Susanne Dunlap

How books shaped me, Part I

In Historical Fiction, The writing life on June 23, 2010 at 8:36 am

I came to writing fiction via a rather circuitous path. I spent many years of my life searching for what I was meant to do, trying to balance the exigencies of earning a living with the artistic endeavors I was really called to. I guess maybe that’s why my mother kept trying to hook me up with wealthy doctors…

When I was 3 years old, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say Mozart. That was because I had a marvelous children’s book (which I’ve since found another copy of and can’t wait until my granddaughter is old enough to read it herself) called Mozart the Wonder Boy. It was all about this cute little kid who could play the piano and violin so well he played for emperors and sat on the laps of princesses.

The princess theme was a big one. I graduated from wanting to be Mozart and learning to play the opening phrase of the easy C-major sonata on the piano in our living room to wanting to be a ballerina. That, too, was the result of a book and music. I discovered the soundtrack recording (thanks to my father, of course: I was too young to set a needle gently down on a vinyl record) of The Tales of Hoffmann, which came with a black and white pamphlet that included images from the movie. I will never forget Moira Shearer in her doll dress, and Ludmila Tcherina in the huge oyster shell, or the evil face of Leonide Massine. My mother would come in and flip the records over for me, and I’d sit at age four happily for two hours, listening and dreaming.

And then there was the book about Anna Pavlova. That one I haven’t been able to find. I must have been more like six because I know I read it myself, over and over. And I know that I couldn’t read a book on my own when I was in kindergarten, because that’s when my brother Bruce and I started taking music lessons at the Community Music School in Buffalo, New York. He would read the assignments, and I would give him the answers. It was a division of labor.

I studied piano pretty seriously all through school and college and for a year beyond. Music was my passion, my escape. It really wasn’t until I realized that much as I wanted to, I didn’t have the degree of talent necessary to make a career as a performer. Without even thinking about it, I started to write.

That’s the end of one story and the beginning of another, so I’ll stop right there.

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