Monday, March 24, 2014

Interview with an Author: Peter Danish

Hello dear readers!

Today is Monday and therefore not very exciting, right? I disagree because today marks the first of a new series called "Interview with an Author." Very unique, I know.

To kick off this series, I'd like to introduce Peter Danish. His recently published novel "The Tenor" is a sweeping historical much in the same vein of "Captain Correlli's Mandolin" but instead focuses on opera. So here we go!

Me: What inspired you to write "The Tenor"?

Peter: THE TENOR is very loosely based on a true story that I originally learned 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.

Me: Did you have an interest in opera before conceiving the plot for "The Tenor"?

Peter: I’ve been an opera buff since grammar school, but I didn’t come to it from a classical music education.  I came to it from a couple of rock bands back in the 70s that did rock versions of classical pieces.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer did killer rock versions of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”   They inspired me to look up the original versions – and I loved them!   My interest in opera started with a band called Renaissance and their incredible singer Annie Haslam.  Annie was a trained opera singer who went pop – possibly the first classical-crossover singer!   I heard her on a radio show one day singing an opera aria called:  “O mio babbino caro,” and I had to get a recording of it.   So I got my Dad to drive me to Sam Goody’s record store.  I knew NOTHING about opera or the aria, so I asked the salesman for help.   He directed us to the Puccini section where we lost our minds!   There were literally hundreds of albums that had “O mio babbino!”  So I asked my Dad for advice.  He said in his inimitable homespun way:  “I don’t know squat about opera, but I think when it comes to opera, when in doubt, go with the fattest chick you can find!”   So I did!  And Monserrat Caballe’s Puccini collection became my first Opera purchase.  It was magical! And the rest is history.

Me: What sources did you consult during your research? Did you travel any to conduct your research?

Peter: The research for The Tenor was done largely in Italy and Greece. In all, I took over a half dozen trips there to complete the research.  The book has three parts: part one takes place in Italy in the 1930s, in the breath-taking Appennine Mountains in the north.  The second part takes place in Athens in 1941, when the Italian Army was the occupational force left behind by the Germans after the Nazis had overrun Greece.  Part three takes place in New York City in 1965, amid Beatlemania, The World’s Fair, the Civil Rights Movement and most importantly to our story, the return of Maria Callas to the Metropolitan Opera after being banned for nearly a decade.   Italy and Greece are almost indescribably beautiful and the research was pure joy.  Italy of the 30s, where our protagonist grew up, is idyllic and the village where he was raised could be straight out of “The Sound of Music”.   Athens, 1941, is the diametric opposite.   There is rampant starvation, people begging in the streets, dead bodies piling up on the curb.  The juxtaposition of the stunningly beautiful Italian mountain village against the horror of WWII Athens is critical to the story.  Our protagonist, Pino, has led a charmed life in a magical place and suddenly finds his world turned upside down.  He’s no longer and artist, he’s a soldier.  The beautiful vistas have been replaced by starving children begging in the streets and the bodies of those who have starved to death littering the sidewalks.  Pino is completely ill-equipped for this new world, this new reality.    Meeting dozens of old folks who were there at the time, who had lived through the occupation was by far the most rewarding part of the research.  I often played dominoes and backgammon in the parks with them for hours on end, and listened to their stories.   They were priceless.  In fact they were so special that I have incorporated many of the stories and even the people into THE TENOR.  I have compressed several people into characters in the book.  I think you will be able to figure out who are the real characters without too much difficulty!

Me: What books or authors have influenced you?

Peter: I started reading very young and by the 3rd grade I had consumed most of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  Shortly after, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels became an obsession.  I still love a good detective story a good mystery, but in truth, even though there are now literally thousands of titles in that genre – and I’ve probably read several hundred of them – very very few stick with you.   I was talking to a group of writers at a conference a while back and Dean Koontz’ name came up.   He’s sold a gazillion books and made more money than God or the Rolling Stones, and I’ve probably read over a dozen of them.  But as we speak, I could not tell you what even one of them was about.   While I could tell you the plots of virtually every single Sherlock Holmes story ever written.  For me, discovering Russian literature was the turning point.  It happened in High School and the first novel was Anna Karennina.  After that, it was Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.  Then I discovered Puskin and his verse novels.  Finally came War and Peace – easily my favorite book of all time.  I find myself quoting from it constantly, over thirty years after I first read it!

In the last ten years or so, I’ve found myself drawn to magical realism more than any other genre.  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 Marquez “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.

Me: What are you reading now?
Peter: I’m reading a collection of Ray Bradbury short stories.  His literary skills aside, his storytelling abilities are extraordinary.  He can take on virtually any genre or subject matter and spin a gripping tale around it.  It’s an education for me.   I recently finished Dan Brown’s Inferno and thought it was the worst piece of crap I’ve read in a really long time.  I didn’t care for his last book either, but I thought I’d give it another chance.
I also LOVE reading collected letters of historical figures.  I’ve just finished the Leonard Bernstein Letters and it was incredible!

The almost absurd collection of famous people he counted among his close friends is staggering.  But the most enjoyable part of the book is hearing what really ‘normal’ people these giants of history, art, culture, politics really are!   In one week he wrote or received letters from Stephen Sondhiem, Boris Pasternak, Aaron Copland, Frank Sinatra, Marnie Nixon and Georg Solti – quoting the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty Four!”   The collected correspondence of famous figures reflects a completely different time in history, a time of writing and of letters.   The digital revolution is of course a wonder of convenience, but what will future generations be left with?   The collected tweets of Dan Brown and AK Rawlings?

So there you have it folks. I'd like to thank Peter for swinging by the blog and spending time with us all. For more information on Peter and his debut novel "The Tenor", visit his website. "The Tenor" is available at Amazon.


  1. Great interview, Caroline. I get the feeling that The Tenor is definitely worth reading: it seems to have been beautifully researched and written.

    1. Agreed, Diane! Such a unique concept. Thanks for commenting and happy reading!

  2. What a great interview. I know Pete a long time, and well remember so many of his reading ventures through his life.