time to actually copy those segments into a running notes file organized chronological (of his life) that eventually ended up being two hundred pages itself.

How I can relate to this!  Book after book on medieval history, Scotland, and the Bruce, and pages and pages of notes marked with highlighter, and white boards covered with sticky notes!  Not surprisingly, considering the subject, I've learned a lot that surprised me.  What did you learn in the process that surprised you?

beethoven in love, howard jay smith, history, music
There were two big surprises: My undergraduate degree was in Asian Studies. I knew Chinese, was familiar with most of the major texts of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and so forth, and so the biggest surprise was to discover in his diaries that Beethoven was reading, copying and commenting on Eastern Philosophical texts, including the Bhagavad Gita. Most Beethoven scholars over the past two centuries have been musicologist and these quotes went right over their head. Few of them realized that Beethoven was the classic “seeker,” trying to find meaning and comprehension of the conditions of his life in the collected wisdom of all humanity. This search is the essential motor of the book.

The second surprise came while reading about Napoleon. After his retreat from Moscow and his ill-fated invasion of Russia, he stops in a tiny village in what is now Belarus and is finally safe. He had lost 90% of his army, some 600,000 troops in either combat, from disease, starvation or from the brutal winter that had frosted over Eastern Europe that year. In that village, he receives a dispatch from Paris. People back home think he’s dead, there’s been an attempted coup and he must return right away. He turns over command of his army to his Generals and races back by sled in the dead of winter to Paris in a then record two weeks.

The village, Smorgonie, whose name I had never seen in print before, is my maternal grandmother’s village. Maybe a thousand people lived there. Here I was researching events from two hundred years ago and suddenly discover they crossed right through my own family’s life. I later found an etching of that scene done by a Polish artist in 1911 to commemorate the war and invasion. 1911 is the
year my grandmother left and came to America. Knowing that, I ended up setting several key scenes of the novel in that village.

The premise of the book--Beethoven's request for one day of joy before he dies---is a poignant one that I'm sure many people can relate to. As Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation."  What inspired you to think of such a question in relation to Beethoven--who most definitely did not go to the grave with the song still in him?

I had my own near-death experience over four decades ago that resulted from a brutal motorcycle accident. In that moment I experienced an immense sense of peace and calm. Yet in contrast, Beethoven shook his fist in apparent anger. As I noted above, that was the triggering inspiration for “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139,” and it is also the question the novel attempts to answer. What, in that final moment, would it take for Beethoven to find a similar tranquility and calm? Therefore, in a metaphorical sense, the novel begins, unfolds, and ends in that final moment. The opening line of the novel is: “By all accounts, my funeral was a grand success.”

What would it take to find tranquility and calm?  A powerful question, and one that we all should be asking.  I talk with my piano students about the events of Beethoven's life as they influenced lesser known middle part of  Fur Elise.  However, few people are aware of the story behind that wonderful piece.  So, of all Beethoven is known for, what led you to focus on the women he loved?

There are three major issues in his life: his deafness; his inability to find a woman to love and marry; and his inability to have a family life. All of these are explored in depth in the novel and they are all entwined with each other. Still, one of the most famous love letters in all literary history his Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” letter written to an unnamed woman in July of 1812 when he was forty-two. Outside his actual music, there is more written about his aspect of his life than anything else so it felt natural to use the question of which woman was his true beloved as one of the unanswered questions that drives the story forward.

What does Beethoven's life have to teach the modern reader?

And as the character Johann Gardner says in the book, “What is a novel but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths? Beethoven’s struggles and his failings are in many degrees little different than what each one of use goes through in the course of our lives. There is a universality to these issues that transcends any particular person, place or time in history. To understand
Beethoven’s life, is to perhaps understand our own lives. One of my friends observed that I have actually written the life of Buddha as lived by Beethoven. One does not get to paradise, even metaphorically without coming to peace with all of the failings and conflicts of our lives.

Thank you, Howard, and I'm looking forward to the 'third movement' of your interview tomorrow.

To learn more about Howard, visit his website and facebook page.  To read the rest of the interview, see PART ONE and PART THREE.

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Beethoven in Love Opus 139: Part 1

To my Blue Bells Readers, may I introduce Howard Jay Smith.  I 'met' Howard online, where I network with numerous authors.  Over the years, I have featured a number of authors on my blog who write tales of time travel, stories of Scotland, or musings on music.  One book that has really stood out to me in all those years is Brendan Carroll's Tempo Rubato: Stolen Time, about Mozart being brought into our present day.  I loved the vivid portrayal of a great composer--most especially the way we say Mozart as a man, a real person, rather than as a plaster bust of someone untouchable and above humanity.

When I saw Howard's facebook page and read the premise of the book--Beethoven asking God for just one day of pure joy--I felt the excitement of the promise of showing Beethoven, too, as a very real person.  I sent Howard a message, inviting him to be on this page, and am excited to host him here today, in the first part of his interview.

Tell us a little about your background:

I am an award-winning writer living in Santa Barbara, California. “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139” is my third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, I taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and have lectured nationally. My 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, I worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" - and am member of the American Beethoven Society.

I have an interview at Book Circle Television Online.

I am already at work on my next project, a novel about Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Early in my career I was a Middlebury College Writers’ Conference Scholar and trained under people such as John Irving, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien and the late John Gardner, with whom I also undertook a number of other writing and radio projects.

You've written for a number of big publications and worked with film, television, and radio. How did you get your start in writing?

I started freelancing in my mid-20’s after attending Bread Loaf and managed to sell a few articles and stories but certainly not enough to live on or leave my day job in education administration. After a few years, I moved to LA from Washington to attend film school at the American Film Institute, specializing in screenwriting. That led to work at ABC-TV and Embassy Productions as a Development Executive. And after a few years with the studios, I went back to writing TV and Film scripts.

When did you start writing novels? Did anything in particular lead you to writing fiction?

I was an avid reader of novels even as a child and started attempting to do my own soon after graduating college. Writing fiction always came naturally to me.

You're on the board of directors for the Santa Barbara Symphony. Do you play an instrument yourself?

I do not play any instruments at all, having failed even on something as basic as the drums in junior high. What I did not know then was that I suffered from various learning disabilities related to dyslexia – though not literally dyslexia itself. As much as I love music of all sorts, my brain cannot consciously process it. No matter how much I study, I perpetually have the musical recall ability of a gnat.

Tell us about Beethoven in Love, Opus 139

By several dependable historical accounts, in his last seconds of conscious before his death, Beethoven raised his fist and shook it at his Creator. In my novel it is at this moment when Beethoven demands answers to the question that has bedeviled him most of his life: why it is that he, whose hearing once surpassed all others, has been cast out as history’s cruel joke, a deaf composer who was also denied the comforts of family and enduring love?

For all his creative genius, Beethoven was a flawed man who led a troubled life and in that last tick of the clock, he re-experiences the most traumatic moments of his life. And he pleads with Providence to grant him one final wish—one day, simply a single day of pure joy.

That triggering inspiration for “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139” is also a question the novel attempts to answer. What, in that final moment, would it take for Beethoven to find peace, tranquility, and calm?

A profound question, and one we should all be asking ourselves.  What happens then?

From there Beethoven’s final dream-like journey escorts him through a fog of memories in which he must confront his many failings before he can be allowed to pass through the Gates of Elysium and find the brief happiness he seeks.

Thank you, Howard, and we'll be back over the next two days with Part 2 and Part 3 of the interview, on some fascinating things learned in the course of researching this unique story.

Find Howard at:

His website

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Shawn's Meatloaf

She hung back, hoping he wasn’t going to be so predictable as to offer to show her the bedroom. 
He turned left, past the great room. “You should see the kitchen!" 
Surprised, she followed him. The kitchen opened up, acres of granite counters and slick silver appliances. “It’s beautiful!” She ran a hand over the shining surfaces. 
He threw the doors of the refrigerator open. “Deep freezer, extra wide shelves. Check out this oven!” 
She stared in amazement as he grabbed a roll of ground beef from the refrigerator. 
What?” He stopped, staring at her. 
You,” she said. “Excuse me for saying so, but you don’t seem like the type to get excited over a kitchen.” 
Because you never imagined I was the type who liked to cook." 
She raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? This isn’t going to lead to one of your obnoxious puns?” 
He shook his head, already tearing into the beef. “Open the cupboard. I picked up my secret spices. You can chop onions. The right kind of onion makes all the difference. And an egg, crushed cornflakes, barbecue sauce.” 
She stared in disbelief. 
He grinned. “Don’t believe everything you hear. Give me a chance. At least you’ll get a really good meatloaf out of it.” 
She had laughed, then, and opened the cupboard, bare but for a dozen brand new bottles of spices.  He had delivered on his promise of the best meatloaf she’d ever tasted, followed by a game of Monopoly and a ride home, keeping his hands to himself. 
And now, cracking an egg into her own meatloaf in her own small house in Scotland, the pain hit her fresh: Shawn was dead.

From The Minstrel Boy
Book Two of The Blue Bells Chronicles

recipes meatloaf cooking scotland medieval history So what is Shawn's fantastic meatloaf?   I did some hunting and came up with one.  Truth be told, however, I used to cook most nights of the week for a family of 11, but with 'only' 7 of us still living here, and kids all over the place, at friends' houses, at jobs, at school events, and with my work schedule--well, I don't cook as much as I used to.

Nevertheless, it seemed I should try this 'best meatloaf ever' recipe, and see if it really lives up to its title.  And so, I sent my daughter into the store with my credit card and a list, while I sat in the car editing manuscripts.  It's how we roll here.  My kids love the people at Aldi, and it seems the people at Aldi enjoy them, too, so we're all happy!

Like magic, when we got home, there were all the ingredients I needed for Shawn's Meatloaf!  I told my daughter to make it (hey, she likes cooking!) while I went out to lunch with a high school classmate I haven't seen in 35 years (um, I mean three years!  Yeah, only three!  And he's writing, too, and I'm excited about his book!) and his parents.   Anyway, my daughter went to the history museum and out to lunch at an Irish pub instead.  

meatloaf Bluebells authors cooking medieval historySo I bit the bullet--which was neither medieval nor tasty and hence will not be an ingredient in any of the recipes in this book.  A man I once met in Croatia tells me, though, that gunpowder tastes like very dark chocolate.  I'm still thinking no on gun powder as an ingredient.  But I digress.

I broke out the apron and oven mitts, the butcher knife (which I confess scared my children as they haven't seen my cook in awhile and weren't sure what I was doing), the cutting board, the three-pound loaf of ground beef, onion, spices, carrots, grater, and more...and I cooked!  I chopped, I diced, I grated, I beat the eggs and mixed the milk.  Because I'm a graduate of the Cooking with Shawn School of Culinary Arts, I only sort of measured.  Kind of.  Until I lost patience and just threw things in, thinking that was about right.  

(Actually, I'm fictionalizing the story.  There were only two kids around and they were in the other room and didn't actually notice I had a butcher knife--but that's a rather boring story.)

Results?  Yes, I think this is pretty good meatloaf!  I ate most of the pan.  (Guess I'm either taking the dog for a really long walk tomorrow or buying new clothes.)  So here's the recipe:


PREHEAT OVEN: 350 degrees F

2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
½ cup well-crushed cornflakes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup grated carrot
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded cheddar
or part-skim mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon dried basil, thyme or sage
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1-1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1/2 cup barbecue sauce
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard

  1. Beat eggs, add milk and cornflakes; let stand until liquid is absorbed.
  2. Stir in onion, carrot, cheese and seasonings.
  3. Mix in ground beef
  4. Shape into a 7-1/2 x 3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inch loaf in a shallow baking pan
  5. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes
  6. Combine topping ingredients and spoon over meatloaf
  7. Bake 30 minutes longer, occasionally spooning more topping over loaf
  8. Let stand 10 minutes before serving

Look for further announcements regarding Food and Feast: subtitle still to come, which will feature recipes from The Blue Bells Chronicles, along with excerpts from the books, some of the history of Niall's time, and snippets about food and philosophies regarding food, in Niall's time.

For other recipes, see:

Click on the sidebar and the RECIPES and MEDIEVAL RECIPES and FOOD AND FEAST labels for more.

Watch for posts this week about my fellow authors Howard Jay Smith (Beethoven in Love Opus 139) and Janet Kramer (The Sion Grail and the upcoming The Astronomer's Daughter).  Janet is from my writer's group, and I love her thoroughly researched novel.  I 'met' Howard online and, as a musician myself who never sees enough good books incorporating music, I'm really excited to read his fictionalized take on Beethoven!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thomas the Rhymer and the Fairy Queen

Iohn appeared in the arched doorway, crossed the small space, and rested his arms on the wall beside Niall. "Feeling better?" he asked. 

"At times." The summer breeze lifted Niall's hair. He tugged his cloak closer. "Suppose it were true." He turned to Iohn. "Suppose you fell asleep and woke up hoondreds o' years on?"
"Go 'won," said Iohn. "Doona tell me ye believe in fairies!" 

Niall laughed, not bothered by his ribbing. "I'll no tell ye sich. But 'tis no the only story, what Rabbie told, o' hoondreds o' years passin' when a man thinks 'tis but days or hours. Ye've heard the things Thomas the Rhymer claimed?" 

"Aye." Iohn nodded. "Being whisked away by the fairy queen for three days and findin' seven years had passed. And they say there was ne'er a more honest man." 

Book One of The Blue Bells Chronicles

The story of Thomas the Rhymer is among the most fascinating in Scottish history.  Notice I do not say Scottish lore or legend.  Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, or Thomas Learmonth, is a historical figure, a contemporary of Alexander III, who in fact prophesied Alexander's death and warned the king not to set out for his new bride that particular dark and stormy night. He would have been an old man in Niall's youth.

I filmed several songs in the Eildon Hills where Thomas lived, and filmed at a particular stone there.  From my TravelPod blog:

We made a brief stop at the Rhymer's Stone.  This stone marks the place where True Thomas--Thomas of Erceldoune--Thomas the Rhymer (take your pick)--is said to have met the Fairy Queen who took him into Elfland for seven years.  Thomas the Rhymer is a fascinating historical figure who makes this claim of having spent seven years in Elfland, at the same time he was widely known as 'TRUE' Thomas, because he could not tell a lie.  What do we, in our modern, scientific, cynical age, make of this paradox?  Having read about him on the internet is one thing.  Standing at this stone, making the spot, gives one a little more pause.  It becomes a little more real..

thomas of erceldoune thomas the rhymer true thomas scottish history
That's the whole story, in briefest terms: Thomas, the historical person who lived and worked with Alexander III, whose prophecies can still be read today, disappeared for seven years, and on his return, claimed to have gone into Elfland for three days with the fairy queen.  He was known as True Thomas because on his return (it was said by all who knew him), he was unable to tell a lie, in addition to having the gift of prophecy.

His story has been told and re-told for more than seven hundred years now.  Francis James Child, in his great catalogue,  recorded at least three version of a ballad about him, one of them beginning thus:

True Thomas lay oer yond grassy bank
And he beheld a ladie gay
Come riding oer the fernie brae
A ladie that was brisk and bold
Her mantel of the velvet fine
Her skirt was of the grass-green silk
At ilka tett of her horse's mane
And bowed him low down till his knee
Hung fifty silver bells and nine

True Thomas he took off his hat
'O no, O no, True Thomas,' she says
'All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heven!'
For your peer on earth I never did see
And I'm come here for to visit thee
'That name does not belong to me
I am but the queen of fair Elfland....

Walter Scott published a third part to the Child ballad, and the ballad itself contains many of the same details of a 'romance' now believed to date all the way back to the late 1300s or early 1400s--very close to Thomas's lifetime.

A number of novels have been written about Thomas the Rhymer, including by Rudyard Kipling and by the great Scottish author of fiction and non-fiction, Nigel Tranter.  His story has been set to music, from modern rock groups to voice and piano to an opera (incomplete) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Further Reading:
Scot Lit Locations

My posted videos set in Scottish locations with accompanying stories:

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