Brendan Slocumb on Mentorship, Antiquities Theft, and Being the Only Black Violin Player Around
The Author of The Violin Conspiracy Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Brendan Slocumb is clear about the lived experience behind The Violin Conspiracy, a propulsive first novel about the theft of a Stradivarius valued at $10 million on the eve of the international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The book is based in part on his own experiences as a concert violinist. “I know, being in the classical music world, that there are a lot of people just like me, with similar stories, and we’ve never had the opportunity to tell them before,” he explains. “Nobody really cared how hard it was to play the violin, or felt sorry for me if I couldn’t take private lessons. Which is fine: I don’t need people to feel sorry for me. But they didn’t seem to want to hear what I faced as a Black man. My perspective was vastly different from what they were used to, and by ‘different’ it seemed that it also meant that my perspective was wrong. When I told people about things that happened in my life, people would say, ‘No, you’re exaggerating. No, that doesn’t happen. Absolutely not.’ Finally, the tragic events of 2020 made it seem like this was a moment when I could tell my stories, and that people would actually listen to me, acknowledge my experiences, and not deny that my perspective was as valid as theirs.”
Our conversation took place as Slocumb was preparing to publish his first novel and had just completed his second, about a music historian and a computer linguist who discover America’s most celebrated composer was a fraud. “The last two years have been insane for everyone, of course, but the pandemic actually allowed me the time to write regularly,” he explained. “2,000 to 2,500 words a day was easy to schedule when you’re stuck in the house all day. Launching this novel has been challenging but fun: scheduling video calls, taking a ton of notes, and meeting people for interviews has been a new, welcoming experience—something to juggle while I’ve been doing my best to get back to a normal life of teaching and playing music live again. All while writing the next book, which my editor’s just given me feedback on, and which I’m very excited about! Then, hopefully, it’ll be on to Book Three.”
Jane Ciabattari: Your narrator, Ray’s grandmother Nora, is the crucial figure in his emotional life as he is growing up. She gives him the violin handed down from her father, a talented musician who had been enslaved by the Marks family. She gives Ray confidence and guidance on how to live as a Black man: “You work twice as hard. Even three times. For the rest of your life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.” How did her presence support Ray?
Brendan Slocumb: As a young Black man growing up in North Carolina and learning to play violin, I’d been put down and discouraged in every way imaginable from pretty much everyone. I was a skinny nerd; I was wasting my time. Quit playing that violin; go join the military. No other Black kid in my high school played violin, let alone classical music. But there was always at least one person, one encouraging voice, to keep me going. I was very lucky in that I always had a mentor, someone to look up to—or sometimes just someone who was happy that I was happy doing what I loved.
Sometimes it was a teacher; sometimes a friend. Here’s a confession: my own grandmother was named Nora, and the character in the book is based on her, down to the pink housecoat and the pink-and-green hair rollers. Her voice was so insanely sweet. Every gesture that came from her was one of genuine love and affection. I absolutely loved re-creating her on the page.
JC: Ray’s mentor, Dr. Janice Stevens, guides him through his path from gifted teenager to world-class concert violinist. How important are mentors like her?
BS: Without Janice, Ray would be in jail or dead. He would have dropped out of school and gotten a job at a local fast-food restaurant. He would have been miserable for the rest of his life. He probably would have lain awake at night, asking himself, “What if?” He never would have considered college. He might have taken to drinking or to drugs. Maybe he would have beaten his wife to get rid of some of his own frustrations. You may think I’m exaggerating here, but I hope the sense is clear: so very very often, especially for young Black men, we have it much tougher in life because of the way we are portrayed and how society views us. It’s not hyperbole for me to say that it’s next to impossible to walk a day in my shoes if you’re not Black.
Statistically speaking, I was an endangered species. I wasn’t supposed to make it to age 25. I have friends that didn’t make it. They didn’t have a Grandma Nora or a Janice. They didn’t have an expressive outlet like music. Music can save your life: it saved mine. Susan Ellington, Nancy Pearce, Robbie Dobson, and Dr. Rachel Vetter Huang are all my Dr. Janice Stevens.
JC: Can you describe your research in art theft—including your own experience?
BS: One weekend during my senior year of high school, my family and I returned from a trip and found our house ransacked. Someone had broken through a bedroom window. I went straight to my storage spot under my bed, and discovered my 1953 Eugene Lehman violin, which I kept hidden there, was gone. The police said that it was likely someone who knew that I had a violin—someone who knew what to grab. Several other pieces—TV sets, kitchen appliances, a radio, and some jewelry—were missing, as well, but all I cared about was my violin. It felt like a piece of my soul had been ripped away. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more empty feeling when I saw it wasn’t there… That instrument was supposed to take me through college. It was the first violin that I owned outright. I never truly got over losing that violin. Even today, 30-plus years later, I still hold onto a glimmer of hope that I will be reunited with it.
For the novel, I interviewed several art antiquities theft experts. Bobby Reed of Hiscox Insurance was very helpful in providing background information about how insurance companies deal with incredibly expensive instruments—both insuring them on a day-to-day basis as well as dealing with theft. He gave me contact information for several art theft experts and/or private detectives who were invaluable: Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International; Douglas Bort of Odyssey Global Consulting; Mark Kochanski; and Robert Wittman, author of Priceless, all very generously shared their time and knowledge, and also had suggestions for how to pull off a violin theft of this magnitude more effectively.
The more I researched, the more I discovered the issues involved in stealing a very expensive instrument. Thieves rarely collect the value of the instruments when they try to sell them, since the instruments are well-known in the high-end music world, and selling them to a willing buyer can be difficult. These kinds of instruments often wind up with a shady private collector, who will squirrel the violins away since they can’t be sold on the open market. Some thieves will use the instruments’ whereabouts as leverage in bargaining for their own benefit if the thief gets captured. One fact that really surprised me: thefts like Ray’s are more common than people realize. Eight out of ten times, the item disappears because the owner was negligent or not vigilant enough.
JC: You capture the tension of classical music competitions, from the local to the worldwide Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Ray’s reactions are shaped by the fact he is a Black man. How much comes from your own experience?
BS: I’ve experienced many incidents of discrimination, which I reworked into the novel. One example is the wedding scene, where the protagonist, Ray, isn’t allowed to play at the ceremony because of the color of his skin. A similar event actually happened to me. My beta readers kept asking me to cut this scene or trim it because they couldn’t believe it could happen—but it did. So, it was easy for me to use that event as a framing device to show such blatant racism.I don’t really envision anything changing in the short- or long-term but having the freedom to keep doing what I’m doing feels life-changing.
The trick, though, was to figure out how to use my experience to tell Ray’s story. So, in the wedding scene, if Ray hadn’t absolutely loved the actual process of performing, the kind of racism he experienced that day might have been enough to make him quit altogether. Or it could have changed him into something else—someone jaded, not open to new experiences; someone bitter and angry. But Ray got a taste of what music could do, and it really showed him how much it meant to him. So that scene also allowed me to deepen Ray’s love of music and performing as well as strengthen his character.
JC: How did you go about writing the eloquent descriptions of Ray’s feelings while he’s performing? Passages like this one: “For the concerto’s final movement, he started uncharacteristically slow—a warning shot, daring them, and then winding up the tension, driving forward into a speed that made it seem as if his bow hand were not even part of his body: a flickering mosquito or a hummingbird, barely visible. The melody vibrated off him—clear, uncolored, rich, itself.…The final note hung in the air, like a cloud.”
BS: These passages took a lot of work. I’d write a rough draft, from memory, thinking about the musical piece. Then I’d listen to a performance on YouTube, focusing on any image or metaphor or feeling that hit me. Then I’d go back and revise the first draft, over and over, honing and changing the metaphors and the language. I’d also ask non musicians if they had any clue what I was talking about. Revising the language to give a clear description of the music was paramount. Glad you noticed these sections—they didn’t come easily!
JC: You set up a series of suspects of the theft of Ray’s violin, including members of Ray’s family and the plantation owner’s descendants, who all lay claim to the Stradivarius. Did you know who did it when you began?
BS: One of the aspects of writing a novel that I like the most is the element of surprise and connection. When I began the book, I plotted out the entire narrative, breaking it into three acts. Act One (the introductory material) and Act Two (most of the action) I’d sorted out pretty well. Act Three was much sketchier, because I figured a lot would depend on what happened in Acts One and Two. So, I always had an idea of how and where the novel would be going. The thing that was so much fun, though, was working on a section and realizing that it connected, in a way that I hadn’t realized, with another section—that I’d inadvertently set up a scenario which could be expanded and related in a way I hadn’t anticipated. This often meant going back and revising the original scenario to make it fit the new angle, but the basic connection and outline were already in place. It was, truthfully, such a high to feel like I was tapping into my subconscious, assembling pieces that I hadn’t realized were even pieces.
JC: You have a two-book deal, and screen rights for The Violin Conspiracy have gone to Sony, with director George Tillman Jr. (The Hate U Give) attached. Will this change your life?
BS: This book has changed my life. Before the book sold, because of COVID, my private teaching practice had dwindled considerably. I had enough money to last for a few more months, but after that I honestly didn’t know what would come next. Writing and selling the book gave me the freedom to keep doing what I love—teaching music, playing music, writing, working out, living my life. So, I don’t really envision anything changing in the short- or long-term but having the freedom to keep doing what I’m doing feels life-changing. I’m extremely grateful.
Brendan Slocumb’s The Violin Conspiracy is out now via Penguin Random House.