By Howard Lovy
A good book is one that not only places the reader inside the story but challenges her to think about how she would react and behave in seemingly no-win situations. A compelling story occurs right at this border between good and evil, between strength and weakness. And that is what makes Roma Calatayud-Stocks such an effective writer.
Especially in her latest book, A Symphony of Rivals, the second in a trilogy, where her protagonist is a musician who is given a certain amount of privilege within a time of cultural and moral deterioration under Nazi Germany. Protagonist Alejandra Stanford Morrison, who we also know from the previous book, A Song in My Heart, finds refuge and a measure of hope and strength through music and Beethoven’s legacy even while she confronts situations that challenge her principles.
But the edges of morality are not the only barriers explored in Roma’s work. So, too, is the divide between music and prose, which she effectively breaches as both a writer and a musical composer. A Symphony of Rivals also comes with a musical selection, available on her website RomaStocks.com, of Roma’s musical compositions and by other composers, meant to be enjoyed along with her book.
I have always been drawn toward writers who test and cross boundaries, which is one reason why Roma’s work had me curious to learn more. Her characters, her writing/composing, and also her Mexican heritage all combine to create a fascinating mix of border-smashing talent. I wanted to learn more, and Roma did not disappoint in our discussion below.
Howard Lovy: You’ve managed to combine your love of writing and your love of music. Did one inform the other as you wrote? Or are music and writing completely separate processes?
Roma Calatayud-Stocks: They definitely complement each other, although, they’re separate processes. Music is a more emotional and unconscious process, particularly when I’m composing at the piano. Writing is more cognitive and purpose driven. After extensive research, writing allows me to address poignant issues, politics, and history. Equally as important is my commitment to bring forth the contributions of all cultures through the arts as a bridge to better understanding and appreciation. Creative expression has the power by itself to surpass time and existence. In A Symphony of Rivals, music drives the storyline, and it serves as the medium of the creative and emotional expression for many of the characters.
Lovy: A Symphony of Rivals takes place during a dark time in history, but you also wanted to tell a basically uplifting story at the same time. Was this a difficult place to navigate in your narrative and music?
Calatayud-Stocks: There are many dark times in history. It’s in challenging times that we hope for the triumph of human virtues. Others may turn to something that can raise their spirits. In the case of, Alejandra Stanford Morrison, the protagonist of A Symphony of Rivals, she tries to make a positive difference in the world, and music is her purpose. Music is her refuge. Music is her God.
Music, as the universal language, provides an uplifting side to the story. In curating the music selections for each chapter of the book, I considered whether the composition was tied to a historical event, or if it fulfilled the mood of a character. Many conductors, like Bülow, Toscanini, or Walter, and composers, such as Bach, Mozart, and Verdi are highlighted in the story. I also give recognition to women conductors and composers, including Antonia Brico, Fanny Mendelsohn, and others. Two of my waltz compositions are included. The genres of music range from classical, choral, and opera, to jazz and popular. More than fifty musical works are outlined in A Symphony of Rivals. Other artistic figures from Da Vinci, to Michelangelo, to Rembrandt, also play a dynamic role in the narrative.
The more difficult areas to navigate in the novel were those that described the emerging political atmosphere, how culture and art fell under the influence of Nazism, the plight of the characters, and the policies that affected many of its citizens so adversely.
Lovy: Why is Beethoven such a significant presence in this story? What does his spirit bring to a narrative when so much of civilization was in peril?
Calatayud-Stocks: Since much of the story takes place in Germany, I was especially interested in giving focus to a German-born composer. Beyond Ludwig van Beethoven’s musical genius was his love of humanity, expressed through music and in his words. Beethoven’s legacy is compelling worldwide. I decided to make it part of the story as a way to distinguish between opposing forces and ideologies during a disturbing period in modern history. Beethoven’s spirit acts as a moral compass that contrasts with the political climate of the time.
Beethoven’s ideals, inspiring life, including his struggles, are present in Alejandra’s awareness, and they provide hope and strength as she confronts dilemmas and terrifying situations in the story. And if I may share a Beethoven quote, which I include in the book: “Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
Lovy: One theme is keeping your principles and integrity during a time when these things are challenged constantly. Are you also drawing parallels to today?
Calatayud-Stocks: Parallels seem to be a recurring theme given history. Many questions about art in the public arena, politics, philosophy, etc. do get asked in the narrative, but it is up to the reader to decide whether there are parallels to today.
I have always been intrigued by the inner workings of the mind, and in A Symphony of Rivals, it was necessary to challenge the characters’ principles and integrity. These are people whose choices, right or wrong, are tied to their psychological makeup, their experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs. The core of their character is uncovered through their interactions with others and through the situations they confront amidst ongoing uncertainty.
Lovy: How much does your Latin heritage influence your writing and your music?
Calatayud-Stocks: My parents had a deep appreciation for the humanities. A love of music was instilled in me at a young age. Latin culture is invested in music and art. In the novel, I discuss the era of Mexican Salon Music with its waltzes and other classical music composed by Mexican composers like Rosas, Mora, and Ponce. This style of music influenced my own music. I also grew up listening to the music of Chopin, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky but also Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, and Jobim. I’m constantly inspired by these artists.
My writing is influenced by Magical Realism, notably the works of Allende, Borges, Garcia Márquez, and Rulfo. In A Symphony of Rivals, I draw upon the real world but love to sprinkle the narrative with supernatural passages, through dreams, which link to the protagonist’s subconscious.
Lovy: With the rise of audiobooks, do you feel like the time is right to combine music and prose?
Calatayud-Stocks: Yes. In my first book, A Song in My Heart, I included an album with an original soundtrack. Readers are able to listen to a track related to the chapter if they wish. For A Symphony of Rivals, readers may listen to the music that corresponds with many chapters by visiting the music section of my website.
I do believe that thanks to technology, the time has come to provide readers with various simultaneous experiences. Reading a book may be enhanced by listening to the music that accompanies a particular section of the narrative. Imagine films without music. It’s impossible. I hope readers will enjoy the experience of reading my novels alongside the chosen musical pieces.
Lovy: What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing and composing?
Calatayud-Stocks: Art and music. I can’t get enough. I love to go to concerts and dedicate time to volunteering for art organizations. The arts are the veins that run through my novels. There’s so much to learn. My work and daily activities are often seamlessly connected. When I see a beautiful landscape or encounter a curious situation, they instantly connect me to a story I’m working on. The experience becomes part of my character’s realm. It’s an endless stream of ideas and senses flowing in and out of my real and fictional worlds.
Lovy: Can you give us a peek into Part III of the trilogy? Like the others, will it delve into themes involving moral choices in the face of terrible circumstances?
Calatayud-Stocks: The title will be An Ode to Joy. It will be set in other countries, and it will reveal two parallel stories during different times. The narrative will be accompanied by an entirely new selection of musical compositions.
A heartening side to the stories is when characters, in the novels, choose to be honorable persons despite adversity or at great risk to themselves. And that music, I believe, It’s transcendental. These are messages I hope to convey in all three books