Music is filled with drama. Operas overflow with emotion; love songs can bring us to tears. So it seemed inevitable that Christina Britton Conroy would use her experience as a musician to create a novel that is filled with feeling. Christina, a native New Yorker is the daughter of actress Barbara Britton, so she not only was able to pull from her own career for inspiration, but also from what she witnessed growing up with an actress mother.
Her novel, One Man’s Music, has received wonderful reviews and has struck a chord with other musicians. Page after page, Christina brings to life the struggles musicians and, indeed, all artists face. Through her non-profit, Music Gives Life, she brings her love of music to the elderly, including conducting a group of senior musicians, The Show Stoppers, and works with autistic children, and children with disabilities. We asked her to explain how the book came about and how she approached the task of writing her first novel.
Tell us about your own musical background.
I took piano and voice lessons at Juilliard Pre-College, later the Interlochen Arts Academy and Camp, earned my Music Bachelors from the University of Toronto, and later, a Music Therapy Masters Degree from NYU. I spent fifteen glorious years touring the globe singing operas, operettas, and musicals. I soloed with orchestras, oratorio societies, Radio City Music Hall, and folk venues, accompanying myself on the guitar and Irish Harp.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
I was on tour with the Broadway musical, On The 20th Century, staring Rock Hudson, Imogene Coca, and Judy Kaye. It was six month tour at three times the salary I was used to earning, and I was miserable. I’d given up an eight week summer stock job, where I would have been the star. Now, I was in the chorus.
Sitting backstage, listening to movie stars sing their solos, and hoping the actress I understudied would catch cold, I thought about all the gifted, wonderfully trained singers, dancers, and musicians stuck in ensembles, earning a living, but never the respect and appreciation they deserve.
Is the main character, Jenna Adams, modeled after anyone you knew?
The physical details of Jenna’s life are my own. Her apartments, schools, and colleagues are all taken from my life. My parents were too nice to make interesting reading, so I made Jenna’s parents horrible. The characters of Eric and Josh are compellations a hundred men I knew in the music business.
The book has many details about what it takes to become a musician. Did you pull from your own memories and experiences for these scenes?
Totally! I didn’t have to make anything up. I lived it all.
There’s a scene in the beginning of the book where Jenna’s birthday party has to be postponed because her mother is getting an award. And there are other such instances throughout the book. You grew up with a famous mother. Did you have similar times when you needed to put your own activities on hold because they conflicted with hers?
Fortunately, no. I had that thirteenth birthday party. It was terrific. Our conflict was my wanting to go on the stage, and her wanting to keep me off. At seven, I was a professional actress with a union card. I adored performing, but my TV/Movie star mother, Barbara Britton, wanted me to grow up “normal.”
Now that I am a fulfilled and happy adult, I wonder if early stardom would have been a good thing. Many child stars grow into happy adults, but others do not.
Your chapters are all subtitled with Italian words for the tempo of the music. How did you come to use these subtitles and what do they signify within the context of the novel?
My characters positively live for music. Describing their moods in musical terms was natural. Most of the terms are common, but a few are in-jokes, for trained musicians. The terms are all real, but I doubt they have ever been used together, in a musical composition. They perfectly describe Jenna’s moods: Appassionato Diminuendo (Passion – Disappearing), and Grave Pesante Mesto Sforzando (Somber to Heavy to Screaming).
In the book, Jenna is torn between two men, Eric, a renowned composer, and Josh, a manager. What do these two men signify as far as the life choices Jenna faces?
All women choose the men in their lives, and some of us choose the wrong ones, at some time. Jenna is conflicted. Eric is flashy and unreliable. Josh is solid and reliable.
When Josh pressures Jenna about getting pregnant, on their honeymoon, no less, she resists, knowing what it might mean to her career. How would someone like Jenna balance her career and motherhood? What would she have to give up on either end? Did you know women faced with making these choices?
Like every other working mom with money, she’d have to hire a nanny. If she didn’t have money, she might have to give up her career. Most of my women friends work and raise kids. It’s a tough balance.
Jenna seems to fall under Eric’s spell and then seems to be controlled by Josh. And the three make an unholy trinity. Were you making a statement about what artists need to give up to others in order to succeed?
There is no formula for success. I just show two sides of the coin. Jenna is involved with two powerful men. One loves her, the other doesn’t.
Eric tells her, “…Music is dependable. People aren’t. Keep music as your lover and people won’t be able to hurt you… At least, not as much.”
Josh tells her, “…Jen, you’re a great talent. You want a career and I’ll work my tail off to see you get the career you deserve, but I love you more than I love your voice.”
What role does music now play in your own life?
Everyday, the power of music delights and fascinates me. As a music therapist, I watch autistic preschoolers focus and interact with other children while playing musical games. Learning-disabled teens feel proud of themselves when they perform simple tunes they have composed for their recorders. I sing old songs with Alzheimer’s patients and watch them blossom like wilted flowers after a rain.
My nonprofit organization, Music Gives Life, helps elders who thought their useful lives were over, ignore their pains and stiffness while entertaining audiences of all ages.
When I perform, I am energized by my audiences. As an audience member, I thrill hearing technical brilliance mixed with emotional energy of great musicians.
What similarities did you find between practicing music and perfecting a manuscript?
As a very young singer I was told that I needed: Talent, Hard Work, and Patience. I need those as a novelist.
Never taking, “No,” for an answer, helps. I used to get one singing job for every 40 auditions. Most of my friends gave up after 25 auditions and took day jobs.
This book was totally rewritten three times by order of my editors. Every time someone said, “No,” I said, “I’ll fix it.”
For more information, go to Christina’s website, www.MusicGivesLife.com