I’ve just released my first novel, The Voice I Just Heard. Set in 1970, it’s the story of an aspiring Broadway soprano, Nora Costello, who battles grief and self-doubt after her brother dies in Vietnam. Part coming-of-age saga, part tale of enduring love, the novel reveals the most important voice of all: the whisper of our hearts telling us to embrace our true calling.
Tell us something about yourself.
I grew up in the former mill town of Cohoes, New York, whose namesake waterfall is prominently featured in my book. In my youth I studied with several voice teachers and pondered a stage career until I finally made my debut in a Syracuse production of Camelot—and decided I’d rather write about performing than perform. Writing, you see, was my first love. I’ve written since childhood and have worked in all different genres. As a freelance writer on contract, I created a software manual for Citibank, a course on writing for McGraw Hill, and marketing materials for schools, banks, and hospitals. I’ve also penned profiles of celebrities for Classical Singer, Opera News, Huffington Post, and the Hartford Courant.
What inspired you to write this book?
I feel that many young people long to forge a career in the arts, whether in writing, singing, acting, painting, or dancing, and they are often discouraged by authority figures including parents, teachers, mentors because these fields offer little guarantee of a sound financial return. I wanted to explore the price of chasing a dream, embodied in Nora Costello’s plight, and also the price of not chasing it, which I show in the character of her lover, Bart Wheeler, who has put his dreams on hold in favor of his lucrative day job.
How did you choose the title?
In every young soprano’s early lessons, she learns a mix of art songs and arias. Those with a solid high range frequently sing, “Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s showpiece aria from The Barber of Seville. The translation of the first two lines is, “The voice I just heard has thrilled my heart,” and since my protagonist learns this aria early on, I felt it was an ideal metaphor for Nora’s struggle. She needs to listen to her instincts and hear the voice of her vocation.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
I queried about 100 agents over a three-year period and was read by many. I was signed by a top agent in a terrific firm, and she worked with me for three years to develop and refine my manuscript. I rewrote three times and when she asked for a fourth rewrite, I felt she wanted me to undo some of the good changes we had made together in previous drafts. At that point, indie publishing was evolving into an appealing option and I decided to go my own way and self-publish via Amazon. (Given the success of NBC’s new show Smash about rival Broadway divas, I also felt the time was right for a backstage novel.) Frankly, I feel I made the right choice. Being an indie author offers total control, and since I’ve earned a fine living as a freelance writer who has collaborated with many designers, I am confident that I can coordinate the production elements and release high-quality books.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I wrote plays from an early age. As a teenager I corresponded with Edward Albee and George Kelly, two American playwrights, and they were both encouraging. In college I decided I was on the wrong track, and it took years of study with different professors to develop a refined prose style.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I start writing by 9:30 in the morning and work until mid-afternoon. I can usually only write one thing at a time, so if I have an article due, I postpone working on fiction until I can give it my full attention.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
I spend a lot of time on character names. I try different possibilities until each name seems just right. My character Nora Costello has a surname that comes from the Costello side of my father’s family.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
My original draft was 650 pages, and it lacked focus. I had to rewrite it 50 times until it reached its present length of 355 pages (in the print version). What I will do differently in the future is write less—and I mean that with all my heart. I will try to be more focused from the get-go.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
I love novels with beautifully crafted characters. My favorite authors are Alison Lurie, Colm Toibin, Richard Russo, and Stephanie Cowell.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
My second novel is called Lucky For You and I’ve already written 100 pages. It’s about the drive to be a parent and all the different ways a family can be formed. I became a mother through adoption and I understand the deep-seated longing to raise a child, so I think I’m uniquely qualified to write about this topic. Some of the book is set in a small Episcopal school in Maryland, and one protagonist is Liz Benedetto, who also plays a pivotal role in The Voice I Just Heard. My second book is not a sequel to the first, but Nora Costello does make a cameo appearance.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Writing and publishing are separate pursuits. My advice is to write from a place of passion and commitment because only you can tell your story. Keep writing until your book is so perfect, it squeaks. Then, when it’s ready, you can decide whether you want to find an agent and pursue mainstream publishing or embrace the new paradigm, hire your own designers and formatters, and release the book through Amazon or Smashwords or Lulu. Whatever you do, remember that your job is to give something unique to your readers, a slant or perspective or plot they couldn’t find anywhere else.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
Baby Boomer women who remember the Vietnam era of the early Seventies are my ideal readers, but anyone who’s ever chased a dream might enjoy Nora’s story.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
Readers can visit www.susandormadyeisenberg.net.