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Saturday, January 28, 2017

INTERVIEW: Terez Mertes Rose, Author of Outside the Limelight Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Book 2

Outside the Limelight
Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Book 2
By Terez Mertes Rose

Contemporary [Women's] Fiction

Book Summary

Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren's dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: a brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena's older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.

Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her recuperating sister, hobbled and unnoticed, languishes on the sidelines of a world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help her sister.

Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.

{Outside the Limelight is a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection for January 2017.}


What inspired you to write this book?

Back in the spring of 2006, in my earlier days of novel writing, my sister was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma—a rare, benign brain tumor on the eighth cranial nerve. While the ensuing craniotomy and tumor removal were deemed a success, her facial nerve had to be clipped in the process, resulting in facial paralysis on one side, along with the more typical post-craniotomy brain fog, dizziness, single-sided deafness and ear-ringing that had worsened. Bad luck on my end, too: my carefully crafted, recently completed novel went over like a lead balloon with my agent. She suggested that I try my hand at something incorporating ballet, which I’d touched on in my first, unpublished novel. So as my sister struggled with the aftereffects of her acoustic neuroma, immersing herself in therapies and surgeries and strategies, I set to work on a new novel. But it would only be in February of 2011, after the first ballet novel didn’t sell, and my fourth novel didn’t sell, and my agent and I were once again musing about ballet in fiction for adults, its absence in the current marketplace, that it all came together in my mind. I said to her, “what do you think about a ballet novel featuring two sisters, dancers in the same elite company, and the more talented one gets felled by an acoustic neuroma diagnosis and a host of post-op problems?” She loved the idea. And so I got to tell a new ballet story while concurrently telling my sister’s story (although she’s a nurse and not a ballet dancer). Which meant a lot to me; my sister has continued to struggle terribly since her acoustic neuroma removal, and there’s so little I can do to help her. Telling the world her story, the struggles she and her fellow acoustic neuroma patients suffer, made me feel like I was helping in my own small way.

Do you have a favourite character, or in what ways do any of the characters represent you?

I love all my characters and I think in one way or another, all represent some side of me. That’s the fun thing about being a writer; you can “find yourself,” or work on thorny personal issues while projecting much of the burden of it onto someone or something else. Of the characters in this book, however, I felt particularly attached to Dena. She’s the younger sister (I’m the seventh of eight kids), fiercer and more difficult, although her talent is more extraordinary. She’s utterly screwed when this acoustic neuroma appears, sidelining her indefinitely when all she wants to do is pour her frustration, her heart, into her dance. But I dearly love Rebecca, the older, healthier sister, too. While she didn’t suffer a dramatic injury that risked ending her career, the more pedestrian ailment of aging, being overlooked in the corps de ballet, year after year, threw the same difficult question at her. What do you do when you’ve devoted your entire life to one career, and that career’s at risk of ending, very soon? How do you gracefully fight a losing battle with time?

What surprises did you come across when writing the book?

This book had three very different revisions over a period of years, and while it was hard and discouraging to recover each bump along the way, I’m so surprised and pleased by how the final revision turned out. There’s humor in the story that wasn’t in the first two incarnations. The sisters’ relationship feels more real and organic now, sometimes adversarial, other times loyal and loving. As my sister and I muddled our way through our own difficult issues, the story seemed to take on more depth, always in pleasantly surprising ways. And there were a half-dozen “wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” moments that it’s probably a bad idea for me to share, because they’re story spoilers. But, I have to say, these are the most wonderful gifts for a writer, these little “aha!” or puzzle pieces floating down from the heavens that fit the story so perfectly, you can only shake your head in wonder. It’s also interesting to note that most of the surprises came while I was working on the final draft of this story. My little reward for toughing it out, never rushing things, and letting the story tell ME what it wanted to be about.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead characters?

This is a tough one to answer, because it involves two factors. Who are the best actors to physically and emotionally represent Dena and Rebecca and, secondly, who looks and moves enough like a ballerina that they could convince viewers they’d been ballet dancers their entire life? I had a great, hilarious rant at The Classical Girl about my frustration with the 2011 horror film, Black Swan. ( Ballet people tend to get judgmental when they watch actors who “learned ballet in just two years!” take on the role of a professional ballet dancer. (Hint: it takes ten or twenty years.) But okay, assuming this hypothetical actor gets a dance double who looks identical and dances like a dream (American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane did a great job in Black Swan), the actors I’d love to see in the film version would be Jennifer Lawrence as Dena, Scarlett Johannson (dyed brunette) as Rebecca, Christoph Waltz as Anders, Ben Afleck (with thinning gold hair) as Ben.
Anything you would like to say about writing? Encouraging words for potential writers?

Here’s encouragement: ANYONE can be a writer. You just need to sit yourself down daily and write. No, not talk about it or daydream about it. Just sit and write. Every day. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours. It can be twenty minutes. (No distractions or Internet access during that time, though!) If you do this daily, monthly, yearly, it will grow and grow. People seem to think they need to wait till they retire to start writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because those people will wait and wait, and finally sit down one day, to write The Great American Novel. And guess what comes? A Great American Dose of writer’s block.

But, lest I sound too chirpy and can-do, bear this caveat in mind if you’ve doggedly set off to be a writer. In the end, if you don’t love the process, really love to write, well, don’t do it. If you can’t NOT write, well, there you go. Write. The reward is in the journey, and journeys don’t pay well. I am okay with the fact that I’ve devoted an astonishing number of hours over the past twenty years to project after project, with very, very little income generated. We’re talking something like $2.00 a week for a thirty hour work week. But what do I get instead of money? Oh, wow. My spirit, soul and heart all sing when I’m engrossed in my work, or when I look over a finished product. It’s a good feeling, like nothing else on earth. It’s where I was meant to be. Heed that little whisper in the back of your mind. It makes life easier.

About the Author

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press). She reviews dance performances for and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl ( She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.  

Novel Excerpt

When Anders Gunst, artistic director of the West Coast Ballet Theatre, told nineteen-year-old Dena Lindgren he was promoting her to soloist, all she could think was that she’d misheard him. They were standing backstage, post-performance, at San Francisco’s California Civic Theater. Partial lighting streamed from the overhead fixtures, casting the furthest wings in shadows. The stagehands, immersed in their nightly cleanup routine, swept the floor, inspected cables and called out to one another across the empty stage. Anders always spoke softly, and right then, it was hard to hear over their voices.
I’m sorry,” she stammered, clutching and unclutching the towel she’d used to mop up her sweat from Arpeggio, the ballet she’d just finished. “I misunderstood what you said. Because you’re promoting my sister. Not me. Right?” She felt foolish even suggesting otherwise, like the newbie first-year corps dancer she was. At five-foot-two, she was a petite dancer, and right then she felt her smallness. Anders himself, while not particularly tall, was dressed tonight in a sleek charcoal Italian suit and tie that enhanced his refined looks and made him seem all the more intimidating, even as he smiled at her.
No.” He shook his head. “It’s you I’m promoting to soloist.”
She began to shiver in her costume, a pale, glittery, silken tunic that clung damply to her skin. “That’s not possible. There’s just that one position open.”
Yes.” Anders didn’t seem bothered by her aggrieved tone or the way everything about her had scrunched up in resistance.
But… but,” she sputtered. “That wasn’t the plan.”
He chuckled. “I think, as the artistic director, I have a fairly good sense of what the plan should be.”
And still she stared at him, incredulous, unable to process it.
While he continued speaking, a part of her mind detached and hastily scrolled over the past two hours, this performance of Arpeggio, the unexpected triumph of it in the aftermath of the terrible news she and her older sister Rebecca had just received. Their parents were divorcing; their father already had plans to remarry. Dena hadn’t seen it coming, and this destruction of their family of four had devastated her. Rebecca, dancing Arpeggio too, had taken Dena by the shoulders in the dressing room, given her a shake, told her fiercely to take that pain and pour it into the performance. This crucial performance in which they both had soloist roles, even though they were both only corps dancers. The big, huge, this-could-be-career-changing opportunity for the two of them that they simply had to excel at.
They’d excelled, both of them. And now, by all rights, the career change belonged to Rebecca, three years Dena’s senior, in age and company status. The promotion was to be hers. Everyone in the company knew it.
Anders,” she said, more vehement now. “What about my sister?”
Anders gave her a thoughtful nod. “Rebecca is a very strong dancer, graced with extraordinary beauty. You lack your sister’s looks—most of the girls do—but it’s that very omission that makes you a more interesting dancer to watch. You can embody a number of different moods and personas, all so decisive and convincing. You have a talent that draws eyes to you. Rebecca fits seamlessly into any ensemble she’s placed in. She blends in. You stand out. I see that now. To keep you in the corps would only hinder what’s flowing from you so naturally. Soloist rank is where I want you.”
He glanced over to the front of the backstage area where Ben, ballet master and assistant to the artistic director, was gesturing to his wristwatch. Anders looked at his own watch. “I’m expected over at L’Orange in ten minutes,” he told Dena. “I’ll leave you to your cleanup. Congratulations, again.”
The implications began to sink in. “Wait! How… how can I possibly tell her?”
A touch of impatience crossed Anders’ face. “Rebecca and I understand each other. I’ll have a word with her.”
He didn’t wait for her reply, but instead strode away to where Ben stood waiting, by the door with the green glowing “exit” sign above. The two of them disappeared from sight.
She remained there, rooted to the spot, still trying to process it all.