Singing is something that Susan Dormady Eisenberg always was passionate about, but there came a point at which another one of her passions became the forerunner in her life — writing.
“I felt that my talent was modest in the performing end. What I had to give was the ability to write about the arts, and that is what I’ve been doing ever since,” she says.
Her debut novel “The Voice I Just Heard” explores the concepts of passion and vocation, told through the coming-of-age journey of an aspiring singer.
“People drawn to arts are often told by society you can’t do that, or you can do it but you need something to fall back on,” says Eisenberg, 62, of Silver Spring.
“Voice” is the story of Nora Costello, an aspiring singer struggling to find herself in the weeks after her brother — and biggest supporter — was killed in the Vietnam War. An embarrassing bout of stage fright during a college production of “Camelot” caused her parents to lose faith in her pursuing a career in musical theater. The book follows Nora through a summer of self-discovery in 1970 while she is working behind the scenes at a tent theater in upstate New York. There, she strikes up a relationship with a washed-up Broadway performer, Bart, who encourages her to pursue a classical signing career.
Eisenberg herself also worked at a tent theater in upstate New York, and played the role of Guenevere in a production of “Camelot,” before hanging up her hat on her own singing career. She has since worked as corporate writer and freelance music journalist for The Huffington Post and Classical Singer, sometimes using the performers she has interviewed as inspiration for her fictional tale of life in the spotlight.
“The singers that I met shed so much light on what the professional life was like,” she says.
Eisenberg found it a challenge to translate music onto the page using words, so she chose to feature repertoire in the book that the average person would be familiar with, such as the opera “Carmen,” in the hopes that they would be able to hear the music in their head while reading.
“Voice” took Eisenberg 20 years to write due to the three rewrites she did while working with a literary agent. When the agent asked for a fourth rewrite and to cut out a scene where Nora visits her brother’s grave, Eisenberg made the decision to split with the agent and publish the book herself in order to keep her story intact.
“We needed to see some connection with his death. This story is about a grieving family. It may sound minor but it was a moment of great epiphany for [Nora],” she says. “I believed so strongly in what I was doing, and I worked on the book for so long and it really was my vision.”
The final version of “Voice” is half of its original length, and was condensed down to feature one summer of Nora’s life, with an epilogue that takes place five years later.
The aftereffects of the Vietnam War also play a major role in the book. When she was 18, Eisenberg lost her pen pal, Mark E. Vanderheid, to the war. Even though she never knew him personally, his loss affected her and represented one of the many tragedies of the war that left such an impact on her generation.
“I was so deeply grieved when he died, he was my age, and I still think about him all the time,” she says. “His death stayed in my mind all those years and when I started writing this novel it came up behind my eyes again.”
Eisenberg hopes that her book will inspire readers to follow their own passions, just as she has done by becoming a writer. Now that “Voice” is complete, she also is working on a novel about becoming a parent and a historical novel about Annie Oakley.
“I hope the reader will see the value of listening to our inner voice whether it is about vocation or anything else,” she says. “We have to follow and trust our instincts — they will never let you down.”