Brennan does double artistic duty
Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir Life received a $7 million advance, sold a million copies and reached international bestseller status. Rock musicians frequently write autobiographies (often with the help of a co-author) but rare is the musician who ventures into fiction and rarer still is the classically trained musician who shows aptitude in both disciplines.
As a violist with Symphony Nova Scotia, Binnie Brennan’s demanding day job involves being immersed in some of the world’s most revered music (like the violin, a viola is held under the chin but it’s larger and produces a deeper, lower sound, an alto voice in the orchestra). Brennan says she’s always loved playing but doesn’t feel particularly inspired to use the symphony as a subject in her fiction. It’s a suggestion she receives often.
“To me, playing in an orchestra is not exotic. It’s like going to the office,” she said over aromatic drinks at World Tea House recently. “Which is not to say playing great music isn’t extraordinary — it is.”
Musical threads appear in A Certain Grace, her second collection of stories with Toronto’s Quattro Press, but the focus is on characters and their emotional lives.
Brennan began writing fiction on her own, submitting work to literary journals with success and eventually enrolling in The Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program. She later entered the work completed there into a novella contest, the prize for which included a publishing contract. Harbour View went on to become a bestseller.
Her parents provided an ideal environment for developing the twin talents she has now, Brennan says.
“It was an artsy upbringing,” she says. “A lot of stake put into being creative and spending time on your own, exercising the imagination.”
As a ninth grader at the North Toronto Collegiate Institute, enamoured with the piano and voice, a teacher introduced her to the instrument that would change her life. At the time, Brennan says, she loved literature and music equally, but her father, an academic, advised her to pursue serious music study and she took his advice.
“I got to high school and was handed a viola and that was it. There was no looking back after that.”
Her mother, also a musician, is Brennan’s first reader. As a mother herself, she says she tried to give her kids the same artistic education. Her adult children, a son and a daughter, both work in the arts-related fields.
Comparisons between music and fiction draw ire from many scholars, who maintain that the structural analysis doesn’t bear out, but Brennan sees a few parallels.
“There are a lot of similarities in practice; the attention to detail and the desire to make either a performance or a piece of writing as good as you possibly can.
“I also think in the case of a lot of writers there’s a need to incorporate sound into what you’re writing. In other words, musicality, the shape of a phrase. Alistair MacLeod leaps to mind. He has a very declamatory way of writing and if you’ve ever heard him read, he sings the pieces. There’s no one who reads like him. He writes for the voice.
And in my experience, there are musicians who, when they play, sound the way they speak. “
Unlike the Symphony’s concerts, no one claps at the end of a writer’s day. Brennan says the isolation of a writer’s life suits her just fine.
“That appeals to me. While I like going on stage and doing a good job and hearing that applause, it’s also in my nature to enjoy solitude.”
Unlike many writers and artists who use music to help ease them into the creative day and amp up brain waves (supposedly) Brennan does not listen to music when writing. None, she stresses.
“I play music for a living, that’s my job. It’s something I’ve done all my life. When I put on music, I have to listen very deeply to it. Music is not wallpaper to me.
“I find it a distraction if it’s on and I’m trying to do something.”
Writing fiction entails risks even classically-trained musicians (themselves in a professionally precarious field) find extreme.
“When you play in an orchestra, they put the music in front of and you learn it and then you go into rehearsals,” Brennan says. “When you’re a writer, it’s entirely self-generated and there’s no guarantee you’re going to get paid at the end of it.”
Even with two books under her belt, Brennan says she isn’t planning to give up full-time musicianship. Nor does she intend to try her hand at writing music.
Currently she’s working on more short stories and will soon undertake a residency at Bishop’s House in Great Village.
She says Duncan’s Lament, one of the marquee stories in A Certain Grace, is her “love letter to Nova Scotia.”
Megan Power lives in Halifax. Visit her online: www.meganpower.blogspot.com
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