Zibby is joined by debut novelist Brendan Slocumb to talk about one of her favorite new releases and this month’s GMA Book Club Pick, The Violin Conspiracy. Brendan shares which parts of the book were inspired by his own life story, how this book grew from a failed attempt at a science fiction manuscript in 2007, and what he loves most about teaching music. Brendan also shares how he wrote this novel in two and a half months during the pandemic and why it is so important to bring more people of color into the world of music, especially at the highest echelons. Join Zibby and Brendan for an event with Politics & Prose on 2/9 by registering here!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brendan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Violin Conspiracy, which is my new favorite book. It’s so good. Oh, my gosh, bravo.

Brendan Slocumb: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Thank you.

Zibby: I know I’ve already raved about this on Instagram, but it’s just so good. It’s so good. I love Ray. I love the whole story. I feel like I’ve learned so much about music and the whole music/symphony world. I want to go to a symphony now. I never saw any of this coming. The whole thing, brilliant, just brilliant. Loved it.

Brendan: That is overwhelming praise. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Back up. Why don’t you tell listeners what The Violin Conspiracy and what inspired you to write it?

Brendan: Okay, I got this. Violin Conspiracy is the story of Ray, who is a young poor kid growing up in rural North Carolina who discovers that his old family fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius violin. The discovery catapults him into superstardom in the world of classical music. Right before the world’s most prestigious classical music competition, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, his violin is stolen. He will do any and everything he can to get it back. Who took it? Will he get it back? Will he win the competition? Will he perform in the competition? You got to read it to find out.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so exciting. This comes from your own experience, in part. Talk about your own relationship to the music world and all of that.

Brendan: I am a classical violinist by trade. I started when I was nine years old through a public-school music program. Music is obviously very important to me. I say this and I don’t mean it as a cliché, but music really did save my life. The neighborhoods that I grew up in and the kids that I would play with, now a lot of them are in prison or have been to prison or are, unfortunately, deceased because of not doing good stuff. The world of music actually took me from a lot of that because I would’ve probably been right there with them had it not been for orchestra rehearsals or violin, having to practice or having to go to a concert or even a trip that we were taking because of music. It took me around the world. The first time I ever went to New York was with an orchestra. I never would’ve had that opportunity. I spent several summers in Asia — never thought I would go — because of my music. It’s just been a lifesaver. Growing up in that environment and having someone who believed that I had something that was worth cultivating, it literally changed my life. I’ve had a slew of teachers who just encouraged me and pushed me and would not let me quit. This is the result. I’m here. I’m still here.

Zibby: Who was your Miss Janice?

Brendan: My Janice Stevens is Dr. Rachel Vetter Huang. She’s a teacher at Scripps College in California right now. She is the woman who not only taught me how to play the violin, but she taught me how to teach. I will be forever indebted to her for that. Every opportunity I get to talk about her to my students, I do. I feel like they know her just as well as I do because I’ve talked about her so much. Everything I do, I try to make it a reflection on her because I’m so grateful to her for what she did for me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is so amazing. I thought one of the most poignant moments in the book was when Ray was a master class teacher. Another young black boy who had to rent the violin just as he had came in. The other people were so rude and awful. He was like, “Keep it up. Here’s what you have to do.” You can see right there, your own love of teaching. Then I just wanted Ray to keep teaching more people. Who could Ray teach? What would happen then?

Brendan: That was a real experience I had. A kid came in. The other judges had kind of written him off. I was like, “Let’s give him a chance.” I’m going to digress just for a moment. Giving people a chance without any preconceived notions, that, to me, is so important. That’s something that I think we’re really, really lacking nowadays. I always try my best. I do the best I can not to judge anyone based on appearance. I will judge you based on how we interact. You come in with a jacked-up, beat-up violin, that doesn’t mean anything. It just means that you have a beat-up violin. It doesn’t tell me how passionate you are about what it is you do or how much you really want to pursue this. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. This kid came in with a tape recorder. He really did. He came in and played “My Heart Will Go On.” I just sat back. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. His mom was there. She was almost in tears because he played so beautifully. I was like, “Dude, don’t ever stop. You are better than me when I was your age. Do not stop. It is fantastic. I can tell you love it. Just keep it up.”

Zibby: What happened to that kid? Do you know?

Brendan: I have not been able to catch up with him, but I’m hoping that those words of encouragement stuck with him. I hope so. I hope it did.

Zibby: Maybe he’ll be the next Ray or you or whatever.

Brendan: Maybe. I won’t . The next me, that’s not so .

Zibby: Did you have these experiences with the police yourself, or was this more a cultural…?

Brendan: You buckled up? You ready? Here it goes.

Zibby: I’m ready.

Brendan: The Baton Rouge thing is a little bit modified. I never went to jail, but I did get stopped by the cops in Baton Rouge. I was terrified. I was with a friend. We were driving cross-country in 2000. We were in Baton Rouge just taking that Southern route right before New Orleans. It was a Sunday. There’s nobody out. This was pre-GPS. I was like, “Okay, I think the hotel is that way.” I’m in the right lane. I needed to turn left. He’s like, “Yeah, I think it’s that way.” Put on my signal. There’s no one else on the road. I turn. Woo, lights and sirens. I’m like, what is going on? I was like, “I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.” My friend was like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “Here it goes.” I pull over into a close convenience store, one that had light. The officer is on his bullhorn shouting instructions to the driver. I am terrified. I have to get out with my hands up, reach into my back pocket very slowly, put my wallet on the ground, get on my knees face down. He had his gun drawn. It was terrifying. I said, I will never return to the city of Baton Rouge as long as I live, ever, because of that experience. It was terrifying. All I’d done was make a left turn from the wrong lane. That’s all I did. I’m sure he thought he was doing his job.

Zibby: I love that this book now has become the press conference that Ray gave. This is your way of being like, I’m not going to Baton Rouge again. Thank you very much.

Brendan: That’s it. That’s exactly it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That scene and then the subsequent scene too — was it in Boston? Wasn’t it in Boston?

Brendan: Boston, yeah. That’s actually one of my favorite chapters of the book.

Zibby: It’s a great chapter. That was quite a scene. The way you painted the Marks, oh, my gosh, and even how she changed her accent around the police. Ray almost loses it. Then he’s in trouble. Oh, my gosh, wow. Crazy. When did you learn to write like this? Was this just a gift? You just were born, you loved to write, or you didn’t love — when did this whole piece — obviously, you’re gifted in violin and teaching and all that. This is really amazing, so you must have had some practice. I hope you’ve had practice. Otherwise, you’re putting so many writers to shame if you just cranked this out as your first attempt. Tell me about the writing.

Brendan: I have actually had a lot of practice. I remember in high school, my English teacher, Evelyn Far, God rest her soul, I was fortunate enough to have her for eleventh-grade English and twelfth-grade English. The writing assignments that we do, you’d write, and I would never get my papers back. I never understood why. Then one day, I looked up on the bulletin board. They were all up on the bulletin board. I’m like, okay, she thinks that this is good. I never paid too much attention to it. I’m in a band. We needed songs to do. We had done every cover imaginable. We needed original songs. The other guys were like, I’m not doing this. Okay, well, I’ll try writing a couple of songs. First few were terrible, of course. They all rhymed. Everything was awful. We thought we were just — hey, we’re it. We got this. Got some good songs. Whatever. My writing evolved a little bit from the songwriting. That’s been maybe twenty years now.

I took a stab at writing a manuscript for a science fiction novel. I love science fiction. I love mystery. I love science fiction. I wrote this probably in 2007. I look back at it now, and it is embarrassing. It is horrible. The story is great, but it’s all over the place. I got some really good advice. Some good advice I got was to write what you know and write from the heart honestly. I was like, okay, I can do that. Being a teacher, I was able to manipulate words to make anyone understand. Specifically, I’m a music person. All these musical terms, they make perfect sense to me. I asked people as I was writing, does this make sense to you? I am completely clueless. I don’t know what this is. I would go back and modify. How about this? Oh, that makes sense. I tried to tailor my writing to an audience that didn’t know anything about what it is that I was talking about. I’m the expert. These people who are reading are the novices. I want to bring them up to the level of expert with the writing that I did. I tried to manipulate it to where everyone could understand everything that was going on. It was all from the heart.

Zibby: Then how long were you working on this particular one? You weren’t working on this since the science fiction novel, right?

Brendan: Oh, my gosh, no. I almost quit after that science fiction. It was terrible. Every time I think about it, I just want to cringe.

Zibby: Most people’s first novels are supposed to be terrible. I feel like people think, because you spend so long writing a novel and you did it, that it’s going to be good. Chances are it’s not going to be good. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Brendan: I’m glad I am adhering to that principle because it was terrible. I might go back and rewrite that one at some point because it really is a good story. It’s funny, the summer of 2020, everybody was stuck at home. We were all just twiddling our thumbs and wondering what we could do. I started writing. I saw an advertisement for selling books in the age of COVID. I’m like, maybe I should give this — I’m not doing anything. I’m sitting here gaining fifteen, twenty pounds. I’ll go exercise, and then I’ll come back and write. I submitted. My agent was like, “This isn’t great, but you have a good voice. You should try writing something that you know.” I was like, okay, music. I know about music. I remember telling a friend, and he reminded me of this, a college friend, my life up to that point, I thought it was interesting. He said, “You know Brendan, you should write a book.” I said, “You know what? I’m going to. I’m going to write a book.” I thought about that. I was like, maybe my story would be interesting. I could zhuzh it up a little bit. We’ll see. Violin Conspiracy was written in two and a half months.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Brendan: It’s all I had to do during the summer, was write, so I wrote every day.

Zibby: Wow. I’m so impressed. Now I’m even more impressed.

Brendan: Sorry.

Zibby: Did you know all the twists and turns before you started?

Brendan: Not at all.

Zibby: No?

Brendan: Oh, not at all. Not at all. I was writing it like half of it was the story of my life. The other half was, I’m going to write this like a movie. What would I like to see? I would love to see this. I would love to see this. Ooh, I need a twist. Oh, this is going to be — no, I can’t do that. Oh, yeah, I’ll do that. We’ll see what happens. It was a lot of fun to do. It was a lot of fun. It really was.

Zibby: Wow. You sold it as a two-book deal, so what’s the next one?

Brendan: The next book is called The Composer’s Last Score. It’s music-related, but it’s not what you think. I can just give a little bit of detail because it’s being reviewed right now. It’s about a woman living with autism back in the early 1920s. No one really knew what autism was and didn’t really know if she had autism. She is a music genius. She can do things. Someone maybe takes advantage of her skills. Maybe some music was written and we don’t really know who did it. Was it her, or was it the person who is taking a liking to her? We don’t know. That was in the past. Then what happens in the present when the descendants of this musician, who is just an amazing person — everyone across the world knows his name — they find out, maybe he didn’t write everything? That could put their corporation in jeopardy. Have to see what happens.

Zibby: I will read anything you write from now on, pretty much.

Brendan: I love it. Thank you.

Zibby: Wait, going back to this book for two seconds, and not to keep delving into your life —

Brendan: Oh, please, go ahead.

Zibby: The relationship between Ray and his grandmother is so special and wonderful. I fell in love with her too. Her encouragement for Ray to just keep being that sweet boy and to work twice as hard, all of that was so poignant and moving. Was that based on your relationship, or is that fictious?

Brendan: It is a true relationship. My Grandma Nora was the absolute sweetest person on the face of the earth. I think there is a line in the book — you have to forgive me. I read this book probably two dozen times, but it’s been a while since I’ve read it. I think there’s a line I wrote that her voice was so sweet, you could get diabetes just listening to her.

Zibby: Yes, I read that.

Brendan: It is the honest truth. As I was writing her, I could hear her speaking to me. I could hear me asking her questions and her saying this to me. She was the sweetest woman alive. I remember specifically one time I was really mad about something. She sat me down. Didn’t yell. Didn’t scream. She just so sweetly said to me, “I need for you to know that what you’re doing, you’re doing the right thing and you’re doing it the right way. Just know that. I need for you to know that.” I just, whoa, all right, Grandma. Okay, sure. All right, I’m better now. Thank you. That was my grandma.

Zibby: Wow. If this is really her on the page, you’re so lucky. She seems like just such an amazing woman and support. What a person. The question I had when I was reading this is, she seemed so amazing, how could the mom character then have turned out the way she did?

Brendan: First, let me be very, very clear. This is not my actual mom.

Zibby: This is not your mom. I know. I know. I said the mom character. I didn’t say your mom.

Brendan: There are elements of truth that go back to — I think it’s with anybody’s parents. They don’t quite understand what it is you’re doing. My mom, no, she was nowhere near like this mom character. Everyone has their own things going on and their own quirks and their own personalities. Grandma Nora had several children. Some of them turned out to be this way. Some of them turn out to be this way. Mom character just happened to be that way. She just didn’t get it. She just didn’t get Ray. That’s okay. That’s totally okay.

Zibby: I wouldn’t say the stuff that went on with the family was totally okay. I thought it was pretty terrible, and and the girlfriend and all of them. At least, there was one aunt ally. Aside from that, I just could not believe Ray, such a great boy, was continually, not abandoned, but betrayed, really, by all the people who were supposed to support him. Yet he kept picking himself back up and going back and doing his thing.

Brendan: That was the whole point. It’s just perseverance, perseverance. You do it because you love it. There are going to be obstacles. You’ve got to learn how to face them because they’re going to confront you. You’ve got to learn how to deal with it. I really wanted to push that point home for everyone. You are going to face obstacles. It is going to seem like it’s impossible, but you’ve got to keep going. Your perseverance is going to get you through. I think it showed in the story.

Zibby: I loved, also, the inside glance into what it’s like to be a traveling musician at this level. There was one line when you wrote about the indignities, almost, of traveling and how you were supposed to stay fit when you’re traveling all the time and eating all this terrible food. It’s not such a luxury to be packing up and on the road again. I just wasn’t as familiar with this world and what the demands would be like, so I found that very interesting.

Brendan: It’s pretty demanding. You really have to love it to put yourself through everything that you do. You get on stage, and you do what you’ve been working so hard to do. The people react to it the way that you want them to, and it’s all worthwhile.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice would you have for somebody who wanted to write a book, aside from just perseverance, obviously, and not worrying about the first draft, maybe, sticking to it, all that good stuff? What else would you say if you were teaching writing instead of violin?

Brendan: Definitely, don’t worry about that first draft. Just go ahead and write it. Get it out of the way. Just be done with it. Definitely, write what you know from the heart. If it’s not honest, if you don’t believe it, then no one else will. How can you expect anyone else to? You have to write what you know, what you believe, what you love. What you know, what you believe, what you love. You do that, you can’t go wrong.

Zibby: I love it. So no outline, no nothing, two and a half months.

Brendan: You can do the outline. I’ll tell you, my outline changed probably two dozen times. It changed. I was just like, well, if I’m really being true and honest to myself, I’ve got to do it this way. There were times where I would have fights with my agent. No, you can’t write that. No, no, things like that don’t happen. I’m like, dude, they really do. This happened. It was a fight. You have to stick to what it is that you believe in. I did. The first couple of times, I gave in. I was like, okay, I’ll take your advice on this. There were times where I would write things and I knew for a fact this is what happened. This is the way that it happened. This is the way that it happens regularly. This is my perspective. It’s valid because it happens. Just because it’s not your perspective does not mean that it’s not true or it’s not valid, so I’m going to stick to my guns. I’m going to really fight for this to stay in the book. I did, and I think it was a good result. Definitely, do what you love. Write what you love. Write what you know. Be honest.

Zibby: One thing that you stress with the story itself and then the note at the end and everything is the importance of bringing more people of color into this world of music, and especially at the highest echelons. I think you said, at one point, there was 1.8 percent or something like that of all symphony musicians were black, which is crazy. I had no idea. How can we fix that? What can we do about it?

Brendan: Wow, let me see. I’m glad I’m sitting down for that one. I actually had to go back and redo the stats on that because I thought it was a little higher. My initial numbers were 2.7. Then I did some more research. I found that it was quite a bit less than that. I think it really starts with perception. Classical music, violin, strings, whatever, it’s not just for a certain group of people. You don’t have to be rich and in an affluent neighborhood or have parents who are CEOs in order to play the violin and to love it and to be good at it. You don’t have to. All you need is the desire. If you want it badly enough, it will happen. There are so many people that look like me who are capable who just have not been given the opportunity. Unfortunately, some of us have given up. Some of us are still fighting. I think as long as books like this come out and stories like this come out — that’s one reason I really wanted to do this, just to raise awareness. I’m hoping that that has happened and will continue to happen if people know that this is a thing.

Wow, there are not very many black people. Why is that? Then the question gets asked. Then we can come up with answers from there once the question is asked, but who would think to even ask the question? You would just look at a symphony and see a sea of faces, none of them that look like mine, and it would be fine. It would totally be fine. For people like me, I’m like, wow, that’s kind of messed up because I can do that. Why am I not up there? Why are other people who look like me not up there? I think a big part of it is just to ask the question first and to raise awareness. That’s one thing that I’m really hoping this book will do. We can start with programs and getting kids in early. We can go to these places that don’t have music programs and start them just seeing a violin. I’d never seen a violin before. I don’t think I’d ever heard one, to be honest. When I saw this lady, Susan Ellington, God rest her soul, when I saw her come in with a violin, wow, that’s pretty cool. Okay, I want to do that. It changed my life.

Zibby: I wonder if there’s some sort of program to be set up for the kids who have shown even a slight interest and yet have to rent the violins. When Ray almost had to give his back — maybe there’s some way to sponsor a violinist or sponsor musicians.

Brendan: There’s so many opportunities that I am looking into and thinking about starting and working with people on. These programs, I don’t say this lightly, they are life-changing. They will save lives. Music really does save people’s lives. I am a living example of it. A lot of my friends who are musicians now, there’s no telling what we would have been doing, but I’m sure it would not have been good, if it weren’t for our music programs. I am a staunch advocate for it. Whenever I go and do a conducting gig or do an all-state orchestra or a county orchestra or whatever, I always tell them how important it is to keep these programs. Encourage your kids. You all are here at the concert listening to your kids. That is tremendous. You have no idea the impact that that will have not only on them, but on the program. Write your principals. Write the superintendents. Don’t email. Don’t call. Write them a letter. Let them know how important it is to you. Let them know that you want this to continue and to grow.

Zibby: Last thing, Ray says, at the end, about the violin that it’s not necessarily the form of a Stradivarius that makes it so unique. He believes that Stradivarius put some sort of spirit into each of these violins, that they’re almost living, breathing things. Just tell me a little bit about that because that really hit home.

Brendan: For Ray in particular with his Stradivarius, I wanted to convey the feeling that it was truly a part of him and a part of his heritage. His great-great-grandfather, Papa Leon Marks, I believe that his spirit embodied the instrument because of everything that he had to go through when you read the chapter with Nora’s letter.

Zibby: To be honest, the first time I started reading it, I was like, I don’t even know if I can keep reading this. After the hand, I was like, oh, my gosh. It’s so important, obviously, to know and to read and to remember and to acknowledge and all of that.

Brendan: Believe it or not, I actually toned that down. I toned it down a lot. I was just like, whoa. It was almost too much for me. I was like, I got to bring this back in a little bit. Where was I going with that?

Zibby: Wait, didn’t you write the letter? You wrote it first?

Brendan: I did.

Zibby: You mean you wrote it too extreme. You didn’t actually find this letter, right?

Brendan: Oh, no, I wrote that.

Zibby: You wrote it, okay.

Brendan: When I toned it down, there were so much more graphic detail going on that I actually felt — my agent, when he looked at it, he was like, “This is heavy.” Yeah, it is, but it’s true. I toned it down just a bit. I was going somewhere with that. Yes, Leon’s spirt was in the violin because of everything that he had to endure. As a people, black people in general, we’ve had to endure a lot over the centuries. We’ve just got this perseverance within us. I truly believed, in the story, that Leon’s spirit was part of the violin, and passing that down to his daughter and his granddaughter and then finally to his great-great-grandson. It really was a part of him. I feel personally, your instrument, it really is personal. You can have a row of fifteen, twenty violins, and you would know exactly which one that you want to play. They would all be priceless instruments, but there’s that one that calls out to you. As a musician, it might sound a little bit lame, but it really is a part of you. My violin that I play on now, if it were missing or it were stolen or whatever, it would be a part of me that was gone. You practice on this thing for hours and hours and hours. It becomes a part of you. It lives with you. I tried to convey that in the story. Ray’s violin — he gets it. Ray totally gets that the violin is a part of him and a part of his heritage and part of his family and a part of the people that have all come before him. He totally gets it.

Zibby: Amazing. I was going to say something else. Now I lost it, but that’s okay.

Brendan: I’m sorry. I’m just rambling. I apologize.

Zibby: No, it’s my fault. I never do that, lose my train of thought. I got so caught up in it. Oh, I know what I was going to say. What I was going to say is that if you haven’t planned to do any sort of events or if you haven’t met Jacqueline Woodson, she has a new children’s book that I’m about to interview her for tomorrow or this week or something about the power, particularly back in the day in slavery, of the mind to take you out of your current thing and the power of perseverance. I feel like you two would have an interesting conversation. Someone should moderate that. Put it on the docket. Get in touch.

Brendan: Jacqueline Wilson.

Zibby: Woodson. Jacqueline Woodson.

Brendan: Woodson. See, I wrote it down.

Zibby: I can put your publicist in touch or something.

Brendan: That would be fantastic.

Zibby: I feel like you need to do an event together because I would love to watch that conversation happen.

Brendan: I want to watch this conversation. This is so awesome. I can’t believe I’m talking to you. This is great.

Zibby: Oh, stop.

Brendan: No, really.

Zibby: Brendan, thank you. This has been amazing. I’m almost embarrassed by my gushing here. Your book is very special. I really hope that I get to watch it just fly up the charts. It’s going to touch a lot of people’s hearts and help people’s lives. It’s going to be great. I’m so excited about it.

Brendan: Just hearing you say that, that’s plenty. If it does nothing, that’s okay. Just hearing that someone liked it and got something from it, that’s plenty for me. Thank you so much for your kind words.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Keep writing. I want to read your next book.

Brendan: Wait for the third one. That’s going to be — oh, I can’t wait.

Zibby: Oh, yeah? Okay. All right, I’m in.

Brendan: Contain myself, okay.

Zibby: Bye, Brendan. Have a great day.

Brendan: Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.



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