Gale Martin writes the well-loved opera blog Operatoonity, as well as writing opera reviews for Bachtrack. Her first novel, Don Juan in Hankey is a rapid-fire comedy set largely in an opera house and incorporating various bits of Don Giovanni. I had a lot of fun reading a pre-release copy, so here are some questions that I put to Gale:

While some of the action in Don Juan in Hankey is suitably off the wall, I suspect that the small town setup and several of the characters are alarmingly near the bone. Are they based on an experience in a real opera house, or are they largely invented? I've never served on an opera guild, but I did spend a few miserable years on a community theater board and a few other non-profit boards, experiences which stayed with me for decades after because they were so painful. On community theater boards, there are always performers who serve because they are jockeying for bigger roles in future productions. As far as my characters go, usually there are pieces, sometimes even great chunks of real people I've met. Vivian was inspired by one such (annoying) person and began less sympathetically than she is drawn now. Deanna is every small-town female board chair I've known all rolled into one person. On a side note, I am happy to report that I am now a card-carrying member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild--my first opera guild membership ever though I doubt I’ll be called to meetings and asked to brainstorm how the Met can enhance its revenue or stay relevant in the 21st century.

Clearly, the opera Don Giovanni plays a starring role in your novel. Did any other operas audition for the role? Or can you think of other operas that will make a great base for the next book? Good question. First I thought I would use several operas in one book. Then I scrapped that idea, hoping to find one opera suitable for a contemporary retelling. I tore through synopses of literally dozens of operas looking for a suitable scaffold, a framework for a core of four to five characters, three of them being women. I really liked Falstaff, but there weren't enough women principals. Still there's a Falstaff bit in my novel because I liked one scene in that opera too much to not use it. I love The Marriage of Figaro, too. But for depth and breadth of dramatic color, can you beat Don Giovanni, really? Crazy women, assaults, flirting, fondling, pimping, trickery, murder, ghosts, cemeteries? I don't think I'll write another opera book—I may have exhausted the market for commercial opera fiction— but I do think there will be more books set in Hankey, PA, with “Hankey, PA” as part of the title.

Tell us about how you go about writing. Did you start with the story? The characters? The setting? And was the whole book planned and plotted before you started writing? I started with the idea to use opera as a backdrop for a full-length work of fiction. I used to have a literary agent who made me remove the opera thread in the novel she agented, saying it was too rich to be merely a thread; it needed to be the controlling theme. Once I committed to the idea of writing a novel with that backdrop (not an easy commitment, mind you), the characters were at once interwoven with the small-town setting. The plot came last. I wanted to pay homage to the Don G. storyline for those who knew the opera but not be strictly wedded to it.

You start the action at a fairly breakneck speed, and then manage to get through several hundred pages without really slowing down at any point. What's the trick? In earlier drafts, it took me several chapters to get readers involved in the story. Initially, I used a different POV, the narrative we, because I was trying to make a point about groupthink and the politics of arts organizations. I also wanted to use the guild as a Greek chorus to comment on and advance the action. I shared the first draft with a local library book club, some of whom commented that they were hoping for a faster start. I gave up the idea of making any kind of statement and committed myself to telling a good story. I actually came to the opening I’m using now very late in the book’s development. I didn’t set out to mirror the plot of Don Giovanni. I literally had an “aha” moment while thinking about how to reopen the book with a faster start: I should have Deanna be assaulted by a masked man just like Don Giovanni creeps into Donna Anna’s bed chamber to open the opera. I also knew that operas tend to be slow if not glacially paced and that I had to infuse more rapid-fire action into an opera novel to have a prayer of chance appealing to readers of commercial fiction. Plus, I like lots of plot twists in turns in the books I read.

Don Juan in Hankey will obviously appeal to people who know their opera. Are there enough of these? Or do you think the book will appeal to non-operagoers as well? I tried to write the book in layers so that those with opera know-how would enjoy it on a different level from those without. I actually thought I might have more appeal with non-operagoers after lampooning much of what is sacred to true and devout opera lovers. And I poke a great deal of fun at performers and conductors, or at least stereotypes of them, too. I can tell you I have shared this book with more people who don’t know opera than do—that’s a much smaller subset of human beings to begin with—and most people say things like, “I am surprised/flabbergasted/blown away how much I liked your book when it has opera in it.” But then, look how successful Amadeus, the play and the movie were. Sometimes something different breaks through the clutter, and the public responds to it.

I don't think I'm spoiling too much by saying that the book has a strong supernatural element. Is it possible to write a novel about opera without including a phantom? As K.E. Watt, a classically trained singer, said, “Opera composers have never been afraid of ghosts… opera has unabashedly embraced supernatural beings, ghosts or otherwise.” So, if a work of fiction contains homage to classic opera, you can pretty much bank on some sort of supernatural influence appearing in the book. Either that, or a fat blonde in braids and a horned helmet.

As I understand it, you pretty much got a publisher on your first round of begging letters, which counts as an extraordinary feat these days. Do you have any advice for budding authors on how to get their first novel published? That’s not entirely true. I tried shopping the book to agents first—in 2010—since that’s the best way to get the attention of a publisher. I queried numerous agents and got lots of requests to submit partials or full manuscripts. I had one literary agent read the whole thing, tell me how much fun it was, and then say she couldn’t represent it. Usually, if an agent finishes your book and really likes it, you’re in like Flynn. When she didn’t want to represent it, it became pretty clear that the entire publishing industry is being turned on its head. That there’s a new normal in publishing impacting unknown authors destined for mid-list. When I approached Booktrope last March, I hadn’t really queried many publishers at all. Maybe one other. I was just about to revisit the book, do some heavy revisions, and plan a full-frontal assault on publishers, when Booktrope said they’d like to publish it. They have real expertise in digital publishing, and I was dying to dip my toe into the digital publishing arena. I love books, but digital is the emergent format for book publishing. Also, many opera lovers are located around the globe and are also digitally savvy. Digital made more and more sense for a book with a potential international market. Booktrope seemed like the right fit for this book. They also “got” this book. They liked it. They laughed. They didn’t get hung up on the fact that opera was the backdrop for it. They weren’t hoping to see a vampire, a werewolf, a Kardashian, or a Palin within its pages. Imagine that! In fact, the publisher himself told me he doesn’t like opera, but he loved this book. Go figure. This isn’t the first book I’ve shopped. I’ve completed three novels and got close to being published 2009 while working with an agent on another novel. To newer writers I would say, keep your eyes open to new people in the business and new ways of doing things. Booktrope is a relatively young company. I was lucky to find them. I was on Twitter and just happened to notice a writer had listed them in her Twitter profile and looked them up. I’ve been writing creatively for six years and submitting fiction for four of those years. So work hard, commit yourself to look for new opportunities, and cross your fingers with some frequency. I had a bit of luck. A year from now, Booktrope might have a much longer list of authors in their stable, and I might not have gotten a chance to work with them.

One last question, which I can't resist: was I correct in guessing that the name Deanna is a shortening of Donna Anna? You’re not going to believe this, but this all happened subconsciously. I came up with the name Deanna first because I thought the name fit her character. Then I noticed the similarities to Donna Anna, as if I conflated the two names into one, and laughed. Then I went back into the libretto and looked for ways to tie Donna Anna’s lines to Deanna. For instance, Donna Anna often calls out, “Help, oh heavens.” Every fictional character needs a distinguishing expression or two. So, when Deanna’s under stress, she calls out, “Oh, heaven,” or “Heaven help me,” just like you-know-who. But thankfully, Deanna’s not as fragile as Donna Anna. Because there’s no one in this book to hold her hand and kiss the hem of her garments.

21st November 2011