Guest Post by Connie Hampton Connally
No, I haven’t written a novel, but writing friend Connie Hampton Connally has. I invited her tell us about her new book, The Songs We Hide, just released by Coffeetown Press. Congratulations, Connie! I look forward to reading your book. And thanks for this behind-the-scenes look at your new title.
The novel was a long time in the making—almost ten years from the initial idea to the printed-and-bound book. If I had known at the outset what an uphill climb this project would turn into, I probably would have been scared off and abandoned the idea. I’m glad I didn’t know. Though The Songs We Hide has been the hardest project of my life, it’s also been the most fulfilling.
No, wait—the task of raising my children outstrips the book in both grit and joy. But still… here is a brief synopsis of the novel:
In 1951, a grim hush has settled over Hungary. After a lost war and a brutal transition to communism, the people live under constant threat of blacklisting, property confiscation, arrest, imprisonment, and worse. In this milieu of dread, the best land of Péter Benedek’s peasant family is seized and his life upended. Moving to Budapest for a manual labor job, Péter meets Katalin Varga, an unwed mother whose baby’s father has vanished, most likely at the hands of the secret police. Both Péter and Katalin keep their heads down and their mouths clamped shut, because silence is the only safety they know.
The two have something in common besides fear: they are singers whose very natures make the silence unbearable. When Katalin starts giving Péter voice lessons, they take an intrepid step out of hiding by making music together. Little by little they tell each other what they cannot tell others. In their bond of trust, they find relief and unexpected happiness.
Yet the hurts and threats in their lives remain, waiting. As harsh reality assaults them again, is hope even possible? Facing their hardest trials yet, Péter and Katalin learn to carve dignity and beauty out of pain.
People often wonder what attracted me to writing about Hungary. They ask if I’m Hungarian. I’m not. My interest in Hungary grew out of my love of music. Through music, I discovered the story of Zoltán Kodály, a twentieth-century Hungarian composer who spread music in his nation despite totalitarianism and two world wars.
Kodály’s example gripped me, and I couldn’t let go of that idea: what is it like to offer beauty in a milieu of fear? Wanting to work with that setting and theme, I began researching Hungary.
When I first embarked on the research, I thought that a year’s reading would do it. I was wrong. I can’t begin to calculate how long the research took. I read history books, memoirs, ethnographies, books on farming, travel books, and Hungarian literature in translation, when I could find it. I watched movies and YouTube clips and listened to music. I traveled three times to Hungary. I interviewed Hungarians (mostly in the U.S.) who lived through the Stalinist era, and the fact-finding took on poignant, personal depth.
The research went on throughout the writing and rewriting because, on every page, new questions arose. Some were small—Would this character’s family have had a telephone? Was soda pop available? What time of year was wheat harvested?—but other questions were larger and so embedded in central European culture that I, as an American, didn’t even recognize them as questions. Hungarian beta readers pointed them out to me. These questions had to do with class distinctions, social mobility or the lack of it, issues of pride or shame. I had to acknowledge how different my New World assumptions were from those of Europeans whose Old World was disintegrating.
Wasn’t it Malcolm Gladwell who said that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and really do it fluently? I’m pretty sure I spent more than 10,000 hours working on The Songs We Hide. (And I’m absolutely sure I haven’t mastered writing.) However, I carry a deep conviction that those countless hours were worth it. That conviction doesn’t just come from finally seeing a completed book. It comes from what took hold in me. I’ve been touched by the music and literature of a culture not my own. I’ve listened to the griefs of others, and I’ve been deepened. I have told someone else’s story, and somewhere along the way that story became part of me. As I look back on these years of work, that is what I treasure. Now with the publication of The Songs We Hide, the story will spread to others, and I hope that in some way it will become part of them, too.