Talking Books with Howard Jay Smith, author of ‘Beethoven In Love; Opus 139

howard-j-smith-3Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His 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, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Symphony in America” –  and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.

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About the Book:

At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life, so the great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This beethoven-in-loveghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past.

As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.

Purchase Information:

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What made you decide to become a published author?

I had always wanted to be a working writer and was fortunate enough to be able to publish magazine articles, short stories and a book on my mentor, the novelist John Gardner, not long after finishing graduate school. My early works earned for me several scholarships to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as well as three Washington, D.C. Endowment for the Arts Fellowships – but none of this was enough to earn a living.  A few years later I moved to Hollywood, attended the American Film Institute as a Screenwriting Fellow and spent the next fifteen years working, writing and producing there.  I also taught both screenwriting and the craft of short story writing at UCLA.  Those classes became the basis for my second book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” published by Random House.  “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139” a novel, just came out this year but has its roots in a work I was drafting back then.

Would you consider your latest book, “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139” to be a one of a kind?  How so?

As one of the character says in the course of the story, What is a novel, but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths.”  “Beethoven in Love; Opus 139” strives to be a solidly crafted work of literary and historical fiction that is at once a page-turner that pulls the reader ever forward while revealing a factually accurate portrait of Beethoven, the man, and the women in his life.  It is the product of two years of solid research that incorporated the details from over a dozen biographies, original source materials, the composer’s own diaries, and six volumes of letters to and from Beethoven, into a work of fiction in a manner that has never been done before. So, yes, in that regard it is unique.  As one critic, Douglas Dutton, Professor of Music, at the Colburn School of Performing, wrote:  “Do we really need another book about Beethoven? A resounding ‘Yes!’ if it is Howard Jay Smith’s, Beethoven in Love; Opus 139. Smith’s novel abandons the assumed and fabricated ‘truths’ of the Beethoven life. This is a Beethoven of the imagination: irascible, argumentative, difficult, and yet passionate and tender. Smith treats Beethoven like the human he was, augments the faults, diminishes the virtues, and the resultant humanity only serves to create an even larger larger-than-life hero.”

Where is your writing sanctuary?

Anywhere I can sit with my laptop and look out the window at my gardens.

What inspires you?

Great stories of historical figures where my potential protagonist must wrestle with the type of profound emotional or psychological issues that every one of us can relate to in our own lives.

What is one thing you learned about your book after it was published?

To answer this one, I have to make a slight detour back to when I first started my Beethoven research.  My mentors from my early days as a writer where novelists, such as John Irving, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien and the late John Gardner, whose works have all won a National Book Award or some similar honor. My original intention had been to read a biography or two about Beethoven and then create a totally fictional story.  No sooner than halfway through my first biography I realized that we know an enormous amount about Beethoven and that it would be completely inappropriate to simply make something up.  To create a novel that was both a great read and historical consistent with the known facts was going to take an enormous amount of work.  It was a matter of jumping all in or not at all.  And if I was going to make the commitment to do this book properly and devote the year’s necessary to pull it off, I had to also commit to myself that I would not move forward unless I could write it at a level of quality that my mentors would have respected.

My first public reading after publication – and I have done many since – was for the American Beethoven Society at their Thirtieth Anniversary Symposium.  There I was reading a work of fiction to an assembled crowd of Beethoven experts – and they loved it!  The reviews forthcoming from critics in the literary world, the music world and every day readers since then have been similar to this one on Good*Reads:

Five Stars. “This Book is an Absolute Masterpiece. There aren’t a lot of times that we get a book to read where the author lets the reader get a good look at the heart and soul of a genius. We all know some of this amazing person, Ludwig Van Beethoven, but we haven’t had the inside look at what life has dealt him and his trials and struggles. We all have those demons that haunt us, but we don’t stop and think that someone as brilliant as Beethoven would have them too. The author not only shows us the man but how this man saw the world around him. I never knew that Beethoven had love in his life. Beethoven was a complicated man and took his music to a level few will ever achieve, if any ever do. Everyone should sit down and seriously read this book. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lover of music, romance, history, the man himself, it’s a good novel and it shouldn’t be by-passed. The pace is steady so you have time to take it all in. Remember, you’re seeing things about a musical master that you may never have known. Everyone, genius or not, must come to grips of what our life is, what it means and where it’s going.”

Why do you love to write fiction?

When writing we create a vivid and continuous dream in a reader’s mind that is so powerful and all-encompassing that they next thing that reader knows is that someone is calling him or her to dinner.  I love being the architect of that dream, I love creating that world that my characters inhabit, struggle through and in some small way emerge victorious.

You’re concocting a recipe for a best selling book.  What’s the first ingredient?

Sex is first, celebrity second, food third.  My all-time favorite title for a best seller would be “The Kennedy Sex Diet.”

What’s one fun fact about your book people should know?

Everyone knows some of the common facts of Beethoven’s life and his music, but almost no one knew that he was a voracious reader of philosophic texts from around the world.  He was profoundly influenced by those works, such as the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, whose themes worked their way into his Ninth’s Symphony’s Ode to Joy.

Did any real life experiences find their way into your book?

Yes, absolutely but in unexpected ways. When researching Napoleon and his influence on Beethoven’s life, I discovered that during his infamous retreat from Moscow when he lost over five-hundred thousand of his men, to combat, disease, and the brutal winter of 1812, he passed through my maternal grand-mother’s village in what is now Belarus. In the tiny village of Smorgonie he passed control of his army to his second in command and raced back to Paris by sled in a then record time of two weeks.

I had never even seen the name “Smorgonie,” in print before.  There were only a thousand people in that village.  Finding that this great tidal wave of history had passed through my family’s home, I instantly knew that I would incorporate four true life stories from our own history into the novel.

Aside from writing, what’s your passion?

Though not a musician, I have had a lifelong love of music — classical, blues and rock.  I am on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Orchestra in America,” – and take great delight being a cheerleader and fundraiser for this astonishing group of musicians.

What’s next for you?

I am sticking with great music and personalities from the Classical Era.  Next up is “Mozart, Da Ponte, Scandal,” a novel about the life and times of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist for Mozart’s three greatest operas, “Don Giovanni,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” and “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Though often overlooked and uncredited, Da Ponte’s life began in and around Venice in an era when people still wore capes and masks year-round and ended eight-eight years later in early modern New York where he opened an opera house that would evolve into the Met and where he also served as the first professor of Italian at what is now Columbia University.

In between those years he led a rogue’s life. Da Ponte, who was born Jewish, and was converted at fourteen to Catholicism, became a priest and literary scholar who would say Mass on Sunday while whoring, drinking and gambling the other six days of the week with his friend, Casanova, the infamous role model for Don Giovanni.  Always too political for his own good, he was successively expelled from the Veneto, Venice and Vienna and had to flee debt collectors in London before making his way to New York in 1805 where he opened an Italian bookstore in Manhattan and a deli across the river in New Jersey.  He was the classic survivor, who in his day wrote a collection of operas that were considered scandalous but are today revered as some of the finest works of that genre ever created.

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