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Janet Savin is an author and former freelance journalist. She was born in the United States and moved to France in the mid-eighties. From 1987 to 1992, she lived in Prague, and has drawn from her experience of the build-up to the Velvet Revolution, the Revolution itself and its immediate aftermath in the two volumes of her novel Music for Three. For the last sixteen years, she has made her home in Southern France but has returned often to the Czech Republic.
Can you tell us a bit about your novel Music for Three and what inspired the story?
Music for Three is a two-volume novel set in Prague, a city which has seemed magical to me from the moment I first saw it. I later lived there, and in a sense, the novel is a love song to the city. It’s also the story of Katherine Angelis, a Juilliard piano prodigy, hesitating to undertake a career as a concert artist. She wins a research grant in Prague which her family fled in 1948 after her mother’s parents disappeared during the Stalinist terror. Now, forty years later, Communism is still the system, albeit watered down. But Katherine has been raised on 20th century Czech culture and Prague’s medieval, baroque and art nouveau architecture, and she’s anticipating a relaxed year among those riches, far from family expectations.
In the first volume, Music for Three in a Prelude to Revolution, Katherine’s dream year is complicated almost immediately when she agrees to translate reports on human rights violations and other samizdat and then to smuggle them to the West. She also becomes involved in a love triangle with a political activist and a reclusive cellist. Close friendships develop with three very different Central European women. And Prague’s topography, marked by the Nazi occupation and decades of Communism, shows Katherine that she’s more susceptible to her family’s troubled memories than she’d imagined. These skeins weave together as covert resistance and open protest accelerate and anticipate the Velvet Revolution.
The second volume, Music for Three in a Time of Revolution, takes Katherine and her Czech friends through the euphoria of that revolution, and its aftermath. The early months of 1990 bring heady freedoms but also unexpected challenges as inflation replaces socialist subsidies, and foreign investors, bent on new markets, pour into the vacuum left by the collapse of the command economy. Katherine accompanies several friends through professional and personal crises and then faces a deep crisis herself.
Why did you decide to publish your novel with whitefox?
The project was a labour of love. It brought together a number of my passions: Prague and its architecture, classical music, especially compositions for the piano, rock and punk as political protest and literature and literary figures. In addition to using my own archive of books and samizdat, I did extensive research in these and other areas, wrote and rewrote, and had worked for seven years by the time I began to feel ready to publish. I wanted to produce beautiful books of the best quality in all respects. Although I grew up in a bibliophile family, I wasn’t sufficiently knowledgeable about aspects of publishing such as printing, binding, paper, or promotion and needed some sound advice. I did considerable research on publishers, and whitefox seemed the best able to provide everything I wanted. Their professionals took a genuine interest in the project, exceeded my expectations in all areas, and I’m delighted with the result.
How did you find the writing process? Were there any aspects you particularly enjoyed or found challenging, such as researching, writing dialogue or developing the characters?
For me, writing is a form of exploration and discovery, and I love it. I’m attuned to the sounds and rhythms of language, and dialogue comes easily – perhaps in part as a result of going to plays and writing about theatre over several decades. I sometimes sketch out scenes entirely through dialogue and then distil them and fine tune the physical setting. It was fascinating when a character took a turn I didn’t expect and shifted a relationship or the course of events. One character, whom I hadn’t foreseen, walked into the story, and it took some time before I began to see why he had come.
I have an academic background, wrote freelance for cultural revues for decades and can still tend towards reportage. In the early stages of the novel, that was the biggest challenge, and I worked with a mentor to reduce what she called ‘weight and freight’. I also sought out rigorous developmental editors, and as I worked with them, became more discerning about when to incorporate their suggestions and when not to.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors currently writing a manuscript for their first novel?
Giving advice is difficult, because there are so many different types of novels and because writers are so diverse. Even though we all probably rely on a mixture of planning and sheer writing to develop a story, most writers see themselves as depending mainly on one or the other. I’m in the second group, so I wouldn’t give advice to writers who are essentially planners. The most useful thing I can suggest is to become aware at some point of how you work in developing a story, and what you hope from your readers. Besides that, it’s important to know not only why you write, but why you’re writing a particular story. For some people this kind of understanding may develop slowly, and it may also change over time.
Another piece of advice, which probably has wider application, is not to edit as you write, unless you’ve found through experience that that works for you. The two activities are essentially different, and I’ve seen that in myself as well as in writer friends and students. Writing requires emotional involvement of some kind with your characters and the world they inhabit. Editing requires critical distance on what’s come out of the emotional involvement, that can be quite difficult and it necessitates enough time to develop some detachment.
What do you hope readers learn and take away from Katherine’s story?
On a very basic level, I wanted to dispel myths around the Velvet Revolution and the transition to democracy and capitalism. I also wanted to convey some of the little-known riches of Czech culture. As my copy editor at whitefox said, some readers will respond more to the art and architecture, others to the music, others to the political history, and I like that prospect. Another little known aspect of the culture is the courageous men and women who resisted oppression and in some cases, lost their lives in the struggle, and they deserve to be known beyond their own country.
On the thematic level, one line of exploration is transformation. The novel is structured like a musical composition with motifs that gradually accrue meaning. One is alchemy, which flourished during the 16th century reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and becomes a metaphor for transformation in individuals and society. Alchemy is particularly associated with Prague; old house signs still exhibit its symbols. I hope that readers will accompany Katherine, especially, through the difficulties of her attempts to make changes in her life and that they will respond to the invitation to contemplate the possibilities and limits of transformation in personal existence and in a collective. That said, one of the pleasures in publishing is seeing what people take away from your writing, especially when it’s something you weren’t conscious of.
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