I am very curious by nature. Usually after reading a good book, I spend a lot of time reading reviews, interviews with the author and sometimes the author’s blog. And that usually doesn’t even begin to cover the things that I’ve wondered about. (Very few authors discuss their love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some reason).
Author of The Metropolis Case, Matthew Gallaway was kind enough to let me ask him a bunch of random questions. His answers provide insight to his book, his ideas about work and writing and also display his excellent taste and proof that he is someone who has a book and record collection that I would greatly enjoy.
*Just a warning, if you have not yet read the book, there are slight spoilers below about themes and a few plot points.
Obviously Opera as an art form means a great deal to you and is central to your story. Since one opera, Tristan and Isolde, features so heavily, I felt like it was almost an additional “character” in the novel. I am curious what your personal connection is to Tristan and Isolde. What it is about that opera in particular that inspired this?
MG: I was very interested in Tristan from both musical and philosophical standpoints. First the music: Tristan is often considered the first piece of “modern” music because of its atonal dissonance, which is something that resonated with me in terms of the rock music I grew up loving (anything from the Velvet Underground to My Bloody Valentine).
Philosophically, I was infatuated for a while with Arthur Schopenhauer, whose ethos of pessimism and aesthetics very much influenced Wagner and seeps into Tristan — both the story and the music — in ways I wanted to explore in my own writing.
I have actually never heard Tristan and Isolde. Especially after reading your book, I feel the need to go get myself a recording. Do you have a favorite performance recording that you can recommend?
MG: I think both of these are great recordings: http://www.amazon.com/Tristan-Isolde-Richard-Wagner/dp/B000001GXS or http://www.amazon.com/Wagner-Tristan-Isolde-Richard-Classical/dp/B00005NW0D.
I really enjoyed the part of Martin’s story involving how he came to adopt his cats, Dante and Beatrice. Now, I know from following your blog that you have a cat named Dante. Were the cats in the book merely inspired by your own experiences and borrowing names from your real life or was there more to it that was autobiographical? (catobiographical? it’s not a word, but should be) I’m wondering in particular if you found Dante, or Dante found you on September 11th? And was there a Beatrice?
MG: There was/is a Dante who who wandered into our backyard (although not on 9/11), and there was also a Beatrice we adopted not long after who also died in a very similar manner to what is described in the book. As with much of the novel, there are elements that are more autobiographical than others, and I wanted to use the cats as a way to show Martin’s growth as someone who after being somewhat ‘destroyed’ by his life finds himself increasingly capable of loving/grieving in ways that may have escaped him in the past, first through his 9/11 experience and later with Beatrice.
Sometimes I think we as people don’t have it in us to love another person for whatever reason, and I wanted to show how the love of an animal can be meaningful (as so many pet owners can attest, obviously). Plus there’s the whole Dante/Beatrice symbolism thing in terms of art/beauty and the sacrifices we make for both, so really (as with most of the book) I was trying to make her story work on multiple levels.
I loved Martin’s conclusion that “quitting is highly underrated” when he walks away from his career as a lawyer. Meditations about the meaning of work are a theme that is touched upon in several other plot points and surface in many of the character’s arcs. Notably, working in contrast alongside Martin’s arc, Maria is obsessively driven with her ambition and career as an Opera singer, even pushing aside other parts of her own development, education, love in this singular path.
Taking both of these kind of narratives into account, is there an overall philosophy about careers paths and being passionate about work and art that you would say the novel represents? If someone was taking advice from your books and your characters, like a careers counselor in high school, what would you say the takeaway is? And how does that play with your own sense of work ethic?
MG: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that very perceptive/interesting question, mostly because it really depends on the person involved. Which is also why I wanted to show both sides, with Martin and Maria representing opposite sides of the spectrum perhaps. In my experience, opera singers have to be completely consumed by their art, often to the exclusion of other activities the rest of us take for granted. At the same time, obviously not all of us have the necessary talent or drive to become a professional artist, which is why we need to keep searching for things that help us to learn more about ourselves, or — to put it another way — to become ‘truer’ to ourselves.
I think the takeaway is that it’s important (for me, at least) to keep looking for things that give life meaning (which is a very subjective determination), and not to beat yourself up for trying something that doesn’t work out. Hence: quitting! In my own case, I came to writing fiction relatively late in life and (like Martin) quit many things that I feel were beneficial to have experienced but that I’m happy to no longer be occupied/saddled with.
I felt like specific moments in the book stood out to me as being reflections of the way a story is told in an opera. Examples would be touches of dramatic or even melodramatic flair in entrances and departures or characters announcing and explaining things overtly in dialogue that could have been written as narrative or internal monologue. Even the structure with the first act exposition, second act with the tragic turns of events and the third with a very opera-worthy resolution. I guess I’m wondering if this was all completely by meticulous design, or if you have a specific stylistic flair that just kind of worked well with the subject matter?
MG: The book was very much designed to feel like the narrative equivalent of an opera, and so yes, I intentionally loaded it up with melodramatic and coincidental plot elements as a means to explore deeper psychological issues. In terms of the sentence-by-sentence prose, I didn’t shy away from writing in what I consider to be a somewhat overblown or perhaps ornate style that I hoped would recall some of my favorite 19th-century authors — Proust, James, etc — who were clearly not afraid of em-dashes, semicolons, and adverbs. I think there’s a tendency in post-war American fiction to emphasize the idea that ‘less is more,’ which I understand, but sometimes I think that complicated ideas require complicated prose. Ultimately, I tried to write in a style that I enjoyed, which I think is an important lesson for any writer; writing is never easy, so it’s important to follow your own path and let the rest take care of itself.
MG: Wow, that’s a tough one, but off the top of my head — some of my favorite writers are Huysmans, Proust, Woolf, Musil, Mann, (Emily) Bronte, Melville, James; bands include: My Bloody Valentine, Galaxie 500, Bedhead, The Smiths, R.E.M., Donovan, Slint, Echo & the Bunnymen; filmmakers: Visconti and Ozu.
MG: OMG so difficult to answer because I love so many episodes/characters. I think it’s probably my all-time favorite television show, along with Twin Peaks. I think the episode when Buffy and Faith fight is one of the best, as is that entire season. I think what’s amazing about the show is the way Buffy really provides the glue to hold everyone together, and her storyline is always the most important. That said, I’ve always loved Drusilla, too!
I had mentioned to him that I had originally intended my Q & A to be brief and clever like the Proust Questionnaire, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up going full-out Fresh Air with my long-winded questions that lead to more in-depth questions. Knowing he is a fan of Proust, I asked him to choose and answer 5 Questions from the Questionnaire and luckily, he obliged!
Excellent choices and answers, Sir.
To read more about Matthew Gallaway, his excellent taste in everything and his adorable cats, visit his site.
To geek-out through all of the references and notations in The Metropolis Case, visit the book website.