helaine mario

Q & A

Note: all answers were written while Shadow Music was still a work in progress.

Q: Why do grief and mourning play an important part in your novels?
As usual, for me there is an easy answer and a far more complicated one.

Easy first. As a writer, more than anything, I want people to really care about my characters. I have learned that most readers want to like a character, invest in them, have empathy, feel for them.

For me, the most interesting characters are those who have layers, depth—some difficulty, struggle or loss to overcome. Readers will respond very strongly to a character who is conflicted, trying to deal with a loss, trying to overcome pain and sorrow, trying to find the courage to move on. The heart of the story then becomes how they move on. And hopefully the reader will want to take the journey with them—and take heart from them as well.

The more complicated answer is that, at my age, I am losing people I love. We have lost many dear friends, and I am very close to several women who have suddenly become widows. I see the grief and loss in their eyes, the confusion and distance... I've learned that every person must grieve in their own way, in their own time. Some will move on, and some will not. All will be different. And so, in creating the characters of Alexandra and Maggie,—and now Gigi, Johann and Finn in Dark Rhapsody—I really am trying to imagine the unimaginable—my own grief, and how I would react to loss. In a way these scenes are my own "year of magical thinking."

While there are many moments in life that we cannot change or control, I know that it's how we deal with what happens to us that matters. This is when we learn who we truly are. For me, I hope to meet grief with grace. This always will be a theme in my novels.

Helaine Mario

Q: Tell us a little about yourself, how and when you started writing...
I always loved reading but never imagined I would write a book, so I never took a writing class. But then, after college, I discovered that whatever work I was doing, I gravitated toward the "writing" part of it. So I began writing for the local newspaper. The articles were well-received, but I wanted something more. Until one day, when I found myself thinking of my 'first love' and wondering 'what if?'... I reached for a pencil and the words to the prologue just spilled out. I wrote the story I wanted to read, and The Lost Concerto was born. I feel as if I didn't find writing. Writing found me.

Helaine Mario

Q: Where do you get your story ideas?
This is the question I am asked most often. As with most things, there is a simple answer and a more complicated one. For me, the simple answer is books, newspapers, news programs, travel, Shakespeare, the performing arts—and sometimes just listening. The more complicated answer involves the meaning of the word 'inspiration.' The root is 'inspire.' To breathe in. I love this image. And so... I took a deep breath and wrote the book that I wanted to read.

That meant writing about something I love—classical music. In The Lost Concerto, and now in Dark Rhapsody, it is music that sets this story apart, music that tells Maggie's story.

My son, Sean, began asking for piano lessons when he was five. The months became years, and he graduated to a grand piano, competing frequently in classical competitions. As I listened to him practice, I fell in love with classical music. There was just one small problem... I can't even find middle C on a piano. So that meant research. Hours and hours of research. The good news is that one article on music led to missing music, and that article led to music lost during WW2, and—voila!—a plot was born.

Then the magic of the "What Ifs" kicked in. What if my main character is a classical pianist? What if she has lost her ability to play music? What if she is drawn to France to search for her missing godson? What if, what if...

Finally, as Robin Williams often said, sometimes inspiration is just "a little spark of madness."

Helaine Mario

Q: What inspired you to write Dark Rhapsody?
Dark Rhapsody is the sequel to The Lost Concerto. My main character, Maggie O'Shea, is a classical pianist, inspired by my love of classical music and my pianist son, Sean. The inspiration for Dark Rhapsody actually came from my character, Maggie. I had planned to write a different book but so many readers wanted to know what happened to her next—including me!—and I realized her story was just not done. What about her fear of water? Her mother's inexplicable death? Her father's disappearance? The colonel? Would she able to play music again? A trip to Vienna, the city of music, and my fascination with WWII sealed the deal. That, and a mysterious maestro who just kept whispering in my head...

Helaine Mario

Q: How did you use your life experience or professional background to enrich your stories?
For me, writing is not so much 'write what you know' as—'write what you are passionate about.' I always have loved the arts—dance, music, art, theater. The arts and performing arts are, and will continue to be, woven into my all stories. I also have been lucky to have opportunities to travel overseas, and, with time to wander, I discovered many atmospheric places that really spoke to me. I could see a whole scene unroll like a film in these places. A cemetery in Paris, for instance. The scenes for The Lost Concerto just wrote themselves. Local travel offers countless setting ideas as well. A ski resort I visited in VT inspired a critical scene in Firebird. And a tour of Carnegie Hall gave me a most meaningful setting for Dark Rhapsody.

My reading interests always have centered around novels of World War 2 and the Cold War, and international novels of mystery and suspense. So it was no surprise to me that my first novel, Firebird, told the story of a forgotten spy from the Cold War. The Lost Concerto deals with a decades old war-time mystery involving missing music. And now, Dark Rhapsody explores not only the search for art looted during WWII, but the challenge to return those priceless pieces of art that are recovered to the rightful owners and heirs.

Living in the DC area, our daily news is international news. Just reading page 1 of the Washington Post will give you several ideas for a novel. And I did work at the White House for eight years... Timely plots and characters just fall from the sky onto your page.

Helaine Mario

Q: Anything autobiographical in your novel?
Nope. I write about the women I want to be—courageous, talented, accomplished, strong, confident, passionate and caring. Women who run toward, not away.

Helaine Mario

Q: Are any characters based on people you know?
Just bits and pieces. A hairstyle here, a favorite saying there. A perfume, something that happens to a friend, a way of moving a hand... Someone I know rescued a three-legged dog, who became the inspiration for the Colonel's beloved Shiloh in The Lost Concerto and Dark Rhapsody.

I've also been inspired by characters in books and movies. A vet suffering from PTSD. Or a dancer on TV, for instance. Something just hits me, or moves me. Two of my favorite scenes in Dark Rhapsody were inspired by scenes in movies that touched my soul.

I read somewhere that, for a writer, there is no such thing as a walk in the park... it's a setting for a scene. No such thing as a simple conversation. It's heard as 'dialogue.' That sums it up.

Helaine Mario

Q: Who is your favorite or most sympathetic character? And why?
Okay, this is a very important question to me. I've found that I really do not enjoy reading a novel—no matter how well-written— if I do not care about the characters. I just recently read a beautifully plotted and written #1 best seller, but did not like either the male or female main characters. For me, I really think about EVERY character that I write. Why are they the way they are, what drives them, how do they think, how do they feel? Can we understand why they do what they do? What makes us care about them? Do I adore Maggie and the Colonel in The Lost Concerto, and care about what happens to them? Absolutely. Enough to bring them back in their sequel, Dark Rhapsody.

Classical pianist Maggie O'Shea is my favorite character because she has been fighting to overcome grief, bring back the music lost to her, and find herself. The challenge with a sequel is that you need to keep the familiar character readers have grown to love while at the same time find new layers for her. So—what challenges must Maggie face now? Is there a place for the Colonel in her future? Why would a father abandon his young daughter, as we learn in Dark Rhapsody? Well, there is always so much more to the story, isn't there...?

The Colonel and his rescue dog are my other favorite characters. And then there is Simon. And Hannah. And Finn. And Gigi. Not to mention the Archbiship! And of course Alexandra and Juliet, from Firebird. And... You get the idea. These characters are very real to me, and I miss them when the book is finished.

One last note. Do I have any sympathy for my violent character, Dane? I hope readers at least will understand his complexity.

Helaine Mario

Q: Who is your least sympathic character? And why?
To continue on from 'most sympathetic' to 'least'... a brief story. In an early draft of The Lost Concerto, Victor Orsini was a shadowy, barely mentioned figure written only to move plot. Until my husband looked at me and said, "Victor is totally one-dimensional, but he could be the most complex and interesting character of all." I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let Victor come alive for me. I wrote five new scenes, gave him family, a secret, a depth of anger and pain. He is still brutal, cruel and vengeful, but hopefully readers will see why. As for Dane, in Dark Rhapsody... do I like him? Absolutely not. I'm afraid of him. But I tried to show why he is the way he is.

Helaine Mario

Q: What part of writing your book did you find the most challenging?
Plot, plot, plot. I am all about my characters and their thoughts and relationships. (Sometimes, to my publisher's chagrin, my characters are more 'thoughtful' than 'thrilling.')

To me, crafting a realistic, complex plot that hangs together is like doing a 1,000 piece puzzle. Every piece has to fit exactly to make the big picture. And I am awful at jigsaw puzzles. Also, I will admit that the brutal characters are much harder for me to write. Any kind of violence is an awful struggle for me. Give me a conversation to write any day. (I also find male characters more difficult to write than women—although men seem to enjoy my books very much as well.)

Helaine Mario

Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?
I've been told by many readers that they laughed and swooned and worried and cried and feared and fell a little bit in love. That is a wonderful compliment, as, more than anything, I want my readers to think, and to FEEL. I want them to care about Maggie and her Colonel (I am half in love with him myself...). Readers often say, "I didn't want it to end." Those are the six best words I could hear. They want to know what happened next. They remember my characters, my stories continue to resonate, and I am grateful.

This answer, I think, explains why I decided to write Dark Rhapsody as a sequel. Readers, myself included, wanted to know what happens next in Maggie's world. Knowing people have 'fallen into' my stories and care about these characters means the world to me.

Helaine Mario

Q: What writers have inspired you?
Two women I never met inspired me to write fiction—Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart. Not teachers, but writers—queens of espionage novels and romantic suspense from 1941 through the 80's. They taught me about suspense, courage and love, and they inspired me with their heroic women characters. I never took a writing class, but from these writers I learned about building page-turning suspense, finding a voice, dialogue that sounds natural, crafting an intricate but believable plot, the importance of settings, and creating an involving romance.

Like those writers who went before me, my stories have international and evocative settings, political intrigue, timely plots and complex characters. The women in my novels, especially, are strong, intelligent, funny, loving, accomplished and brave. Women who somehow find the courage to do the right thing, no matter what. Who run toward, rather than away. The woman I would like to be.

I read every single one of these writers' books. And I miss them.

Helaine Mario

Q: What is the writing process like for you?
Unregimented, no schedule., unless I am under the gun. Some days I don't get near my desk. (With 5 grandchildren, and a retired husband who loves to travel, sometimes I just need to 'do life.') But when I work, I need at least two hour blocks of time. Then it is: Research. Write. Re-write. Re-write again. Toss it. Change it. Drink coffee. Add something. Or someone. Take a walk, or read, or listen to music for inspiration.

I don't sail but I think, for me, writing must be like sailing. On a day with no wind, I am still. But on a day when the sails fill, I just fly with it.

Frequently, when I can't sleep, a scene unrolls in my head, complete with dialogue. I try to write it down in the morning. And sometimes, it's actually good!

One last thing. I am a very slow writer. For me, inspiration comes in bits and pieces, over time. I can get the bones down. It's the polishing—the heart, the 'giving life'—that takes time. I've just started a new book—and I have no idea where it's going. But I love the not knowing.

Helaine Mario

Q: What is the best piece of advice about writing that you've ever received?
There are four pieces of advice that have really mattered to me the most.
  1. "Don't apologize." I am writing what I want to write, and I don't pretend to be someone I'm not.
  2. "Don't give up." At some time or another, every writer is hurt by painful rejections or bad reviews, myself included. The first draft of The Lost Concerto spent two years in a drawer. But this story deserved more than 'death in a drawer.' Because I believed in these characters, I finally just forced myself to OPEN THE DRAWER, learn, make the changes I needed to make, and look at the novel through new eyes. And now, the sequel Dark Rhapsody has been written and is being published. All because I opened that drawer...
  3. "Even when you think your manuscript is absolutely-positively-for-certain done, edit it again."
  4. This is the best, and my favorite, from Pat Gussin—written in a letter to me years ago when Oceanview rejected an early manuscript of my first novel, Firebird. She said, simply, "Deepen your characters." A light went on, and I found my true 'writing home.' (Oceanview has since offered Firebird as an e-book, and I am grateful)

Helaine Mario

Q: What is the worst piece of advice about writing that you've ever received?
From an agent, early on: "It's ready." When it wasn't.

From the same agent: "Take out all the political and international stuff. Women want to read about the ordinary woman in their home town." What I write isn't for everyone, clearly, but I'm so glad I didn't listen. International suspense is where I fit—with a dash of old fashioned romance. You really do need to be true to yourself.

PS—I no longer have that agent. ☺

Helaine Mario

Q: What's next for you? Any new books in the pipeline?
I've just begun work on another "combined-sequel." By that I mean that I am continuing the stories of several characters from all three of my novels, and adding a few new ones as well. Each of my books has left several questions unanswered, and this time around I want to explore stolen art—who can resist Vincent van Gogh?—with my art curator Alexandra Marik, from Firebird. Her story was not finished. I'm ready to leave WWII behind and move on to the Cold War, with a very timely plot in mind. And, as luck would have it, now a Russian symphony conductor keeps slipping into my head and asking for a role... so I guess I'm not done with classical music, either. My working title? Shadow Music.

Helaine Mario

Q: The Lost Concerto and Dark Rhapsody take their characters all over the world. Of the many places mentioned in your novels where would you like to go?
Boston is one of my favorite cities in the world. I went to Boston University and fell in love with this strong, beautiful city. I worked there, met my husband there, walked the cobbled streets when I was happy and when my heart was broken. We still return every October, just 'because.' It's no wonder that I would want to set Maggie's music shop in Boston.

As for my European settings... I always will go back to Paris in a heartbeat. My husband's international business gave me an opportunity to visit this glorious city many times over the years, and I wandered and got to know so many of the neighborhoods—the 'arrondisments.' The Marais, the Left Bank, Invalides, Montmartre, Ile de la Cite... I had the time to find the intimate and 'out of the way' places, and these, in turn, found their way into my novel. The Bird Market, the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, Notre Dame's tower walkway, the houseboats along the Seine, Musee d'Orsay. There are scenes set in all of these evocative places, and more.

Having said this... I would go back to the South of France in a heartbeat as well. The lavender, the abbeys, the ocher villages, the scent of olive trees, the outdoor markets and cafes, the distant glimpse of bright sea. There is no other place quite like it.

And then there is my first novel, Firebird... I am a New Yorker who loves art, and so my character Alexandra is an art curator on the Upper West side. And because I worked at the White House, in the office of the Vice President, during the 8 years of Clinton/Gore... well, of course Firebird is rife with Washington's political intrigue.

I recently returned from my first visit to Vienna, and was so taken by the Opera House and the Lipizzaner stallions that I have set several scenes in my third book there—the sequel to The Lost Concerto, Dark Rhapsody, which will be available July 3, 2018.

After a visit with my husband to the Isle of Skye, I would very much like to write a novel set in those mists...

Finally, if I could choose a new place to visit, a place I've never been, I would visit Great Britain's Cornwall, big sky Montana, and Washington's San Juan Islands. I am absolutely certain that beautiful, complex new characters would walk toward me from the ferry, or out of the deep green forests.

Helaine Mario

Q: Any words you would like to say about yourself, your novel, or life in general?
I will be 71 years old (and how did that happen???) when Dark Rhapsody is published in July 2018... one more of the true great surprises of an already unpredictable life. I never expected to publish one book, and now there are three! I keep asking myself if I am dreaming.

Most importantly—while there are too many moments in life that we cannot change or control, I know that it's how we deal with what happens to us that matters. That is when we learn who we truly are. This always will be a theme in my novels.