I first met Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman in the summer of 2015 at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, where we both participated in a memoir workshop led by Meghan Daum. I recall being struck by the memoir excerpt Jessica had prepared, which Daum asked her to read aloud to our class. I listened, captivated, as Jessica shared a prologue inviting readers into a bizarre story of mass deceit in the classical music world.
The following summer, Jessica and I met again at KWWC 2016, this time in a nonfiction workshop led by Barrie Jean Borich. Jessica had news: she’d landed an agent to represent her debut memoir, and they were working together to sell her book to a publisher. That book, Sounds Like Titanic, was published on February 12th by W. W. Norton & Company.
When a young violinist leaves Appalachia for what she thinks is a professional job in a musical ensemble she discovers their performances, led by The Composer, are faked and covered by music played from a CD player. This is a story that gets to the heart of the repercussions of growing up female in the United States: in the nineties, the aughts, and today. It’s a theme that resonates deeply with me, and corresponding with Jessica was a delight.
Recently, we discussed her work (both real and fake) as a violinist, the perils of our nation’s ongoing attachment to rigid beauty ideals, and the experience of writing a first book.
The Rumpus: I’ll start with your book’s dedication, because it’s so apt for this story. You write, “To those with average talents and above-average desires.” I see the driving force of this book as the tension arising between two themes: the fierce desire for success, and a deeply ingrained fear of inadequacy, which you identify as being rooted in messages you received in childhood from 1990s popular culture (and, in turn, from some of your classmates), messages insisting girls and women would never be enough. Your writing portrays a kind of split response: the experience of being both wounded and determined to prove them wrong. Could you talk about how you chose the themes you wanted to focus on in this book? Were they apparent to you from the onset of the project, from the sense you had made of what you’d lived through, or were they revealed throughout the writing process? Is the story you’ve told in the end the one you originally set out to tell?
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman: I never set out to write a memoir at all. When I first began writing this material, back in the fall of 2005, I was imagining an article about working for The Composer, in which I described his music (sounds like Titanic), our concerts (I played in front of an unplugged microphone while a CD recording of a better violinist was blasted toward unsuspecting audiences), and how this revealed something about the way that classical music ignites American anxieties about socioeconomic class (middle class parents forcing their kids to play violin because they think it will be “good” for them—like eating vegetables or studying for the SATs). It never occurred to me that this material would include anything about my personal life. Like every twenty-something living in New York City in 2005, I had wild hopes that this piece would end up as a mid-sized article in the New Yorker.
But there was a problem: I didn’t have access to the world of the New Yorker—I certainly couldn’t take an unpaid internship there or anywhere else. As I describe in the book, my one attempt at taking a low-paid internship in the magazine world was woefully unfruitful. And a second, bigger problem: As I describe in the book, my work with The Composer left me with a series of physical and psychological ailments and I needed to have health insurance to function on a daily basis (this was long before Obamacare). So I found a windowless cubicle job as an office assistant, which—and this was my true big break—offered health insurance plus free tuition for graduate school. During my first class—creative nonfiction workshop—I realized almost everyone was writing a memoir. But not me. Never me.
And then me. I began to realize that the story of The Composer was not just about the unique situation of fake-playing violin on PBS. It was also the story of how I came to work for him (Appalachian kid in NYC who is desperate for money). It was also the story of how, during the years immediately following 9/11, Americans were craving relaxation music, how our society as a whole became less and less adept at distinguishing real from fake. And the story was also about how I had fallen into the same trap—that, like many millennial women, I had fallen for falsehoods about everything from how much future success I could expect to how much I should hate my body. I love your description of a “split response” because yes, I see Sounds Like Titanic as a record of both the wounding and the healing.
Rumpus: I remember asking you in Kentucky in 2016 how you would navigate publishing a book that outs a well-known composer for his longtime practice of putting on fake concerts (countless audiences have seen live performances of his music, unaware the sound coming through the speakers was a CD recording). What did it take to grant yourself permission to tell (and then publish) this story as you did, to show no mercy when it came to his public deceptions and your own experiences with and perceptions of him? And what role does the fact that you haven’t explicitly named him play in all of this?
Hindman: First, I think I did show mercy. I describe, in detail, the way that many of The Composer’s concerts were charity benefits, that he often gave away more CDs than he sold. This is what made him so fascinating to me—his musical performances were fake, but when it came to the most authentic gesture that someone living in a capitalist society can make—giving away lots of his own money—The Composer was the real deal. He spent hours listening to audience members tell him about their hardships and his music genuinely seemed to move them in ways they described as “healing.” I also describe how he was really compassionate toward me when I became increasingly ill on tour. And he is described as “strikingly handsome” throughout the book, so there is that!
Not naming him (and trying my best to ensure his identity is concealed) was another act of mercy. I realized early on in the process that this book was not meant to be an investigative report or an exposé. I don’t want him outed or shamed. Further, the choice of “The Composer” as a pseudonym refers to the fact that as “the composer” of the book I also felt like a fraud. I wrote my insecurities about writing into the book itself in chapters like, “Do You Know What’s Missing in this Book?” And there is plenty missing from this book. Like The Composer’s music, my writing style leaves plenty of room for criticism.
As for The Composer’s public deceptions, I didn’t feel the need to grant myself permission to write about them. When I was in college, the book that made me want to become a writer the most was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, wherein she chronicles the shady practices of a variety of low-paying service jobs. She doesn’t name any of the terrible managers that she works for either, because the point of the book isn’t to shame one specific person; it’s to reveal systemic problems in the nature of low-wage work. The same was true for my book—I don’t need to name The Composer because the book isn’t really about him; it’s about larger issues that our society was struggling with at the time that have only gotten worse in the past few years. My basic philosophy is that if I am scrupulously working to be as truthful as possible, and the truth that I’m trying to reveal is important for the world to know, it’s fine for me to write about it.
Rumpus: You play around with point of view in this book, but alternate primarily between the first and second person perspectives. Could you expand on how using the “you” impacted your writing process? How might this story have turned out differently if you’d told it entirely in first person?
Hindman: Using second or third person creates distance between the living writer and the writer’s character on the page. Vivian Gornick describes the importance of that distance—the distance between a writer’s present-self and past-self—in her excellent craft text The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. I was also lucky to read memoirists who had used this technique to great effect: Mary Karr in Cherry, wherein the “you” universalizes the experience of being a teenage girl in a misogynist society; Abigail Thomas in Safekeeping, wherein the third person is used to create distance between the writer and her past self, and Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which is a master class on the intricate dance between “I,” “you,” and “we.” I also think that using “you” gives the reader a certain amount of responsibility for what is happening in the narrative. The book is not solely about my own flaws and missteps, but also the flaws and missteps of the society around me.
Rumpus: You borrow the phrase “life in the body” from Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and use it throughout the book to help articulate the emotional complexity of inhabiting a female form. You write about how 1990s mass media correlated beauty with worth, and the impact that messaging had on you and your peers as you became teenagers. Our media certainly hasn’t lost its superficiality in the decades since; we remain inundated by images and messages that objectify women. There are real ramifications to living in this kind of culture, and so I loved that female body image was one of the prominent themes in your writing. What are your thoughts on bringing this issue to light through your memoir? Is this a cause you actively sought to take up?
Hindman: Here’s how it went down: Girl hates herself because she has been raised in a culture that has told her that she isn’t beautiful enough, skinny enough. Girl decides to overcompensate for these flaws by becoming great writer and publishing excellent article on classical music in the New Yorker. Girl fails to do this, but keeps trying, and in the trying and failing realizes that the trying and failing to be physically beautiful and the trying and failing to win praise and acclaim from prestigious publishers are one and the same. Both goals—beauty and literary acclaim—sprout from the same vicious root. Girl writes all of this and some other things into a book, which gets published, thank fucking heavens. But then, it never ends. For in the tedious process of editing the book, girl gains twenty pounds. Girl has to constantly remind herself that our society wants her to worry about the twenty pounds instead of worrying about systemic injustices, the rise of authoritarianism, the decline of fact-based reality, and what she’s going to write in her next book.
Rumpus: Another question tied to feminist causes of the moment: In 2016, you won a Reader’s Choice Award from Hippocampus magazine for your gorgeous and powerful essay, “Advanced Placement,” which addresses the physical violence you experienced at the hand of your high school boyfriend. We are living through an extraordinary time in which many women are coming forward with stories of abuse from men, and many more are grappling with whether or not to do so. Meanwhile, as writers of memoir, we must also determine how much information we are comfortable sharing about the people in our lives, and to what end. I’m curious how you made these decisions of when and where, within your writing, to share this story of a personal experience with dating violence.
Hindman: First, thank you for the kind words about the essay—it means a lot because that essay was impossible to write until it became impossible not to write, and I’m glad it resonated. I wrote it in August of 2016, which was months before “grab them by the pussy” entered our national lexicon, and more than a year before the #MeToo movement took off. I obviously had no idea it would be so timely—that was just lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it—I’m certainly not happy that it resonated because so many people have experienced similar assaults). As to your question, I didn’t include that experience in the book because I thought it would be too distracting. I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to tie together fake violin playing with body image with Appalachia with the Iraq War. There are many important people and things that happened in my life that make no appearance in Sounds Like Titanic. So much of memoir writing is knowing what to leave out of the story.
Rumpus: In Sound Like Titanic you write:
Playing classical music on the violin provides a corrective: The violin is serious. Classical music is serious. An understanding of classical music—something adults say they wish they knew more about but don’t—gives a girl weight in a world that wants her to be weightless, gives her substance in a culture that asks her to be insubstantial.
You frame the violin as a tool you used to help legitimize yourself in the eyes of others, yet you also seemed to possess a genuine love of playing the violin (your depiction of the physical and psychological intensity of performing in the gymnasium in front of your whole high school was completely riveting). How and when did the dream of being a professional violinist give way to the dream of being a published writer?
Hindman: Violin was my first love, but like many first loves it was, in some sense, superficial. I loved the sound of violin music, but looking back, I realize that I had no idea what a professional violinist’s life actually entails—practicing scales and other tedious, finger-breaking exercises for hours every day in order to achieve this extremely precise and rare technical proficiency, and then spending most of your life playing and replaying works from a limited repertoire of dead white male composers. Writing, on the other hand, is more like composing music than it is playing the violin. You are creating, not reciting. Like violin playing, writing probably won’t pay the bills (thus my gig as a professor). But unlike playing the violin, writing is something I think anyone can excel at with practice. Let me put it this way: The classical world is full of kid-wonders who can play the violin better at eight than most professionals can after a lifetime of practice. But there are no eight-year-old writing prodigies penning novels that are better than Toni Morrison’s. There are no ten-year-olds winning Pulitzer Prizes.
Photograph of Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman © Vanessa Borer.