Recently, Adrienne McDonnell came to Kepler's to speak about her latest book (and our current bestseller), The Doctor and the Diva. Megan had the opportunity to interview the author:
Adrienne McDonnell has taught literature and fiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She has also led writing workshops for adults through UC Berkeley Extension and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA. McDonnell was once a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. This is her first novel. She lives near San Francisco.
1. The Doctor and the Diva is your first novel and it is based on some of your son’s ancestors. What made you want to tell their story?
From the moment I first heard about my son’s great-great grandmother (the “Erika” character in the novel), I felt amazed and haunted by her. Here was a woman who had an extraordinary talent – a gorgeous mezzo soprano voice – and she had the drive and the discipline to become the finest artist she could be. In her case, that meant that she had to leave her husband and her small son behind while she moved to Italy. It was an inspiring and heartbreaking choice, and the complex reactions I felt about her decision were what drew me toward writing about her.
When I moved to Boston as a young woman and passed by the houses of these ancestors every day on my way to work, their story wove its way into my imagination even more powerfully.
2. What kind of research did you do? How did it feel to delve so deeply into the lives of real people?
Learning about their lives expanded my own world. My deepest inspiration – and source of information – came from hundreds of pages of family letters they’d left behind. The opera singer’s husband was an importer – a wealthy importer of Egyptian cotton and chimpanzees to the London Zoo, among other things. Their correspondence told of exotic travels and unusual adventures – expeditions up remote rivers in South America, nights exploring winding streets in Morocco, and visits to a lush Caribbean coconut plantation. There were poignant letters from the small son “Erika” had left behind, begging his mother to tell him when she’d be returning. From the moment I read those letters, I knew I had the makings of a rich and exotic novel before me.
3. Can you recommend any resources for readers who are interested in the history, music, and places in your novel?
In the “Acknowledgments” section of my novel I cite a number of wonderful books, arias, and resources, as well as on my website: www.adriennemcdonnell.com
4. Your novel travels in many ways – through history, to different locales, into other lives. What was it like to pull a story together across such a broad canvass?
It was a rich and challenging task. To succeed in binding together all these characters and far-flung settings in focus, I had to find a strong and compelling plot.
The saga ranges from early 20th century Boston, to the island of Trinidad, to the opera stages of Italy. It centers on three major characters – the opera singer “Erika”, her entrepreneur/explorer husband “Peter”, and the young doctor to whom they turn for help in conceiving a child. During the course of the novel, their lives become entwined in unusual and powerful ways.
5. How can stories change the world?
The human hunger for story will never wane, although the means of presenting those stories varies. Originally, family members of all ages gathered together to hear the same folk stories, and people told them orally around a hearth at night. Later those same folk tales were recorded, and today we have theatre, movies, books, and electronic devices to share stories.
Life is chaotic, but we will always need stories to entertain ourselves, to make sense of the difficult choices and struggles we face, and for the reassurance that we are not alone. That’s why we turn to stories – to feel the beauty even in sadness, and for the consolation that art brings.
(Photo credit: Lisa Keating)