Clef Notes

A Conversation with Author Brendan Slocumb


Author Brendan Slocumb PC: David Bickley

We had the privilege of meeting with Brendan Slocumb, author of The Violin Conspiracy (2022) and Symphony of Secrets (2023), in advance of his speaking engagements at the Champaign Public Library on October 12. Hailed by the New York Times as “A maestro of musical mystery,” Slocumb has brought classical music to the masses through his thrilling novels centering on diverse voices.

Slocumb grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He earned a degree in music education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with concentrations in violin and viola. For over twenty years, he has been a public and private school music educator, teaching violin, guitar, and piano. As a violinist, he has performed with orchestras and chamber groups throughout the mid-Atlantic.

He credits music with saving his life; he even has a podcast on the subject (How Music Saved My Life). When he was nine, he was given a violin as part of a public school music program. While his friends were on the streets, he was in rehearsals and the practice room. The violin opened a world of opportunities for him—as it does for the characters in his novels.

For Slocumb, writing had long been a passion before he became a published author. “I’ve always enjoyed writing just for fun,” he explained, “but Covid really forced me to make the transition as a working musician. Everything stopped for me, and I needed a creative outlet. I wasn’t practicing for anything anymore on the violin, so I turned to writing. I wrote the first chapter of The Violin Conspiracy, and the rest is history.”

The Violin Conspiracy centers on Ray MacMillan, a Black kid from rural North Carolina who falls in love with the violin when he receives a loaner instrument from his school orchestra. Defying all odds, he overcomes racial prejudice and the disapproval of his family to become a violin virtuoso. But his life is turned upside down, first when he discovers that the dusty violin in his grandmother’s attic is a Stradivarius worth $10 million—a discovery that catapults him to stardom—and again when that violin goes missing on the cusp of him performing in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Olympics of classical music.

The pandemic allowed Slocumb to finally get the story on paper that had been brewing in his head since he was a kid. “The day I picked up my first violin was when the premise for the story started,” he recalled. Had the pandemic not happened, he said he would have gotten around to writing the novel eventually, but the lockdown gave him the impetus and time to fulfill his dream.

Though he never took any formal creative writing classes, Slocumb credits his high school English teacher, college literature courses, and experience proofreading his friends’ papers with turning him into the writer he is today. Plus, “I’m a very good student,” he said. “When I let people read my stuff, I take all the feedback…I would take all the advice that my friends and other writers would give me.”

When asked whether his ability to take on criticism constructively is a testament to his musical training, he said, “One hundred percent. I know a lot of people who, if you give them a critique, they melt down. Me, I expect it. I’m like, ‘Okay, what do I need to do?’ I welcome that. ‘What can I do to make this better?’ I’m also a consumer and not just a writer, and I want to be entertained as well. If I’m not being entertained, how can I expect my audience to be entertained? So, I definitely take the critiques and criticism to heart.”

The countless hours spent in the practice room also gave him the discipline needed for writing. “I usually write at the same time every day, and I always have a set goal,” he explained. “Even if I’m not really feeling productive, I do something. And that’s all attributed to my training as a musician. You know, you just you do it. And even if you don’t feel like you’re doing anything that’s going to be productive, it actually is. And it gets better and better each time.”

In addition to forming the basis of his plots, music also informs how he conceptualizes his novels. “I approach everything like a musician,” he said, “even in the structure of a story that I’m writing, there’s an overture, a middle section, a climax, and a finale. And that’s how I like to approach things.”

Slocumb draws on personal experience for his novels. The beginning of Ray’s journey in The Violin Conspiracy obviously mirrors Slocomb’s introduction to music, and, as he writes in the postscript, many of Ray’s racist encounters are based on his own experiences. But while Ray is more modeled on Slocumb himself, the protagonist of Symphony of Secrets, Bern Hendricks, was inspired by Slocumb’s late brother, Kevin.

“I based the character on his personality and his knowledge,” Slocumb explained. Though not a musicologist like Bern, “he was one of the best musicians and most talented people I had ever encountered. He could do anything and do it well, and his life was just cut short way too soon. So I just wanted to pay tribute to him for those who did not have an opportunity to meet him and experience his talent.”

In Symphony of Secrets, Bern Hendricks is hired to transcribe a long-lost manuscript of an early-twentieth-century American composer named Frederick Delaney, considered one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. However, Bern’s world is shattered when he discovers that Delaney might not be the man behind the masterpieces. Instead, a figure emerges from the shadows—a neurodivergent woman of color named Josephine Reed.

Bern and his tech-savvy friend Eboni work tirelessly to piece together the puzzle, all while hiding their discoveries from the board of the Delaney Foundation, who will stop at nothing to prevent the truth from coming out. Part spy thriller, part historical fiction, the fast-paced novel hops back and forth in time between the modern-day protagonists and 1920s New York City. As a consequence, the reader ultimately knows more than the musicological sleuths, leading us to wonder what incredible stories remain untold in reality.

Though fictitious, the novel is based on the real problem of musical appropriation, particularly the appropriation of music by Black musicians. While the most famous instance of this might be Elvis Presley, who copied the dance moves and musical styles of Black artists to fanatical acclaim, this issue dates back much further. As Slocumb writes in the author note to Symphony of Secrets, “I thought it would be fascinating to explore the time period of the early 1900s—when the people who were writing chart-topping songs would literally starve because the industry stole their music and their voice. For me, Josephine Reed represents precisely that.”

Readers might notice parallels between the fictional composer Frederick Delaney and George Gershwin in that they both got their starts as song pluggers on Tin Pan Alley. Slocumb conceded that Delaney is based “very, very loosely on Gershwin.” But in addition to their similar starts as music pluggers, “There’s some controversy with some of Gershwin’s tunes,” Slocumb said. (Some scholars have asserted that Gershwin lifted material from William Grant Still, namely the theme of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Regardless of whether this is true, he certainly absorbed the music of Black artists, which changed his compositional style forever.) Like many of his contemporaries, Slocumb continued, “[Gershwin] would go to Harlem and listen to the Black musicians in the clubs, and then he wrote Porgy and Bess after that. So it was loosely based on George Gershwin. But I like to think that it’s a unique story in its own.”

Symphony of Secrets presents a vivid portrayal of both modern-day and Jazz-Age New York City. Explaining his choice of setting, Slocumb said, “New York is one of those places that everyone can identify with—either everyone has been there, or they aspire to go there. I wanted something that was uniquely American and jazz, and New York in the ’20s was just hot—it was jumping for jazz. I really wanted to just make the whole setting work together, with the pizza, and the jazz music, and Josephine coming as part of the Great Migration from the South. New York was the perfect place to have that happen.”

With the success of The Violin Conspiracy and Symphony of Secrets, Slocumb is in high demand as a speaker and performer. Plus, he has more books on the horizon. “My goal is to be the Stephen King of musical thrillers,” he said. He’s working on his third book, due in 2025, and has approval for a fourth. He’s even got ideas for two more. “As soon as I get a moment to catch my breath, I’m going to write them all.”

Unfortunately, his busy travel and writing schedule leaves little time for teaching these days, so he has had to put his private studio on hold. Though he hopes to get back into the classroom eventually, he said his frequent absence is not fair to his students. “Consistency is really important at this stage of their development.”

One such speaking engagement will be a set of talks at the Champaign Public Library on October 12: A Musical Afternoon with Brendan Slocumb at 2 p.m. and An Evening with Brendan Slocumb at 7 p.m. Be sure to pick up a copy of Symphony of Secrets before the events. You can also participate in a book club discussion on October 5.

So, what can attendees expect? “I think it’s going to be a good time,” Slocumb said. “I’m so interested in the readers of my work. I’m so interested in what they think, what they like, and their takeaways from the stories.”

One of the questions he likes to ask his readers is whether they are a musician. He’s discovered a healthy mix: some are professional musicians, some used to play when they were younger, and others have never touched an instrument before but just love music. “It really is varied,” he said, “and it is fascinating to me because, being a musician, everyone would expect me to write something specifically for musicians...In the beginning, everything I wrote was super technical. It made perfect sense to me, but it was just like German and French combined to someone else. And so I really want to be as inclusive as possible because I think music is a universal thing that anyone and everyone can enjoy. You don’t necessarily have to be a musician to enjoy the benefits of music.”

In addition to getting to know his readers, Slocumb hopes readers can get to know him a little bit too. “We’re just going to have a good time. Everyone will laugh at least once, I guarantee it.”


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.