After a 40-year career as a trial attorney in Washington, D.C., Bruce J. Berger turned to writing, earned a master’s degree in creative writing from American University and now teaches there.
His recently published second novel, “The Music Stalker,” concerns a family that includes a child piano prodigy. The title refers to the character’s paranoid fear of being stalked by a murderous fan.
Berger, a Silver Spring resident and member of Tifereth Israel Congregation, talked about his literary creations.
What about this story inspired you to write it?
Nicky and Adel Covo are characters I have been writing about since 2009, in a succession of short stories, in one unpublished novel and in “The Flight of the Veil.” Primarily, I am fascinated with the characters. But I was also inspired to write about a young female piano prodigy by having discovered a few online, listened to their music and followed their careers. I began to wonder what parental attributes were desirable and undesirable in nurturing the career of a prodigy. That got me writing, and it seemed obvious to set this prodigy — and a jealous brother — in the family that Nicky and Adel were going to create.
Tell me how you first got started in writing. I understand this is a second career for you.
I have always written creatively, going back to grade school, but in 2009 I began to write more seriously and took my first creative writing course at Montgomery College. From there, I began to attend summer writing conferences and to participate in writing workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
This is a sequel to your first novel, “The Flight of the Veil,” correct? Why did you feel “Flight of the Veil” needed a sequel?
Actually, it’s a prequel. “The Music Stalker” generally covers the period 1963-1980, although the first-person narrator, Max, is looking back at events from the standpoint of 2001. The “present time” of “The Flight of the Veil,” on the other hand, is 1990. Now, I admit that I have in mind a true sequel to “The Flight of the Veil,” starting exactly where that novel ends. That sequel – whose tentative name is “To See God” – is only in its very first stages.
How is your being Jewish reflected in the story?
The story addresses many different types of Jewish identity. There’s Nicky, a formerly observant Jew who became an atheist. There’s the limited Jewish identity of Adel, a character with schizophrenia. There’s Kayla, most importantly, who’s yearned for a religious experience but never quite able to grasp onto it until circumstances in her life force her toward Chabad. And then there’s Chabad itself. Parts of me — at various times in my life —might be seen in each of these characters/organizations. I will say for the record that I’m closer to Kayla than I am to Nicky in this regard, but not terribly close.
How does the characters’ relationship with Judaism shape the novel?
Whereas the main theme of the novel is music, Judaism is, for most of the novel, a backdrop. Kayla is exposed to limited Jewish practices early in her life because her parents, particularly her atheist father, feels some obligation to bring up his children as Jews. But there’s more than touch of hypocrisy there. Notwithstanding her parents’ attitude, Kayla decides early in her life that there is something important about Judaism that she needs to experience. That understanding is put off for a decade or so, however, as Kayla follows the path of a musical genius. Toward the end of the novel, close connection with a very observant form of Judaism enables Kayla to survive the tragic end of her performing career.
One might say that the same sheer determination and stubbornness that enabled Kayla to become a piano prodigy has been transferred to another “art form,” that of strictly observant Judaism.
The themes of family and mental illness both run very strong through this novel. Why did you want to approach these topics in this fashion?
Adel came into being in my fiction as a young lady with schizophrenia, first recorded in the short story “Nate and Adel.” It didn’t take much of a leap of creative intuition to assume that her daughter might inherit the genes that are associated with schizophrenia. From a novelistic point of view, the protagonist “needed” to be fighting against something standing in the way of her most important goals, i.e., her continued perfection as a performing artist.
The theme of family has always been important in my fiction and could be no less so in this novel, which closely examines how a special child thrives — or fails to thrive — in a given family situation. The theme of family also informs the unique narrative structure of this novel, in which the thoughts and actions of three members of the family in “real time” are the province of an omniscient narrator, but in which the thoughts and actions of the fourth member of the family are set forth in the first person, from the vantage point of many years in the future. So we do see at times that the same events are given different interpretations based upon who is narrating and whose thoughts the narrator has access to.
One of the main characters, Kayla, was a musical child prodigy. What was it about child prodigies, and musical prodigies in particular, that appealed to you?
I began the study of piano at age 4, starting off much like Max does in this novel. I didn’t have the talent or perseverance of Kayla, however — nothing near either. But, once I decided to stop lessons at age 13, I often wondered what might have happened had I continued, had worked harder and had been much more talented. That’s part of the inspiration for writing this novel, exploring what such a life might have been like. And, as I indicated earlier, I was fascinated by the question of what might happen if a person with other-worldly musical talent is born into a family with no such talent, no history of such talent, and a plethora of other, deep-seated problems.