Interview with Elizabeth Wellburn

Today, I am pleased to welcome Elizabeth Wellburn, author of the children’s book Echoes from the Square, for a special interview.

What prompted your interest in writing this story about Vedran Smailovic, cellist of Sarajevo?
My daughter Amy is a cellist, and we had heard about Mr. Smailovic’s actions on the internet. I believed that what he had done was inspirational and I was intrigued by the idea of telling the story from the point of view of a child who had witnessed the performances. My husband Deryk Houston did the artwork for the book, so it was a bit of a family project.

What sort of background do you have in music and/or writing?
I am an educator and my specialty is really education technology. But the technology is something I see as a means to an end. Information literacy and critical thinking are what I believe should be the main goals of education in this information–rich era. And I am a huge supporter of the arts – to make us human and allow us to connect in important ways (some which can be enhanced by technology). So a project that could incorporate several of these aspects was appealing to me.

How long did the process take from conception to finished book?
The book was published just over ten years ago and the exact amount of time from start to completion is a bit fuzzy in my mind now. At least two years — but that time included gaps when we were “on hold.”

Can you describe your process for researching the information that went into the story?
Ahhh… it was a great research project and it involved a bit of detective work and a lot of luck. Smailovic’s actions were reported widely, so it was easy to find out which music he had performed, where he had played, etc. And there was plenty of heartbreaking information about the Bosnian war and its impact on the people and the area. I wrote a quick draft and Deryk did some rough artwork based on our daughter’s cello teacher. Rubicon, a small Canadian publisher, was interested (our timing was good), but we all really wanted to to base the artwork on the real Smailovic and have his opinion of the story. He was almost impossible to find, though. Amazingly, one day we received a postcard for our daughter from a friend in Boston, a dear person who we see, if we’re lucky, every couple of years. The card had Smailovic’s photo on it and was signed, to Amy, 1000 times love, Vedran Smailovic. Our friend didn’t know we were working on the project, but had been to a performance in Boston and thought Amy, as a cellist, would like the card. This led us to the person who had booked Vedran for the Boston performance, and we were then able to find him. Meeting him added a richness to the story and artwork that we couldn’t have achieved otherwise.

What sort of responses have you received from children that hear/read the story?
Children are so direct and wonderful. They often ask “why was there a war?” Many schools have used this book to as a starting point for art projects incorporating music themes, and it’s been very gratifying to see children’s interpretations of the power of music to make people feel better. One boy wrote and recorded a cello-violin duet that he has named “Echoes from the Square.”

You can imagine that we are thrilled that we’ve been able to help promote the idea of music for peace.

Any additional comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
We are delighted that our work aligns with the concept of “Creativity over Destructiveness” that is a main premise of the Zimbardo/Langdon “heroes in waiting” project — a curriculum to promote the conditions that lead individuals to seize the heroic moment. I’ve created a social media site to discuss this, in the context of:
– peace/conflict resolution
– creativity over destructiveness
– civic responsibility/resisting unwanted influences
– the role of culture and the arts in all of the above

We welcome people to participate at: http://echoesfromthesquare.ning.com/.

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