Today for Inside the Writer’s Studio we celebrate an ode to an American Musical tradition—fiddling—by West Virginia author Sarah Sullivan.Passing the Music Down, written by Sarah and illustrated by Barry Root is a thing of beauty. I was lucky enough to hear Sarah read from the then manuscript when she was a visiting alumna at a VCFA Special Day. And, I was lucky enough to secure Sarah as a contributor to Hunger Mountain. Her essay, Walking the Songlines, depicts how much care, effort, and skill it takes to be at the top of picture book form (as Sarah is). Sarah is the author of Root Beer and Banana, Dear Baby: Letters from Your Big Brother, and Once Upon a Baby Brother. She is a graduate of VCFA (we were in the same graduating class!) and she speaks to adults and children across the country.
A bit about the Passing the Music Down from the publisher (Candlewick Press)
A warmhearted ode to an American musical tradition and to generational ties, told in lyrical free verse with atmospheric illustrations
A young boy travels to the hills of Appalachia to meet the old-time fiddle player whose music he has admired, and so sparks a friendship that will forge a bond between generations. The boy develops under the man’s care and instruction, just as seedlings grow with spring rain and summer sun. From playing on the front porch to performing at folk festivals, the two carry on the tradition of passing the music down. This touching, lyrical story, inspired by the lives of renowned fiddlers Melvin Wine and Jake Krack, includes an author’s note and suggested resources for learning about the musicians and the music they love.
Thanks Sarah for being with us! I am such a fan of the way you use language, create story, and share your process.
Is there a story behind the story that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)
Passing the Music Down is inspired by the lives of two real people, an old-time fiddle player named Melvin Wine and his student, Jake Krack. Melvin won multiple awards, including the NEA's National Heritage Fellowship, the U.S.'s highest award for traditional musicians and artists. Jake was a young fiddle student in Indiana when he first heard recordings of Melvin's music. His teacher told him he ought to go to a festival called Clifftop in West Virginia so he could hear the old-time fiddle players, people like Melvin Wine and Lester McCumber, because their music had been passed down by oral tradition and, when they died, their music would die with them. So, Jake did just that. At Clifftop, he met Melvin Wine. They became friends and Jake's family ended up moving to West Virginia so that Jake could study with Melvin and Lester McCumber and a younger man named Bobby Taylor. For years I heard Melvin and Jake play at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston and at other festivals and fairs, including once, an appearance at my local independent bookstore, Taylor Books. When I read an article in the New York Times about Jake being formally apprenticed to old-time musicians, I realized it was not just me who had a fascination with this story. There was indeed something universal about it and I wanted to capture that in a picture book. It seemed like a story that needed to be told, particularly after 9/11 when many of us were wondering about the future and what endures.
How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.
I try to trick myself by pretending I'm writing a letter and relating a story to a friend. If I can do that, the negative inner voice goes silent, at least for a few minutes. Friends are forgiving. They don't demand perfect prose. They just want to hear from you.
I dread writing the first draft of a brand new scene that is only a concept in my head. What helps is to find one line which belongs in that scene. It can be a line of dialogue or of narration. That doesn't matter. What IS important is that, it feel like the line "fits."
I love, love, LOVE editing and revising!
How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired?
Community is so important to lifting flagging spirits during the long slog that revising a manuscript can be. My writing community is almost entirely virtual. That's a large part of the reason I went to Vermont College. The writing friends I made there are my writing community today. A certain writer named Bethany Hegedus has been a daily inspiration, especially during our first years after completing the program. We had "virtual" coffee chats each workday morning and they were really important to me! (Thanks, Bethany!) (Awww—thanks Sarah! I miss our virtual morning cups of coffee.)
And a dear friend and fellow writer, Leda Schubert, who is now a faculty member at Vermont College provided invaluable support, encouragement and critical input during the writing of Passing the Music Down. In fact, I don't know that I would even have had the courage to send that manuscript to my now-editor if not for Leda's enthusiasm about it. Ironically, it turns out that Leda – who plays fiddle music herself, had not only heard of Melvin Wine. She had actually taken a class from him at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. When I read my manuscript out loud to a small group of fellow writers at a retreat in Vermont, we shared one of those small world moments when she told me about studying fiddle tunes at Augusta. Leda continues to provide that kind of encouragement and critical support. I'm quite sure I would never have made it this far without friends like Leda and Bethany and so many others, including my whole class at Vermont College, the "Wild Things – Class of Winter 2005" and newer writing friends, like Fran Slayton who lives in Charlottesville and visits West Virginia from time to time. They are all very dear to me.
Is there a favorite quote you turn to when the rejection blues get to you?
"It's all copy." Nora Ephron attributes this quote to her mother, the screenwriter Phoebe Ephron. It means, if something bad happens, don't get upset about it. Think about how to use it in a story.
If you get rear-ended at a stoplight, it's all copy. If you get chigger bites in embarrassing places during a hike in the woods, it's all copy.
That quote has helped me through a lot of aggravating moments!
Name a writer whose work and/or career you admire. And why do you admire them?
There are so many, but one of my favorites is Eudora Welty. Her work is so drenched in place, not only Mississippi, but there's a section from One Writer's Beginnings where she writes about her grandparents' farm in West Virginia, not far from where I live. You can almost smell the iron in the water being drawn up from the well in that piece.
I also love the way she writes with such compassion and charity about very flawed human beings. Take the narrator of Why I Live at the P.O., for example, a young woman consumed by resentment of her sister. And yet as readers, we feel sympathy for her. On top of that, the whole time we're experiencing those conflicting feelings, Welty is making us laugh. How does she do that?
How important is voice in your work? How does voice come to you?
Voice, on those rare occasions when I find it, is the opiate that keeps me hooked on writing. It's magic when some character's voice begins channeling through my thoughts. If only I could figure out how to summon voice at will. But, alas, it doesn't seem to happen that way. Voice has mysterious origins that are perhaps best left unquestioned. I don't want to do anything that would make the magic go away.
How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book?
A sense of place is absolutely critical to Passing the Music Down. Ironically, or perhaps logically, I don't know, if I feel like if I've achieved the proper sense of place in that book, it makes the story feel universal. I think it's because putting characters in their proper setting make a story feel authentic. It's part of the challenge of making a story true. If a writer can make something true enough, it will be universal. And stories can only be true if they are set in the proper place.
Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again to study craft and why do you love it?
What these books have in common is voice. And there is a bit of poetry in the voices of each of these books. I think the intimacy a writer achieves with his or her reader in a strong voice is a large part of what makes a book compelling to me. It's what draws me back to the book over and over again. Read the first page of The Great Gatsby. Are you not drawn in immediately? And the poetry of it! I want music in the words and Gatsby has that in spades.
Inspired by the Actor’s Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?
Hate – Leaf blowers
In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.
Sophia Tolstoy, (aka Mrs. Leo Tolstoy) hand-copied the manuscript of War and Peace from beginning to end 7 times.
Would you do that for the significant other in your life or, would you ask him or her to do that for you?
Oh, Maebelle would love that little known fact and she may just ask Isaac to transcribe her notebook 7 times from beginning to end right after learning it. Isaac though wouldn’t go for 7 but I bet he’d type it up once for her.
Sarah, thank you for being with us. Congrats on Passing the Music Down and keeping the history of fiddle music alive and kicking!