1. Tell us a little about your book.
Contrary Motion is about a divorced harpist living in Chicago getting ready for a principal harp audition with the St. Louis Symphony. In the months leading up to the audition, he runs a gauntlet of emotionally charged situations: his father dies; his ex-wife, whom he’s still in love with, gets engaged; his current girlfriend grows distant; his daughter starts acting out. As a pick-me-up, he starts moonlighting by performing for dying people at a hospice. It’s a lot of fun! Booklist went so far as to call it “rollicking.”
2. You have a knack for writing very funny prose. Most writers would say that it's not an easy feat. Who are some of your influences? And, just curious, have you ever done stand-up?
That’s very nice of you to say! I love Stanley Elkin, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, etc.
I actually have five pretty polished minutes of stand-up ready to go. I’m waiting until I master my obliviate charm, so if my set goes horribly, I can erase it from the memories of all present, including myself. I think I’m getting close because when I use the charm on my wife, she just puts two fingers to her temples and looks down until I leave the room.
3. Your main character, Matthew Grzbc, is a concert harpist with an important audition for an orchestra on the horizon. How much research did you need to do?
I interviewed a handful of harpists (including my wife)—some about the audition process and some about playing harp in hospice settings. For example, I was lucky to talk with Lynn Williams before she landed the principal harp chair at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she gave me a lot of great info. Sarah Bullen, the principal harpist of the Chicago Symphony, wrote a really informative book on taking auditions.
One thing my research didn’t help me grasp well enough was the depth of feeling I would arouse when I had my character talk about his sense of the differences in playing styles between harpists trained in the Salzedo style versus the Grandjany (or French) style. Let me take this opportunity to say that this novel is a love letter to *all* harpists, regardless of your training!
4. Chicago is where Matthew and his daughter live. What are your ties to the City of Big Shoulders and had you planned from the first page to set your novel in Chicago?
I went to Northwestern for undergrad and lived in southern Evanston for a year after graduating. Later I lived in Lincoln Park for a year. Over the decades I’ve made a lot of trips to the city to visit friends, my wife’s family, and relatives. Plus I lived downtown for a month when I took classes at Second City one summer.
I had planned to set the novel in Chicago from the beginning. Chicago is actually one of the world’s great harp cities! As I’ve mentioned, there are some great harpists in town, it’s a city with enough freelance work that you can make something close to a living, and two of the main concert harp factories in the world are located in the city. I wanted his harp to get damaged and for him to have to visit a harp factory to get it repaired.
5. "I'm a Midwesterner, born and raised in Milwaukee, where they manufacture beer and the heavy machinery you should not operate while drinking it." This is one of the best first sentences I've read in a long time - funny, specific, full of irony. How long did it take you to get it right?
I had a lot of trouble figuring out the opening for this book. Through many early drafts, the opening was very voicy and a bit frenzied. I think a version of this sentence first showed up seven or eight years into the drafting process, and it kept rising up the opening pages, as I pared away the craziness, until it was the first sentence.
6. You've published a story collection too. Is the novel, however, the form you prefer to read and write?
I’m not too picky. I’ll take whatever I can manage to get written. And I love to read novels and stories. Stories are a pretty great form for shaping crystalline or piercing moments. I tend to feel awe after reading a great novel, because I can feel how much went into it. You have to know so much about part of the world to write a novel, and I find that super daunting as a writer and super impressive to read when it’s done well.
7. What are you working on now?
I’m working on several stories about pariahs—people who have done awful things and have been ostracized in some way as a result. Two of them might turn out to be longish stories, so, who knows, maybe I’ll get another novel cooking.