Writing Moonlight in Our Eyes by Stephen Ross

My parents bought a piano when I was nine. A year later, I started piano lessons. The piano sat in the living room, and I could see the TV while I played. I often used to turn off the TV’s sound and play along with the pictures, improvising to suit the scene/mood (I have fond memories of “scoring” Columbo reruns). I learned later that piano players in the silent cinema era did a similar thing.

From a young age, I became hooked on movies and movie music.

When I was in my teens, my record collection was 90% original soundtrack albums, and most weekends, I’d take a train into the city and catch a movie. I even made movies—short silent films shot on Super 8 millimeter film stock, roping in my school friends to act. For a long time, I wanted to be a movie director. When I started writing scripts for my short films (because sound, and thus dialog, had become an option), I got hooked on writing. My first two scripts were crime thrillers. 

Excerpt from the movie The Splash, 1980

Before I’d left high school, writing and music had established themselves as my life’s twin interests.

Cut to: Many years later.

I’ve written over thirty short stories in the last decade and a half. A handful of the characters I’ve written about have been musicians of some stripe or another, most often piano players. About five years ago, I thought about writing about a film composer. That was the first step in writing Moonlight in Our Eyes.

I once considered entering the field of film composition myself. I was signed briefly in the late 1980s to Chappell/Warner Bros. as a songwriter. I have soundtrack credits for a handful of short films, a TV documentary, and live theatre. I once scored a theatre production of Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room. The director said, let’s score this three-act play with incidental music. Let’s blur the boundaries between live theatre and cinema. I’m pleased to report the experiment was a success.

Makeshift recording studio for writing/recording music for Veronica’s Room, 1989 (courtesy of the author)

So, I had a character, “David Camden,” and I’d given him some shading. He’s an elderly film composer in Hollywood in the early 1960s. An old school film composer approaching the end of his days. 

But, a character in a setting is not a plot.

I decided to make David Camden an Englishman for a bit of character conflict; an alien living in an alien world (not that I used that detail much in the final story). And I added a song. I liked the idea that he had written music for countless films, but it was one song from an early picture that had stuck in the public’s mind. And he would be grumpy about that. I imagined that the song, “Moonlight in our Eyes,” written by him for a film in the 1950s, had entered the pantheon as a “standard.” The type of song everyone would have a go at, from Dean Martin to Herb Albert, Tiny Tim, and the Everly Brothers. The song’s title, naturally, would be the story’s title.

Bits of information were slowly assembling around the nucleus (the main character), but critical mass (a plot) still hadn’t been arrived at.

And then my mother fell to dementia. 

Her fall took about three years. She passed away about a month before Covid-19 became the thing that changed all our lives. I won’t dwell on her passing, except to say I learned an awful lot about dementia in that time, and I would not wish that illness on anyone.

My mother once asked me, after I had sold my second short story, where do you get your ideas? I can’t remember my answer. My answer with “Moonlight” would have been “from her.” 

It occurred to me one afternoon: What if David Camden had dementia? Memory loss is a primary symptom of dementia, and what if “a brother” turned up on his doorstep to visit, and Camden didn’t remember ever having a brother?

That simple conflict was the key conceit to the story. It led quickly to a plot, and I wrote the first draft in about two weeks.

And then I sat on that draft for three months.

Was it right to use the pain and suffering I’d witnessed as a plot device?

Write what you know, they say, but should you?

My mother would have said, “Use it.” She was not faint of heart. And I reminded myself that “Moonlight” was not about her in any shape or form. “Moonlight” is not a study of dementia; the illness is simply one thread in the story’s fabric. It’s a crime mystery written to entertain: A Hollywood film composer near the end of his life is confronted with his secret past in London.

To say any more than that would be a spoiler.

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