An Interview with Eric Siblin
Last year, I had the privilege of reading with Eric Siblin at the Prince Edward County Authors’ Festival. A few months later I found myself on a Quebec Writers’ Federation jury; his book, The Cello Suites, was nominated for the McAuslan First Book Prize and the Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction – and won both. It was also shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award, the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction, and a Writers’ Trust Prize. Not bad for an inaugural effort.
In The Cello Suites, Eric sets out to solve the simple riddle of a missing manuscript. Instead, he finds himself pondering the deeper enigma of how a piece of music penned by a royalist, conservative composer could, in the twentieth century, become the signature and rallying cry of a liberal, humanist musician, and how that same piece of music could continue to speak so powerfully to musicians and music-lovers of so many persuasions today. Part biography, part music history and part music appreciation, The Cello Suites is an ambitious, carefully researched, and inventively constructed book written with clarity and verve.
Q: The structure of The Cello Suites, with three interwoven narratives broken into sections much like movements in music, echoes the Suites themselves. I loved this device; it added texture and tension to each story. How did you come up with the idea to compose the book this way?
A: Thanks, Susan. The idea to structure the book according to the music came to me early on. On a superficial level I just liked the sound of putting musical titles like sarabande, courante, and gigue on the page. But I very much wanted the book to mirror the music so it seemed like an obvious thing to do. The idea of the book quickly became a sort of mosaic encompassing suites one through six with each suite broken down into those six lyrical movements. Each suite had a persona of its own in musical terms and each suite (or so I imagined) seemed to link up in a greater narrative whole. I also benefited from the structure because the music itself provided narrative signposts for a writer searching for a storyline.
Q: In writing this book you conducted research of every conceivable type. You travelled, interviewed people both face-to-face and by email, searched the archives, studied scores. You immersed yourself in the Bach community and learned to play the cello (at least a little). Did you know what you were in for when you began the project? What research tips can you offer other writers of creative nonfiction?
A: I had no idea what I was in for at the start. I began in a pretty naïve and idealistic way and mostly just followed by nose trying to piece together the story. In retrospect I was lucky – it added up to a story. But if we make our own luck as nonfiction writers it is with the heavy lifting of research. I think that by researching as much as possible you open up avenues that give your writing maximum flexibility and mobility, allowing you to pick and choose the most promising raw materials, map out trajectories and get around dead ends.
I would urge first-time nonfiction authors to pick up the phone, call experts and pick their brains. I should have done more of this at the outset – next time I will be less shy. The Internet is of course a fabulous tool, but I wouldn’t abandon the library. Many discoveries take place in the stacks.
Q: There’s a real warmth in your approach to Bach and Casals; I got the impression that you came to care about both men, and you’d be sorry to leave them. It made me sorry to leave them, too. Thoughts?
A: I think I became attached more to the story than to the characters of Bach or Casals. I was sorry to see Bach go because he left with so many unanswered questions for future biographers. But he was born in 1685 so I couldn’t expect him to hang around forever. Casals lived to the respectable age of ninety-six. And the end of both their lives came in Suite No. 6 of the book, the last suite, the suite that has everything to do with transcendence, so it made perfect sense to say my goodbyes at that point. Besides, I wanted to get on to other projects.
Q: This is a first book. Who or what were your models or inspirations? Who are some of your favourite nonfiction writers?
A: One of the things that motivated me to write this book is that I wasn’t aware of any particular model and was under the impression, true or not, that this sort of thing hadn’t been done before in quite the same way. So the absence of models spurred me on. As for nonfiction writers, I always have time for Simon Winchester, Alex Ross, Christopher Hitchens, and A. J. Liebling.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in completing the book?
A: My biggest challenge was probably keeping the musical structure of the book intact while keeping the narrative ball moving in a good way. I shuffled the constituent parts around a bit, trying to figure out where best to place the Bach, Casals and first-person strands. For a long time I was overambitious, trying for example to make every sarabande, which is the saddest sounding dance movement of every suite, correspond with a sad part of the story. Trying to tailor the narrative to the musical structure in every respect turned out to be overly rigid and ultimately untenable. So I relaxed the structural grip, tried to let the narrative breathe more freely, and things seemed to improve.
Q: What was the biggest reward?
A: Actually getting published.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson, a very intriguing multi-generational sequence of fictional stories centering on a family of physicians from the 17th century to the present day. And I thoroughly enjoyed a slim book by John McPhee, Levels of the Game, about a 1968 tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. Now I’m on to The Anthologist, a quirky musing about poetry by Nicholson Baker.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m trying to write two things, fiction and nonfiction, but it’s early days.
Eric Siblin is a Montreal-based journalist and documentary filmmaker. He studied at Concordia University in Montreal, receiving an M.A. in History, before coming of age journalistically at The Glengarry News in Alexandria, Ont., and the Standard Freeholder, in Cornwall, Ont. He then worked as a reporter/editor at the Montreal bureau of The Canadian Press (CP) from 1989 to 1996 when he joined The Montreal Gazette as a staff reporter, including a stint as the newspaper’s pop music critic. He made the transition to television in 2002 with the documentary Word Slingers, which explores the curious subculture of competitive Scrabble tournaments. The film was broadcast in Canada and the U.S., and won a Jury Award at the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival. He also co-directed the documentaryIn Search of Sleep, and has written for a wide variety of magazines. The Cello Suites is his first book. Here is his website.