Years ago, I read an article about the now-defunct soap opera Another World. I was a fan at the time. I’m unashamed to admit I enjoy serial storytelling, and soap operas rule in that genre, keeping plot lines and characters alive (sometimes even after they’re supposedly dead!) for years, even decades. I’ve even written a book, a romantic comedy, about a soap head writer (My Own Personal Soap Opera).
In the article, an Another World head writer or producer talked about the core of the soap’s storytelling. Haves vs. have-nots provided the foundation for most if not all their tales. One of the soap’s biggest stories involved the character of Rachel Davis (played by Victoria Wyndham), daughter of single-mother Ada, who villainously connives to seduce and try to marry one rich fellow after another, ultimately landing on wealthy Mac Cory (played by Douglass Watson), with whom she finds happiness (and, of course, sadness as they break up, make up and…on and on).
That story thread, haves vs. have-nots, provides a foundation for some of my own tales in one way or another. My stories aren’t always about rich vs. poor, but they almost always carry an element of upper-class vs. middle or working class, maybe because I felt those distinctions myself over the years as the daughter of two wonderful parents who worked hard all their lives (in white collar jobs) but made sure their two children went to college. I even went to a music conservatory.
Talk about class tensions. In that highly competitive atmosphere, the “haves” were those with musical pedigrees, maybe parents who played in orchestras or maybe just a lifetime immersion in classical music. Everything I knew about classical music came from those conservatory teachers at the time. In that sense, I was a “have not,” acutely aware of my lack of standing, afraid I’d trip up and mispronounce a composer’s name or, as I did one day, bring into a class a ridiculously sentimentalized arrangement of an art song, not realizing how this selection might reveal what a cultural neanderthal I really was.
The conservatory was in Baltimore, my home town, which for many years was very socially stratified, with various groups living in specific regions of the town–old money in Roland Park and Guilford, ethnic whites in Highlandtown, Jewish people on the west side, steel workers in the suburbs of Dundalk, and African-Americans in the inner city.
This experience of class lines, of feeling like a “have not,” even if my family wasn’t poor, undergirds the first adult mystery I ever wrote, Death Is the Cool Night. In this novel, a troubled young conductor, Gregory, can’t remember his actions on the night his nemesis is murdered. As police investigate the crime, he wonders if he did it…or if the real killer is a charming young woman, Laura, from an upper class family, he’s falling in love with.
Throughout the story, Gregory feels his sense of being a “have not” as acutely as I did as a student at Peabody Conservatory, where the book is set.
For a few years, I tried, through literary agents, to sell this book to traditional publishers. It received rejection letters that could have read as back-cover blurbs, but no one wanted to buy. World War II-era books were not popular back then, and its time period worked against me.
So I self-published it, and even managed to snag a wonderful review from a a major trade journal that said, in part:
“Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations…” Publishers Weekly
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