During his twenty-year career as a musicologist, Arthur Wenk published books on Claude Debussy (Claude Debussy and the Poets; Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music) and music bibliography (the prize-winning Analyses of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Music and Musical Resources for the Revised Common Lectionary).
Later he drew on his experiences as a university professor, church organist, choral conductor and pianist to produce a series of mystery novellas featuring musicologist Axel Crochet as sleuth: (The Quarter Note Tales; New Quarter Note Tales: Axel in Quebec; Axel Crochet: Musicologist-at-Large; and Quarter Note Tales #4: An Axel Crochet Trilogy). Other books include A Guide to the Bookstores of Toronto, La Musique et les grandes epoques de l’art, and Camerata: A Guide to Organizing and Directing Small Choruses.
Dr. Wenk’s subsequent careers as calculus teacher and psychotherapist have led to public lectures on graphing calculators, Geometer’s Sketchpad, parenting and communication, separation and divorce, opera, western culture, and film. Since his retirement in 2014 Arthur Wenk lives in North Fort Myers, Florida and Lagoon City, Ontario.
Tee: What are your previous publications (non- academic) about?
Art: I have often written books that I felt filled a gap. A lover of bookstores, I wrote a series of reviews that turned into A Guide to the Bookstores of Toronto, based on visits to all 250 of them. (Sadly, most of those beloved establishments have now disappeared.) As a church organist and choirmaster, I felt the need for a book that would connect me with tools for choosing hymns, anthems and organ music. Since none existed at the time, I wrote Musical Resources for the Revised Common Lectionary, about which one reviewer said: there are three books that every minister and music director should possess—the Bible, the hymnal, and Wenk’s book of musical resources.
Libraries contain many books on choral conducting, but I believed that, based on my thirty-five years as a conductor, I had insights to offer that were not to be found in any of these books, hence Camerata: A Guide to Forming and Directing Small Choirs. All my life I wanted to get a sense of the “big picture,” so once I retired I had time to write The Matrix of Western Culture: Perspectives on History, the Arts and Ideas. The same goes for my recent book, A Brief History of Classical Music: A Tale of Time, Tonality and Timbre, a work intended not for academics but for the general public.
Tee: How long have you been writing fictional and non- fictional pieces?
Art: I have always loved to write. I can identify three specific influences on my writing. In my freshman year at Amherst, I had to write three one-page essays a week for a professor who criticized them fairly but vigorously. We had the option of rewriting any paper to improve it, based on that criticism, so I rewrote constantly. (I should mention that in these pre-internet days my only tool was a typewriter.)
The second major influence came during my final year at Cornell where a French professor read my doctoral dissertation. Each week I would come to him with a forty-page chapter, and each week he would turn back my previous chapter, heavily marked up with his exquisite calligraphy. I often found the process frustrating: here I was writing as carefully as I knew how, but I felt as if he were reading even more carefully than I was writing. (This dissertation turned into my first published book, Claude Debussy and the Poets.)
Some years later my best friend, knowing my passion for murder mysteries, suggested that I try my hand at writing one. Many other people had already made this suggestion, which I rejected because I believed my writing could not measure up to that of the authors I most admired: Arturo Perez-Riverte, Rennie Airth, Stephen Booth, Henning Mankell, et al. But when your best friend makes a suggestion, you tend to take it seriously, which in this case meant purchasing three books on mystery-writing. “I could do this,” I thought after reading them, so I set out to write a novella with a musicologist sleuth and after finishing it, wrote two others. Eventually I found a publisher, Wingate Press in Stratford, Ontario. By the time I completed my second set of mystery novellas, Wingate Press had gone out of business (I don’t think my book was responsible), so I self-published with iUniverse.
Tee: How do you manage non- academic writing with your strenuous academic schedule?
Art: My twenty years in academia were not entirely happy. As a kind of free therapy, I would turn my pain into humor in the form of the Biweekly Chronicle–what you might now describe as a kind of pre-internet blog–that I would photocopy and send to my friends via snail mail. After surviving an enervating faculty meeting, for example, I would return to my apartment with the thought, “That was unbearable …. but it’ll make a great story for the Chronicle.” I didn’t need to invent anything: I just wrote down my detailed recollections, perhaps embellished a bit here and there. Years later, when it came time to write my murder mysteries, I just had to invent the murders. The background material was all there, just waiting to be exploited. So when readers chuckle over a “Sudden Service” sign in a California laundry, or the practice of replacing lawns with green concrete, those are not fiction—my imagination isn’t that good—but actual details culled from the Biweekly Chronicle. And my peripatetic career has taken me to many locations, including San Bernardino, Boston, Pittsburgh, Durham, Bloomington, and Québec City.
Retirement has allowed me more time to write. At present I am working on a book about the movies called Through the Lens: How Great Directors Tell Stories, which gives me the opportunity to read books and articles and watch DVDs on fifty films.
Tee: What kinds of books do you personally enjoy reading?
Art: I love David M. Shapard’s annotated versions of Jane Austen’s six novels, and continue to read murder mysteries before sleep every night (now adding Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Carl Hiaasen, Scott Turow and Charles Todd to the earlier list of favourite authors). The Matrix book offered me the opportunity to read books on art, literature, music, science and mathematics, philosophy and theology, history and social sciences in each century from ancient Greece to the present.
There are so many books to read that I welcome guidance in my selections. The New York Times recently published a glowing review of a new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson (the first by a woman!). I read the book with enthusiasm, then decided, with The Odyssey in recent memory, to wrestle my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses again. Up north, I am grateful to the Ramara librarian whose book club selections have brought me such unanticipated delights as The Goldfinch; The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry; Come, Thou Tortoise; and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The History Book Club, that I founded here in Ft. Myers, is currently considering a list of 100-odd “best history books of 2017” in choosing the eight that we will read and discuss next season. Thomas Foster’s two books (How to Read Novels Like a Professor and How to Read Literature Like a Professor) have led me to authors I had overlooked or never heard of, including Boyle, Doerr, Hemingway, Niffenegger and O’Brien.
Several times in my life I have had to undergo the painful process of deaccessioning. In Pittsburgh I once gave away 2500 books. After leaving academia I donated my entire collection of music history books and scores to a university library, to avoid daily reminders of the end of a beloved career. My personal library underwent a similar loss when I retired from an Oakville house to a Lagoon City condo. But my new condo in Florida has lots of shelf space, so I look forward to reuniting my northern and southern libraries and hope never to give away another book.
Tee: Have your students read your books? What did they have to say?
Art: At the moment I am offering a six-lecture series based on the Matrix book to the Lifelong Learning Institute associated with Southwestern Florida State College. Last week, after my presentation on the 13th century, one woman, noticing the lacuna for “history” in that century, proposed adding The Travels of Marco Polo. I have since purchased that book and look forward to writing about it for the next edition of the Matrix book. Another woman, who attended the series of lectures that eventually turned into A Brief History of Classical Music, said that she’d learned more from my talks than from several years of theory courses at the University of Toronto.
Tee: What tips will you give any aspiring writer?
Art: Prior to accepting Claude Debussy and the Poets for publication, the University of California Press sent the manuscript out to readers and then shared their critiques with me (anonymously, of course). Being somewhat defensive, I spent a lot of time at the library seeking material to refute their remarks before the French professor mentioned earlier set me straight. “Look, Art,” he said. “This man has gone to a lot of trouble to offer you suggestions. He didn’t have to do that. If someone is willing to give you constructive criticism, embrace it gratefully.” So aside from the usual advice to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, I would pass along the words my of mentor. If you can find anyone who will read your work, extract any wisdom you can from any criticism offered, and use it to become a better writer.
Consider your audience. I have always tried to emulate Donald Jay Grout, my musicology professor at Cornell, who strove to write in a way calculated to enlist the interest of the “intelligent common reader,” that ideal creature. This encomium has steered me away from subjects that I could not imagine the common reader tolerating but has led me to seek clarity and connectedness in my own writing.
The Cornell French professor I mentioned earlier advised me to think of writing as a double funnel: you begin with the whole world, then funnel down to your particular subject, write about it as engagingly as you can, and then open it back up again to the entire world.
Tee: How can your readers reach you?
Art: The best way to reach me is by email, email@example.com. Anyone interested in my career can find details on my website, www.arthurwenk.ca.
Read the review of The Quarter Note Tales Here.