Today marks the 50th anniversary of Switzerland’s famous cheese war with Costa Rica. If you don’t remember the details from your high school history class, La Guerre du Fromage (as the French-speaking Swiss refer to it) began because of a misunderstanding involving the Swiss Ambassador to Costa Rica, a crate of Gruyere, and a stolen trombone that once belonged to Otto von Bismarck. The trombone, as you know, figured largely in the misunderstanding, which is why I thought it might be apropos to interview Laura Vosika, trombone player, author, traveler, and educator. So, without any further history lessons, I’d like to welcome her on board.
Hi, Laura. Thanks for coming by. You seem like just about the busiest person I’ve met in a long time, so let’s jump right in. Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself first?
I was raised in the military, which some people think is a difficult way to grow up. It can be, particularly when you’re always switching schools and ending up either struggling to catch up, or bored stiff because your last school already did the whole course. But I loved it. Living in a place for two or three years is entirely different from visiting. I spent years going to the Smithsonian and the historic sites of America’s east coast, and experienced very different cultures in America’s north and deep south. I saw castles, went to pig fests and down into salt mines in Europe. (Did your parents ever threaten to send you to the salt mines? I’d been there, I knew what they meant!)
Why, yes, my parents frequently threatened me with the salt mines. And when they became extremely disturbed, they would even threaten me with the salt and pepper mines. The sight of salt and pepper shakers still makes me nervous. So, after all of your traveling and hard labor in salt mines, what did you end up doing?
I got my degree in music, on trombone, although I play multiple instruments. I later went back to get a masters in education and a teaching certificate. As a result, I’ve spent the last 20 years teaching private lessons on piano, harp, guitar, and wind instruments, and working as a freelance musician, on harp, trombone, and flute, playing for ballets, oratorios, musicals, symphonies, small ensembles for churches, and jazz bands.
I have had wonderful experiences such as playing flute and fife on the docks when the tallship Endeavor sailed into Gig Harbor, Washington, or playing Auld Lang Syne with a big band on the Bremerton pier as the historic USS Missouri sailed behind us on her way to her new home in Hawaii.
Wow! I play a couple instruments myself (guitar, piano, and flute), but you are like Mount Everest, in musical terms, to my Death Valley. I realize that’s a weird metaphor, but that’s the first thing that came to mind. So, doing all that, do you ever have time for anything else?
I have nine children, seven boys and two girls, including a pair of identical twins.
Okay, I think you answered my question in a pretty profound fashion. You obviously must not sleep. Or, perhaps you have figured out how to stop time so you can do all sorts of stuff while the rest of us are standing around frozen. I’ll go with that as a logical explanation. Seeing that you’re probably the only person in the world who owns a Time-Stopper Machine, what got you into writing instead of, for example, robbing banks (I imagine having one of those machines would make robbing banks really easy)?
I can’t really say anything did. I’m one of those who just started writing at a young age, and can’t really seem to stop.
Aha. I see you used the word “stop.” I think you’re subconsciously admitting you own one of those machines. Anyway, can you tell us about your writing?
Blue Bells of Scotland is a little hard to classify, as half of it is historical, but half is set in modern Scotland. It involves time travel, but I don’t really consider it paranormal, as it’s really much more a story of adventure and the interior story of change and growth.
Time travel, eh? I’m seeing the dots connect quite nicely. Carry on.
It’s the story of two men, complete opposites except for their looks and love of music, who switch places in time and get caught in one another’s lives. Shawn, who prides himself on his selfishness, suddenly has the fate of a nation on his shoulders, while Niall, a devout medieval Highlander, is surrounded by Shawn’s modern life of luxury, his mistresses, pregnant girlfriend, and gambling debts, while trying to find a way back to save Scotland.
I really have to ask you, did Diana Gabaldon’s books inspire you in any way? My wife loves those books. I’ll say to her, honey, the house is on fire! Get out, quick! And she’ll get pretty exasperated and tell me not to bother her until she’s done with the chapter.
Many people have asked if Diana Gabaldon’s books inspired me, but, although we have both written about time travel and Scotland, and I like her books very much, I hadn’t read them when I started writing. I was brought to Scotland, fictionally speaking, by a favorite childhood novel, In the Keep of Time, about four siblings who go into a Scottish tower and come out in medieval Scotland, and by a piece of trombone music, Blue Bells of Scotland. They each, in their own ways, contributed to the writing of the novel.
I’ve heard it told that music plays a large part in your writing. Can you tell us about that?
A question dear to my heart! I started playing trombone when I was 11 with a strict warning from my parents that I must stick with it for the whole year. By high school, it was more like, “You can’t do this as a living! You have to stop this!” (Oh the wonderful ironies of life!) As a trombonist, I tried the wonderful theme and variations showpiece for trombone, Blue Bells of Scotland. As a writer, the lyrics about noble deeds and streaming banners captured my imagination. So it became sort of a centerpiece of this story–Shawn’s signature piece that he plays twice as fast as anyone.
It’s a fun piece of music to play, quite challenging, with lots of very fast runs of sixteenths and triplets, octave jumps at amazing speeds, and a huge range, from a pedal tone below the bass clef (an amazing sound that sort of makes your toes rumble and used to make the TV screens of the 80′s flicker and waver–if you ever get a chance, ask a trombonist to play some pedal tones for you) up to the C on the third space of treble clef.
I have a sneaking suspicion that’s one of those low notes that is so low that it rearranges your kidneys, kind of like Mike Tyson. However, if I do run into a trombonist some day and he survives the impact, I will ask him to kindly play a few pedal tones. Sorry, now, what were you saying about the song?
One reason I picked this song is because it’s an analogy for Shawn. The piece was written in the days when people thought trombones couldn’t do much. Arthur Pryor wanted to show what the instrument is actually capable of. A theme runs throughout the trilogy of who Shawn really is, of Amy’s belief in his ultimate goodness, despite his public persona. She believes he is capable of so much more than the world sees in him.
Another of my favorite pieces that I use in the book is Czardas, a piece originally written for violin. It starts out slow and poignant, and then skips into a gypsy dance flavor, very vibrant and exciting. It’s another piece I worked on and loved, and Shawn plays it at a medieval market day. I love the song, and I really enjoyed writing such a wonderful piece of music into the story. I do hope that other people will listen to it and enjoy it as much as I have.
For all the music majors out there, Sumer is Icumen In makes a cameo appearance because I couldn’t resist.
In all seriousness, using actual music is a fantastic way to weave history into your writing. Speaking of writing, what’s on the docket next?
Technically, I have many works in progress, but the one people would be interested in right now is The Minstrel Boy, the sequel to Blue Bells of Scotland. I am flattered and humbled that I am getting requests as to when it will be coming out, and the answer is that Blue Bells took probably 2-1/2 years of actual writing, and this one is much longer and more complex, partly because it covers a whole year, rather than two weeks, and partly because there is a lot of delving into mysteries and questions about what happened. Also, because in starting The Minstrel Boy, I found I had to make some last minute change to Blue Bells, I have actually written book 3, already, too. So I’m reallly writing two books together this time. Still, I work 14-16 hour days (including teaching, children, and writing) and am aiming for Christmas 2011 or Spring 2012.
The inside scoop? Hm. Well, a minor character from Blue Bells shows up at the battlefield of Bannockburn near the beginning of the The Minstrel Boy, offers someone coffee, and refuses to leave. He has upended my plans for how the trilogy would end. I have considered writing him out or making him conform to my plans for the story, but as nice a guy as he is, he’s as strong-willed, in his own way, as Shawn, and he can’t be written as anything other than who he is.
It’s fascinating how certain characters will assert themselves like that. I’ve always wondered about famous works of literature, whether it be Shakespeare or Dickens or Tolkien, if those books contain characters that surprised their authors. Characters that popped up unexpected and forced the story to go a certain way the author was not intending. Speaking of Shakespeare and Company, are there any books that have had a large influence on you?
The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, because of her teaching that we are not all called to do great things, but we are all called to do our little things in great ways. Maybe you’ll never be called to fight great battles, but if you’ve had a lousy day, you can complain and take it out on others, or you can smile at the store clerk, and genuinely wish her a happy day, and instead of spreading the misery, you’ve put something good back in. Maybe that store clerk really needed that smile, and will now go pass it on to someone else who needs it. That’s doing small things in a great way, and it really does add up.
The Bible, as it’s influenced so much of western culture and has great words of wisdom.
And although In the Keep of Time doesn’t quite fit with those two, it’s had quite an impact on my writing in that the story of walking out of a castle into a different time has never left me, and was a strong influence in my own writing.
Well, I’ve read the Bible, but not the other two, and that book, whether one agrees with it or not, is clearly the single book that has influenced the course of history beyond all other books. I suppose there’s a decent argument that the TV Guide has also greatly influenced history, but it’s a distant second. As we’re on the topic of words of wisdom, do you have any advice you’d care to share with other writers?
Be willing to work long hours, and work hard. Be willing to listen to critiques. Learn to sift through those critiques and take what works, and not take anything personally. Find a good critique group. If the first one or two or five don’t seem like a good fit, try another one. Be willing to help others along the way.
As to writing, sit down and do it. Then do it again. The re-read and be tough on yourself. Is it really the best you can do? If not, make it better. Can you really see the scene in your head? Can you hear, smell, and taste everything around you? Can you feel the emotions? If not, maybe your reader can’t, either.
Good advice. A lot of writers forget there are five senses. Well, I know you have to run soon, but, if you don’t mind, I have a handful of questions left. First, where do you find your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from everything around me, from comments people make, people I observe in passing, seeing someone scowl in the car next to me at a stoplight and imaginging the many things that might have put that frown there, asking ‘what if’ about people around me or in the news, from a song’s emotions or lyrics. Sometimes, images just flash into my head, such as the image of Shawn gambling away his trombone.
Is there anything specific you hope to achieve with your writing?
I hope to be able to support myself and my children with writing so I can do it full time. I hope to make people smile and give them things to think about. I hope to have enough hours in my life to finish writing all the books I have started (which are many). I hope to maybe put something in the world that changes people’s lives for the better.
If only we could all do that. What would you like to be known for when you leave this little planet?
For bringing some happiness into people’s lives, for making people’s lives a little better.
Best of luck with that and all your endeavors, Laura! Thank you for taking the time to visit.
You can visit Laura online at her website to learn more about her Blue Bells Trilogy. Her books can be purchased in many different versions: print on Amazon, ebook for Kindle, various formats on Smashwords, and Nook. You can also order signed copies of the Blue Bells Trilogy on her website.