BWW Interview: Erica Miner Author of DEATH BY OPERA
ALERT: PERFECT HOLIDAY GIFT FOR OPERA LOVERS!
A few years ago author Erica Miner wrote the quintessential opera-house-murder-mystery "Murder in the Pit." She has now followed up with another opera house murder, this time in New Mexico! She sat with BWW classical for a few questions!
20 Question for Erica Miner author of the fabulous new musical mystery: "Death by Opera."
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym and naming names?
No. It's been suggested to me numerous times to write a 'tell-all' about the opera world. I think it would be obvious, even if I wrote under a pseudonym, who the author of such a tome would be. I admit, though, to only half-jokingly suggesting to my heirs that I write the book, put it in a safe deposit box, and have them publish it posthumously!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I would say, 'Put your violin aside for an hour a day and write instead of practice.' But I fear my musical mentors would have been horrified had they known of this subliminal wish. I only regret now not having written more and studied the art of writing more when I was younger. I mistakenly thought I would be playing the violin for the rest of my life. But Life had other destinies in mind.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
My first published book, Travels with my Lovers, was just a story that was begging to be written. I had an editor, but I basically knew nothing about novel writing (I was studying screenwriting at the time) except what I'd learned from a lot of reading of the classics (not too bad, when you think about it). But after my first one was published I realized that if I wanted to write more novels at some point I needed 1) to focus on what the market was looking for 2) to study the craft of novel writing 3) to reach out to other writers, especially successful ones, and pick their brains about the process, and 4) if I wanted people to read the book I had to get out there and tell them about it! I also found out, through trial and error, that I really had to outline a structure before I begin. Authors are very divided on this issue. I will never start a new novel without outlining it in detail first.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I think it was David Copperfield. It was just so heart wrenching. Dickens's books in general have that effect on me, even to this day. He really knew how to write tragedy.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both! It gives me motivation to keep creating, yet a day of writing drains me. But that's okay. If I feel I've done a good day of writing, then I deserve to rest. More importantly, writing has been what's saved me through endless life crises. So more than energize or exhaust me, it saves me from crumpling under the effects of life's adversities. Thus, writing pretty much does it all for me.
What made you choose New Mexico for the new book?
One of my more rabid fans of Murder in the Pit, a true opera fanatic, had been asking me for quite some time when I was going to write a sequel and suggested Santa Fe Opera as the perfect setting for an operatic mystery. It made sense: the company is unique and extraordinary, and the atmosphere of New Mexico is truly mysterious in its own unique way. Between the fascinating history of the area, dating back to the ancient Indian tribes and the Spaniards' conquests in the 17th century, the achingly beautiful mountains always in view, the crazy weather patterns that can erupt at a moment's notice mid-performance-well, you get the picture. I don't want to reveal too much, since I want everyone to read the book! Plus, I discovered that many of my opera friends (see below) had limitless stories to tell about their experiences there. It just seemed like the right choice from every perspective.
What if anything did you edit out of this book?
I consulted with a number of opera singers and various other opera professionals about what it was like to perform at Santa Fe Opera. There were a few 'raise-the-eyebrow' accounts that I judiciously chose not to use, even in an altered or modified way. It is fiction, after all, but nonetheless I always try to remain respectful as much as possible of organizations and the people who participate in them.
Do you ever get writer's block?
I may be tempting the writing gods if I say this, but no, for the most part I just have too many stories to tell not to keep my keyboard active. My brain just never stops-it drives me crazy, in fact-so I placate it by writing down my thoughts. Endlessly.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
When I first started out writing in earnest, it was as a screenwriter. I took the leap to pay for a very highly thought of screenwriting conference in LA. I was living in New York at the time, had just retired from the Met Opera and finances were tight; I was really unsure if I could fly to the west coast and spend all that money for expenses. It was the best decision I ever made WRT my writing. I learned so much about the process of writing in general, and specifically how to network with other professionals which, as I have since discovered, is all-important. Tremendously valuable. And I got lots of advice from experienced Hollywood types. One quote in particular has stuck with me: "There are no rules in Hollywood-and they're strictly enforced." It's always wise to keep that in mind in that crazy business.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I wasn't that enamored initially with Ann Patchett's writing style, but once I got into Bel Canto I realized how much research she had put into the story and admired her for that. I kept with it.
What's your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Is Like Water for Chocolate considered 'under-appreciated'? I've always thought so. I'm a huge fan of Laura Esquivel, and I think that particular novel should be on everyone's reading list. It's absolutely one of my favorites.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
The only way I made demands on the readers of my operatic mysteries is if they don't know a lot about opera that they be open to learning about it. I make up for that by providing them with juicy ways in which things can go askew in an opera milieu, which makes it all worthwhile! I've been told I have a 'wicked imagination.'
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
As a writer, and in every aspect of my life, the wolf is my totem and my spirit. I have huge love and admiration for these magnificent animals, which I feel have been maligned over the centuries. They are so beautiful, so smart and fascinating. I have wolves all over my house-I even have a life-sized, very lifelike resin model of one in my bedroom that I got at the San Diego Safari Park. I never get tired of looking at wolves. I even met a live, wild one at a meeting of Defenders of Wildlife. Its presence was absolutely electric.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I owe them quite a lot, since I almost always have them in mind when I'm creating and bringing a character to life. Whether in novel writing or in screenwriting, in my mind's eye I can visualize the person who is inspiring a certain character, physically and personality wise, and mentally refer to any stories he or she has shared with me.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
For Murder in the Pit, since it takes place at the Met Opera where I was a violinist for 21 years, I pretty much could write from my memories and experiences. There was relatively little research to do. I just checked the libretti of the operas I was using in the story to make sure I had all the words correct, especially the foreign ones. In Death by Opera it was quite the opposite. I had never been to the Santa Fe Opera and knew next to nothing about the place, physically or historically. I went on a 10-day fact finding trip the summer before the book was published and researched the history and background of the area for many months before I even started to write the book. Fortunately, I was blessed with the input of many opera singers and company members (you know who you are!) who toured me around the theatre campus and shared invaluable information that helped inform my story. For the next one (opera company TBA; I'm keeping that close to the vest for now) I will have to spend quite a bit of time in that city and take in the atmosphere of that company. I'm hoping to have similar good fortune in gaining access to the backstage workings of that opera house to make sure the story is as authentic as possible.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
I consider writing to be my religion, so, yes, it is my spiritual practice. Also, when I'm writing and have no distractions (not always easy, but it can be done with closed office doors and a 'Go away, honey, I'm writing' sign posted) I do reach a meditative state-a 'zone' if you will-in which I am totally at one with my process.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Ah, that is the most fun of all. I just love coming up with names. Sometimes one will just spontaneously come to me. Or if I have a real person in mind as a basis for a character, I adapt their name into something similar; either that, or I take an important personality characteristic or quirk and develop it into a name. For example, in Death by Opera the SFPD detective on the case is based physically on a certain person, but the name is related to something she is passionate about. Naming people is just something I enjoy doing, second only to coming up with the operatic quotes that I place at the beginning of each chapter (see research, above).
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Alas, yes, I do read my reviews. The good ones are easy to deal with. I don't handle the bad ones well. So far, they have had to do with issues relating to the opera, and that makes me really angry. When someone criticizes my book for something like, 'Not realistic-you can't see the stage from the Met Opera pit.' Excuse me? I'd like to ask this person when he last sat in the first violin section of the Met pit. Anyone who has done so would not write something so stupid. It's not even a question of my ego being bruised; it's just simply wrong information that gives other potential readers an inaccurate impression.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Oh, there are lots of secrets; there always are in mysteries. That's what makes the genre so much fun. But readers are so smart these days, and most of them find the secrets when all is said and done. I like to think, though, that other secrets are hidden that the reader will have to read the next book in the series in order to find.
What was your hardest scene in this book to write?
The dénouement. It was really complicated, and I had to keep going back to check all these character weaknesses and descriptions of the locale and plot points to make sure it was all believable and made sense. That's the difficult thing with the mystery genre-if one piece of the puzzle is slightly off in any way, the rest just won't fit. It's such a great challenge. And I do love it.
BWW would like to thank Eric Miner for sitting with us and sharing about her new book. It is available online at all major book sellers and it is the PERFECT gift for the opera lover in your life this holiday season!