#JessicaDuchen #AuthorQ&A #GhostVariations

Ghost Variations

The strangest detective story in music, inspired by a true incident.

London, 1933. Dabbling in the once-fashionable "glass game" - a Ouija board - the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi is amazed to receive a message supposedly from the spirit of the great composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-suppressed violin concerto. Jelly, formerly muse to many composers, hesitates to pursue this strange summons, eager to devote herself to charity concerts for the unemployed of the Depression. But soon her sister Adila and her friend Erik Palmstierna, both avid spiritualists, hear of the incident and the die is cast. Having lost the love of her life in World War I and now facing the death of another close friend, Jelly sets out to find not only a missing concerto, but also a form of redemption.

But news of the concerto's existence spreads to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, and the higher echelons of the Third Reich quickly conceive of a propaganda use for the work. Jelly, trapped in a race to the first performance, must confront forces that threaten her own state of mind.

Facing a world slipping into the insanity of fascism and war, a composer who suffered a terrible breakdown just after he wrote the concerto, and her own life and career sliding out of control, for Jelly saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.

Ghost Variations was published in September in 2016 by Unbound. 

Today I am delighted to welcome Jessica Duchen to my blog for a q&a session! Thanks ever so much Jessica for answering my questions and it's lovely to meet you ahead of our panel event in July! If you would like to come along and hear more from Jessica you can book a ticket to the event at using the link beneath this interview. I'll hand straight over to Jessica now! 

Could you tell me about your novel in a couple of sentences?

In 1933 the great violinist Jelly d’Arányi appeared to receive a supernatural summons via a Ouija board to locate and perform Robert Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto – but her efforts led her into a terrifying race with Hitler’s propaganda department. It’s the most bizarre true story I’ve come across in all my years as a music journalist.

Your inspiration for your novel has come from real life news or events. What was it about this moment / event / newspaper story that captured you so much that you wanted to write about it?

One image clinched the point of this book and, to my mind anyway, made it more than just a strange incident. Our heroine, Jelly (pronounced ‘Yeli’), was at a turning point: she was in her early forties and struggling with health issues, and younger, starrier figures were taking the work she would previously have had. Her glory days were slipping away into the past. Schumann’s Violin Concerto was written just before the composer suffered the nervous breakdown that led him to spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital. The setting mirrored these tipping-point images: a world on the brink, turning from sanity to madness, from peace to war.

I tend to feel that good historical fiction and fantasy novels are not purely about other times and other worlds. They’re a way of casting new light on life now. For instance, I’ve just been reading Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy and the echoes he finds between 63BC and terrorist attacks plus government responses to them in the 21st century are extremely pertinent. And the echoes I noted between the 1930s and today are not particularly funny.

What has been the biggest challenge about writing a piece of fiction which is either based on fact or has elements of fact within it?

Obviously you have to do your darndest to get the facts right. Instead of choosing between the research-based challenges of a biography, or the imaginative challenges of a novel, you have both, and each demands that you rise to greater heights in the other. (I’ve sometimes found myself responding, when asked why I wrote this book: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time…’)

A key problem involves entering the mindset of people living in another era. I thoroughly admire how Hilary Mantel handled this in her Wolf Hall books: for instance, her protagonists never question the existence of God or capital punishment, notably beheading – because they wouldn’t have. We can’t project the attitudes of today into another century. Obviously the 1930s are closer to us in time, but in Ghost Variations I was faced with a heroine, and her sister, who believed totally in “spirit messages”. We don’t often accept such things; I don’t particularly accept them myself. Yet I talked to many people who knew Jelly and her sister Adila and insisted that they absolutely believed that the spirit of Schumann had been contacting them. Conveying this convincingly was a thorny prospect. I decided, finally, that instead of insisting that readers believe in the spirit messages, I had to persuade them to accept that Jelly and Adila believed them.

One more thing, though: writing a book, especially one based on fact, is so much work that it has to be worth doing. There has to be a good reason for a book to exist. It has to say something essential to its readers, and you have to find and highlight that something in those facts.

Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process and that transition from taking a ‘real event’ and to it becoming a fictional story?

I first came across this story around ten years ago, when I was researching another novel, Hungarian Dances. I’d been hunting for information about the crosscurrents between classical violin playing and the Gypsy tradition in Hungarian violinists of the 19th and early 20th centuries and as Jelly was the dedicatee of Ravel’s Tzigane she was a good place to start. Then I stumbled upon the Schumann Concerto story and was so astonished that I kept it on file under ‘Interesting Things I Don’t Know What To Do With’. I thought of trying to make it into narrative non-fiction – but just try persuading a modern publisher that strange stories involving classical music would have a market, even if they do contain ever-saleable Nazis! So I left it to marinate for a few years until it struck me that, really, all I had to do was tell the story and tell it well: it already had everything a strong novel might need.

Much hinged on how empathetic the characters could be. I did “tweak” a few elements here and there, but tried to make them as true to life as possible. For example, one crucial figure is Myra Hess (the great pianist who during World War II convened a series of lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery right through the Blitz). She was Jelly’s duo partner for about 20 years. In the book she is a comparatively hard-nosed, determined professional with her feet on the ground, offsetting Jelly herself, who is almost childlike in her naïvete at times. But I think I’ve managed to do this while being true to aspects of her actual personality.

Both Jelly and Myra are “older women” (what a dreadful way to describe a female over 40!), unmarried, devoted to their careers and facing difficult choices as well as the prospect of ageing alone; Adila, though married and a mother, has a close male friend with whom she shares a special pastime (spiritualism). These issues are perennial, of course, and I think make these extraordinary women easy for modern readers to identify with.

I did adjust Jelly slightly to make her into my heroine. In real life (her dates were 1893-1966) she was perhaps more of an aesthete, more other-worldly and less warm and extrovert – though her one existing biography does suggest she could be quite a flirt when she wanted to be. I have also given her a fictional younger admirer, Ulli Schultheiss, who is necessary for the book as he provides a window directly into Nazi Germany and the music publishers who play a crucial role in the concerto’s fate. I felt rather guilty about introducing a made-up younger man to Jelly’s life – but when I confessed this to a relative of hers, she smiled and said she thought there might well have been a few!

How does researching a novel based or inspired by real events differ from writing another novel?

Well, you can’t just make it up. The details have to be right and the research can take over your life. Any novel is likely to need at least some research, but this is on another level – and the frustrating thing is that only about ten per cent of it, if that, goes into the text. The most extraordinary things can hold up progress – for instance, I was stuck for weeks on whether or not they would have owned a fridge. But if you don’t do the leg-work, the book won’t feel authentic and then nobody will bother reading it.

Different writers go to different lengths to ascertain their details. I did a bookshop event recently together with Jennie Ensor, the author of the brilliant Blind Side, and she mentioned she had checked the actual weather on the days on which her story takes place. I did not check the weather for 16 February 1938, the date of my final scene: I just had to have snow. And after all, it was February, it was London, it was colder in those days, so it might well have snowed, and the falling snow adds a soupçon of beauty to the conclusion. If I need to beg forgiveness for this from someone, then so be it.

Some people like to read fiction as a way of escaping from the real world. Some people like to read fiction to help them understand the real world or make sense of something they have experienced in the real world. Can you think of any novels you have read that have either provided some escapism, some insight and some comfort for you at any point in your life?

If I’m dealing with an emotional issue I don’t look for its reflection in fiction I’m reading – I’d rather escape from it! But I do sometimes hunt down insights and information. For instance, I’m trying to make sense of something right now, or at least to learn more about it. Here’s the situation.

My parents were born in Johannesburg, but left South Africa after their marriage in the early 1950s and settled in London. My father always refused to go back until apartheid had been overthrown, but I went a few times as a child with my mum to visit her family. Those trips, in the 1970s, left me profoundly shocked. Driving past the smog-laden iron shacks of Soweto, or in one distant cousin’s household seeing black servants in the kitchen – smiley, kind people who greeted my six-year-old self so warmly – eating the leftovers off the family’s plates. Such things horrified me and I had no wish to return, ever.

My parents both died more than 20 years ago, I have few relations left in South Africa and there was little reason to go back. Recently, though, my husband discovered some long-lost family of his own in Port Elizabeth and wanted to visit them. We took a trip in April.

And this time I loved it, because while the country assuredly has desperate problems, it has come a long way indeed from my childhood memories. I’ve turned to South African novels for insights and am devouring some amazing books: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the works of JM Coetzee and André Brink, Barbara Trapido’s exuberant Frankie and Stankie, and more. These are filling in some blanks on how those horrors developed, how they took hold, the human stories that embroider the patterns on history’s canvas, and why not all hope need be lost, however cruel and insane a political system may be.

Do you have a favourite author or novel that has inspired you as a writer or reader or is there a book that you are excited about reading in 2017 / best book from 2016? 

I do have a favourite novel: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I first read it when I was 15 and for years it has been my touchstone for a book that you not only read, but live. I long to write something even half as vivid! It’s about a wonderfully eccentric, artistic family in Suffolk in the 1930s and perhaps that’s one reason I was happy to find myself writing a book of my own about a wonderfully eccentric, artistic family in the 1930s, even if from a very different angle.

I Capture the Castle

As for a book I’m excited about reading in 2017: I can’t wait for Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg to come out.


Thanks so much Jessica for these fascinating responses to my questions! I can't wait to chat again in a few weeks time! 

To book a ticket for this event where you can hear more from Jessica, please click on the link below: 


Jessica Duchen

Jessica was born in London. She first tried to write a novel at the age of 12 and found much encouragement from a distinguished author and a literary agent. After studying at Cambridge, she worked as an editor in music publishing and magazines for ten years.

Her latest novel, Ghost Variations, is based on a true incident in the 1930s: the bizarre rediscovery of the long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto. "This is a hugely atmospheric and thought-provoking book featuring fascinating characters... It evokes a period pregnant with both promise and menace" (Music & Vision Daily).

The earlier novels focus on the tensions and cross-currents between family generations, including a painful exploration of the effects of anorexia (Rites of Spring) and the rearing of a child prodigy (Alicia's Gift) to the long-term effects of displacement and cultural clashes (Hungarian Dances and Songs of Triumphant Love). 

Jessica's journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, plus numerous music magazines. She gives pre-concert talks at venues including the Wigmore Hall, the Southbank Centre and Symphony Hall Birmingham. Having created concert versions of Alicia's Gift, Hungarian Dances and Ghost Variations, she often narrates their performances. Her play A Walk through the End of Time, introducing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, has been performed at music festivals in the UK, France and Australia. 

Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats. She enjoys long walks, cooking, and playing the piano when nobody can hear her.


For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk 


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