As a writer, I’m often amazed at the characters that I’m able to create. Sometimes they’re inspired by real people that I know…and real people that I don’t know. Other times, they’re born out of a question—usually, a “what if?” but occasionally a “what kind of a person would…” I draw inspiration from my family…and from the people sitting around me at a restaurant, on line with me at the Starbucks and in the seats behind me on the train. A little snippet of conversation is sometimes enough to give birth to an entire living, breathing human being. On paper, anyway.
There are way too many characters for me to cover in one post, so I’ll be doing profiles on the more interesting ones from time to time. But today, I thought I’d talk about one of the new characters in Counterpoint—a romance that I’m writing now. Like right now. Like, I’m taking a break from writing the ending so I can write this blog post and I’m still not sure how the whole thing is going to finish. Yeah. That new.
In this particular instance, one of my main characters was inspired—very loosely, mind you—by a picture that I came across… In recent years, cellist Alisa Weilerstein has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame—and for good reason, she’s a kick-ass cellist and has been since she was a girl. While most young musicians make their musical debut on stage of their college or conservatory, she made hers at the age of thirteen. With the Cleveland Orchestra. Yup. The Cleveland Orchestra. But what I found so interesting about Ms. Weilerstein was the fact that her parents— Donald Weilerstein, founding violinist of the Cleveland Quartet and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein—are also immensely talented musicians and, together, the three of them form the Weilerstein Trio. Even her brother, Joshua, is a conductor with a rapidly-rising star. Makes you consider the whole nature/nurture question, doesn’t it?
Anyway, I happened upon a picture of the Weilerstein Trio—Alisa standing between the clearly adoring Mr. and Mrs. Weilerstein. Their joy and passion and love for one another and the music came through so clearly in the image that I just couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I thought how wonderful it must have been to grow up in such a nurturing environment, where your family truly “gets” it in a way that few others can. I’m sure that this had more than a little to do with Ms. Weilerstein’s success.
As I looked at the fabulous photos of the three Weilersteins—clearly an adoring, happy, bunch—I wondered, what would it be like to be born into a high-profile musical family—that wasn’t so adoring and happy? A family that expected you to uphold the family name and reputation—even if you weren’t equipped to do so. And so were born the Mickelson-Fitch family—kind of the anti-Weilersteins.
**Here’s the part where I put in the disclaimer—the characters and storyline of my book, Counterpoint, are PURELY fictional and not intended to resemble ANY real people or events. I don’t know the Weilersteins other than through their recordings. I’ve never met them and I have no reason to believe they are anything but a happy family of spectacularly talented musicians. The ONLY reason I mention the Weilerstein clan in relation to the characters in this book is to show how something as simple as stumbling across a photograph on the web can spark an entire, fictional story arc. I am not drawing a comparison between any real life people and the dysfunctional but lovable bunch I write about in Counterpoint.**
Okay, so now that that’s out of the way…
Meet Alexandria Mickleson-Fitch, a spectacularly talented pianist who, at twenty-four, is still very much under the thumb of her parents—the esteemed Mickelson-Fitch Duo. Violinist/Dad, Hugh, and pianist/Mom, Madeleine, are considered to be classical music royalty. And when Alexandria is ready to make her Carnegie Hall debut, all of their peers and fans have been waiting to see if she’s nearly as good as they keep saying she is. In other words, there’s a whole lot riding on this concert—including Alexandria’s career and her family’s reputation. And with a boorish, overbearing father like Hugh, you just know things won’t go well if her Carnegie Hall debut is anything less than perfection.
Which, of course, it doesn’t.
Here’s a snippet from Counterpoint—as Alexandria opens her Carnegie Hall debut with the Grieg Piano Concerto:
The sound of the timpani roll is a whisper so soft and subtle that it seems to emerge out of thin air. It builds to an impossibly intense peak in an impossibly brief time, reaching its zenith at the same moment that the piano makes its grand entrance.
My two hands, separated by half an octave, move in tandem as a single, solid unit. They slam down, forming a powerful chord that rings out across the concert hall. It’s as if it just hangs there for a second, teetering on the edge of some invisible precipice. And then it tips, tumbling into a cascade of chunky chords, each one as fiery as the first. It is dramatic in its presentation but by no means showy—because this isn’t about flourishes and fripperies. Nor will this be one of those concertos where the piano and the orchestra have a genteel dialogue. This is the piano staking its claim right off the bat, controlling the melody and taking the lead. Once I’ve hit the bottom of the keyboard it’s as if the two “unified” hands shatter apart and split up into ten distinct fingers. They start the mad rush, scurrying back up the intervals to the top.
Now, the thing about a downward spiral is that there are a couple of ways it can happen. The first is very, very slowly over a substantial period of time. In this scenario, your divergence from the plan is so subtle as to be nearly undetectable. Little by little you drift off course, totally unaware of the seconds ticking by as they bring you closer and closer to imminent distress. This kind of spiral is survivable, depending on your ability to identify and correct the problem before it’s too late.
There’s a lot less wiggle room in the second scenario. What often transpires, in this instance, is that a relatively minor event occurs. Under any other circumstances you would simply recognize the problem, take corrective action and resume without further difficulties. But these aren’t just any circumstances. This “minor” event is only one in a chain of minor events that, when threaded together, become a major meltdown. Before you realize it, you’ve pitched forward at a terrifying angle, picking up speed with each passing moment. It is so violent and so unexpected that all you can do is hang on for dear life, frantically trying to figure out how things could’ve gone so wrong so fast as alerts shriek around you and the earth rushes up to meet you head-on. This kind of spiral almost always ensures a terminal outcome.
My spiral starts off as a single little bobble. One of my fingers misses a key on the rippling intervals that run back upward. That, in and of itself, isn’t an insurmountable error. I can still adjust and correct course, making the error nothing but a little hint of turbulence in an otherwise perfect journey. The problem is that perfection, by it’s very definition, must be devoid of any errors—no matter how miniscule they may be.
As an entire cluster of wrong notes unfurls from my fingers, I will myself to make it to the orchestra’s entrance. It’s only a few more bars away. If I can just make it to the orchestra’s entrance, I can take a deep breath and reset. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve already slipped, headlong, into the spiral, banking too far to pull up out of the nosedive.
The orchestra peters out as the Maestro brings them all to a halt. He’s looking at me with clear disgust and barely-contained rage. I hear a quiet buzz humming throughout the house and flash upon an image of my father in his suit, hands gripping the armrests until his knuckles turn white and his face warms to a deep crimson color.
Yikes! Not exactly “happy ending” material is it? Well, not yet, anyway. This is, after all, a romance. And if you think poor Alexandria has baggage, wait till you meet her love interest, Nate “The Musical Miracle” Calloway.
As I said, this book is still very much a work-in-progress. So much so that these characters are actually running around in my head, making their own plans. They say what they want to say, do what they want to do and go where they want to go—and to hell with my synopsis! I don’t have children myself, but I imagine parents must feel this way sometimes. The best laid plans, and all that…
Stay tuned for more details about Alexandria and Nate in Counterpoint coming to you from me…and an as-of-yet-unnamed publisher…at an as-of-yet-undecided time.
Let me know what you think of the premise and be sure to check the fabulous Alisa Weilerstein!