By Karis Walsh
I’ve suffered for my art. I had to test drive a Mercedes on the steep and winding McMurray Road in Tacoma, Washington. What a drag! I’ve had to sample a variety of drinks, from scotch to beer to bourbon—including an (admittedly) enjoyable experiment with tequila, limes, and salt. Ouch! And I’ve had to endure a series of short trips to some of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest, like the Olympic Peninsula and Cannon Beach and Spokane. Yes, some truly painful experiences. All in the name of research.
But since the time I started writing Improvisation—a spin-off from my first book, Harmony—my neighbors have been forced to suffer for my art as well because I bought a version of my character’s electric violin for myself. Tina Nelson is a violinist in Andy Taylor’s string quartet and an avid fiddle player who spends evenings in pubs playing her flame-red electric violin. Like Tina and Andy, I play the violin and viola. Unlike Tina and Andy, I don’t play very well, but I adore both instruments. I started with the violin when I was in the third grade, and it quickly became a family joke that everyone would evacuate the house when I started to practice. Luckily for my parents and sister, I rarely chose to do so. I stopped playing after a few years and started again as an adult, adding the viola to my caterwauling repertoire of instruments. The few people who are unfortunate enough to hear me play—including my music teacher and my wine-drinking adult chamber music group—would probably tell you that the last thing I need is to be hooked up to an amplifier when I play. But, using research for Improvisation as an excuse, I gave in to my long-repressed desire and bought a gorgeous maroon Yamaha electric violin.
Each book I write transports me to a new universe, and I bridge the two worlds by collecting objects I find in real life that remind me of the fictional one I’m creating. By the time I type “The End,” my desk will be cluttered with these things. This morning, I did a quick inventory of the stuff I’ve gathered since 2010, when I started writing Harmony. I have stacks of research books on a variety of subjects from raptors (for my upcoming novel Wingspan, February 2014) to polo rules and regulations (for Mounting Danger, October 2013). I have piles of sheet music, a tray covered with a collage of sea glass photos, maps from all over the Pacific Northwest, cigar bands, and geometry texts. Even better than these souvenirs from my imaginary voyages are the people I’ve collected along the way. New friends I’ve had the privilege of meeting on the internet and in person. More than royalty checks, more than the print books with my name on the cover, the readers and other authors I’ve met have been the true reward for the time I’ve spent writing and editing my books.
But the favorite inanimate object in my collection is definitely this five-string violin (in case you’re curious, the 5th string is a modified C-string, so I can play either the viola or violin parts). While it doesn’t seem logical to amplify the sounds created by a semi tone-deaf and rhythm-impaired musician, I actually play better when at a higher volume than I do on my acoustic instruments. The tentative, trying-not-to-make-a-mistake player fades away when I’m plugged into my amp. Maybe it’s the forgiving quality of a more rock-and-roll sound, or maybe it’s simply the joy of making music with gusto. Whatever the cause, enthusiasm and delight more than make up for the occasional missed note or awkward phrasing. And, funny as it sounds, the small mistakes and slides and sharp or flat tones don’t make the music sound wrong. They make it sound unique and interesting. This violin has taught me a lesson I plan to apply to my life—no matter whether I’m writing or loving, playing music or pursuing hobbies. What have I learned? To crank up the volume, push past the mistakes, and express myself with passion. To live life amplified.