Culture & Conversation

Music, Mania and the Mother Bond

susan doherty


Montreal writer Susan Doherty talks to Rover about her best-selling new novel, A Secret Music, and her plans for future books.

Can you tell us in a nutshell what your first novel is about?

A Secret Music is about a young boy, Lawrence Nolan, who aspires to be a concert pianist. The setting is Montreal, 1936. Lawrence grows up in the shadow of his mother’s mental illness at a time when nervous breakdowns were a shameful secret, and asylums a medieval horror. He is forced to raise himself and his younger nine-year old brother. The book is about the complicated love between mother and son, who share not only blood but also the same kind of musical genius, and Lawrence’s own transporting and defining relationship with his art, which somehow must be reconciled when his mother’s condition threatens to sidetrack both of them.

What was the source of inspiration?

Three big ideas that were of interest to me are first and foremost, the mother bond. How does it help you, and how does it hurt you when it has been compromised? The idea that our emotional response to music has the power to redeem a life, and thirdly, the belief that madness and genius share two sides of one coin, to the extent that mania might be the secret companion to the highest forms of creativity.

I wanted to understand what happened to talented people who suffered from mental illness in the 1930’s. My father’s generation. It was such a difficult decade. There were no vaccinations; polio and tuberculosis were rampant, and contagious. E-coli contaminated the milk. The poverty due to mass unemployment on the heels of the Crash of ’29 meant more suicides. Mental illness was a closely guarded family secret, especially if someone was sent to an asylum. The salve to all of this was music. It was the decade where radio’s emergence leant magic to the poorest listener on a rooming house step. Upbeat tempos suggested that better times were around the corner.

Researching historical fiction presents a challenge. What was that process like?

Doing the research was one of the most enjoyable aspects. I’ve always loved the glamour of the 1920’s that began to wane in the 30’s as fortunes fell. My editor was constantly pulling me back from deviating too far off the path of the real story with fantastic scenes depicting life in the 30’s. I feel lucky to have been able to immerse myself in Canadian history so thoroughly. I also came to realize how the second and third generations of a family are affected by extreme circumstances from the previous ones.

Does having your first book out make the next one seem easier? Or not?

My new book is creative non-fiction, a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. Real story telling. My biggest hurdle with book one was structure. As it got bigger and bigger, I lost my way several times with respect to the flow and proper order of the work. At one point I printed the whole damn thing and lay it on the floor of my dining room. What a complete waste of paper. I am having the same problem with The Ghost Garden! Where is the natural beginning? Should it be linear? At least I have more confidence with respect to my writing abilities. For book two I really vomited out the story with no regard to punctuation, diction or any kind of acceptable grammar. My mission was simply to get the story down on paper from beginning to end. Now I’m editing. In earnest. It’s just as hard.

What are you reading at the moment? Over the summer?

Far From the Madding Crowd by Hardy. I must read it before I see the movie. I’ve also got Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything on my desk. I need to be a lot smarter. Let’s hope.

What are you writing now?

The Ghost Garden — a biography of an Ottawa woman and her forty-year struggle with schizophrenia.

Catch Susan Doherty on Classical 96.3 FM radio, Toronto. She’ll be at Munro’s Bookstore, Victoria BC on July 2, and at Grave’s Public Library in Kennebunk, Maine on July 25. Visit her website here.

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