Michael J. Vaughn - An Amateur Opera Critic Meets a Diva
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including Mascot and The Popcorn Girl. He is a thirty-year opera critic, a jazz singer, and plays drums for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland. For Gabriella's Voice, the predecessor to Operaville, Vaughn was awarded a $3,000 fellowship from Arts Council Silicon Valley. As our Author of the Day, he tells us about his latest opera novel, Operaville.
Please give us a short introduction to what Operaville is about.
Mickey Siskel is a survivor of a traumatic divorce who sort of klutzes into opera as a form of therapy. He discovers a great ruse for getting free tickets - just start a blog and figure out how to write reviews. He gets unexpectedly good and attracts the attention of a world-class diva, Maddalena Hart, who meets with him and finds herself smitten. It's a bit like "Notting Hill" (which I saw AFTER I wrote Operaville, please note).
What inspired you to write about an amateur opera critic who finds himself in an affair with an opera diva?
I am a long-time opera critic, but after I quit my newspaper jobs to focus on fiction I still wanted the free tickets so I could continue seeing opera. So I started a blog called Operaville. But somewhere along the line, I thought, Hmmm, interesting device for a novel. As for the diva, I've had the good fortune of befriending quite a few opera singers and I find them to be delightful, fascinating creatures.
Your first opera novel, Gabriella's Voice earned you a fellowship from the Arts Council in Silicon Valley. Tell us more about this.
That award was very important; it gave me a sense of legitimacy early in my career. Authors really need those! Gabriella actually makes an appearance in Operaville.
You are an opera critic yourself. How much of your own experiences have you incorporated in the book?
Lots! I have learned so much through my reviews. When it comes to opera, it's easy to fall into stupid cliches (the fat lady with the horns). The real world of opera is so much more interesting. And also I'm able to write about the music in a deep, thoughtful way, and hopefully translate these concepts and descriptions to the lay reader.
Tell us more about Maddalena. What makes her so exceptional?
She's at the very top of her game and yet she never stops learning. Some of this is based on Renee Fleming. She wrote a book on singing in which she said she never stops re-evaluating a role, even if she's performed it a hundred times. I think this endless seeking is indicative of the most successful people in all fields. Also, Maddie is very sexual, which is the thing that perhaps people don't know about opera singers. I always want to say, But look at all these shenanigans they get to onstage? Don't you think that has an effect?
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I came from a musical Disneyland called Peterson High School in Sunnyvale. We had 120 guys in the men's glee and used to tour other schools, encouraging boys to sing. From there I went to San Jose State, where the choir performed with the local professional orchestra. My own singing continues with jazz (Sinatra a specialty) and rock; I'm a drummer/vocalist with a classic rock cover band, ECRB. Not surprisingly, music plays an active part in most of my novels.
Was there a single defining moment or event where you suddenly thought, 'Now I'm an Author,' as in—this is now my career?"
I've always been self-powered, but there was one moment. I graduated with a journalism degree and immediately realized, Who am I kidding? And got a day job so I could start writing novels.
How do you force yourself to finish what you're doing before starting the next project when the new idea is nagging at you?
I have actually begun a new project while finishing an old one. It didn't seem to bother me. Though I usually do enjoy a month or two of "brewing" between books.
Among the wealth of characters in Operaville, who was the most difficult to create?
The ex-wife kept shifting on me! I really wanted to indulge in an old-fashioned nasty villain, but she insisted on being human and showing all these redeeming insecurities. In the end, she might be the most intriguing character in the book. I always preach a certain lack of control to beginning writers, because you never know when a character will raise her hand and say, I think you're wrong about me.
If you could choose one character from your book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take them?
Oh, Maddalena, naturally. I'd like to take that 4th of July cruise into Seattle for the fireworks show. What fun!
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do to combat it?
I really don't because I don't push myself to write when I'm not feeling inspired, but I do keep a sketchbook around for doodling. I actually wrote a story about this for Writer's Digest; visual play has a way of re-energizing those parts of the brain used for writing. And sometimes I get a page or two when I wasn't expecting it.
What are you working on right now?
I did a rather unusual thing to start my new novel. Without any preliminary theme, I simply put a character in a certain place and wrote my way out. I ended up with a speculative novel about post-flood California (a climate-change Handmaid's Tale), which is unlike anything I've ever done. So perhaps this is a good way to push one's boundaries and find out what your subconscious is up to.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I have an author page on Amazon (22 titles), and a page on Facebook. Also, my blog is at operaville.blogspot.com, and I continue to write opera reviews.
The sex scenes In Operaville are pretty candid. Prudes, please note. Inspired by authors like Kundera and Tom Robbins, I tend to write about sex as if it were a normal part of life. Although you won't find godawful erotica tropes like "throbbing" and "perky."
The opera descriptions get pretty technical sometimes but never fear. They're not essential to the plot.
The cover photo is a selfie! Taken by a soprano friend, Isabella Ivy, before going onstage in a Mozart opera. I'm so grateful that she let me use this extraordinary shot.