Back in the spring of 2006, in my earlier days of novel-writing, my sister was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma—a rare, benign brain tumor on the eighth cranial nerve. While the ensuing craniotomy and tumor removal were deemed a success, her facial nerve had to be clipped in the process, resulting in facial paralysis on one side, along with the more typical post-craniotomy brain fog, dizziness, single-sided deafness and ear-ringing that had worsened. Bad luck on my end, too: my completed novel went over like a lead balloon with my agent. She suggested that I try my hand at something incorporating ballet, which I’d touched on in my first, unpublished novel. So as my sister struggled with the aftereffects of her acoustic neuroma, immersing herself in therapies and surgeries and strategies, I set to work on a new novel. But it would only be in February of 2011, after the first ballet novel didn’t sell, and my fourth novel didn’t sell, and my agent and I were once again musing about ballet in fiction for adults, its absence in the current marketplace, that it all came together in my mind. I said to her, “what do you think about a ballet novel featuring two sisters, dancers in the same elite company, and one of them gets felled by an acoustic neuroma diagnosis and a host of post-op problems?” She loved the idea. And so I got to tell a new ballet story while concurrently telling my sister’s story (although she’s a nurse and not a ballet dancer). Which meant a lot to me; my sister has continued to struggle terribly since her acoustic neuroma removal, and there’s so little I can do to help her. Telling the world her story, the struggles she and her fellow acoustic neuroma patients suffer, made me feel like I was helping in my own small way.
Do you have a favourite character, or in what ways do any of the characters represent you?
I love all my characters and I think in one way or another, all represent some side of me. That’s the fun thing about being a writer; you can “find yourself,” or work on thorny personal issues while projecting much of the burden of it onto someone or something else. Of the characters in this book, however, I felt particularly attached to Dena. She’s the younger sister (I’m the seventh of eight kids), fiercer and more difficult, although her talent is more extraordinary. She’s utterly screwed when this acoustic neuroma appears, sidelining her indefinitely when all she wants to do is pour her frustration, her heart, into her dance. But I dearly love Rebecca, the older, healthier sister, too. While she didn’t suffer a dramatic injury that risked ending her career, the more pedestrian ailment of aging, being overlooked in the corps de ballet, year after year, threw the same difficult question at her. What do you do when you’ve devoted your entire life to one career, and that career’s at risk of ending, very soon? How do you gracefully fight a losing battle with time?
What surprises did you come across when writing the book?
This book had three very different revisions over a period of years, and while it was hard and discouraging to recover each bump along the way, I’m so surprised and pleased by how the final revision turned out. There’s humor in the story that wasn’t in the first two incarnations. The sisters’ relationship feels more real and organic now, sometimes adversarial, other times loyal and loving. As my sister and I muddled our way through our own difficult issues, the story seemed to take on more depth, always in pleasantly surprising ways. And there were a half-dozen “wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” moments that it’s probably a bad idea for me to share, because they’re story spoilers. But, I have to say, these are the most wonderful gifts for a writer, these little “aha!” or puzzle pieces floating down from the heavens that fit the story so perfectly, you can only shake your head in wonder. It’s also interesting to note that most of the surprises came while I was working on the final draft of this story. My little reward for toughing it out, never rushing things, and letting the story tell ME what it wanted to be about.
Is there metaphor or simile that you feel best represents the book?
In my mind, this story, this whole fictional world I created, is like a ballet performance, requiring so much behind the scenes work and attention to detail. As I was writing the story, creating it, shifting around sections, testing out new combinations, I felt so much like Anders, the story’s artistic director. He’s there, sort of playing God over all the dancers, choreographers, programs and casting. If he doesn’t like the way a dancer looks in a role, out they go. Someone can be plucked from obscurity and put under the limelight, forever changing that person’s life. I could do the same as the writer. My characters feel so utterly real to me, at times it felt like a heavy burden, to have so much of their destiny in my hands. It made me understand Anders, really relate to him and his mission, to create a ballet, a program, a performing season, balancing everything out just so. This book, too, was a balancing act. The reader will never see the weeks and months (even – gulp! - years) of work that went into it, of getting it wrong and re-working, and running a dress rehearsal with beta readers, choosing costuming/cover design, and ramping up for opening night. As a former ballet dancer who lacks dance administration capabilities, it’s been a joy to find its equivalent in the literary world.
What, if anything, would you change about the book?
I spent twelve months revising what I thought was a finished product. I understood that if even the smallest doubt lingered in my mind that something could be made better, stronger, it was best to take the time and not rush. Which goes against any writer’s “inner marketer,” who’s saying, “get it out now! Keep readers from the last book engaged and interested. Hurry!” During that self-enforced extra time, I “tried on” different ideas and approaches toward problematic scenes, usually two or three varieties, and at the end of the day or week(s) of wrestling with the scene and the characters’ words, I’d choose one. I let everything sort of marinate; sometimes, a month later, I’d go back to an original version. Once I was completely done revising, I combed through the entire story carefully, making sure every last bit flowed and worked with the mental image I had in mind for the story. I took a few weeks’ break, came back to it, and combed through it again. Only then did I pronounce the book finished. So. I think it’s safe to say, now, that there’s nothing left at this point I’d change about the book!
Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, OFF BALANCE, will be free via all online retailers from now until Nov 7th!
About the Author
Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press). She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ClassicalGrrl (@classicalgrrl)