This is How Salzburg Global Sparked a New Novel

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Mar 10, 2019
by Oscar Tollast
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This is How Salzburg Global Sparked a New Novel

Salzburg Global Fellow Patricia Leavy discusses new novel inspired by her experience at Schloss Leopoldskron Patricia Leavy speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar in 2015 (Insert: The front cover of Spark, Leavy's latest publication)

In 2015, a diverse crowd from all corners of the planet convened at Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, Austria, to identify and address emerging issues at the creative intersection of neuroscience and art.

No small feat, you might imagine. At the end of the five-day program, however, participants including neuroscientists, artists, musicians, scholars, and journalists came together and made a vow to improve artistic and scientific collaboration.

During the program, entitled The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, participants came up with ideas involving imagination hubs, artist-in-residence programs, and the creation of an open-access interdisciplinary journal to bring artists and scientists closer together.

Among this crowd of 50 was author, sociologist, and arts-based researcher Patricia Leavy. At the time, Leavy had written 17 books – fiction and non-fiction - and was editing five book series. She was a recognized leader in arts-based and qualitative research. Her experience in Salzburg left her with the premise for a new novel: Spark

Salzburg Global recently caught up with Leavy to discuss her new book, her experience attending a program at Salzburg Global Seminar, and how she drew inspiration. Read our exchange below.

Salzburg Global (SG): You’re widely recognized as a leader in arts-based research. Is this a career you envisioned embarking on when you were younger?

Patricia Leavy (PL): No, it isn’t. When I was growing up, I loved creative writing and theater. I imagined becoming a novelist or an actor. I never pursued writing, probably out of a combination of fears. There’s so much rejection and instability. I began college as a theater arts major with every intention of pursuing acting. In my second semester, I took a sociology course and a new world opened up. Ultimately I changed my major and career path. I earned my doctorate in sociology and became a professor. My main areas of expertise were research methods and women’s identities. Over time I became frustrated by the limitations of traditional ways of doing and sharing research. I didn’t think I was able to express what I had learned about women’s lives and reach relevant audiences through peer-reviewed journal articles. As a methodologist, I searched for alternative methods. That’s when I stumbled upon arts-based research which intuitively made sense to me. Arts-based research involves adapting the tenets of the creative arts in research in any discipline. I’ve been writing fiction grounded in sociological insights ever since. It’s been a winding, unconventional road to those things that interested me when I was young.

SG: You’ve authored and edited a large number of books. Where does your latest book, Spark, rank in that list regarding how close you’ve felt to a project?

PL: I couldn’t be closer to a project. I always feel closest to my novels; writing fiction is deeply personal, and even more so this time. Spark is quite special to me. It was inspired by an extraordinary experience, and although a fictional rendering, it’s a way of treasuring that special memory and inviting others into the feeling of the experience.

SG: Could you provide us with a brief outline of what Spark explores?

PL: Spark explores the assumptions we make about others, about ourselves, and about what counts as knowledge, modeling what collaboration and critical thinking might look like. Here’s a synopsis. Professor Peyton Wilde has an enviable life teaching sociology at an idyllic liberal arts college—yet she is troubled by a sense of fading inspiration. One day an invitation arrives. Peyton has been selected to attend a luxurious all-expense-paid seminar in Iceland, where participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers in the world, will be charged with answering one perplexing question. Meeting her diverse teammates- two neuroscientists, a philosopher, a dance teacher, a collage artist, and a farmer - Peyton wonders what she could ever have to contribute. The ensuing journey of discovery transforms the characters' work, their biases, and themselves. In essence, the novel explores the idea of ‘what if’—whether that ‘what if’ leads to formal research or personal explorations in one’s own life.

SG: When writing this book, did you want to leave your audience with a particular feeling or message? If so, what?

PL: There’s a message about letting go of our assumptions - about others and about ourselves - so that people who may be quite different from each other can learn to work together and so that we each know our contribution is valuable. This seems especially important these days. There’s also a message about reigniting the light within. It’s easy to get stagnant in one’s life; the day-to-day has a way of doing that. But life is short, and we are possibilities. We have to nurture the spark within. I hope readers are left with a feeling of hopefulness, about our ability to work together around issues that matter and about their own lives. Anything we can imagine, we can achieve. I hope this novel helps readers imagine what might be.

SG: We know your time at Salzburg Global inspired Spark. If we go back to 2015, what can you remember about the program you attended?

PL: I remember everything: learning about the history of [Salzburg Global Seminar] and the castle which moved me deeply, listening to lectures by scientists and artists I thought were brilliant, sitting in the library and other rooms engaged in small group conversations, bickering with one another as we tried to respond to our prompt questions, eating lavish meals and getting to personally know other fellows, experiencing a classical concert in a gorgeous room in the castle, listening to participants improvise music as we drank bottles of wine, dancing, hanging out in the pub at night as we developed friendships, playing group ping-pong after drinking too much wine, and wandering around the extraordinary castle and grounds. What I remember above all was the feeling of gratitude and inspiration I had when I left, and the sense of community. The research I was exposed to at the intersection of neuroscience and creativity and art, as well as the artistic performances I experienced, all left me inspired to continue contributing what I can to arts-based research. I felt like I was a part of a much larger and more complex conversation than I realized before and that’s been a gift.

SG: Did you know much about the organization beforehand and what you might be letting yourself get into?

PL: Not at all. In fact, my assistant forwarded me the invitation with a note that read, “I’m not sure if this is spam or legitimate, but if it’s real it’s the coolest invitation you’ve ever gotten.” It did turn out to be the coolest invitation I had ever received. Although I had heard enough about the organization to know it was real, that was basically it. I didn’t know what to expect. As a shy person, that did give me some anxiety, which ultimately I channeled into the protagonist in Spark, Peyton, who also suffers from anxiety. I also brought my husband, Mark, with me to Salzburg so I wouldn’t be on my own.

SG: Our programs usually create a strong bond between participants, but the cohort at your program appears to be particularly close. Can you explain why that connection is so strong?

PL: Maybe it has something to do with the focus of [Salzburg Global Seminar]. Scientists and artists are naturally curious. Even though these fields are often polarized, the truth is we’re all experimenting in the hopes of illuminating something about the social world, the natural world, or the human experience. I think we all brought our curiosity with us. Research on the arts is also often undervalued. We didn’t take the opportunity for granted. You’re right about our bond. I certainly feel a deep affection for everyone in our group. I don’t know if I can fully explain it. It was such a unique experience, centered on a topic we’re all passionate about in our own ways, and we felt privileged to be there. We actually argued quite a bit, but out of passion. Although we had heated exchanges, we also danced, ate, and laughed together. One of the fellows compared us to X-Men, one by one revealing our secret powers. I think maybe that’s it. Despite the disagreements, when we listened to each other, we were in awe. And like a group of misfit superheroes, we didn’t necessarily belong together, and yet, we became a group.

SG: If we reflect further on the characters in the book, are they based on you or any other Salzburg Global Fellows?

PL: The characters are all fictional, but some of the seeds of the characters were inspired by the events and people in Salzburg. For example, two of the characters are neuroscientists based on who was in my [program], the friendliness of Ronnie, the collage artist, was inspired by one of the fellows who befriended me at lunch on my first day, and the butting of heads between Liev and Harper was inspired by conflicts that arose in my small group. So while the characters are fictional, there are little tributes to my peers from Salzburg. I’m represented, too. The protagonist, Peyton, is a sociologist, living in New England, and she has anxiety meeting new people. We share those things in common, even though she’s different than I am in other ways.

SG: You’ve discussed in another interview how meal and snack times are used to move the plot forward in Spark and as a chance to break bread. Did you experience similar conversations when you were a participant at Salzburg Global?

PL: Yes. When we attended lectures and performances, we saw each other at our professional bests, but that isn’t really about getting to know each other. Then during the smaller group meetings, we would often argue more than anything else, at least in my group. Meal, snack, and after hours pub times were when we had a chance to get to know each other and develop friendships. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons our group bonded so much. We worked hard, but we also played hard.

SG: One of Salzburg Global’s strategic aims is to transform systems. Based on your experience, can you see Salzburg Global as an organization which can have a systemic impact? How is this done? What do you think sets Salzburg Global apart from other organizations?

PL: Absolutely. I’ve never seen a more thoughtful organization, and I mean that in a few ways: being thoughtful about the mission, the different programs and how they facilitate the mission, curating dynamic groups of fellows, and creating a sense of community beyond the walls of the Schloss. With all of the troubles in the world, it’s easy to become discouraged. When I left Salzburg Global Seminar, I was filled with hope. Much good is possible with an organization like this in the world.

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