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Writing the Second Novel: The Piano Player by Maybelle Wallis

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Piano Player

By Maybelle Wallis

Inspiration and desperation . . .

I love the ‘Life of a Project’ by Maureen McHugh/ Austin Kleon – a meme that’s all over the internet. The project sinks: from ‘best idea ever’ to ‘harder than I thought’… ‘gonna take some work’…‘boring and it sucks’… DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. Then begins the upward path: ‘it’ll be good to finish – I’ll learn something for next time’… until finally ‘it’s done and it sucks, but not as bad as I thought.’

That was the course of my first novel, the same for the second. Now, though deep in the dark night of my third novel (it’s a three-book deal), I’m also letting the cycle begin for the fourth. The inspiration for the next book is here: the best idea ever. Instead of resisting it to focus constantly on the current project, I’m storing the new concepts for later. Balancing inspiration and desperation makes me happier.

So, this is my journey to despair and back with my second novel, The Piano Player, published by Poolbeg in August 2022:

Book One, Heart of Cruelty, though set in the 19th century, had drawn on my years as a doctor in Birmingham, England. When originally submitted to Poolbeg, it had ended with a letter from Bridgnorth in Shropshire, where: ‘The flow of the Severn under its trembling willows is to be the background to every summer. Her children, and her grandchildren, will play hide-and-seek in the lush meadows, amongst woodland flowers fragrant in the shade, the fluting of blackbirds, and the drifting and darting of dragonflies, with the river murmuring like the ripple of the piano under the caress of her hands.’ But now I was working in Ireland as a doctor, and I had a three-book deal. It was the peak of the Covid pandemic, so I was either at the hospital, or locked down in my study at home. I cut the lush meadows; in the published version, that final letter came from Dublin.

Book Two would place my characters, Jane Verity and Dr William Doughty, in a city of wealth and poverty, during the Great Famine, with hospitals overwhelmed with pandemic disease. Jane’s husband, an actor, would fall ill under the care of a colleague of William’s and lose his fortune. Would William and Jane, long estranged, help each other? Best idea ever…

Researching Victorian Dublin I found many resources and rabbit-holes: memoirs, newspapers, old textbooks from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and the mighty ‘Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’ (a present from a colleague at my hospital). I studied Dublin tenement life and the enduring myth of the Banshee. I followed the elite to their mansions and balls, and found out how to nobble racehorses. 

Although ‘Black ’47’ was the most notorious year of the Great Famine, and 1848 was the year of rebellion, I chose the cholera outbreak of 1849 as my backdrop. Despite the disaster of the Famine years, medicine in Dublin had entered a golden age as science pushed out superstition. Dublin’s hospitals, no longer mere containments for the destitute sick, became centres of learning where medical treatment advanced. As I explored this world, I also chose to subvert it with some medical malpractice.

I was writing this in 2021, as everyone wearied of the Covid pandemic. I sensed the same mood of fatigue in 1849, in the British government cut-backs in famine relief to Ireland, and in their claims that famine monies had been wasted – how much had got into the wrong pockets, I wondered? They taxed landlords for poor relief according to their tenant numbers – accelerating the evictions. Tenants, even if not in arrears, cost money that the landlords would not pay. Bailiffs burned the roofs of cottages leaving families to perish in makeshift shelters, in ditches by the road, or, if able to survive the journey, in the cities, in the worst slums in Europe. While they starved, meat and grain were still exported, under armed guard, to Britain. Irish nationalists saw self-rule as the only way to prevent the enormous loss of life, yet after the 1848 rebellion, all dissent had been crushed. Rebel leaders were transported and journalists were in jail. Incredibly, into the midst of all this, came Queen Victoria, on a state visit to Ireland. The nationalists tried to intercept her. This could not be ignored: I studied the lives of Irish rebels and devised a subplot with a character engaged in underground struggle.

Now came the ‘dark night of the soul’, like a grotesque Goya painting. I stumbled along in the valley of the shadow of project death, crashing in the darkness into the obstacles of early drafting: over-written, illogical, and ugly. Lost characters called out of the gloom complaining that I’d forgotten what they looked like, confused their back-story, turned them one-dimensional, or allowed them to ramble on unchecked. It was a bedlam of despair: a Gothic madhouse where the sightseers, flitting through in silk gowns and laughing behind their fans, were conjured up in my imagination as phantom Amazonians and the reviewers of Goodreads.

I remember telling a friend, three months before I completed the book: there may be a lot of story threads, but they do come together at the end – honest! Before replying she gave me a doubting look. But the threads eventually led me out of the maze. Slowly, I ascended, editing strands from a pivotal epoch in Irish history into a tale of music and medicine, of trust and trickery, of murderous secrets and lost love. 

I hope I succeeded.

If not, there is the next novel: the jewel glimpsed from afar turns into a worthless bauble. Its glass shatters in my hand. As the fragments tumble down the slippery slope into the abyss I go after them. But there is light: there is always the next one, and the next one…

(c) Maybelle Wallis

About The Piano Player:

Murderous secrets and lost love in Dublin during the Great Famine.

In Dublin 1849, wealth contrasts savagely with squalid poverty, the bitter injustices of the Great Famine create a generation of the dispossessed, and hospitals are overwhelmed with pandemic disease. Deaths haunt every street, but some are not due to natural causes: patients who should have recovered are dying, and a violent gang murders in plain sight.

Jane, a theatrical pianist, has married Edmond Verity, a celebrated actor. When they perform in Dublin, her former lover, Dr William Doughty, knows he ought to keep his distance. When Edmond, a gambler struggling with his demons, becomes ill, he finds a physician whose first passion is his racing stable. As Jane’s fortunes reverse, she must find a way to survive.

Exploring a pivotal epoch in Irish history, this is an intricate novel of music and medicine, of trust and trickery, of destructive secrets and lost love: compelling, intriguing and poignant.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Maybelle Wallis writes short fiction and historical novels. A paediatrician who spent much of her career in England, she now works in Wexford, Ireland. She draws inspiration for her novels from medical history, and from the gloomy and macabre past of hospitals as Victorian institutions. Her past experience of child protection informs her explorations of crimes disguised as innocent events.

In 2020, after winning ‘Meet the Publisher’ at the Wexford Literary Festival, her debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ was published by Poolbeg. The sequel, ‘The Piano Player’, comes out in August 2022.

Maybelle is a graduate of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in London and also studied Creative Writing with the Open University. She loves her adopted country, Ireland, with its turbulent history and its natural beauty. Her favourite county is, of course, Wexford, home to a thriving creative community.

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