My Home is on the Mountain

My Approach to the Writing of this Book

MY HOME IS ON THE MOUNTAIN is set in a place, a time period, and among people at a distance from myself. I was extremely aware that I was dealing with cultures not my own (and anything that is almost 100 years ago is hard for for anyone to know or own) and a society where African-Americans were second-class citizens, all women's lives were restricted, and poor white people, despite the sentimental talk of 'sons of the pioneers' and 'honest sturdy Americans' and 'Anglo-Saxon breed', were treated with contempt or had their lived fictionalised to suit a classist or racist agenda. I cover this below. The writing of this book opened up to me so much I am glad I learned. My life has been uplifted by the expansion of my understanding. Learning more about different people and different cultures is always positive.

Another challenge in wiritng this book was that I didn't read music and I don't play an instrument. Well, at the beginning I didn't read music. I had to learn. More of this in About the Book. One of the great joys and blessings of writing about a place not your own, a time not your own, and people not like you, is that you are forced to learn. MY HOME IS ON THE MOUNTAIN gave me many gifts, but the greatest was a deeper and more informed knowledge of all kinds of music. I listened to and loved old-time music, early jazz, and exponentially increased my understanding of classical music. Every single one of my days is enriched by music I would never had known had not Cecilia and Airey come into my life.  

The historical background

I do a lot of research because it is important to make things as accurate as possible. The past is not a fantasy world where we can play; the people then were real and their world was real, and out of respect for them as living beings, I think it is important not to trivilise the times they lived in. To consider past times as less important than one's own is temporal chauvinism. I get laughed at for my indignation when an obvious known historical event or truth gets ignored or twisted out of shape, but I believe that when you use people who happen to be dead for your own purposes, it slights them. (Having said that, see below about when I do change history, and why.)

I am an historian. If I did not think the past wasn't important, I would not have spent many years of my life dedicated to learning, and discovering, and proving, facts and truths about the past. I write historical fiction for a reason: to make past times come alive as best I can, so that if the people back then were to read it, they wouldn't be shocked or distressed or outraged by distortions, falsehoods, and lack of understanding of their lives and their times.

As a fiction writer, I also like the challenge of making my story fit what as actually true of the world in which it is set. Poets embrace the constraints of sonnets and villanelles because it forces them to leap to higher creative planes; I write stories set in the past partly because I love what the reality of the past requires my creative brain to do. Almost always, learning a fact that, at first light, is dismaying ("Oh gosh, that scuppers me") reveals itself to be the very thing I needed to kick-start a scene or a theme or the entire plot to a better place.

Finally, I like doing research. I often ask myself: do I write so I can do research, or do I do the research so that I can write? Luckily, I don't need to choose.  

When do I make historical events up?

Having said all this, I do actually make conscious decisions to break historical truths and invent something. A British author or thrillers, Len Deighton, back in the 1960s ans 1970s, finally started putting dates such as "31 June 1960" in his stories, because if he said "27 June 1960", some reader or reviewer would snarkily point out that his spy could not have possibly been been there doing that, because...

In the same way, I have made one change that will be obvious to any American reader: there was no senate election in 1931. I set the story in 1931 partly so that no one could think that Cecilia's father is actually a real senator lightly disguised. Given that the setting is clearly Tennessee, I did not want anyone thinking I was basing Colonel Howison on either Cordell Hull or Kenneth McKellar. I wasn't. He is entirely invented. To drive that home, I moved the story from 1932 to 1931. (I also wanted it to be 1931 for other useful reasons, but this was the main one.)

Other changes were the invention of the town Avender and the small city Charleville. I wanted these two places to be entirely under my control. The fact that they are set in vaguely similar positions to Maryville and Knoxville is only because those distances worked for me. I actually used some facts from Knoxville (the train station, the African-American community) to give Charleville some historical heft, and to respect its reality, but Charleville is an imaginary city. Avender is entirely imaginary.

Actual people from the past

I have a personal principle that I do not use any actual historical persons as characters in any of my stories. My imagination certainly is not able to encompass the entirety of a real, once-living person, so to include him or her would be to reduce them to caricatures, and I can't find any respect for them in that.  

The need for awareness

Any novel set in a past time requires a considerable amount of research if the book is to be considerate of and true to its time, the people living then, and to the political and cultural situations in which those people found themselves.

Because I am an historian by training (see About the Author) and by life-long study, I feel a particular duty to stick to actual events, unless I have to invent for the purpose of the story — and when that point comes, I remind myself very sternly that I am writing fiction.

This story covers issues of class and race. When choosing to write any book, the author necessarily limits what she can encompass in a single work of fiction. I have done wider reading on class and race than might be evident in the text, because the narrative is bound by one character's point of view, and so is limited to her knowledge, awareness, habits, and privileges. I, as the author, had to be aware of more than she could know, and more than she would acknowledge. Nevertheless, I hope that it is clear that I do not agree with the attitudes and assumptions of entitlement expressed by some of the characters in the book.

I have pondered the issues of Otherness and Othering. As a disabled person myself, as a lesbian, and as an immigrant, I am not unaware of the ways people are excluded and marginalised. The central issue of this story is the marginalising of people due to class. I also, I hope, make it clear the marginalistion that occurred because of racism and sexism, more specifically, misogyny. Nevertheless, no single novel, especially one set in the past, where so many differences were not then recognised or were suppressed or were condemned, is able to bring into its orbit every issue, or to address every issue it might invoke. In addition, I would never lightly co-op or assume the viewpoint of someone's lived experience: I feel I must be as truthful as I can on their behalf, and to base all I do on facts, including written testimony and oral records of memory. I believe that people have a right to retain their own voices and be presented (as best we can) as they were in their own time and place, and they should not be made other than what they were.

Obviously, all errors of historical fact, historical interpretation, and failures of awareness or understanding, are entirely mine.  

Acknowledgements

I have turned to a number of people for help during the writing of this novel. I would like to thank them here. Some have asked not to be mentioned by name, for reasons I of course respect.

If your manuscript's first reader wallops you over the head with the truth and you don't take it on the chin, you shouldn't be a writer, because you are not dedicated to bettering the story, which is the only thing that matters. I was blessed by trenchant first reader, Deborah Peifer, a friend with a background in criticism and book reviewing, because her initial feedback was brutally honest. This was incredibly useful. I needed unflinching criticism, and Deborah gave me that, for many years and through many drafts. She also gave me her perspective, as an American, on various cultural and political issues that might have passed me by. Finally, I relied heavily on her encouragement and endless support. Thank you. You know how much of this book is as it is because of you.

But sometimes we writers have to be hit over the head from another angle. My friend Ellen Kline, previously a bookseller by trade, and a perceptive reader, forced me to squeeze the tube of creative toothpaste a bit harder, to strive beyond what was good to better, and the story benefitted. She also got me to think again about certain aspects of the narration, and I did. Thank you.

Emmanuelle, a now former colleague, took my proposed French sentence to a higher realm. I still get a charge out of what she gave back to me.

My friend Joy is fluent in a number of languages and gave me the correct German to use. I did alter it a bit for the story's purpose, and if it is wrong, she is not to blame.

Doris Lichtenstein (1947-2016) was a professional violinist who played in many leading orchestras, in ensembles, and also taught violin. She very generously took me through the mechanics of playing a violin, from rosin to bow handling, and shared many insights into the world of orchestras and concertmasters. Her obituary. She is remembered with much gratitude.

Johann Beavis Berry recorded for me a lovely waltz-like version of the old song "In the Gloaming" for this website and other purposes, having studied the original sheet music and having done research. I thank him for his thoughts and his performance. He is also a composer! Check out his YouTube channel.

A professional translator of Greek and Latin assisted me with the Latin in the book, because I lost my nerve, as my Latin is terrible. Some was left on the cutting-room floor, but I appreciated her generous free help.

Several members of the Violinist.com website community helped me with specific questions.

The knowledgeable railroad fans at https://railroad.net/ helped me get my characters to the right places at the actual times on the actual trains then running.

I visited the Great Smoky Mountains twice while writing this book, and each time I rented a cabin from Pioneer Cabins, choosing the cabin farthest from any other, with a wonderful view (it was my screensaver while I wrote the book), and where I could walk out and be directly in the woods. The owners were extremely gracious and hospitable, and they shared the harvest of their small organic farm and their expert knowledge of the area with me.

Grandmother's Kitchen, in Wears Valley, Tennessee, serves the best cat-head biscuits I have ever eaten.

Archive Bookstore, London is one of those dream used-book stores, where there's barely room to move for books and the owner offers you a dry sherry. The basement is crammed with music books, sheet music, and a piano. The owner was very helpful in unearthing for me all sorts of music material from his Aladdin's cave.

Finally, Fiona, my wife, has lived through me thinking about and writing about the women in the novel for quite a long time, with both patience and fortitude. I thank her for her wry acceptance of the fact that she was losing hours of my time every day (and I hers) so that I could write about true love. Hers was the best example of it.