I haven't checked the weather, but I know it is a perfect day to chat about adult Jewish literature. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Thanks for joining me here at Nice Jewish Books. Today I'm happy to welcome Bruce Berger, author of the Music Stocker. Hi, Bruce!
Hi, how are you?
I'm doing great thanks. So would you like to set up the story for us?
Okay, so the Music Stalker is a novel about a young female piano prodigy who rose up in New York City in the 1970s. And is mostly about their problems and their family and how she interacts with them as she rises to fame. And then involves the difficulties that set her back in her career course.
Alright, so this story is told mostly through a letter from her brother Max to his children who live across the country from him with his ex wife. Why did you choose this particular format?
I wanted to have one narrator who was looking back at the events from the future, and felt it was necessary to try to get a coherent story across but he also wanted to take the point of view of the of the other characters as the events were developing. So the narrative structure is, I would say unusual, I haven't really read many books like this. But there's an omniscient narrator who's in everyone's head, and conveying events as they go along. And then there's Max looking back at the relationship with his sister and trying to explain, you know, everything, and why things turned out as they did and and mostly he's trying to explain the curious living arrangement because he and his sister Kayla are living together with Kayla's child. So it's an effort to try to explain to his children whom you've been estranged from, how things develop on the other side of the country.
And one of the major struggles in this family is mental illness, we find out that their mother Adele has been living and struggling with schizophrenia, and that Kayla is eventually diagnosed with this as well, do you want to talk about how the family copes with that?
Sure, it's a situation where the husband Nikki, who's a psychiatrist, who was at one point, Adele's psychiatrist, before they became involved, is trying to make sure that she stays under medication, it's in a situation which children realize that you know, the mother has these problems and and that they affect their life together. So I wouldn't say they deal with them extraordinarily well, but they're sympathetic and loving in attempt to do what they can to help, you know, Adele, play the role of the mother and wife.
That was one thing that I thought was really beautiful about this story, is that we tend to think of things as all or nothing. So either someone can live, you know, beautifully with no cares with mental illness, or they're violent or in a institution or something. And this shows that people can live it with it with ups and downs and support and that you can get through those down times.
Yeah, so I should say that these are characters that just didn't spring to life in this novel, these are characters about whom I have been writing for some time before that and published a number of short stories which are on Amazon, in which are much earlier in their relationship. So we see you know, really Adele at a in a going back to her teenage years in high school and how she suffers from an is taken advantage of because of her incipient mental problems. And we see you know, Nikki coming to this country as a Holocaust refugee from Greece, and how he developed himself into a caring, very loving psychiatrist with his difficulties. And so in this novel, I was really trying to extend the let's say, the fictional lives of these characters and see what happened, you know, when they did get involved and decided to marry and start a family so that was one of the reasons I have a family which we you know, we find these two characters to the psychiatrist and and a former patient has was suffered from the illness.
While he is generally very supportive of her. It is kind of an odd setup to have the doctor being married to the patient with an it doesn't always work out for the best for Adele. It seems like he's a little timid about treating her I mean as well he should be but in terms of ensuring that she's on her medication, he kind of fails a bit
So Nikki has a lot of feelings and and my that might be one of them, you know, he's very absorbed with his life outside the family as well and in may not be providing as much support As Adele needs, so it is a complicated relationship. But I think any relationship between a psychiatrist and a patient might be and, you know, so nominally, there's another psychiatrist involved who's officially in charge. But really, he's the one who's who ought to be looking after her. And, you know, does his best but but it's limited, he's, he has a lot of other things on his mind, he's still suffering a lot from the guilt that he carries with him as a survivor of the Holocaust.
Yeah, that's not uncommon among Holocaust survivors. One thing that was a little interesting, though, is that he was a Sephardic Jew, who came over, and we don't see many stories about them. And one lovely theme that runs through your book is a Sephardic lullaby, that gets passed down the famil. Do you have a Sephardic connection?
Not really, I mean, when I was in this earlier stage of creating these characters, I happen to be in my office, just listening to music on YouTube, or whatever. And I've been listening to some Sephardic music, and it gave me an idea of trying to find, you know, this character from Salonica in Greece. So that that has set up a whole nother novel. And actually, the the Music Stalker is a prequel to the novel I published earlier called the Flight of the Veil, which deals much more with the Holocaust in Greece. Although I had written this one earlier, it was published afterward. So become very interested in a lot of research on matters relating to Sephardic Jewry, visited Greece and did some Jewish walking tours there with some excellent guides, and this theme of guilt, and dealing with you know, post traumatic stress, if you will, which is what we now call it is very present in the other novel, the Flight of the Veil is less so in this novel, that is also, you know, in Nikki's background, the other stressing factor, I think, which, which is really, the incipient reason for this novel is, what do you do when you you're a couple, you have children, all of a sudden one of your children, it just becomes something they've never planned for, for which there's no rulebook and how to deal with. And that is, that is Kayla, I mean, she amazes everyone, including the, you know, the people to this prestigious music school that she ultimately attends. And my main interest in in writing this particular novel is to explore how a family might deal with, you know, an exceptional child of that nature, and one who's exceptionalities are on public display, one who is compelled by what she does to have, you know, masses of fans surrounding her, you know, constantly so that was, you know, the main thing I wanted to explore when I started out writing this.
I'm going to push back just a tiny bit on that. I think everyone who has children gets a child they didn't plan for, although certainly, Kayla is an extreme case.
I can't do that.
So, yeah, let's talk about the music because Max was also an excellent musician and piano player, but then his younger sister who he absolutely adores, quickly starts out-shining him. And that leads to definitely some conflict between it and as he fights between his love and wanting to be very protective, and some jealousy.
Sure. And so that is one of the family dynamics that you know, evolved as I wrote this, I didn't start out knowing that it would work out like this, but then it seemed you know, the natural course of events as I created these characters, so that that is an issue that is very obvious should be obvious to the reader at various points, and it seeps into Max's letter to his his children. But one wonders if Max is fully aware of the degree of his jealousy and his obsession with Kayla. I think you go either way on it. But the novel finishes with with him listening to her music at night, you know, some of her recordings and and just extolling how no other artists could have ever affected him in this way. So he has a relationship with his sister, which is at best one of obsession.
Okay. And then there's also another dynamic that the parents are so overwhelmed is the word. But Kayla's mother is not emotionally able to oversee Kayla's career, but the Father also seems a little intimidated. And so Max tries to step in and see that the the people who are corralling her are actually looking out for her best interests.
So that's true. Max feels like his parents are not doing the right thing for Kayla all the time and feels as as her older brother that Nicki he has a role to play in protecting her not withstanding you know that he is he is jealous. And so yeah, ultimately, it does play a big role in in trying to help Kayla get her career more organized, let's say when she's being taken advantage of by some of the, you know, adults in surrounding this music school, he's evolved that way. And he's also the first one to understand that she has a mental problem that she did. She's suffering from some some type of mental illness. And, again, struggles to try to figure out how to how to deal with that, you know whether to talk to the parents about it, or what to say about it, and how to talk to Kayla about it, who very much is in denial at times that she does have these kinds of problems.
I want to go back to the the first chapter of the book, where we see Kayla, as a young adult, with her son, Jackie. And she is involved with Chabad in an Orthodox Jewish community. And then we see through the whole rest of the book that the family, while nominally Jewish is pretty much rejected Judaism because of their Holocaust experience. So what did Kayla find in Judaism, that what drew her to that?
Originally, she she just finds some sort of peace because there's a period of time when the family nominally observed Shabbat there, they live in Coney Island, they go to orthodox synagogue, you know, you know, parents are just going sort of going through the motions. But she finds some some interest in it and a desire to know more that she that she ultimately has to suppress. It's not the time for girls to get religious education. She has the piano as her main main focus in her life. So the seed has been planted, but for a long time, it doesn't grow. When she gets much older, and her career is taking off, and she's devoting 10 or 12 hours a day to practice, she, she still now has an urge to just find something different to latch on to that that is fulfilling as music is for her, something is missing. And so she begins to stop by a Chabad in the West Side of New York. And ultimately, when when she realizes that her career was crumbling, that because of her schizophrenia, and the medications she has to take, she can really no longer perform at the same level. That energy and desire devotion that did previously went toward music is is devoted toward Judaism in trying to become a much more observant Jew, and she associated yourself with Chabad. So, you know, years later, when she was she has a child and she's living with Max. she frequents the nearby Chabad and that is the center of her religious life going forward. I should say before you continue, Sheryl. So I'm at work at another novel which which is the sequel to the both the Music Stalker and the Flight of the Veil. And the working title of my novel in progress is To see God. And we come back to West Orange, New Jersey frequently and Kayla, you know, dealing and the rest of the family dealing with a whole slew of religious issues. So stays with Chabad and where this novel is going to end up. I'm not sure but I haven't lost the desire to explore these relationships.
Okay, that was going to be one of my later questions about it other projects? Do we get to see more about Max and his children?
Not yet. So the event which is presaged in the Music Stalker the visit of these children in what happens during that maybe there'll be fourth novel that isn't but but is that is now emerging yet in the novel that I'm writing, although, so So where I am now in the next novel, it's taking place mostly in 1990. And the visit of the children doesn't happen till about 2000/2001. So it's possible I go back to that, you know, much later in their lives, but right now, there's no firm plan. I have like I can do right now to do the novel I'm working on. And my work my writing time gets interrupted by my teaching time is so during the summer and in during winter break, I am have much more time to devote to creative writing, as opposed to teach.
What do you teach?
So I teach writing at American University. After I retired from my career as a lawyer. I went into the MFA program in creative writing at American University, which is not far in Washington DC from where I live, and then began teaching their college writing courses and in 2017, and also occasionally teach creative writing. So but that keeps me busy. Even though I only do one class a semester. I devote a lot of time to planning and reading papers and correcting you know, making comments on papers. So it takes a chunk out of my you know, other writing time, but it's worth it.
So, in your novel, there is a retired lawyer who steps in, are there hints of you walking into your, into your novel?
I think anytime I have a lawyer and a novel, there's got to be part of me in that. And this novel, you know, the lawyer does a good job. And so I'd like to think that if I were that lawyer, I'd be doing the same good job. Yeah. So there, I think there are there are definitely some hints of how to approach negotiations and litigation strategy. Although this wasn't the kind of, you know, law that I practiced, mostly. But part of me is in there. That's a good observation on your part,
It wasn't the kind of law that the character lawyer practiced either.
Yeah, he was an estates and trusts and estates lawyer who was pulled into litigation, but, but he was very, he was retired too, and he's very happy to get back involved. Now, and I never really miss practicing law at all. So I have I dream about it occasionally, I don't really want to go back and do any, you know, legal work, I'd much happier doing writing and teaching.
Wonderful, I assume that you did research for setting up the story. And well, you mentioned researching the Holocaust, and especially in Greece, is there anything that really surprised you in your research?
So I was a little concerned, for example, about the Chabad angle, because, in in this story, you know, the West Side Chabad deals with Kayla, a couple of odd ways. They really keep her hidden as a fugitive, or somebody who's hiding from everyone else for a while, and the lack of our access to their facilities that she's pregnant and having a baby. So I wondered whether that how realistic that was, but, you know, one of my research trips up to northern New Jersey, where I'm from, but I was driving around the neighborhoods. There in the novel, I made a, I made an appointment to talk to a Chabad rabbi at Rutgers, and in New Brunswick, and just ran some issues by him. And it gave me some comfort that you know, what the things that I was saying about Chabad, or the situation that I was describing was not completely, you know, out of possibility that something like that could really happen. So that gave me confidence. And I wouldn't necessarily say I was surprised, but I was comforted by that, that research. And I did a lot of reading about people with schizophrenia, and how what kind of lives they they might be able to lead. And again, not surprised, but found, I felt a lot of information that they told me yes, somebody like Adele could function as a mother as a wife, for the most part to the household together. So the research I did just sort of confirmed in a number of ways the direction in which I was taking the novel anyway. And give me some satisfaction that, you know, I was on a plausible track.
And then was there any bit of research that did not make it into the novel that you loved but had to cut?
I wouldn't say that a lot of the novel also is based on my own experiences growing up and starting piano at the age of four. So a lot of me's in these characters when they were young. I never got to either of their levels, but so I don't think if there was some research that I did that didn't make it into the novel, I don't think it's significant. I mean, it may have been some places in Highland Park, New Jersey I visited as to possibly include that never made it in, but I don't think any research is ever wasted. It's all go in the me somewhere that might come out at another time. Mm hmm.
Is there anything any question you would like to answer that I haven't thought to ask?
Well, I haven't quite thought of it. You know, like that. I guess I will just talk a little bit about why this is, in part, a mystery novel and the whole aspect of the music stalker, which is the title of the novel, who is the music stalker in the novel? That's a question I would throw back at you or I'd throw back at a reader because there are a lot of possibilities. There could be the it could be and you know, the cover would suggest it's the someone looking over Kayla's shoulder as she as she practices, this murderous fan, she fears. But it could also be her brother Max. It could be Kayla herself. It could be the audiences in general. So I wanted to give this novel a mult, a number of dimensions that it could be looked at in many different ways at the same time, and that's why I chose a title that could have multiple interpretations. So go ahead and ask that question. There you go.
I have thank you for bringing that up. I had been wondering about the title. And unfortunately, I didn't see the cover. I got the E pub version that that didn't have the cover.
Are you recording this? Here's the cover. It's easy. It's on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, etc.
Okay, I can put a screenshot of that into the podcast notes as well
I'm just saying the cover literally suggest a stalker but but figuratively, that that figure could be any number of different people in including some aspect of Kayla herself.
That's actually what I had assumed was that she was stalking the music and trying to approach but never quite getting to this level of perfection that she thought she needed. You know, so that's why it was stalking and not accompanying. Because she was trying to get there but not not quite.
Yeah, that's a very plausible interpretation that I hadn't thought of. But yes, in a way, I agree. It could be music stalking her, too. She's a, you know, an infant, she she has nightmares at the piano, in fact, in her home is actually stalking her. And one of the ways I think he deals with this is to try to embrace music. So has lots of possible meanings.
Yeah. And that feeds in with her hallucinations, also, which might be the music kind of personified or might be some other darker aspect of her personality that showing up there.
Right, absolutely. So there are there are many different threads here, which which this title can embrace, I guess, would be the way to put it.
Since I didn't see the physical book. Are there any other aspects of it that you'd like to mention? Were there illustrations or anything in it?
There are no illustrations. And I don't know, when you get any copy, I don't know whether you get all the verbiage on the back cover or not. So there are blurbs on the back cover that I'm that I'm proud of. But in the inside front cover talks about the other novel that's published the flight of the veil, which came out about a year earlier. And it has excerpts from the various reviews. But you know, ebooks certainly provide an ease of reading and if you can see behind me in my, in my office, I have many more physical books and probably I have room for I'm lucky that I have bookshelves, which to keep them. I'm happy that people are getting this book in variety of formats. You know, I hope someday we'll have an audio version of the Music Stalker, we have a really good one of the Flight of the Veil that came out. And I hope perhaps the same narrator will pick up the Music Stalker at some point and turn that into an audio version. Frankly, this is a kind of a book where an audio version can actually if you wanted to be very creative, have the music in the background. And the YouTube trailer I put out for this does have some public domain episodes of classical music is as a background. But this this would be a great project for somebody probably beyond my capability, but to integrate an audio version and actually have the sounds of the various pieces that Kayla plays. I mean, I think there's some 20 to 25 pieces mentioned at one point or another in the book that she plays either on her own or with character by the name of Augustus Terrell who's Haitian violinist and they play violin and piano sonatas together toward the end of Kayla's career. So if you know anyone who wants to put together a musical production, please keep this in mind.
I'll definitely keep an eye out for you.
Yeah, hearing all the different pieces definitely made me aware of my own ignorance about classical music. I'd heard of most of the composers but couldn't place the, the piece with the name. So maybe that'll inspire me to look up some more classical music.
I would hope that you know, somebody's reading the book, if they're into it in their computer can just find a YouTube version of whatever piece that she's playing at the time. And I often listen to music as I write, so would certainly be a nice thing for readers at times if they have, you know, unless they're in your car or something to, to actually try to find some of these pieces and listen to the really nice performance of whatever it might be.
Perhaps you can put together a playlist on one of the music apps,
I'll think about that.
If someone were to use your book as a call for tikun olam for repairing the world, what would you like them to do?
Well, since you thought about this, and I did look around and probably not gonna be able to give you the exact name just hang on a second, but I thought that it would be nice to to perhaps make a donation to a an organization that supports youth music. And so I did find one. It's based in LA it's called the Youth Music Foundation, or I think ymf.org. And so anything that supports you know, children and brings them closer to music, I think would be a great way of helping to protect the world. I have two young grandchildren one is almost six; one is three. And I try to intercept music and try to get them to have an interest in the piano. And any action which supports children being enriched by music as I was, I think would be great. I think one of the My parents were great, they rest in peace. And one of the best things they did for me ever was to start me on piano lessons when I was four, to keep up with it a great, you know, personal sacrifice for nine years. Anything that that supports children learning from and appreciating music, whether they play it or not just being able to love music, I think would be a great thing to do.
Absolutely. So I'll put the link in the show notes for that organization as well. And yeah, I also started my children and music lessons somewhat early. And while neither of them have continued with it, I think both of them did get that appreciation for music and for different genres of music, you know, not just popular but classical and jazz and and that, that they, I think they really feel. And then one thing I forgot to ask earlier, when she does get paired with the violinist, Max is kind of upset because he sees her as the accompanist; as someone lesser than the violinist is the background person. But she sees it as a collaboration. So what is the role of accompanist is and what's the difference between an accompanist and a duet situation?
Well, I think that any professional musician, someone deeply ingrained in music, would not see it as an accompanist. You know, really, and I think true musicians would always see this as a collaboration. And I tried to have Kayla explain this to Max about what it means to collaborate with another musician, how they work together and talk about their approach to the music, I think. And in the case of the novel, I think Max feels wrongly I would say that Kayla is losing her own career which which, you know, he's so he's jealous of but he was also holds in great esteem, and that she's sort of like taking the second place. And there are aspects of that, which I think, unfortunately, are true as the story plays out. But I think Kayla has the better argument She understands that by collaborating and discussing music in depth with another great artist, she will not only be able to play these violin piano, duets, sonatas, but it will help her own music. And I think had her career been able to continue had she not suffered from mental illness and and become unable to pursue the career. I think that's true. I think that all the collaborations that musicians have with each other help them as individual soloist performance, as well. So I feel pretty confident about that. And I was happy in this novel to be able to explain that and explore that, to some extent.
Right, thanks. Another thing I wanted to mention is that while Kayla could not continue with her performance career, she was able to keep composing. And so I thought that was a really wonderful that she could keep music and creativity in her life in a different way.
Yeah, so yeah, she's so she's still stalking music if you if you wish, just that, that music that's within her that she brings out when she when she, you know, writes a new composition. And so she's found not only combined, but she's found a new way to channel her her love of music.
Wonderful. All right. Well, Bruce, thank you so much for speaking with me today. And I look forward to seeing your next book.
Thanks for having me on your podcast. It's a delight to have this conversation.
Well, maybe some time but I'll try to keep you in mind when it when it gets out. If it does, the earliest probably be at least a year from now. And since I'm only on the first draft, who knows but something that I keep working on. At any event. Good luck to you with your continued podcast and I hope everything goes well.
Wonderful. Thank you so much. Take care now.
If you are interested in any of the books we discussed today, you can find them at your favorite board and brick or online bookstore or at your local library. Thanks to Der Yan Kee for use of their fraleigh which definitely makes me happy. This podcast is a project of the Association of Jewish libraries. And you can find more about it at www.jewishlibraries.org/nicejewishbooks. I would like to thank AJL and my podcast mentor, Heidi Rabinowitz. Keep listening for the promo for her latest episode.
This is Danny Coleman, author of The Unfinished corner. I'll be joining you soon on the Book of Life podcast. And I'd like to dedicate this episode to Rabbi Dr. Jeremy Kollic. Rabbi Kollic officiated my bat mitzvah many years ago. He passed away not that long ago, but his influence remains very, very strong in my life and in the book as well.
The Book of Life is the sister podcast of nice Jewish books. I'm your host, Heidi Rabinowitz and I podcast about Jewish kidlit. Join me in March 2022 to hear my conversation with Danny Coleman about the Unfinished Corner at Book of Life podcast.com