Q&A with Benjamin Wood
- October 9, 2012
Benjamin Wood is the author of The Bellwether Revivals: A Novel
Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has escaped the squalid urban neighborhood where he was raised and made a new life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge. He has grown to love the quiet routine of his life as a care assistant at a local nursing home, where he has forged a close friendship with its most ill-tempered resident, Dr. Paulsen.
One fateful day, it all changes when Oscar, while wandering the bucolic grounds of Cambridge, is lured into the chapel at King’s College by the otherworldly sound of an organ. It is here that he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student. Drawn into her world of scholarship and privilege, Oscar soon becomes embroiled in the strange machinations of Iris’s older brother, Eden.
What compelled you to tell this story? Was there some small kernel of truth that catalyzed the entire story? Can you tell us readers what it was?
I wanted to explore — and perhaps explain — the emotional resonance of music and build a story around that notion. My starting point was the idea for an extraordinarily gifted character who understands the mechanics of music so deeply that he can harness it for healing effects, or claims to. This character eventually became Eden Bellwether.
As a self-taught musician, it has always been a source of wonder to me how a sad song or a line of melody could comfort and console me in times of doubt or despair, so I went into the writing of The Bellwether Revivals trying to see how far I could push the limits of this concept. I was also intrigued by the idea of what full-blooded commitment to honing musical technique might do to a person and his family, the rivalry and tensions this could create amongst them, and how such profound musical talent might alter a person’s perspective on the world.
It is music that draws Oscar Lowe to the Bellwethers and then eventually separates them. You stay in the realm of classical music. Did you spend a lot of time listening to the music in your book and could you feel its power? Can you describe this sensation?
I did spend a lot of time listening to the King’s College choir at the chapel evensong, as well as on recording, to try to enrich my understanding of choral music — particularly to get a feeling for the sound of that great choir and the effects their voices have upon the listener. My aim with The Bellwether Revivals was to write about music in a visceral way rather than as a cerebral exercise. By that, I mean I wanted to avoid any precise technical explanation of the music in the novel. I’ve found that writers often attempt to describe music this way, using specific terminology, and it’s very cold, clinical and hard to locate in the mind — the emotional heft of music and its visual qualities are often ignored. So I set out to evoke the sensation of the music Oscar encounters and to reveal the impressions it creates upon him as he experiences it. That way, I hoped I could make the reader connect directly with the sounds within the scene.
Dr. Paulsen, Oscar’s favorite patient at Cedarbrook, the nursing home where he works, says, “I shit more sense than I speak these days.” Unfortunately, the only person that hears this message in the story is Oscar. Is Oscar hearing it for the rest of us, hinting that maybe we ought to think about this possibility before we open our mouths? This line was so funny.
Glad you thought so! Paulsen is just being his typical self-deprecating self here, frustrated by the knowledge that he’s losing control of his mind and body — I’m not sure he is intending to be too allegorical. He can cope with the physical deterioration, but it’s very hard for him to come to terms with losing his mental faculties, too. So I think he’s just laughing off his grave concerns, in that deeply British way of his.
Oscar thinks of Cedarbrook and its clients as a cast of elderly relatives that he has adopted and Cedarbrook as a perfect place to hide. What other character trait does Oscar have that you may not have mentioned that makes such a young man so appreciative of the old?
Well, as I hope that readers will come to understand quite early on, Oscar does not possess the same eccentricities and self-confidence as the Bellwethers, but he is by far the most compassionate and considerate character in the book. The experiences of his young life, the challenges he’s overcome, have afforded him greater wisdom than might ordinarily be expected of somebody his age and background. He appreciates the elderly for who they are, not who they were, and communicates with them on that level. I think there’s probably a sense that, because Oscar is both literally and figuratively removed from his own family, he welcomes the connection with Paulsen as a way of experiencing the things he is missing.
How lucky are we, if we age wisely and have a caring and considerate young man to take care of us? And yet, Oscar is the one in the book who experiences the greatest losses. Is he also the one that your readers will wish the most for?
I certainly hope so. He is the protagonist and, therefore, the character I always intended readers to be rooting for — even if he isn’t perhaps the character they like best or enjoy the company of most. There are some pretty forceful personalities in the book, and Oscar’s perspective is what keeps us grounded in the “real world” throughout.
Do your characters all end with this book? Where did they begin?
Probably. At the moment, I don’t envisage ever bringing them back, but you never know what might happen in the future. If there’s a sudden groundswell of a readership asking to see more of these characters, then I wouldn’t be opposed to continuing their stories. They were born of pure imagination. Some of them, like Eden, evolved from very different prototypes — he was originally a Canadian, modern-day Woody Guthrie sort, playing folk songs on a tenor guitar — and others, like Paulsen and Crest, arrived fully formed, as if they’d been lounging in my head for years, waiting for me to let them out.
Why is it that the rich people always seem more fascinating when, in fact, it is the other characters that generally prove more enlightening?
Perhaps it’s because the wealthy and privileged offer us an escape into a world without restriction. We like to imagine what it would be like to not be limited by finances or time or responsibilities. And yet, what we really want is to be reminded of the things that are the most valuable in life — things that can’t ever be bought — and so we end up gravitating towards the characters we recognize ourselves in. Charles Dickens understood this better than anyone, I think.
It is an old formula, this observance of the privileged. Was part of your motivation to take a 21st-century look?
Partly. I wanted to write about the feeling of being a genuine outsider in an environment such as Cambridge, a place so loaded with privilege and intellectual tradition that it both inspires and repels. Inevitably, with elite academic institutions come wealthy students, but it was never my intention to examine the lives of insatiable rich kids having a spiffing old time spending their inheritance money, riding around in vintage cars and bathing in Dom Perignon between lectures. In fact, I didn’t want to write about student life at all, only about intelligent young people living in the shadow of history. The issue of class is always looming in the subtext of any British novel. It’s practically inescapable in a book set in Cambridge.
Have you had a question or two about The Great Gatsby? Oscar does, after all, fall in love with Iris, the daughter of the wealthy family? How do you feel about the comparison?
Once or twice, the name Gatsby is mentioned, and I can only find that comparison hugely flattering. To my mind, Fitzgerald will always be a resplendent passenger liner that I’m dog-paddling in the wake of.
Dr. Crest, the preeminent psychologist, spends his last days researching and finishing his book, Delusions of Hope. You never let us know what Dr. Crest ultimately concludes. Help your readers who want to know. Can you tell us now?
Ah, you know, I’ve been pleading the fifth on this question ever since the book came out, and I’ll stick to the same answer here: It only matters what the characters believe and what the readers believe. Music possesses such unique and mysterious qualities that more work should be done to understand its effects on us. But this is rather complicated by the conflicts of religious faith and science that are explored throughout the novel.
Do you believe hope is unsure of itself, it’s a hedge and, like the lottery, if one wins it’s credible? If not, it’s useless? Emily Dickinson said that “Hope is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul /And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops — at all.” Is hope temporary? Should it be? What is its best partner?
My own belief is that hope is one the most valuable instincts we possess. It is permanent, though it often disappears or submerges when we least want it to. Everyone’s conception of hope is different and specific, but I like Dickinson’s image, too — the idea of hope being a wordless, permanent melody that never ceases is rather apt to Crest’s situation in the book.
In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Dr. Oliver Sacks states that music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. He goes on to say that music can calm, organize and give language to those who cannot speak, yet your characters except for Eden Bellwether are all uncertain about music’s powers. Eden seems to have had some successes: why have you made them all ambiguous?
Funny you should mention this, because Oliver Sacks was actually one of the inspirations for Herbert Crest’s character — a writer of popular science books centered upon case studies. I think most people would acknowledge that music has an emotional impact on the listener, but there is great divergence of opinion as to how it affects us, not just within neuroscience but also within musical theory itself. (The “cognitivism” vs. “emotivism” debate Eden alludes to in the second chapter is a longstanding aesthetic argument, for example.) I think the logic of science guides us to distrust anything that is ethereal or seemingly unexplainable, but, in the case of Eden, it’s up to the readers to decide what they believe his unnatural gifts make him capable of, based on what they observe.
Do you believe that a writer can take a little longer to tell his story in Great Britain than in America? If so, please tell us why and if not, why not?
No. I believe that the qualities of a good story are universal, and readers’ expectations (though calibrated to personal tastes and tolerances) are more or less the same in any country. However, speaking very generally here, I do believe that American novels (and short stories, too) show more consideration for dramatic structure than British novels, which is perhaps why I favor them more, and perhaps why they are often so celebrated internationally. There is sometimes a rather sniffy attitude towards plot-building and storytelling in Britain, and too much regard is given to formless linguistic bluster masquerading as characterization. But that’s only my opinion.