Deborah Atherton is one of the most eclectic writers I know. She has made a name for herself as a librettist but she has dipped her quill in many pots of ink! Below, my interview with Deborah.
JD: What's your day to day writing practice like?
DA: Since I have a 9 to 5, my weekday writing practice is usually half an hour of journal in the morning and then when I have the energy (and, you know, if Project Runway isn't on) half an hour of writing at night. The bulk of my creative writing gets done on weekends. Saturday mornings are assigned to a specific long term project - for almost two years, that was my new novel - and Sunday mornings are whatever I feel like working on that day. I cannot write in the afternoons. I don't know how people do it. I can barely muster the mind power to read between 1 and 5 PM, let alone write, but I do sometimes have some creative energy in the late evening. I find meetings with my collaborators really energizing, and those are usually on the weekends, as well.
JD: Tell us about the operas you've worked on and how you first became obsessed with Frankenstein?
DA: I've worked on two operas and two music theater pieces. My first opera with Anthony Davis was based on a science fiction novel I wrote that morphed into an opera. After that I wrote Carmilla, a music theater piece, with Allan Jaffe, who is still my collaborator. That was based on a short story by the English writer J.S. LeFanu about a female vampire. Then one night (and it seemed like out of nowhere, although I do love 19th century literature and have read a lot of it) I had a dream about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and dreamt they were singing to each other. I immediately started reading more about her - delving into biographies, her other works, and also the lives of Shelley and Byron - and eventually starting writing a libretto. Allan liked what I'd written, and ten years and four readings/workshops later, we had a finished opera. It was a really long process, but incredibly rewarding. We just found out today that scenes from Mary Shelley will be included in the Vox Festival at City Opera this year, so we're very excited. Right now we're working on a shorter music theater piece about finding love in New York City, which I am trying to get done in less than ten years!
JD: What's your process like when writing prose vs. libretto?
DA: The easiest thing for me to write is nonfiction, and I can
write it pretty quickly, so basically, when I'm doing my blog or working
on articles, essays, or the nonfiction books, I assign myself a task,
give myself a reasonable number of hours, and just write it. Research
really feeds my nonfiction; anything that activates my curiosity and
engages me is easy to write about.
Fiction is different - once in a while, a short story comes out all in one piece in a really long day or two of writing, but normally, I can't write more than four or five pages at a sitting, and I can't do that more than a day or two a week, usually on weekends. Fiction seems to require a lot of non-writing time to build - lots of walking, thinking, vegging and tea drinking. The ideas build on each other, characters take form and find voices - it's an exciting process, but not a quick one.
As my writing partner Allan would probably tell you, libretto writing and song lyric writing take a long time for me--although there aren't a lot of words, the language has to be incredibly condensed and distilled, hence the ten years to produce a finished opera. It's a very intuitive process - and a very collaborative one - somewhere in my brain I am fitting words to the kind of music I think Allan might write. We usually work with words first; he sets the music to the words, which isn't everyone's process. He's very patient, and an incredible collaborator, not only capable of re-shaping my words to fit the music, but often making them better in the process.
JD: Who have been the greatest influences on your life as a writer?
DA: I love Jane Austen --I have read each of those novels dozens of times, starting at about age 9, and they only get better as I get older. She is my model for simplicity, brevity, irony, and deep affection for her characters. I admire the way she wrote in a time and a place that didn't give women much space for writing. Louisa May Alcott, for creating Jo and making writing seem like the best of all possible careers. Virginia Woolf, because To the Lighthouse knocked me out and because A Room of One's Own changed my life. And I have to say L. Frank Baum--the Oz books shaped my imagination, encouraged my sense of fun, and made it seem like anything you could think of was possible. Oh, and for lyrics, Billy Strayhorn, because if I ever write just one thing as cool as the lyrics for Lush Life, I will die happy.
JD: What is your revision process like?
DA: Long. I usually try and finish a first draft before I start rewriting; then everything goes through at least two complete revisions before anyone else sees it. My writing workshop hears all my fiction, and the librettos as well, during or immediately after the writing of the first draft, and I always revise after hearing their comment. It's a months long process for novels and complete librettos.
For more on the craft of writing please check out my book, Bang the Keys:
and until next week I leave you with this:
What genres and mediums have you mixed lately?
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