Writer in the Moonlight – A Conversation with Patricia Morrisroe

What more captivating homage to Ludwig van Beethoven, especially in this year that marks the 250th anniversary of his birth, than Patricia Morrisroe’s recently-published novel, The Woman in the Moonlight? Her tale of music and passion woven with finely-tuned historical details has, at its heart, the “Moonlight” Sonata and Beethoven’s love for his piano student to whom he dedicated the Sonata. A prolific non-fiction writer, Patricia has published a highly-regarded biography of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as well as the very informative and entertaining books Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia and 9 ½ Narrow: My Life in Shoes. As a contributing editor at New York magazine, Patricia wrote over fifty features, including several dozen cover stories. Her work has also appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Sunday Times Magazine (London), and Departures

Your first novel, “The Woman in the Moonlight,” was recently published. How did you find the process of writing fiction?

I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as I had thought.  Then again, I’d never given much thought to writing historical fiction.  An editor happened to mention the idea at lunch.  The idea intrigued me, and I started doing research.  Before I knew it, I was doing the book. There was already an incredible amount written about Beethoven, so I had a real person to anchor the story.  Since he’d been dead for two centuries, I couldn’t very well interview his friends, but his letters were enormously helpful, because they captured his speaking style.  One major difference between fiction and non-fiction is the element of surprise.  With the novel, things happened that I didn’t see coming, though, in retrospect, I’d subconsciously laid the groundwork for them. I’d think, “So that’s why you had Julie waltz with Beethoven” or “That’s why you kept referring to Homer’s Odyssey.” Since I didn’t work with an outline, I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. That part of the creative process was thrilling. 

A historical novel requires an immense amount of research. How do you decide what historical details to keep and where to blur the lines between fact and fiction? Did you feel that those choices were instinctive for you or did they require a more intense thought process?

I did two years of research before I started writing.  There was very little material on Julie Guicciardi, the dedicatee of the “Moonlight,” but enough to provide a slim framework.  I knew that she left Vienna in 1804, moved to Naples, and returned to Vienna in 1821.  I kept her interactions with Beethoven consistent with that timeline.  She was known to have been his piano student and the “dear, enchanting girl” he referenced in a letter to a friend.  In that same letter, he admitted to being in love with her and that his thoughts had turned to marriage but that she wasn’t of his “station.”  So, I had the letter, the “Moonlight” dedication, and the discovery, after his death, of her portrait miniature in a secret compartment in his desk.  It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for me to imagine a fuller relationship between them.

Apart from Julie, whose life is mostly fictionalized, I was a stickler for accuracy about everything else.  Not only did I have to stay true to Beethoven’s chronology, but the novel features a large cast of real-life figures, including Napoleon and Metternich. I had to be factual about their lives as well.  Often the facts were more colorful than anything I could have imagined. Julie’s cousin, Josephine von Brunswick, actually lived in an 88-room palace above her husband’s cabinet of curiosities that featured Mozart’s death mask.  The impresario Dominico Barbaja discovered Rossini, as well as the drink we now call “cappuccino.”  Julie’s husband, Count Robert von Gallenberg returned to Vienna to help run the Kärntnertor Theater, where Beethoven premiered the Ninth Symphony.  In real life, Julie’s and Beethoven’s story came full circle.  Such discoveries were pure delight.

 Patricia Morrisroe in front of a portrait of Beethoven by J. W. Mähler
in Vienna’s Pasqualati House, where Beethoven had once lived

Music is, of course, at the center of your novel. You mentioned that, during the period of research and writing, you listened to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at least a hundred times. In the marriage of words and music that brings the sonata to life on the pages of your novel, what was important to you? How do you write about music in a way that captivates both the connoisseur and the newcomer?

It was important to accurately describe the music.  I’d studied piano and voice, but I don’t possess a musical vocabulary. I’d first listen to the music, and then read analyses of it.  I’d also listen to YouTube seminars, such as Andras Schiff’s lectures on Beethoven.  Once I felt that I had a grasp of the music so that I could write about it intelligently, I then needed to put it into Julie words.  She was hearing the music for the first time, and while she had a sophisticated ear, she was reacting to it emotionally.  What was it like for her to hear the Ninth Symphony, the Grosse Fuge, or more importantly, the “Moonlight” Sonata?  I wanted to capture the immediacy of her experience but also to render it in a poetic way.   The character was sensitive and intuitive; she was listening to music composed by the man she loved to the point of obsession.  I wanted to convey that as best as I could.  

American Classical Orchestra recently distributed a video of pianist Petra Somlai playing the “Moonlight” Sonata on fortepiano with text excerpts from your novel. You mentioned that through Somlai’s rendition on this instrument Beethoven came to life for you. How did it feel to partner your words with the sound of the fortepiano?

At first, I had mixed feelings.  I knew that Beethoven kept pushing piano makers to build instruments that were bigger and louder – and this was even before his hearing diminished.  His performance style was forceful and explosive, and he wanted a piano to hold up under his brutal assaults.  I was afraid that hearing the “Moonlight” on a fortepiano, especially the volcanic third movement, would sound too anemic.  The first time I listened to Petra, I was immediately taken with the plaintive first movement, but I thought the third lacked sufficient power.  But when I listened to it again, it took my breath away.   When Beethoven composed the sonata, he was grappling with the reality of his hearing loss.  The first movement is written in the style of a funeral march.  But Beethoven, who never met a challenge he didn’t overcome, had poured all his willpower and determination into the third movement. With the fortepiano, I could hear that struggle in a profound way, because it produced a very human sound.  If the first movement was a cry from the heart, the third was a war cry.  I’d listened to the sonata many times, but it was the first time I really understood it. The experience catapulted me back to the early 19th century in a way that really surprised me.  And, of course, Petra is an absolutely brilliant pianist, so I was honored to collaborate with her.

About three decades ago, you were selected by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to write his biography, and, in 1995, “Mapplethorpe: A Biography” was published. Please tell us about the experience of interviewing this brilliant and notorious artist, and offering the world such an illuminating account of his life.

It was an extremely difficult experience. I’d met Mapplethorpe in 1983 when I did a piece on him for the Sunday Times of London.  He was stoned and later told me that he didn’t remember the interview.  When I met him again, he was dying of AIDS and had only seven months to live.  He’d just had a show at the Whitney Museum, but it would be two years before the Corcoran Gallery of Art would cancel his “Perfect Moment” exhibit and prosecutors would press obscenity charges against Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center.  So, he was well-known in the art world but had yet to become a figure of world-wide notoriety. 

I interviewed Mapplethorpe several dozen times.  Apart from the emotional toll of dealing with a dying man, he had very little to say about anything, except sex.  He loved to shock people, but after a while, the shock value wore off, and it was just another day listening to him obsess about his sex life.  He was one of the least self-reflective men I’ve ever met, but having said that, I liked him, and he was always exceptionally polite and nice. The big surprise was how many people didn’t like him.  I did 350 interviews and even his friends were highly critical.  I had started the project with a totally open mind, but I couldn’t ignore the overwhelmingly negative response I received from people who knew him well.  Some friends saw it as a hit job, but none had access to the wealth of information I’d accumulated.  The book was exhausting to do, but twenty-five years later, I think it stands up as an intimate portrait of an artist, as well as a vivid exploration of New York’s cultural scene during the 60s, 70s and 80s. 

Your quest to understand and conquer insomnia in “Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia” is insightful, witty, and informative. Not to mention relatable and helpful to the overwhelming number of people who suffer from insomnia. You wrote: “Your sleeping self is often a mirror of your waking self. You are your own sleep,” which is a fascinating insight. Would you elaborate on that?

Sleep scientists like to use the term “hyper-arousal,” which my mother would have called “high-strung.”  If you’re the type of person who is anxiety-prone, easily startled, highly motivated, a perfectionist; if you’re the opposite of calm and serene; if your brain feels like it’s on over-drive most of the time – then chances are, unless you’re taking sedatives or you’ve mastered the art of meditation, you are not a great sleeper.  People’s days tend to mirror their nights.  Most of my creative friends, particularly writers, have difficulty sleeping.  At 3 a.m., they’re still concocting stories in their heads. I’m not suggesting that it’s as simple as “I write therefore I am awake.”  There’s a genetic component to insomnia.   But many of my friends in creative fields, especially women, are always complaining about their sleep problems. At some point, I think you just have to accept it.   There’s no golden rule about needing 8 hours of sleep.  Everybody’s sleep is different.

Are you planning to write more fiction?

After five years with Beethoven, I feel like I scaled Mt. Olympus.   Recently, I’ve been writing some pieces for the Times, which I’ve really enjoyed, so I’m not really sure what’s next.  I’ve never plotted things out, but at some point, I’m sure an idea will grab me.

As a New York City inhabitant, how have you been coping in the past 7 months?

My husband and I have a weekend house in Pound Ridge, NY, where we’ve been staying since March.  But I miss the city.  I moved to New York for graduate school, and except for 6 months in London and Paris, I’ve been here ever since.  I worked for New York magazine for eight years, so I’ve seen all aspects of the city, uptown, downtown, rich, poor.  I reported on the AIDS crisis, which killed so many people in the arts.  Now the arts are endangered again, but artists always find a way of making art. When real estate prices took off in the mid-80s, I did a story on how creative young people were being driven out of Manhattan.  People were actually crying because they had to move – to Brooklyn!  New York evolves, but it will never lose its allure.

 ~ Discover more about Patricia Morrisroe on her website.

Photos by Lee Stern

About Maria-Cristina Necula (68 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the newly-released "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions," "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and three poetry collections. Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more about her work at www.mariacristinanecula.com.