INTERVIEW: Martin Goodman on musicality, research ethics and ‘J SS Bach’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Martin Goodman on the research process behind his novel J SS Bach (Wrecking Ball Press, 2018).

If I may, I’d like to go straight to the end of J SS Bach, to the afterword that as a researcher of research was extremely interesting to me. You open your discussion on some of the real and textual sources for the novel by describing the moment when its ‘barebones’ first came to you in a moment of genius loci inspiration. I wondered if at that moment, when you came upon the novel’s two driving themes (the Holocaust and Music), you knew that you would need to delve deep into factual, personal histories to bring those two themes together?

‘At that moment’? No. It was a welter of experience. The storyteller in me then started to grapple with it, in order to even speak or think of it. You pull out strands, seek narrative connections between separate parts. And first you work out what those parts are. I decided these elements were fixed – that was one curious research aspect, accepting that the ‘download’ of the book’s principle characters, themes and structure held authority and to ‘fictionalize’ it would be to diminish it. Certain fixed aspects were the year 1938, the young cellist in Vienna, the deporting to Dachau, the Stradivarius cello. Then you recognize that the ‘download’ fell into a vessel shaped by what I already knew. One such thing was a news article about Herbert Zipper, a young Viennese Jewish conductor and composer but then a music student who was deported to Dachau. So pretty instantly, the Holocaust and Music were intertwining through factual, personal histories.

I think it’s that personal, perhaps living, aspect of the history that makes it such a sensitive subject. I have met survivors who were actively willing to share their stories and others who were well-known for never mentioning that time at all. If possible I hoped you could tell me whether your approach to research ethics changed while you were investigating these stories, and whether your attitudes towards transposing real-world suffering into fiction were altered in any way by your experience of researching J SS Bach.

For my first novel, On Bended Knees, I sought accounts in English of the German wartime experience. This was thirty years ago and I found few. That novel therefore drew on my own experiences, of adult English lives touched by the war and from my time working in Berlin in 1975. The research premise was there: to investigate the inheritance of war guilt and trauma, and to see how war affected both sides of a conflict.

The impulse to tackle the Holocaust and Music as a theme was not my own, it was planted in me, which did raise deep ethical points. One was: Do I have any right to tell this tale? I have a Jewish name, Semitic looks, lost ancestry, so I did spend a while trying to authenticate Jewish roots for myself, but the whole thrust of this book is that it is beyond my experience. I’m not German, a Nazi, a cellist, Austrian, Jewish, a girl, a woman, a camp survivor, a violinist, part of any diaspora, pre-war, deaf, a daughter, a wife, a composer, a mother. My only route inside the experiences of such lives was through research. This was mostly shelves of books and some internet archives as well as some conversations with people who were there. It was also vital to spend time at Dachau, Auschwitz and Terezìn. Place myself there physically, spend days walking around, and location is then something I didn’t have to fictionalize.

The Holocaust bears the weight of the saddest human stories. Most of those that are known we don’t, individually, know because we don’t choose to, they are overwhelming. When millions were killed their stories were extinguished with them. I decided it would be diabolical to invent new tales of atrocity for the Holocaust, and closed any book of fiction that I sensed was broaching such territory. The stories of horror I used were borrowed from survivors’ accounts. The fiction was anchored in fact.

That difficult relationship between fiction and fact – the potential discipline present in that interaction – has been coming up in a lot of my recent interviews. As you mentioned, you made the conscious decision to invent no new tales of atrocity, but I’d like to ask at which other points you realised, during your research, that your narrative design would have to come away from factual history. More specifically, I’m keen to get your thoughts on how you feel that prose fiction can help investigate aspects of human history that memoir, for example, might be less able to achieve. Author Heidi James, in our interview at the beginning of April, suggested that ‘fiction often gets to the heart of a story in a way that mere facts can’t,’ which interested me greatly. At which points in J SS Bach did it feel more lucrative for truth to give way to meaning, as perhaps all fiction ultimately must?

It was more the other way round. I had to abandon my narrative design when I learned it did not fit the history. My design was for my young cellist to spend the whole war in Dachau. Then I learned that Dachau’s Jewish inmates were sent to Buchenwald in 1938 – so my narrative had to go there. I imagined Canada welcomed refugee Jews. It didn’t. So the fiction changed to accommodate that fact. I determined my book would not take characters to Auschwitz because I didn’t want to exploit Auschwitz to give my book emotional heft. I read of the Jewish musicians from Prague who filled the ghetto of Terezìn with musical life before all being killed, obvious fodder to a novel exploring music and the Holocaust, but once again rejected the use of that setting as exploitative. I was going to despatch the Jewish women from my Viennese family to the women’s cap at Ravensbrück. And then I looked into the history. Those women of Vienna would have been sent to Terezìn. And from there to Auschwitz. My novel had to lose its qualms, I had to surrender my narrative plans, and follow my characters through their true history. They didn’t get to go wherever they chose, and I couldn’t make them.

Did truth give way to meaning, to become more true? I can’t think of any instances. Except of course it’s all a novel, it’s all fiction. At my first public reading from the novel I couldn’t stop myself crying, because the characters were so real to me and their story was so tragically sad, and only fiction can tell those stories because those who were killed left no memoirs.  In its later stages, of course, my novel becomes an exploration of biography. Our story of our own life, about which we think we are world experts, can be a false construct. Moments of story hit us with a resonance that shake our system in such a way that we take them as ‘truth’. A novel builds itself around such moments.

We’ve spoken a lot about the factual history here and its relationship with truth, but I feel as though it would be remiss not to briefly explore the second dominant theme in J SS Bach, which is of course music. Recently I spoke with author Jonathan Taylor about the relationship between music and literary research. Dr Taylor spoke about the ‘narrative structure of music, and the musical structure of prose’, in relation to writing’s ability to harness musicality, rhythm, dissonance, polyphony, etc. Is this something that rings true for you? 

I do look for music in language, though for me at its simplest that consists of rhythm which leads to silence. You build through sound into an absence of sound – the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a chapter – a silence where the effects of your writing can accumulate in the reader. My biggest musical composition in J SS Bach was ‘The Diaspora Variations’, when musicians separately play elements of the composer’s new work through improvisation across all the spaces of the Sydney Opera House. They meet together to play a finale for an audience and reach a rousing conclusion from which a girl leaves. She steps out into silence and finds the performance continuing outside, to a different conclusion that is private to her. The pianist in my novel has been rendered deaf. The young cellist has to take the Bach Suites into his memory. He has to metabolize music into his bloodstream to keep himself alive when standing on parade grounds. My older cellist has given up performance. Music at its deepest inverts you, leaves you raw and quivering at the touch of the world, and a book can do that too.

I think that idea of a book affecting you as if ‘at the touch of the world’ links aptly with something I’ve been asking all my interviewees. You mentioned earlier that your research premise for the novel involved the ‘inheritance of war guilt and trauma’, but I’m also interested to get your thoughts on whether you feel J SS Bach operates as an act of research in and of itself – as something that helps ‘invert’ the world as well as the reader. Is the novel as a form an effective way of interrogating the truths of our world? Perhaps that’s something that for a novel so tied to history might be easier to relate to, or perhaps more difficult. How do you feel J SS Bach functions, if at all, as a question posed to our ideas of humanity and the environment we’ve created?

A novel ‘as an act of research in and of itself’ I take as being a novel without a readership. Does such a novel have a worth? It’s a tender question, for there are many millions of unread novels in the world, including one or two of my own. I was propelled on an act of creation that took 25 years to fulfil itself. That has value. Go on a huge voyage, come home and try and interest folk in your tales to no avail, you still have that voyage locked inside you.

I find I’m drawn to counter-narratives, to works set against ‘the truths of our world’, works that explore the dictum ‘the opposite is also true’. In J SS Bach I found myself writing life stories of characters who had been erased, in real life. It feels like an act of deep humanity for a novel to retrieve lost lives, and to give voice to the voiceless. We can focus attention on what the world prefers to neglect. I’ve just finished reading two novels; the trilogy … by Agata Kristof and No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo. Both were shockingly unsentimental. Separately I’ve been struck by this line by Gerald Sykes. ‘All our quasi-sacred literary classics—Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Melvillle—are romantics.’ There’s value, and likely commercial success, in writing what is romantic, escapist and sentimental. How do we explore our world without taking such routes? What truths does that reveal?

That’s what increasingly interests me.


Martin Goodman has written eleven books, fiction and nonfiction. A theme common to much of his fiction is the exploration of war guilt: his first novel On Bended Knees (Macmillan), set in England and Berlin, examined how the effects of war are passed from one generation to the next, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread (now the Costa) First Novel Award. 

Early nonfiction focused on pilgrimage, sacred place and shamanism, and included the biography of the Indian holywoman Mother Meera, and a quest to sacred mountains of the world. His biography of the scientist Dr J. S. Haldane, Suffer & Survive (Simon & Schuster), won First Prize, Basis of Medicine in the 2008 BMA Book Awards.

His ClientEarth, written with his husband James Thornton, won the Judges’ Choice, Business Book of the Year 2018. It tells of ecolawyers and their work to protect the environment. A BBC New Generation Thinker, programmes for BBC Radio 4 include a two-part series on iconic architecture of England, The New North (2013) and a documentary on the writer Alan Garner (2014). His short stories are published widely, and as with his literary criticism focus largely on gay themes; the criticism has focused on the works of Edmund Gosse, James Purdy and Walter Baxter. His play Feeding the Roses won an international Virtual Theatre Project award and was performed at Wake Forest University, USA.

With Sara Maitland, he wrote the handbook of creative writing mentoring The Write Guide (New Writing North, 2007, revised ebook edition 2015). He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull, and Director of the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing, which has brought the world’s finest writers to Hull to be in dialogue about their writing and to works to promote and develop the region’s own very strong writing heritage and strengths. He stays at the forefront of developments in the book industry through his role as founder and publisher of Barbican Press, with a catalogue of fine contemporary novels and nonfiction from the UK, USA and Czechoslovakia, including new translations.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *