After publishing her fifth book, The Secret Music at Tordesillas on June 15, Marjorie Sandor, a professor of creative writing and English, emerita, at Oregon State University, reflects on her writing process and inspiration for the award-winning novel.
“The Secret Music at Tordesillas explores, at its heart, the struggle to hold on to personal and artistic liberty in a time of ethnic cleansing and national paranoia—a subject with no small relevance and resonance for us today,” Sandor said.
The novel tells the story of a sixteenth-century musician of Jewish descent navigating the growing terror of the Spanish Inquisition from within the court of the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel, and later, that of their tragic, intriguing daughter, Queen Juana “the Mad.” Forcibly converted to Christianity as a child, the gifted young instrumentalist Juan de Granada carries in his memory music—and the culture of music—now punishable by death. The dangers of his daily life gradually increase as he finds himself drawn close to a young woman of the court, herself the daughter of converts, whose courage and secret passion for the arts threaten her life, and the lives of those she loves.
Sandor said the novel “explores a rarely-explored and nearly entirely undocumented aspect of the Spanish Inquisition: the fate of forbidden artistic practices under its wide net of cultural and religious oppression. Through characters both fictional and historical, the story imagines the ways the smallest human acts—from a child’s innocent gesture in her family’s kitchen, to the playing of a beloved old folk tune in front of a nosy neighbor—could bring imprisonment, torture and possibly death.”
Sandor said she came up with the idea for this novel from listening to music at a Halloween party almost twenty years ago. The album was called “Music for Joan the Mad, by a Canadian ensemble called La Nef. She said the mix of sixteenth-century Spanish court music and ballads of the Sephardim—Spanish Jews and their descendants—ordered to convert to Christianity or depart their homeland—made her curious as to what these two different sounding musical traditions were doing on the same album.
As Sandor herself is Jewish, she began speculating about what it would be like to be a young Jewish kid with musical talent at the moment of the Expulsion from Spain. By the time she went to bed that night, a character had already started forming in her head.
In regards to the common theme of music throughout her books, Sandor said, “I grew up in a house full of music—my mother was a fine classical organist. As [an] adult, I began to take piano lessons more seriously, and learned to read music, and my appreciation for what gifted and hard-working musicians can do grew exponentially. Then, right around the time I finished the novel—about two years ago—I started playing guitar in traditional Celtic music sessions in Corvallis, [Ore.], and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m having trouble getting back to writing. It’s a full-time obsession right now, and quite unexpectedly, it’s connecting me to some fantastic professional musicians who play both Celtic music and the kind of music that’s in my novel. Who saw that coming? Not me!”
Sandor said the research process was quite daunting, and that is why the book took her so long to write.
“You never know where you’re going to find a “telling detail”—one of my favorite sources was a book called “Hispanic Costume: 1480-1530” that turned out to be a treasure trove of first-hand accounts of weddings, funerals and daily life in between. I also spent a lot of time looking at paintings of the countryside in the places my characters lived and traveled, just trying to conjure up the muddy roads, a winter twilight, a luthier’s studio. For me, research never really ‘works’ the way it’s supposed to. I’m more likely to find a great detail by accident when I’m looking for some other elusive thing,” Sandor said.
Rebecca Olson, associate professor of English in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at OSU, teaches and writes about sixteenth-century literature, including Shakespeare. In an email, Olson said like any historian, Sandor was often informed by much more than facts—for example, by music; by food; by the absence of something she expected to find.
“I’m very excited to read the finished novel and discover, as Marjorie did while writing, an incredible story that fiction is particularly well suited to tell. The Secret Music at Tordesillas has wide appeal, thanks to both intrigue and the warmth and music of the narrator’s style. This is a book you can really get lost in. But I will definitely recommend it in particular, to friends and students who—like me—enjoy historical fiction set in England during the time period—Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Sister, etc.,” Olson said.
Keith Scribner, professor of English and creative writing in the SWLF at OSU and critically acclaimed novelist, said in an email, “like any great historical novel, The Secret Music at Tordesillas speaks directly to our own time and culture. The book’s exploration of religious and cultural disharmony allows us insight into our own strife when it comes to diversity.”
“I’m in awe of her commitment to crafting this novel. She conducted research in Europe, wrote in ancient stone castles, learned to perform sixteenth-century music in order to get every detail right. Any good story needs secrets and mysteries, it needs to arouse irresistible curiosity, it needs to dazzle and delight us. This novel does it all. It’s a book that began with music—with its author transported by the beauty and mystery of music. Lucky for us, she wrote the power of that music into every sentence of this novel so readers can be transported too,” Scribner said.
Sandor said many people helped her write this novel, among them OSU’s SWLF, the Center for the Humanities at OSU, and her close friend and novelist Suzanne Berne, who listened to her talk about this novel for several years, and made a particularly brilliant suggestion one day that gave Sandor the final shape and drive of the story, she said.
Most important of all, Sandor said her husband, writer and retired OSU professor Tracy Daugherty, who kept her from giving up, traveled with her everywhere she needed to go, and suggested, one summer day when she was feeling lazy, that she put the book into the competition for Hidden River Press's award in historical fiction. "He kept after me until I did it,” Sandor said.
Sandor invites readers to think about her book not only in terms of recognizing the way the inquisition provided a model for future efforts at [a] systematic and bureaucratically-supported program of ethnic cleansing and cultural erasure, but at the equally astonishing record of the ways people were able to save their beloved traditions.
“Otherwise we would not be able to experience their beauty and endurance today, nor have a chance to meditate on the similarities between their historical moment and our own,” Sandor said.
Sandor said it is an odd coincidence that, historically speaking, Queen Juana and her staff lived in a much more intensely confined version of our current “quarantine” for no less than 47 years. The queen only left her castle to leave for Mass at the convent next door and to leave Tordesillas for a few months to escape the plague.
“It isn’t easy, but the “secret music at Tordesillas” ultimately becomes a legend beyond its walls. So I guess I’d like to think that we could all learn patience from their example. And also take a bit of hope—that beauty can be created under the harshest of circumstances. That’s something to give us hope,” Sandor said.
Now, Sandor is learning to be a better guitar player to become a fully functional accompanist to the gifted musicians in the Celtic traditional music scene in Corvallis. She has two writing projects in the works—one a book of essays regarding the connections between writing and music, and the second a book of short stories. More information about Marjorie Sandor and her work can be found on her website.