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Mayra Calvani

Interview with Gerald Elias, author of Devil's Trill

February 7, 2010 at 8:48 PM

Please welcome my special guest Gerald Elias, musician author of the mystery novel, Devil's Trill, recently released by Minotaur. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions about writing and publishing. Visit his website at To read my review of Devil's Trill, click HERE.

Thanks for the interview, Gerald. You’re a concert violinist, conductor and composer. What got you into writing?

I remember in second grade we had an assignment to write a comic strip, and I did one of a horse doing pushups for JFK's national physical fitness program. My teacher, who seemed to be impressed with my work, asked "Is this original?" I didn't know what the word meant, so I somberly shook my head and said, "Oh, no!" My father loved writing as an avocation and in his later years became famous for writing letters to the editor of his local newspapers. He also enjoyed writing poetry--only the kind that rhymes--so I guess writing is in my genes.

Tell us how your inspiration for Devil’s Trill came about? I understand the story was based on lessons you had developed for your violin students?

Some of the most boring stuff I had to read as a violin student were pedagogical tomes about music and the violin. I decided I wanted future generations of musicians to be able to stay awake while learning about some of the challenges thrust upon us in the music world, so while each chapter of my book was a violin lesson of sorts (it included subjects such as how to choose a violin, how to audition for an orchestra, and the esthetics of music, there was an interweaving, fictional story about a legendary Stradivarius that had been stolen from Carnegie Hall. Initially "Devil's Trill" was called "Violin Lessons" and the story line was somewhat superficial and the main character, the blind violin teacher Daniel Jacobus, not fully developed, but as years passed the book was transformed into a full-fledged who-dunnit, maintaining those aspects of violin-playing and music necessary to move the story along.

Was the story fully plotted and outlined before you sat down to write it?

Quite the contrary. I had a general idea of where I wanted it to go, but being my first book, it was only after many rewrites that everything came together. In the meantime, more characters were added, more plot twists, and of course everytime you make a change like those, everything else that came before has to be reconciled with the new material. I'm just glad that I had a full-time job as a musician while I wrote the book, which gave me the luxury of learning as I went.

The protagonist, Jacob, is quite quirky and volatile. It is certainly a distinctive character. How did you go about creating him?

Initially he was much less so, though I always conceived him being blind. There were two reasons for his blindness. First was the notion that when lacking one sense, the other four are enhanced. This of course enabled him to hear music and perceive the world around him with greater clarity. The second reason was more metaphorical. Music, obviously, is something that is heard, yet so often in the music profession the visual takes primacy. By being blind, Jacobus had the ability to perceive the "truth" of the music in a way those with sight couldn't. His more cantankerous qualities, however, were the result of conversations I had with friend and author, Katharine Weber, who suggested that a character like Jacobus needed to be not only multi-dimensional, but also to develop throughout the book's course. You may notice that his crotchetiness is slightly less edgy at the story's close.

I love the way you include bits of information about violins and violinists in the story. Was this a conscious decision? Was your purpose to educate as well as entertain the reader?

I think the mark of a good mystery writer is to welcome the reader into the author's own special world. Whether it's a story by Walter Mosely, Donna Leon, Dick Francis, or John LeCarre, the reader may learn a great deal about that world, but it's not a conscious effort. I tried to write "Devil's Trill" in such a way that even people who have never experienced the world of classical music can enjoy the story. Certainly I hope that millions of people will buy and enjoy the book, and I don't mean to sound like a missionary, but if after reading "Devil's Trill," people take the opportunity to go one step farther and listen to the music discussed in it, they'll have a far more enriching experience for having done it.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Ten long years!

How was your schedule like while working on the novel?

I began the book in 1997 in Italy while on sabbatical leave from my job with the Utah Symphony, so that year I had plenty of time. Thereafter, I did most of my writing in the morning before going to work and spent the rest of the day daydreaming for improving it.

Would you share with my readers a bit about the publishing process? How was that like? Did you find the agent searching stage easy?

When I finished the first draft of the book I knew absolutely nothing about how to get it published. Some people told me you had to have an agent. Others said the hell with the agent; go directly to the publisher. Others said self-publishing was the way to go. I ended up sending the manuscript to random agents and publishers and the response was unanimously negative. I was about to give up when one day I read "The Music Lesson" by Katharine Weber and saw on the jacket that (at that time) she was teaching at my alma mater, Yale. So I wrote her and asked if she would be kind enough to read my book. Miraculously, not only did she consent to do that, she offered wonderful constructive criticism, and between her and MJ Rose, I was connected to a wonderful agent, Simon Lipskar, at Writer's House. That's not the end of the story, though, because even though Simon and I reworked the book, we still received unanimous rejections from publishers, at which point Simon, also a musician, felt he was too close to the subject matter and handed me over to his mystery specialist, Josh Getzler, now with Russell and Volkening. After further rewriting we resubmitted "Devil's Trill" to publishers, and voila! a positive response from St. Martin's Press. That was a nice day.

I hear you play the Devil’s Trill in your book signings. Tell us about that and what you’re doing to promote the book.

I thought it would be a novel experience (no pun intended) for readers who took the trouble to go to the book signing to get a special glimpse into the book, and I was delighted to be able to provide that. The Devil's Trill Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini is one of several pieces I played at the book signings, and I explained how each of them played a significant role in the plot. Tartini's sonata is given the title for the book for a very special reason. Back in the 18th century he told of how, when he woke up in the middle of the night, the devil was sitting at the foot of his bed. He gave the devil his violin who then played with such astounding virtuosity that Tartini was dumbfounded. He tried to write down what the devil had played and ended up with the Devil's Trill Sonata, perhaps the greatest thing he ever wrote, though he felt it was inadequated compared to what the devil had played. So, whereas Tartini confronted the devil at the foot of his bed, Daniel Jacobus, 250 years later, confronts his own personal demons in the form of the diabolical Piccolino Stradivarius.

When is book II coming out?

"Danse Macabre" will be released the beginning of September 2010. It will again feature Daniel Jacobus and his friend, Nathaniel Williams, as they try to unravel the mystery of beloved violinist who, having just performed his swansong at Carnegie Hall, is brutally murdered by a young rival. Or was he?

Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?

Having devoted most of my life to being a professional musician, I feel deeply honored and blessed to have received such a positive response to my writing. There is a common thread here. Both music and literature as forms of communication can bring us together in a world where more and more barriers seem to go up daily. It is my goal to help bring us together.

Thank you and good luck with your book!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 8, 2010 at 2:25 PM

Thanks so much for posting the interview.  Here in DC we are snowed in, and I just finished the book yesterday.  I thought it was quite good, although some of the plot devices seemed a bit contrived.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment.  Your original post recommending the book was a good deed.

From Timothy Kidder
Posted on February 9, 2010 at 2:58 AM

 I was a student at the Yale School of Music at the same time Mr. Elias was, in the early 70's. I was a student of Broadus Erle and he was a student of Joseph Silverstein. I remember an interesting incident involving him and the wife of the Otto Werner Mueller, the conducting pedagogue and conductor of the Yale School of Music Orchestra. Maestro Mueller's wife would occasionally attend rehearsals of the orchestra and was present at a rehearsal of the Ravel Tsigane with Mr. Elias as violin soloist.  After the rehearsal, she offered him her opinion of his performance. She said,"That was a fine job except for one thing. In the last part, you kept getting faster and faster!"  What she didn't realize, of course, was that the last part of the piece is supposed to be an accelerando to the end.

I haven't read Gerald's book yet, but am looking forward to doing so in the very near future.

From Ray Randall
Posted on February 9, 2010 at 3:49 AM

Just finished the book last night. I mean really late last night. You owe me a few hours of extra sleep, Maestro. Good book.

From Mayra Calvani
Posted on February 10, 2010 at 9:39 AM

Thanks for your comments! I appreciate it!

I have two more interviews coming soon, one from violinist/author Paula Yoo and the other from Susanne Dunlap, author of The Musician's Daughter.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 10, 2010 at 2:48 PM

Keep up the good work!

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