LS: What inspired “Ferranti and Sivori”?
JG: When I wrote that story and eight others about guitarists, I had been studying the history of the classical guitar, an instrument I’ve been playing with modest competence for a long time. Ferranti, like music, is an emotional chameleon. Watch videos of Leonard Bernstein conducting. His face registers more shifts of emotion in the course of a symphonic work than some people experience in a lifetime. I found the rough outlines for my story in Simon Wynberg’s biography, Zani de Ferranti. Not a very good book, actually. Ferranti was an interesting guy, but judging from Wynberg’s work, not enough is known about him to enable a fetching biography. My Ferranti is more fiction than fact.
LS: A talented handling of humorous tone carries the pacing throughout. Early in the story, when Ferranti finds himself “as a guitarist to appear in a musical program at Brussels in 1845 with the renowned violinist Camillo Sivori,” the two protagonists are contrasted:
Sivori had studied with Paganini, and his theatricality while performing resembled his master’s. His posture and facial expressions changed dramatically in response to altered moods and tempos of music. His large dark eyes flashed to express terror or closed swooningly. Playing double-fortissimo, he spread his feet and wielded his bow like a sword as he attacked the strings.
When not performing, he was like a collapsed balloon. His large, liquid, dark eyes had a melancholy, yearning cast, and it became noticeable that he was barely five feet tall. For Ferranti, this hermaphroditic midget illustrated what became of a person who’d done nothing in life but master a musical instrument.
As you were drafting, what did you most enjoy creating from historical records and what from the gaps between them, whether in Ferranti’s idea of his own mind or in the comparisons and interactions with historical figures? What is your idea of “a fetching biography” in fictional terms?
JG: I think the whole process was basically more subjective than your question suggests. When I chance on materials I can work with, maybe transform—in life or literature—I feel a kind of tropism-ic attraction to them. That was the case when I read Wynberg’s book on Ferranti. Without that response the “historical records” are dead meat, at least where fictional writing is concerned. A fictional story can be a “fetching biography” of sorts when there’s not really enough information available for an historian working within the limits of his craft to write a proper biography. History, if it’s engaging, involves the imagination just as fiction does, but the historian isn’t at liberty to violate known facts.
When you make fictional choices about the lives of real people, is there a principle that tends to govern your allegiances, and do you believe that there are pitfalls to avoid specifically in writing historical fiction?
I’m completely amoral in that regard. But then I’m not writing fiction that aspires to be biography.
The story is written in a picaresque style, with lively episodes of globetrotting action summarized and occasionally extended into scene. Are your other stories about guitarists written in compressed form, and do you find short fiction lending itself to the style, or do you approach novels in the same manner?
All of my writing, both fiction and essays, tends to compression. Several of my best readers over the years have remarked that when they finish reading something of mine they feel like they’ve gone through something much longer. My two novels are arguably better classified as novellas, and I thought my daughter Sarah’s remark about my first, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: a Novel of Atlanta, was one of the smartest things anyone said about it. She said it was “poetry.” There are, though, some longer picaresque stories in the guitarist series, e.g. “Andrew the Vihuela Player,” which The Writing Disorder on the West Coast published online last year.
Fans of “Ferranti and Sivori” may seek out similar works or writers. Do you have recommendations for them or influences they can seek out? Who were some of your early writing influences?
Can’t think of any writers doing the kind of thing I do in the guitar stories. (I write a lot more than I read these days.) Among my own stories there’s “From the Diaries of Francesco Roberto,” set at the English Restoration court. The online Fortnightly Review in London published it earlier this year.
There were a lot of influences in my early thinking (e.g. that of my undergraduate teacher Merle E. Brown at Denison who introduced me to Wallace Stevens). I’m not sure, though, that what I read early on ever much affected the way I write. I think I more or less invented my style of writing in high school writing articles for my home town daily newspaper in Ohio. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota I wrote a short story for a course in creative writing course conducted by Southerner Alan Tate. He liked the piece—but his comment on it was, “I can’t tell what you’ve read.”
What are you working on now, and what’s next in your writing life?
The editor of the aforementioned Fortnightly Review has assigned me what he calls a “column” titled, “Verisimilitudes: essays and approximations.” He’s publishing online a series of essays and stories of mine eventually to be collected in a book. At the moment I’m mainly working on essays for Fortnightly Review, which just recently published one titled, “Madame Blavatsky.” My second novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? will be published sometime later this year by Vagabondage Press. (The inspiration for that work was the case of the infamous runaway bride in Atlanta some years ago, but I up the ante: both bride and groom in my story vamoose in different directions on the eve of the wedding.)
Find “Ferranti and Sivori,” along with stories by John Brandon and Rebecca Makkai, as well as the 2016 Winners in the Lamar York Prizes for Fiction and Nonfiction, all in our Spring issue, available now for $8.