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Interview: October 31, 2008

October 31, 2008

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, international bestselling author M. J. Rose recalls the specific event during a family vacation in Vienna that inspired the plot of her latest work of fiction, THE MEMORIST, and explains the role that music --- including the work of Beethoven, who is a central figure in the novel --- has played in her writing process.

She also shares some of the favorite books she has read recently, discusses details about where the Phoenix Foundation series is headed and reveals which of her 10 novels is her favorite. I think that THE MEMORIST, your latest novel, is your best work to date. While a sequel to THE REINCARNATIONIST, it reads quite well as an independent work, focusing on the more mystical aspects of Ludwig van Beethoven's career and dealing once again with how the events of the past can directly and indirectly affect the future in unexpected ways. How did Beethoven come to be the focal point of your book?

M. J. Rose: Once upon a time, my husband and I went to Vienna on a vacation and fell in love. Not with each other --- we'd already done that --- but with the city.

Growing up in Manhattan, you don't bump into history on every street corner; mostly, you're bumping into other people or great shopping or eating experiences. In New York, you have to go out of your way to find 18th-century history, but it's still alive on every block in Vienna. There's so much of it that you are literally breathing it in. Arts and sciences have flourished here for centuries, and whatever your passion, you can visit museums, monuments and memorials to art, music, architecture, literature, philosophy and psychology.

And visit them we did, including seeing the homes of many famous people who'd once lived there. And since my husband is a musician, the trip turned out to be what I now jokingly call our Beethoven pilgrimage.

There are several of the great composer's residences in the city proper and its environs, and we visited every one of them, as well as churches, cafés and music halls he frequented. We walked the streets he walked, following the routes he took. We even spent one day wandering the woods he wandered during the summers he spent in Baden, a spa town an hour out of the city.

But, it was in the Heligenstadt house that the idea for THE MEMORIST was born.

The house at Probusgasse 6 is in a neighborhood called Heligenstadt at the bottom of the Kahlemberg, which in Beethoven's time was outside the city and filled with vineyards that are still growing there. And it was here, at the end of the summer of 1802, that the 31-year-old Beethoven wrote the heart-wrenching Testament to his two brothers, documenting his anguish at the onset of his terrible deafness.

The upstairs of this small apartment is open to the public, and we walked through the ordinary rooms where he lived. Wandering over to the window, I looked down at a simple courtyard where there was a single tree growing.

I stared at the gnarled, twisted trunk and the rich, healthy, verdant green leaves and realized that Beethoven must have once stood there and looked down at that same tree. Suddenly, the composer's ghost was standing there with me, looking out the window.

Later, I told my husband what I had been thinking, and he said, “You're going to write about that, aren't you?” Until that moment I hadn't even considered it, but after he said that, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

At home, I read several biographies about Beethoven, and in one I discovered the great composer had been fascinated with Eastern philosophy, which includes a strong belief in reincarnation. His own notebooks contain quotes with a number of passages from Bhagavad-Gita, as well as a quote from William Jones that was included in his Hymn to Narayena: We know this only, that we nothing know.

With that piece of information, the idea at the heart of my 10th novel revealed itself.

THE MEMORIST is not about Ludwig van Beethoven, though he does play a small part in it. Rather, it's a suspense novel about a woman on a search for her own ghosts. Still, it was Beethoven's spirit that inspired the book, and his everlasting gifts to us are at the heart of the mystery I attempted to unravel.

BRC: Music is the underlying force of THE MEMORIST. The story centers on a mysterious lost flute, once in the possession of Beethoven, which may well be one of the memory tools sought by the Phoenix Foundation. The flute is thought to bear an inscription that is actually a melody and may have the power to unlock past lives. Music is also a metaphor for the past and present, something that we share in a most intimate way with those who come before and after us. How does music figure into your work on a day-to-day basis? Do you generally listen to music while you write? Were there any particular recordings to which you listened while you were writing THE MEMORIST?

MJR: Yes, I do --- a different kind of music, it seems, for each book. I guess my answer is going to be a little bit expected here: I listened to all nine of Beethoven's symphonies while writing this. Over and over. And Doug Scofield's Mortal's Point of View (

BRC: Meer Logan, the woman haunted by shadow memories of a past life in THE MEMORIST, is perhaps the most intriguing character in the book. Her history as a patient of the Phoenix Foundation and the central role she plays in the hunt for the lost flute combine to make her one of your most interesting characters. The conclusion seems to almost beg for her return in a future novel. Will we be seeing more of her? If so, will she be working with the Phoenix Foundation or on her own?

MJR: Not in the foreseeable future. The way the series works is that each book is, at its heart, about a different memory tool and the people involved in the search for it --- or who have found it. Malachai Samuels and the Phoenix Foundation do play a role in the next book and will be in each one following to greater and lesser degrees.

BRC: In addition to the Phoenix Foundation series, are you working on any other novels at present?

MJR: I have an idea for another book, but it's just a dream now. I am in the middle of the third book in the series as I write this, and my head is full of that story.

BRC: You have been extremely generous in giving your time and talent to aspiring writers, especially considering that time spent helping others is time that you take away from your own work. How do you balance and schedule your time so that your own work is not neglected?

MJR: I don't do well. Everything seems to get neglected on any given day. But I try to write every day --- six days a week --- every afternoon from noon to six with a one-hour break around three. I manage about 75% of the time to pull that off and find I am working way too many nights. For instance, I am writing these answers at 8:30.

And thanks for your kind words.

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

MJR: Too many to list them all, but here are a few:

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Ken Follet, MOSCOW RULES by Daniel Silva, THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE by Douglas Preston, A DARKER PLACE by Laurie R. King, and A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L'Engle, which I had never read growing up.

BRC: You have written a number of books in a variety of genres, fiction as well as nonfiction. What is your personal favorite of the books you have written?

MJR: My mother used to say --- I love all my children. There are different reasons I like different ones…but if I have to answer this, I'd say the one I'm currently writing is always the one I love the best because it has the most potential.