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Friday, June 18, 2010
Historical Book Review and Interview: Prima Donna by, Megan Chance
Back cover blurb…
In the glittering world of nineteenth century opera, Sabine Conrad is a beloved star feted by New York’s high society, showered with adulation from her audiences, and courted by wealthy patrons. Ensnared by a man who both loves and controls her, Sabine risks everything—including her lustrous career—to break free from her lover. But her plan backfires; by the end of the night, she is a criminal on the run from a grisly murder.
Changing her appearance and her name, she flees as far from society as she can, to the rough and gritty town of Seattle. There, hidden among the prostitutes, drunks, and miners, she must put aside the prima donna she once was and learn how to survive on her own.
Until her past returns to offer a terrifying proposition…
I was blown away by Ms. Chance’s novel. The characters are mesmerizing, eye popping. I connected with Sabine right away. In the story, you start out in the present—and I won’t give it away, except to say it is VERY intense. From there you go back in time to several years earlier. And the entire book is written this way. Present, then back in time, then back to present. And slowly you learn more and more about Sabine, and the turmoil that has become her life. There are twists and turns you don’t envision. I had many a nail-biting moment, and had to force myself not to flip through the pages to find out what happened before I got there.
Ms. Chance did a FANTASTIC job of recreating a historical setting and historical characters. Her sensory details, scene descriptions, manner of speaking, clothing, customs, were all right on. I’d never read one of her books before, but have since added them to my TBR pile. Prima Donna is a book you don’t want to miss!
How did you decide you wanted to write a story about an opera singer?
Prima Donna began with an idea I had of two people torn apart by some major incident. I knew I wanted a person whose life had essentially been torn in half, so that forever there would be this division of before and after. I knew I needed a woman running away from the past, and I wanted it to be hard for her to escape it. I wanted people looking for her; I wanted her to have to be in hiding; and I wanted her to beloved—people wanted to find her. All which meant that people had to know who she was. In the 19th Century, there were very few ways for a woman to become a celebrity. Generally, she had to be an actress or an opera star. But actresses were still painted with the brush of immorality in a way that opera singers were not. Singers were beloved and feted and forgiven a great deal. So the decision to make her an opera star was based on historical necessity. And since I knew almost nothing about opera, it also meant I had to do a great deal of research.
In the acknowledgements, you mentioned that watched a lot of opera videos. How many do you think you watched and which were your favorites?
There weren’t a ton of DVDs available, so mostly I listened to operas—over and over again. I would check out a CD and listen to it solidly for three or four weeks, until I was humming the music in my head. How many did I listen to? Hmmm … I don’t know. During the writing of the book, maybe twenty or thirty? I focused on what was being performed in the 19th Century—which was easy to discover from newspaper ads, and also from the lists of performances for 19th century opera stars. So that narrowed it down. I’d say my favorites were Gounod’s Faust, which is mentioned several times in the novel, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I also really, really like Verdi’s Rigoletto and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Since then, I’ve listened to many more and seen some as well through the Seattle Opera and the Met’s HD live theater broadcasts, but I’ve only just begun.
Beyond watching the videos, you spent time researching at libraries and looking through archived newspapers. What sort of information did you find there that piqued your interest or made it into the book?
I love love love doing research—reading newspaper articles is particularly fascinating, because you get a real sense of what people were talking about and what they were doing for entertainment. Some of the best finds were the French Ball held by the Cercle Francais de l’Harmonie—decadent and fascinating; I had to put it in!—and the Grand Easter Charity Ball Sabine sings at. The scene at Washington Market came from a magazine article I’d found describing it in detail. And the operas Sabine was singing in were almost all those playing in New York City in those venues at that time.
Are you a singer or musician yourself? If not, how difficult was it for you to pick up the language?
Yes to both—I sang in a touring group when I was in school and a punk rock band in college, and I’ve played guitar for many years. So I can read music, and I know some of the terms, and I understood the physicality of what an opera singer needs to be able to do. But opera was really out of my purview, and I had to completely immerse myself in biographies and singing manuals and transcripts of singing classes, etc. to capture Sabine the way I wanted to.
The book was very intense and vivid, as well as being written in the first person. How did you feel when you were writing a particularly intense scene? How connected were you with your character?
As with all my books, I try to become the character as I write, to feel the same things she would feel. Many parts of the book were intense, and difficult to write. The story starts when Sabine is 16, and so I had to cast back to what that felt like, which was actually not very difficult to do, and then I had to grow with her as she grew, which was more difficult, because I had to decide what kind of a person she would become, and I stumbled over that quite a bit until I found the right path. I do have a very intense emotional connection with my characters, though they aren’t me. When I’m done with any book, it’s very hard for me to say goodbye to them.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Only that writing Prima Donna was one of the most challenging things I’ve done. Sabine is a complex and sometimes not very likeable character, but I found her fascinating. I was interested in the idea of what might happen to a talented 16-year old who is given little guidance and left to scramble for herself in the world of professional entertainment, with all its jealousies and manipulations. How would she survive it? How would it impact who she became? It was the idea that at some point or another we all must come to terms with who and what we are, and the decisions we’ve made, that drove the book for me.
About the Author…
Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Visit Megan at http://www.meganchance.com/