Monday, April 7, 2014

Interview with Peter Danish, author of The Tenor

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Peter Danish to Flashlight Commentary to discuss his debut release, The Tenor.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Peter. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Tenor.
The Tenor is a work of historical fiction in three parts. It begins in pre-WWII Italy, then moves to Athens in 1941.  It concludes in New York City during the 1960s. It follows the life of a young opera singing prodigy who is on the verge of a major international career when the war breaks out and his career hopes are dashed.

Your main character, Pino Vaggi, was inspired by an unnamed Italian soldier you’d discovered in a biography of Maria Callas. You had virtually no historical record to work with. Where did you start in creating Pino and how to you hope he’s interpreted by your readers?
I originally learned the story of the soldier from Arianna Stassinopoulos (now more famously known as Arianna Huffington, of Huffington Post fame) and her biography of Maria Callas. But when I read a half dozen other accounts of her life, none of them mentioned him!  So I sought out an old family friend who was a personal friend of Callas (actually a friend of my ex-in-laws  - yes, I cared enough to reach out to my ex-in-laws!) He informed me that the story was indeed true, and not only had the soldier existed, but Maria had a school-girl crush on him! And that the two of them often sang together!  The fact that they sang together struck me deeply. I just knew he had to be a fellow opera singer, because only another opera singer would have recognized the subtleties, the nuances that separate the good from the great and the great from the once-in-a-lifetime voices.

Historically speaking, what research went into The Tenor and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating material for the book?
I visited both Italy and Greece several times and spoke to numerous people who were there at the time of the book, who had lived through WWII. In some cases, I played backgammon or dominos with a bunch of really old men just to pick their brains. Several of those people became characters in the book! As far as particular discoveries, I learned that we sometimes forget that even the greats, the legends, were also just ordinary people. One acquaintance of hers said that she was actually brilliantly witty with a sardonic sense of humor, even quite ribald at times. Yet, watch all the video of her interviews and performances and you will never find any record, video or otherwise in which she is ever anything short of pure elegance. So, it was delightfully endearing to hear and learn about the person behind the diva.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly stands out to you?
For me, the scenes between Pino and Maestro Ivaldi were particularly special. They reminded me of myself and my own music teacher as a child. I tapped into that sense memory of the joy of discovery that he shared with me.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
Because the book is loosely based on a true story, I had to do a tremendous amount of research. That was the most difficult part. But in terms of the writing, because it is a book about an opera singer, I had to keep a careful eye on the amount of exposition I used. Already I have heard from various critics: “way too much information about opera” and “not nearly enough detailed information about opera, for the laymen among us.”  I guess in the end you try to find a balance that best suits the story. You can’t make everybody happy!

What would you say is the central theme of Pino’s story? 
Could an artist allow another artist to perish if he or she was in a position to prevent it?And what lengths would you go to, what would you be willing to risk? That is the central question in “The Tenor” and everything that happens to Pino leading up to that influences his decision.  And then, the decision he makes, influences everything that happens in his life subsequently.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on? 
That is so true!  There were actually several characters whom I would have liked to have spent more time on but I decided not to for a reason. When speaking with the locals in Italy and Greece, time and time again I asked them:  “whatever happenhed to so-and-so?” And very often (and very frustratingly) they would say: “Who knows? He disappeared.”   Or they’d say: “I lost track of him or her.” It became clear to me that in reality war interrupted a lot of lives, stories, relationships, friendships. It’s not like today. They had no internet, they couldn’t look up people and find out where they were living, working, etc. It a bitter reality that they had to live with. They had no recourse of any kind. I tried to capture a little bit of that reality, that frustration, by leaving some of the characters’ stories sort of hanging, slightly unresolved, because that was the reality. I have gotten some criticism about that, but I stand by it. The story doesn’t fit into a nice little package because life doesn’t fit into a nice little package.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Tenor and if so, what did you alter and why? 
I really didn’t invent or change any of the historical elements of the story, rather, I laid out the timeline and wove the story around the historical events. It was a lot of work! In the end, history lent itself well enough that I didn’t have to make any changes.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I think in a lot of ways, I already have. While in Greece and Italy researching the novel, I met so many wonderful and colorful characters that I felt I needed to include them in the story. The characters of Kostas, who provides the soldiers with little bits of black-market contraband is based on a real person I met and drank ouzo with in Athens. The guy was probably over eighty years old but he was still working as a waiter in a restaurant! In addition, Spiro, the bouzouki player who Pino performs with in the bar is actually a composite of several old musicians I met and chatted with. Their homespun wisdom and wonderful anecdotes provided the life-blood of most of the characters Pino encounters.  

What do you hope readers take away from their experience with your novel? 
I’ve always felt the books that have stayed with me the longest and made the deepest impressions on me are the ones that touch me on many levels. I love language and I am in awe of the great word smiths that can craft beautiful and memorable sentences, but I like to learn from every book I read. So, for me, historical fiction is often the most rewarding. First and foremost, I hope the readers of The Tenor will feel that they have been thoroughly entertained. I hope the characters make impressions and are memorable. Beyond that, I hope the story is touching and meaningful. It deals with some very complex issues, and I only hope that I have dealt with them delicately enough to make the reading of the book meaningful.  

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in The Tenor that sprung directly from your personal history? 
Yes, far too many instances to mention! But I can point to a couple of very specific ones. Pino’s hometown of Collagna is actually my ex-father-in-law’s hometown! It was the ideal location for the first part of the story. And on my first trip to Athens, I saw a concert at the two thousand year old theater of Herodias Atticus. It was the site of several of Maria Callas’ great triumphs. After sitting on the marble seats of the ancient theater, and looking around in spellbound wonderment at the magnificent structure, I just knew that it had to be the site of one of the pivotal scenes in the book.

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process? 
Years ago I met the great writer Elmore Leonard and he told me that for years he would get up at 5am and write for two hours before going to his day job at an advertising agency. I sort of did the same thing, only I typically write during my commuting time from New York City back to my home in Nyack in the Hudson Valley. That way I know I have a dedicated block of ninety minutes per day to write.

Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it? 
Writer’s block has never been an issue for me. It’s not that I never suffer from it, but when I do, I generally find it is the piece that I am working on that is causing the blockage.  So, I like to be working on several projects at once. If I get blocked on one, I switch to another. That way I keep the creative juices flowing consistently. 

Who are your favorite authors? 
Magical Realism is possibly my favorite genre of fiction.  Partly because it is so infrequently successful. In fact, I think you can probably name on one hand – maybe two hands - all the masterpieces of the genre – but those few, those happy few! Magical Realism is a style that is almost exclusively unique to the printed page and by extension to the mind’s eye of the reader. That makes it very special.  The images that the mind conjures up while reading Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” or Gabriel Garcia Marques “100 Years of Solitude” still give me goosebumps just thinking of them years and year later. The first time that Athansor (Peter Lake’s horse) flies, I held my breath and almost forgot to start breathing again. The swarm of yellow butterflies from 100 Years of Solitude still brings a smile to my lips and tears to the eyes. The impossible and the implausible, the very laws of physics fall before the imagination and the craft of the author. That is what make Magical Realism so wonderful.

What are you currently reading? 
I’m currently reading Leonard Bernstein’s Collected Letters and Galina, the autobiography of the great Russian Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. “Galina: A Russian Story” is absolutely remarkable! Her life was like a James Bond movie! KGB, spies, international intrigue – it is beyond belief that this person was capable of being such a great artist given the insane life she had to lead. I highly recommend it!

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I am also a playwrite and composer. I welcome you to visit my website or facebook pages and check out my various other works.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
I am a confirmed coffee addict. My wife is from Bosnia and the coffee she makes is so flavorful (and so caffeinated!) that you really can’t go back to tea!

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy? 
I am working on my musical THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, for which I wrote the book, lyrics and music. I am preparing to do readings of the show this summer, so that is tying up most of my creative energy. I am also putting the finishing touches on my next novel, entitled: “Between the Mountains.” It’s a mystery set in Medjugorje, Bosnia where little children have been seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Five total strangers of different faiths and ethnicities stumble upon an ancient secret while visiting the holy shrine. They stand to make a fortune if they can put aside their differences and work together. But a bloody war and a thousand years of hatred stand between them. It’s also based on stories I learned while working in Bosnia doing volunteer work after the war. It’s a far cry from THE TENOR but I think readers will love it.

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Peter Danish is the Classical Music Editor in Chief for, the classic music site for, covering and reviewing the classical music performance in and around New York City and the greater New York Area. A proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America, he is the playwright of the play: “Gods, Guns and Greed,” as well as the new musical: “The Flying Dutchman.” His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ad Age, Ad Week and Media Week Magazines.

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Format: Paperback & ebook
Publication Date: February 24, 2014
Released by: Pegasus Books
Length: 350 pages
ISBN-10: 0991099354
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check out all the stops on Peter Danish's The Tenor Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, March 24
Interview at Caroline Wilson Writes
Tuesday, March 25
Spotlight & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Friday, March 28
Review at A Rose in the City
Monday, March 31
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story
Spotlight & Giveaway at Susan Heim on Writing
Tuesday, April 1
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, April 2
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, April 3
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Review & Giveaway at She is Too Fond of Books
Friday, April 4
Review at Closed the Cover
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Review at Kelsey’s Book Corner
Review at Princess of Eboli

1 comment:

Diane said...

Thank you for a lovely interview; I shall definitely add The Tenor to my To Be Read list.