Most of us have items that mean a lot to us. Maybe it’s a dish that belonged to a relative, a particularly sentimental gift, or a card from a loved one. These objects are hard to get rid of, and carry many stories with them. Chris Cander, author of The Weight of a Piano, knows this better than most. In her new novel, she writes about a beautiful German-made piano and the lives it touches. Here, Cander chats with Bookish about what inspired the book, her own relationship with music, and the objects she can’t get rid of.
Psst: We’re giving away five copies of The Weight of a Piano over here!
Bookish: This book is, in many ways, about the emotional weight that objects can carry. What are some objects in your life that carry a significant emotional weight?
Chris Cander: I’ve long struggled with my relationship to objects with provenance, mostly because by nature I appreciate minimalism and order. But I was born into a family of artists and archivists, and we have a lot of stuff: my grandfather’s countless woodworking treasures, handmade quilts and blankets from the women on my mother’s side, and my father’s photographs, souvenirs, and mementos that have been passed down from one generation to another. Part of me wants to preserve everything with the care and love it deserves, and part wants to set it all on fire.
Bookish: I read that this book was inspired by a story you heard at a book club about finding a home for a piano. What spoke to you about that anecdote?
CC: I overheard a woman talking about finally letting go of a piano her father had given her when she was a child. She’d been taking lessons for a few months when he suddenly died, and afterward, it became a symbol of her grief—and also of him. She didn’t play it, but also couldn’t get rid of it. I was immediately invested in the concern of letting go of a treasured object—in this case, an enormous, expensive, burdensome one. I wanted to know what a character would do with it, because I also want to do know what I will do with all the things I’ll eventually inherit.
Bookish: This story proceeds along two timelines, one featuring Clara and the other featuring Katya. How did you decide when and where to place these characters, both in terms of time and geography?
CC: It started with the piano, which I knew would be an unusual antique, made in Europe, and uncommon in the U.S. After much research, I settled on it being a German-made Blüthner. That led me to Katya, and her unique predicament of trying to get a piano out of Soviet Russia. It was common for refuseniks emigrating from the USSR to settle in Los Angeles, so it made sense that part of the story would take place there, including the contemporary narrative, which focuses on Clara. Death Valley National Park is stunning, and a perfect thematic setting in which to juxtapose the journey that Clara, Greg, and the Blüthner undertake toward their inevitable conclusion. I never decide these things in advance; details adhere to the original idea in a magical sort of way as I go along.
Bookish: There are several pieces of music mentioned in the novel. How did you go about selecting them? Did you listen to any particular music while working on this book?
CC: Since I’m not a musician, I relied on the passion and knowledge that many talented friends have for the piano and for classical music. In many cases, I would reach out to one of them and ask for the name of a piece that was written in a certain key, or had a certain tone, and they would offer suggestions. I would listen to them and choose the one(s) that felt right.
Bookish: You’ve said that you put pieces of yourself in every character that you write. Which of your qualities did you give to Katya? Which did you give to Clara?
CC: Like Clara, I have no ear for music. I’m emotional but pragmatic, hopeful but guarded. Like Katya, I’ve experienced passionate love. I’ve lived unhappily as an expatriate. I’ve wrestled with grief and loss. These things emerge unconsciously; I can only recognize them long after the fact.
Bookish: What was it like to write a book that was centered on an object rather than a character or an event?
CC: To me, the Blüthner in my novel is a character. She—I think of it as a she—has lived a long and interesting life. Like Shel Silverstein‘s tree in The Giving Tree, she’s given all she has to those who loved her. Over the years, she’s quietly absorbed all the grief and longing and joy and exultation expressed through her action, the impression of every touch and every tear shed at her keyboard. By the end of the book, she feels like a very old woman, an ancient and childless babushka with little left to offer. Strange as it may sound, I love her. I feel a psychic connection to her even though she doesn’t speak and I don’t play music. I think it was from a desire to hear her express her emotions that I decided to commission a piece of music by a professional composer, Konner Scott, which became part of the novel.
Bookish: What books have you read recently that have inspired your own writing? Where would you point readers who loved The Weight of a Piano?
CC: I read so many books that inspire me, even if they don’t necessarily inform my own work. I love reading beautiful sentences and complex, transporting stories. Most recently, I’ve loved Tatyana Tolstaya’s Aetherial Worlds, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. I’ve also re-read and loved again Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx.
Chris Cander graduated from the Honors College at the University of Houston, in the city where she was raised and still lives, with her husband, daughter, and son. For seven years she has been a writer-in-residence for Writers in the Schools there. She serves on the Inprint advisory board and stewards several Little Free Libraries in her community. Her first novel, 11 Stories, won the Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Popular Fiction, and her most recent, Whisper Hollow, was long-listed for the Great Santini Fiction Prize by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. She is also the author of The Word Burglar, which won the 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award (silver).