Meet Wesley Stace

An extraordinary book landed on my desk a few weeks ago: Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer, by Wesley Stace (published by Cape). Set on the cusp of the 20th century, poised between the folk music revival of Butterworth and Vaughan Williams and the onset of modernism, it’s narrated by a music critic, Leslie Shepherd, who traces his complex relationship with a young composer, Charles Jessold. If that names sounds oddly familiar, it’s no coincidence: it mirrors that of Carlo Gesualdo. Jessold is discovered dead, along with his wife and her lover – a murder apparently modelled on Gesualdo’s famous crime – just before the premiere of his new opera Little Musgrave. And the opera is based on a folk ballad – in which a nobleman kills his wife, her lover and then himself…

The novel is gripping and fabulously written – Stace’s style is not only convincingly Edwardian but has a musical ebb and flow replete with staccato wit and legato allusion (one critic’s voice is described as a “dry white whine” – perfect!). And it seems that there’s no compromise on the musical content, something I’ve got some strong feelings about, for obvious reasons – there’s nothing like putting classical music into your novel to make your publisher break out in a sweat of ‘elitism’ terror as she reaches for the red pen. Though as you’ll see below, Stace says there’s more to this than meets the eye…

It’s a read that is astute, sensitive, clever and not above a playfulness that brings in direct quotes from “the critic Ross” (who of course is very much alive today) and shows Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn from Doctor Faustus attending the world premiere of Peter Grimes. You can read another glowing write-up about it from Norman Lebrecht, here.

So, whither Wesley? If you haven’t come across his two earlier novels before, you might be startled to learn that he’s a musician of a very different kind: with his singer-songwriter hat on, he is the alt-folk-rock musician John Wesley Harding, with 15 albums and plenty of celebrity collaborations to his name. Born in Britain, he now lives in Philadelphia with his wife, who is an artist, and their two children.

I asked Wesley for an e-interview about Charles Jessold, so here he is.

JD: Wesley, you’ve homed in on a fascinating time in musical history and a rather undersung (so to speak) point in the development of English music. What attracted you to this time and milieu?

WS: I’ve always loved the intersection of classical music and folk music; particularly the folkier flowerings of the English Musical Renaissance. The original visual image, specifically, for this novel was two men on bikes peddling round collecting songs. (It turns out that they’re going to find the folksong that will change their lives, and possibly the history of English music. Why ever not?)

On further reading, I began to consider the English Musical Renaissance (and in particular its folk aspect) in the light of other Nationalist movements. The language of those Vaughan Williams essays was very informative. The movement became doubly interesting: one might well imagine that, at this time, Britain wanted a kind of music that had less German influence.

When I’d come up with the original idea for “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer”, the beginning of the 20th Century (through the first world war and beyond, into the second) seemed the most suggestive time to set it. I could fit it all in: particularly how far Britain lagged behind the rest of the continent in exposure to, and composition of, new music: the central conflict between my narrator/critic and my composer.

Also, simply, I love the music – Butterworth, Grainger, Elgar, Warlock, Lambert, Boughton &c &c – and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a novel set in this scene. There’s James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerontius, of course, which I loved. Perhaps there are others I missed. But it felt like a great time to set a story, and a great milieu to explore.

What tipped the whole thing off however was the sensational Gesualdo story (which I came across watching a Werner Herzog documentary) and then a trip to Gesualdo to visit the actual castle. All very inspirational for the plot that emerged.

JD: You’re a singer and songwriter yourself. Do you think your understanding of the creative processes of music made a difference to how the novel turned out? Also, your style flows very musically – would you say this is natural, or something you strive for deliberately?

WS: As a “composer” (roughly) or a songwriter (specifically), I know there’s a lot of mystification about the compositional process, so at least I was probably able to cut some of that rubbish out, and make Jessold resemble an actual composer rather than the fictional ideal.

More obliquely, but perhaps more pertinently, I’d say that the “discipline” of songwriting is a very good school for writing fiction. (And I never did anything in the way of Creative Writing classes, so it had to be.) Writing songs has definitely helped me let the words do the work, and to write without great self-consciousness. (The tidying up and editing is the hard work and the lengthier part of the process, even though the initial creation is more exhausting: I don’t think this is news.)

I definitely strive for a musical effect. I wanted to structure Jessold like an opera, which is why the book starts to pick up speed towards the end when we’re heading towards the curtain. I even considered, to get that effect, writing the last section in one straight go, but then realised that the particular effect of haste can only be contrived.

I definitely wanted the novel to seem musical, both in its appreciation of music, and also in its own language. So thanks for noticing that. On the other hand, I was dealing with a very particular narrator – and I had to make sure that everything seemed natural coming from his pen. So I had to rein it in a little; sometimes a lot. Plus, he’s meant to be a journalist who thrives on deadlines and word counts.

JD: Leslie Shepherd is one of the best ‘fallible narrators’ I’ve come across recently. How did you get under his skin?

WS: I’ve found out (writing all three novels) that you invent a character from nothing as best you can. As you write further, that character, if he or she has become real to you, starts to do things that the character you have invented, and in which you believe, would do. Things do take on a life of their own.  (That’s why I can’t start out with a definitive narrative line for a whole novel. It would mean stunting the growth of the characters.) Shepherd was no different.

The biggest cliche would have been to make Shepherd gay, so I definitely didn’t want to go there. After that – and I can’t go into this too much – the rest kind of wrote itself. I needed him to be a certain *type* of person, so he would deal with situations, and think about things, in a certain way. He’s certainly unreliable, in the narrative sense (he’s recently been called  ”an untrustworthy and impotent witness” which is well-put) but “his” book is structured specifically as he wants it to be structured. He’s a control-freak who has completely lost control.

One reviewer referred to a “gothic twist”, which is a nice idea, but there simply isn’t one: not if the book is read as I meant it.

JD: I like the fact that you haven’t compromised on the musical content – Leslie’s descriptions of music and musical life are very convincing and thorough. And I wondered whether at any point anyone suggested that you put in less of this with a view to attracting a wider audience?

WS: They absolutely did suggest that. And insisted on it. And lots of it went. I have pages and pages that I could publish on your blog, where some reader might find them interesting: ultimately better that than to have left them in the book. To me it was all interesting; to my first readers, it held the book up. And I’m a very responsive editee. But there are definitely pages of edits.

I left in as little as possible. And the hope is that nothing that remains feels like padding or wheel-spinning or just wordy historical information. In my first book, Misfortune, there was quite a bit of sex, and pages of sex can be quite boring: so I tried to engineer the sex scenes so that something happened during each one, some discovery, and that the novel moved forward. (The themes of the book made this quite easy.)

In Jessold, I tried to make the musical history and explanations (for example, the discussions of nationalism, the scene at the first night of Peter Grimes, the passage set at the Schoenberg recital, debates of Art Song v Folk Song etc etc) into scenes that would propel the book forward, by telling us about the characters who were arguing etcetera, so that, when the scene was done, the reader knew a little more about music (though this knowledge didn’t essentially matter) but a lot more about the characters, who are, after all, the main reasons for writing the novel. At least, the main reason for writing this kind of novel.

JD: What was the most challenging aspect of the book for you?

WS: Well, the easiest answer, but not the whole answer, is: faking the musical history. Novels are all sleight of hand, of course, but I don’t really know much about classical music at all: I’m just happy when I can spot the composer on the classical radio station (and I only rarely can. And I’m not being modest.) But I’d really wanted to write about music for this novel – in particular, not my kind of music and my world of dressing rooms and broken strings. I wanted to write about how music makes people feel, and how a musical text can be used to different ideological ends; how composers work and what they’re trying to express (and how that can be so easily misinterpreted. A massively helpful book was Music and Inspiration by Jonathan Hervey.) And so I did a lot of research – and read a lot of excellent books (many of which are mentioned in the acknowledgements afterwards.) You just don’t want to get that stuff wrong. Otherwise the whole thing becomes unbelievable. Plus there was the worry that a book narrated by a classical music critic might well be reviewed by classical music critics; in the same sense that a book about critics will always be reviewed by a critic…. so I wanted to get it right. My critic isn’t really a terribly good critic, but I hope you feel the progression of 20th-century British music through his reactions.

The truth however is that that wasn’t anything like the most difficult thing: the most difficult thing was making the characters believable and to have their motivations be clear – one person in particular, though I can’t reveal which one here. It gave me nightmares and I worked really hard on it. At the last possible moment, I moved one absolutely crucial scene to a much stronger position. It involved a lot of blind re-editing, at a distance and over the phone, but was thoroughly worth it. It changed the order of information in a vital way.

JD: How has writing this book changed you? Do you have any plans to write more musical novels in the future?

WS: The next novel will in fact be musical, but a very different kind: much more modern. I found, during the writing of Jessold, that it shook up a lot of stories from my world. And though I don’t want to write anything that is remotely auto-biographical, I have an idea to write about music set today, but another completely different world. I hope it will both elucidate a particular subculture and also shine a light elsewhere.

Has Jessold changed me? It was much harder, given the subject matter and perhaps even given the state of the publishing industry, to get a deal for this novel in the USA – see how pragmatic I am? – and so I made a vow not to set the next book in England’s distant past. But perhaps I will anyway. (I’ve had a very happy landing at Picador in the USA. They publish February ’11. The cover will be just as good as the Cape cover, which I love, but completely different.)

JD: And how about an e-book that embeds music with the text, so that readers can listen simultaneously? (Or would this require the composition of the entire Little Musgrave opera?!?)

WS: Fantastic idea. Could you hook that up for me and do all the work? (joke.)

A New York composer, Daniel Felsenfeld, and I are collaborating on a version of On Murder, Considered as a Fine Art by Thomas de Quincey (set by Charles Jessold in the book, and despised by Shepherd) as though it were a suite by Jessold. The five verses, as written by me (in an attempt to distill de Quincey’s argument) will be set for soprano, cello, harpsichord and flute. (A Jessoldian combination). We’re going to record it, then perform it, interspersed with readings from the book for the US publication. The complete piece will stream from my website. Not quite what you’re talking about, but a start…… I love these kind of projects that give the book a spurious kind of reality, a non-fictional other-life. We are also doing a perfectly “serious” Jessold website, as though he were real. Some of those lesser known composers’ websites are delightfully amateur, and we’ll be going for that effect to make it authentic.

Composer Errollyn Wallen and I collaborated on a setting of the folk song Famous Flower of Serving Men. Perhaps I can talk her into Little Musgrave at some point in the future.

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