Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Author Snapshot: Kevin Bazzana

Music historian and biographer Kevin Bazzana holds a Ph.D. in music history from UC Berkeley, a degree he puts to careful use in creating beautiful and lucid biographies of musical characters you just don’t think about every day. Not for this author either Madonna or Chopin: the objects of his interest tend to the more esoteric, the less known.

Bazzana’s first two books focused on various aspects of the life and work of Glenn Gould. Glen Gould: The Performer in the Work (Oxford University Press) was published in 1998 to international acclaim. As Library Journal pointed out, the book was much more than a biography, “this is instead a detailed critical study of Gould the musical interpreter, complete with a CD of pertinent recordings.”

Bazzana followed that up with Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (McLelland & Stewart) in 2003, arguably creating the author as the world’s leading expert on the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist.

Last year the publication of the biography of another eccentric and brilliant pianist brought Bazzana further acclaim. Lost Genius tells the story of the Hungarian-born Ervin Nyiregyházi, who spent his life struggling with his talent. New this month in paperback, Lost Genius is nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

While it’s difficult not to be curious about what will come next for this writer, we must resist the urge. As will be seen, it’s not his favorite question.

A Snapshot of Kevin Bazzana...

Born: Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Resides: Near Victoria, Britsh Columbia (Brentwood Bay, actually.)
Birthday: July 27, 1963
Web site: I lack sufficient computer skills and self-esteem to create a personal Web site, and alas have no thoughts profound enough to justify one.

January Magazine: Please tell us about your most recent book.

Kevin Bazzana: Lost Genius is a biography of the Hungarian-American pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903-1987). He was a brilliant, highly original musician and eccentric character who led a bizarre life, though his story is almost unknown today. He was one of those gifted artists who was cursed psychologically in ways that sabotaged his career; his story is a tragedy about a great talent that cannot find its place in the world, and he left to posterity only tantalizing glimpses of his art in its prime.

He was one of the most remarkable prodigies in music history -- a psychologist wrote a book about his gifts when he was 13 -- and he had a sensational career in his childhood and youth. But in his early 20, though recognized as one of the greatest pianists of his day, he lost the momentum of his career, for complicated professional, artistic and personal reasons.

For the next half-century, he lived a restless and dissolute life, mostly anonymously in seedy neighborhoods of Los Angeles -- he lived in poverty, drank heavily, was sexually voracious (he married 10 times!). He occasionally performed in private or public, and even long after he was supposedly washed up he could amaze knowledgeable listeners with his playing, though efforts to revive his career always failed. (He spent most of his time composing -- more than 1000 works in a strange, old-fashioned, very personal style.) In the 1970s, he was rediscovered in old age, and enjoyed a brief, noisy, controversial renaissance -- he gave some concerts, made some recordings -- before slipping back into obscurity again.

In my opinion, Nyiregyházi’s is one of the most fascinating stories in music history, made all the more significant and interesting -- and ultimately tragic -- by his unquestionably great gifts.

What’s on your nightstand?

A few years ago, I realized that I was remarkably ignorant of all manner of literature, and since then have set about, more or less systematically, to remedy that defect -- reading Moby-Dick and Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina and Ulysses and all the other books I should have read in college but didn’t.

Recently, I’ve been having a bit of a Philip Roth fit. I just finished American Pastoral and am now cracking open I Married a Communist. But I should add that I divide my free time almost equally between books and movies -- I am a passionate film buff -- and so my nightstand is often piled with DVDs rather than books. My most recent weekful of rented DVDs ranged from Ichikawa, Bergman and Godard, to Laurel and Hardy and The Pajama Game.

What inspires you?

I usually feel presumptuous using the word “inspiration” about my work, since writing non-fiction consists so much of the prosaic donkey work of research. In my experience, writing non-fiction resembles Edison’s famous definition of genius: “one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” (This is why I sometimes think that the phrase “literary non-fiction” is an oxymoron -- so much of the process involves routine detective work that hardly counts as literary.) But I suppose something like inspiration does give me the motivation to do the labor required to write a biography. In the case of Lost Genius, I can definitely say that I was inspired by genuine interest in and devotion to the subject, and by a desire to share his story and make a case for his significance with the public. I felt particularly passionate about the subject because he was so obviously brilliant and original and yet almost completely unknown; a kind of missionary zeal propelled me in this case.

My previous biography was about Glenn Gould, and though I was genuinely passionate about him, too, he was already famous enough when I came along that he didn’t really need my championship. But Nyiregyházi, it seemed, was going to remain a “lost genius” unless I roused myself and did something about it. That, I suppose, could be called inspiration.

What are you working on now?

For whatever reasons -- weariness? indecision? dread? -- my brain has been in stand-by mode in the year since Lost Genius was first published. I have kept up with the various freelance writing, editing and lecturing jobs that feed and clothe me, but I am not yet at work on a new book. I have been poking my nose into various subjects that interest me, and have been seriously considering moving away from my chosen field (classical music), but have not yet found a new topic. I suspect I may have to wait until a new topic finds me. Part of the problem may be that I am uncertain whether I want (or have the stamina) to write another biography. Writing a biography is a huge, engrossing, exhausting task, and at the end of the day it’s difficult to feel truly confident that you have successfully captured something as elusive as a human life and personality. Anyway, at the moment, when it comes to my “next book,” I can only say, “Stay tuned.”

Tell us about your process.

With a biography, I begin rather amorphously, simply musing about the subject, reading about his life, going through his work and so on, without (at first) any firm goal in mind. Once I have committed to undertaking a full biography, I begin to accumulate data and materials more systematically. Actual writing comes fairly late in the process. (My ten years of work on Lost Genius included less than two of actual writing and editing; the rest was sleuthing.)

When it finally becomes clear that I have enough material for a book, I start with a pen and a piece of paper. I first lay out the overall structure of the book, initially on just one or two pieces of paper, so I can see the whole book at a glance. I then expand on this skeleton, creating ever more detailed outlines, until I feel confident that I know the main divisions of the book -- how the story will unfold, how I will balance chronological narrative with essay-like passages, and so on. (I let the subject dictate the form: every life story suggests its own structure, balance of factors, style and tone.)

Detailed outline at hand, I go systematically through my groaning files and put each bit of information into its appropriate slot. Eventually, I come up with a somewhat orderly pile of information that I can begin sculpting into something that looks like prose. Of course, there are always surprises along the way -- last-minute discoveries and ideas that need to be incorporated, sometimes even major structural changes late in the day. But I find that if I begin with a detailed outline I can avoid getting lost in the mountains of data, and can handle whatever is thrown at me at the last minute.

Finally, when every word and comma is self-evidently perfect, I send the text to my editor, who points out all the self-evident imperfections -- and then a whole new round of fun begins...

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

A small bedroom converted into an office. My computer sits on a desk that looks out over a half-acre of lawns, trees and gardens -- a view sometimes inspiring, sometimes distracting. Our cat, Sophie, occasionally perches on the desk to look out the window or sun herself while I work. Around me are filing cabinets, bookshelves, and CD cabinets -- all of them reaching satiation -- as well as stereo equipment, photos, diplomas, prizes and tchotchkes. On one of the few bits wall space, a poster of Samuel Beckett (one of my heroes) bearing a quotation that is, if not exactly inspirational, at least ... reassuring: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I read voraciously as a kid and always had a lot of books around me. Early on, I dreamed that one day I might do the unimaginable and actually create one of these magic “book” things myself. But as an adult there was never an “Aha!” moment when I decided to be a writer. I studied first theatre and then music in university, and eventually got a Ph.D. in music, assuming that I would pursue an academic career. But my academic career effectively ended with my doctorate, as I realized that I preferred writing and lecturing about music to non-professional audiences, which I have done in a variety of forums.

The opportunity to write a trade biography of Glenn Gould came about, in 2000, in a rather roundabout way (old-boy network, friend-of-a-friend -- that sort of thing), and at that point it suddenly appeared that I was a real writer. Actually, I published my first article when I was 16, and have been writing for publication and profit off and on ever since; in fact, I can’t really do anything else. But for whatever reasons, I never thought of myself as a professional writer until quite recently. So I never decided to become a writer so much as realized, late in the day, that that is what I actually was.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

I sometimes fantasize about pursuing one of my non-literary artistic interests -- music, theatre, film -- in a professional way. If a genie gave me one wish for a career and the chops to pull it off, I might choose film director, though the thought of being a pianist or conductor would also be tempting. (In real life, I can barely play a C-major scale on the piano without falling off the bench.) As it stands, I don’t have any apparent marketable skills besides writing, so I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I couldn’t write. Probably living, like one of Beckett’s characters, on “small charitable sums.”

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

Certain specimens of recognition I have received have been particularly meaningful. High-profile reviews and prizes and such. Perhaps this is not surprising, given how long and difficult and lonely the process of writing a book can be, it’s nice to see signs that your work was not entirely in vain. I’m a long-standing New Yorker fan, and I experienced particularly rewarding feelings of having “arrived” when my books were reviewed (well, technically “Briefly Noted”) in The New Yorker. All of my reviews get filed, but those in The New Yorker are the only ones that I actually laminate.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

The hours, the working conditions and the wardrobe requirements. Admittedly, my wife has a good, secure government job and is very supportive of my work, so I’m quite aware that the circumstances in which I work are pleasant entirely because of her. If I lived alone, I would be working in much drearier conditions -- if at all.

What’s the most difficult?

Knowing that it is impossible to make a decent living writing books in Canada -- at least, books on the kinds of subjects that interest me. When I weigh the amount of work involved in writing a comprehensive biography against the likely audience for a serious book about a classical musician, I know that I will be working for something far south of minimum wage. That realization can make getting up in the morning to start writing a little difficult.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often? What’s the question you’d like to be asked? What question would like never to be asked again?

These questions are difficult to answer, since I have had relatively little public experience as a writer -- relatively few readings and interviews and such -- so I can’t claim a wearisome overexposure to questions. I have never had to deal with, say, the particular woes of a high-profile author on his tenth book tour, and so have never felt the urge to run amok after hearing Question X for the umpteenth time. Still, I sometimes feel that any question about one of my books is one too many. This may seem a little odd, but think about it: publication represents the beginning of the public’s interest in the book, but often the end of the writer’s. Even when you’re genuinely devoted to a subject, it can be a race to the finish-line to see whether you will complete the book before growing sick of it! I think that’s inevitable with a biography, when you spend so much time cooped up at close quarters with the same person. Once the book’s done, you think you want nothing more than to ignore the subject for a decade or so. But it’s precisely then that people start reading the book and wanting to talk to you about it. Of course, given that I’m currently uncertain about what project to take up next, I guess I could say that there is one question I would like never to be asked again: “So, what’s next for Kevin Bazzana?”

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

I memorized the Greek alphabet in Grade 7, to impress a girl who had one of those endless, unpronounceable Greek surnames -- 13 letters long, beginning with a silent “M.” Ever since then, whenever I want to write secret notes to myself I write them phonetically using Greek letters; this way, I can, for instance, write down things my wife wants for Christmas and keep the lists out in plain sight. (Thus, “Van Morrison’s new CD” becomes “ΥανΜωρρισονςνευΚΔ.”) I once read that Bertrand Russell hit upon this same encryption system as a teenager -- a case of great nerds thinking alike.

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