Natalie Jacobs was 35 when she died, suddenly, in January 2008.
She left behind a novel. And her parents, Stan and Judith Jacobs of Ann Arbor, have published it, in ebook form, as a memorial to her.
“When Your Song Breaks the Silence” is an elegantly imagined life of Austrian composer Franz Schubert, distinguished by an articulate sensitivity and meticulous research. The completed novel’s existence was a surprise to her parents – its subject was not.
When her daughter was 11 years old, Judith Jacobs writes on the website she created for the book, “she wrote a story about the composer as a young child trying myopically – Natalie was also very near-sighted – to interact with his family and surroundings.” A graduate of Community High School, Natalie majored in English literature at the University of Michigan and was still working with the Schubert theme in the mid-1990s; when Stan and Judith traveled to Vienna in 1995 they made a point to visit the house where he died (in 1828, at age 31).
“A lilac bush was in full bloom in front of the building,” Jacobs says. They took a photograph.
A Body of Work Discovered
Natalie continued to write after embracing the more practical art of midwifery, for which she was finishing training in Portland, Oregon, when she died of viral myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – brought on by a case of flu.
After the Jacobses went to Portland to settle their daughter’s affairs, they gave Natalie’s computer to a friend of hers, who discovered on its hard drive a collection of Natalie’s writings. Among them was the novel.
From the opening chapter:
He is making what he hears into structures that he can understand: the sound of his mother’s voice, the tread of his father’s feet; the intricate melodies of words. Sounds beat down on him relentlessly, sometimes terrifying, sometimes soothing, but always present, even in the quietest room. He imagines he can hear the sounds that the grass in the courtyard makes as it grows. …
He comes to realize that sound is a language that he must learn in the same way that he must learn to read. These patterns mean something, they have secrets inside them. He is starting to understand. And meanwhile the patterns are everywhere: in the sounds of the priest giving Mass, in the sounds of his brother Ignaz practicing the piano, in the sounds of his mother’s murmured words of comfort after he wakes from a nightmare.
Shhh, Vögelein. Geh’ zu ruhe. Go to sleep, love.
It was clear to her, Judith Jacobs says, that the novel “had real possibilities.” A friend suggested she show it to Andrea Beauchamp, assistant director of the Hopwood Awards Program at UM. Beauchamp passed the manuscript along to writer and UM colleague Eileen Pollack (whose most recent book is the novel “Breaking and Entering”). First, though, she took the liberty of reading the manuscript herself; Beauchamp, Jacobs says, told her she “loved it, and cried at the end.”
“When Andrea and Judith first contacted me, I was reluctant to read the manuscript,” Pollack recalled in an e-mail. “I knew that Natalie was young when she died and that she had written the book on her own. In most such cases, the results are amateurish. If that turned out to be the case, how would I convey such a judgment to her parents without adding to their grief? On the other hand, as a parent, I could imagine what it would be like to be left with a child’s manuscript and want the work to reach a larger audience, to live on …. So you can understand how happy I was to discover that the novel was the work of a truly gifted writer.”
Pollack, says Jacobs, “really gave us confidence that we might be able to do something” with Natalie’s manuscript.
A Chapter Is Published
Her first step was to submit a chapter of the novel to about 30 literary magazines. Titled “An die Freude” (“To Joy”), it is Natalie’s retelling of the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 from the point of view of Schubert, who was in the audience in Vienna that May night in 1824. With Beethoven in view on stage, seated to one side of the orchestra, he absorbs the symphony’s opening measures:
Or had it begun? What was going on? There was just a pianissimo murmur of strings, open fifths, and Franz thought for a moment that there had been some sort of mistake and the orchestra was tuning again …. But then he realized what was happening. It was the primal moment, the chaos before creation, as the other instruments added descending cascades of open fifths, the simplest chords. Franz thought of God moving on the face of the waters, in darkness and silence. And then the music grew, expanded, exploded into a huge statement of the first theme that made him jump in his seat. Behold, the creation of the world!
From then on, he knew he was in the presence of something very wonderful, very new, altogether new. For in no other symphony had music remade the world. And the music around him rose and rose, blossoming into a million fantastic shapes, while he watched and listened, trying to understand even while the music transformed him into a vessel filled with sound, shaking with it …. He was drunk with it, and as it sang through his veins, he forgot it all: his failing body, his failing art, all gone, lost in this vast and wonderful ocean of sound.
He wished he could take it and pull it into himself, make the brilliance a part of himself. The idea of making something as wonderful as this was beyond his comprehension. How did the man do it? How could he possibly be holding this inside him? He looked so insignificant down there, hunched over his score, unaware of the glory all around him.
This is why he’s deaf, Franz thought. He’s been listening to God too much. The thought was absurd and would have made him smile had he not been grinning with elation already.
Many journals “ask for short stories or novel excerpts that can stand alone,” Jacobs found, “and this chapter filled the bill. … I was thinking in terms of finding an agent and a publisher and wanted to establish a track record to show that the work was publishable. There was also the wish to see something of hers in print in a decent magazine, of course, and publishing a chapter of the book might also bode well for publishing the whole thing.”
The Battered Suitcase, a print journal, accepted “An die Freude” by Natalie Jacobs and it appeared in the December 2010 issue. Now, Jacobs says, “people can read it online for all time. It’s too bad she wasn’t there to enjoy it.”
An Alternative: ePublishing
Meanwhile, Pollack had shown the manuscript to her literary agent. When she responded to Jacobs with “a lovely letter saying she liked it a great deal … but didn’t see what the market would be for it,” Jacobs began looking into alternatives.
She did some research into electronic publishing and found that it “looked very respectable.” But, “I had no idea how I would do it,” she says. And “in my online search for help in self-publishing, I learned that there seem to be as many books on the topic as there are actual self-published books.” “The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use,” by April L. Hamilton, would eventually become their “bible” for the project; Jacobs calls it “a very sensible, well-written guide – no hype.”
It was around that time that Stan Jacobs, an emeritus professor of atmospheric and oceanic science in the UM College of Engineering, was able to join more fully in the project. He’d read “An die Freude,” Judith says, “but that was really all.” It was three years before her husband could bring himself to read the entire novel: “It just made him too sad.”
Judith and Stan brought their individual strengths to editing Natalie’s manuscript. Judith was the copy editor; Stan did the fact checking. “It was astounding how much research she did,” Judith says. They checked several Schubert biographies – “it all tracked.” (And, as Pollack notes, “the portrait of Schubert and his contemporaries [is] utterly convincing without seeming too heavily researched.”)
Meanwhile, Stan Jacobs was formatting the manuscript for epublication.
“Judy wrote the description of the book required by the publisher and an afterword describing how it came into our possession,” Stan wrote in an email detailing the process. “She also wrote the front matter – the cover, the title page, the dedication page, and the copyright statement. I was responsible for casting the table of contents in the proper ebook form and for editing the manuscript to conform with ebook conventions.”
Sounding like the scientist he is, Stan advised that “provided that you read the publishers’ guidelines carefully, the process is straightforward.”
He prepared two versions of the manuscript for uploading, one for Amazon Kindle and one for Barnes & Noble’s Nook and other ebook readers. Then (after he “obsessively reread it another time to check for typos”), he used Calibre, the open-source ebook application, “to convert the file into the two most popular ebook formats, Mobi and EPub. I then checked the formatting using an Amazon Kindle and an iPod Touch for the Mobi and EPub versions, respectively.” After final checks of the book’s appearance and epublishing features, they sent it off to Amazon for Kindle and to Smashwords, the distributor for Nook and other ebook readers.
Even an ebook requires a cover. Judith Jacobs is an artist who makes digital fine-art prints. But she is not, she insists, “a graphic designer. So I tried to do something simple.” She researched cover designs at Barnes & Noble, collecting images of appealing book jackets. And she had an image of her own to work with: the photo taken in Vienna in 1995. “It looks the way the book sounds,” she says of the cover she created for her daughter’s book. “It suits both the style and the 19th-century subject matter.”
Natalie had not given her novel a name. “I felt very presumptuous, choosing a title for her book,” Judith Jacobs says, “but I thought Schubert would be OK.”
“When Your Song Breaks the Silence” is taken from the last stanza of “Der Einsame” (“The Hermit”), a poem by Karl Lappe put to music by Franz Schubert:
Chirp on and on, dear cricket,
in my narrow and small hermitage.
I tolerate you gladly: you do not disturb me
when your song breaks the silence,
for then I am no longer so entirely alone.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor – her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.