Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with Maria Noriega Rachwal

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Maria Noriega Rachwal

Musicologist Maria Noriega Rachwal's From Kitchen to Carnegie Hall (Second Story Press) follows the amazing true story of the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra, a group of women musicians who played in a time where the idea of a woman in an orchestra was utterly unheard of. Despite the barriers they faced, they went on to be the first ever Canadian orchestra to perform in New York City's iconic Carnegie Hall. The book focuses on conductor Ethel Stark, whose trailblazing work opened doors for women musicians across North America.

Today we speak with Maria as part of our In Character interview, and she tells us about Ethel's extraordinary confidence and drive, the challenge of choosing which orchestra members on whom to focus her story and acting out Ethel's lines to get better acquainted with her fiery character.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Maria Noriega Rachwal:

Ethel Stark (b. 1910) is a talented Jewish violinist and conductor, living in an era where a woman performing on the stage is an anomaly. Feisty, confident, and dogged Ethel is accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she impresses all of her professors and classmates. Upon graduation she moves to New York to further her career, only to find that discrimination against women in the profession is rampant, and that there are very little opportunities for her. She refuses to accept the status quo and joins a vaudeville women’s musical group, “The Hour of Charm” orchestra, but after two years of damage to her ears from the firing of canon balls to end each high-energy musical show, Ethel quits and sets out to change the situation of women in music. In 1940, she meets a wealthy socialite from the upper class in Montreal, Madge Bowen, who loves classical music and is willing to work with Ethel to construct a symphony orchestra of women from scratch.

There is only one catch — Madge insists that the orchestra be colour and class blind, at a time when society in Montreal is heavily stratified along the lines of race, language and class. What happens next is a fascinating journey to educate 80 women from all walks of life — most with little musical training — for careers as classical music performers. One of them is Violet Grant States, a young black woman, who becomes the first black member of a Canadian symphony orchestra. No one pays much attention to this lady’s group, The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, but Ethel’s persistence and passion breaks through all obstacles and inspires the women to strive for what seems an impossible dream — to play on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

Ethel’s zeal leads her women’s orchestra to break stereotypes and throw open the doors to women in the music profession.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

MNR:

I must quote André Gide, “The poor novelist constructs his characters, he controls them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them. It is only according to what he hears them say that he begins to understand who they are.”

This is especially true in non-fiction. My job is to know as much about my characters as possible. In the case of Ethel Stark, I spoke to her friends, colleagues, and family members. I read her memoirs. I listened to her interviews. I turned over every stone, every pebble, and followed every lead. At last I felt that I began to know her, and the more I researched, the more comfortable I felt with her. My pen made her story come alive, but in turn she breathed life into my writing. I listened to her and watched her. I eavesdropped. After eight years, I was finally able to chisel away at the marble and the figure of Ethel Stark — a feisty, determined, and commanding suffragette of the symphony orchestra — emerged.

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

MNR:

The characters in this story are real people. My problem was not choosing their names, but rather, choosing which characters to highlight. After all, this was an 80-member orchestra and each woman had an important story. I focused on a handful of characters, two of those being Violet Grant (the first black woman to play in an orchestra) and Violet Archer (an emerging composer). To avoid confusing the readers, I chose to give Violet Grant her full name throughout the book — Violet Louise.

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

MNR:

Most of the dialogue in my book comes from what people actually remember saying, but there are instances where I have to fill in how it was said. I very much wanted the dialogue of the characters to be genuine so I listened to past interviews of Ethel Stark. I memorized her lines, acted them out, and tried to say them in her manner. I acted out scenes with my husband so many times that our toddler ended up memorizing our lines, as well. It was quite funny! My advice to emerging writers is to know their characters well.

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

MNR:

I admire Ethel Stark for her remarkable tenacity, but we are quite different. Ethel loved the spotlight and the more attention she drew the better she performed. She worked well under pressure and loved challenges. I identify more with Madge Bowen, who worked behind the scenes. She was just as important to the creation of the orchestra, but shied away from the limelight.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?

MNR:

In Non-Fiction, Rosa Parks, the poor African-American seamstress who becomes the mother of the freedom movement, is inspiring for her quiet strength.

In Fiction, Father Faria in the Count of Monte Cristo is a fascinating character. On the surface he is nothing but a mad man who rants non-sense to his captors. But as Edmond slowly finds out, Faria is a brilliant intellectual, fluent in several languages, and exceptionally knowledgeable in the arts and sciences. It is Faria who turns a humble sailor into the powerful Count of Monte Cristo.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MNR:

I am editing the memoirs of Ethel Stark. I hope to compile her papers and publish her complete biography.


Maria Noriega Rachwal is a music teacher and musicologist living in Toronto, Ontario. She has given many lectures on women in music throughout the country and written articles on the subject for professional organizations. Her work on the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchesta was featured on the CBC Radio documentary, “It Wasn’t Tea Time: Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra.”

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