Sadie Montgomery Interview January 2009

Interview by Ladyghost at myspace

Sadie Montgomery The Phoenix of the Opera Series


A frustrated writer in a cold clime, I live with my indulgent husband and my tolerant son in a small town in Minnesota and dream of candle light and warm breezes. I’m an avid reader, which is fortunate because I teach literature at a small college. When not preparing for classes or grading papers, I write.


1- How did the idea of writing a novel begin?


Let me thank you, first of all, for doing this interview with me about The Phoenix of the Opera four-book series. It’s a great opportunity for me.


I had gone to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004, Dir. Joel Schumacher) because I love musicals and it looked gorgeous in the previews. The use of younger actors to portray the main characters made the tragedy of the Phantom even more compelling. When the Phantom, unmasked and bereft of his Christine and potentially even of his music, crashed the mirrors and stepped over the frame into blackness, I knew that I had to follow him. I wanted to know, like many who saw the movie and read Susan Kay and others who have written on the Phantom, more about the character. It occurred to me that the ending of the 2004 film version of the musical left the door wide open to one’s imagination. It intrigued me to take the characters and put them into a somewhat more psychologically realistic plot. I wanted to explore the dynamic among them and to provide a story for the Phantom that went beyond the loss of Christine and the destruction of the opera house. At the same time I wanted to respect the sacrifice that the Phantom makes, for if we rewrite that moment in which he gives up Christine for love, then we give up the possibility of a true transformation of the character. In the first months of 2005, obsessed with the tragic disappearance of the Phantom, the arc of a new story emerged. I had to sit down and write it. I wrote it first for myself. I decided that the novel would be somewhat unconventional in style. I used techniques such as stream of consciousness and shifting points of view, strategies associated with works by some of my favorite authors. In addition to making the story more textually interesting to me, I found that these strategies created an intimacy with the characters that I wanted.


2- How did you discover your passion for The Phantom of the Opera story?


I had grown up watching horror versions of the story but had never really liked them that much. One exception is the earliest version of The Phantom (1925) with Lon Chaney playing the role. This silent film version is powerful and evocative. It brings out the Gothic horror in the story. I had found the portrayal of the Phantom in subsequent versions more pathetic than moving or simply grotesque and gory. When I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, it was as if I were seeing the story for the first time. I was overwhelmed by the music and the drama of the story. The portrayal of the Phantom by Gerry Butler brought out in the character a power and sensuality that I had never seen in previous film versions. The first time I saw it I was intrigued. I rarely go back to see a movie, but I felt compelled to do so in this case. The second time I saw it I was drawn into the center of the human tragedy of the Phantom, the irony of a man disfigured who longed for beauty, the mesmerizing combination of power, deceit, passion, and despair. In subsequent viewings, for I confess that I went numerous times over the several months it ran in the area, other nuances came through that I knew were suggested or implied in the story but that were not played out in the film. There’s only so much that can be done in 143 minutes. In my imagination, triggered by the film, a story began to form, a story that teased out those aspects that lay dormant in the original story itself. What the movie provided was a new way to see the characters, but it was also a hyperbolically romantic version that pit a Byronic Phantom against a Fairy Prince. Anyway that’s one way of looking at the movie. The lovely thing about the basic story itself—and here I’m speaking of the skeletal story that Gaston Leroux fleshes out in his novel—is that it can be retold a thousand times and something new and wonderful can be seen. I believe it’s in the telling that we see the myriad possibilities of the love triangle. In many ways, Leroux’s novel is a sad version of The Beauty and the Beast. So it’s not a story that ends but begs to be told again and again.

3- What's your opinion about the main character, Erik?


I find the main character fascinating because he’s complex and driven. He is problematic, dangerous, and yet there is something so compelling in him that he deserves to survive. Indeed, two characteristics stand out for me—his ability to survive all threats and his passion for beauty. The latter is painfully ironic and represents one of those tropes, like Don Juan and Don Quijote, that come up again and again. The Phantom is disfigured and isolated. What he most fervently desires is to create what has been denied to him—beauty. Like Pygmalion’s obsession for his creation Galatea, the Phantom’s obsessive passion for Christine is doomed to failure. There’s a great deal of sadness in the character that touches us. He’s full of contradictions. He’s proud and egotistical, yet flawed and wounded. His very disfigurement in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version underscores this duality. The Phantom is a mask. The man’s genius is the creation of this mask. But what intrigued me was the possibility of looking behind the mask and discovering the man underneath without destroying this magnetic and extreme persona that is also a part of him. Even though the story has been read most often as a horror tale, I tried to create a character whose humanity would eventually redeem him.

4- What do you think about the possible reality/myth of this story?


I have no doubt that Gaston Leroux investigated and collected many stories and documents about the opera house. Supposedly he may have been inspired by a novel by George du Maurier, Trilby, which incorporated real events that had transpired in the Paris Opera House.  Du Maurier’s novel is the source of the character of Svengali. I think Gaston Leroux did what most writers do. Piecing together real events and combining them with his own imagination, Gaston Leroux told a story. It’s a common narrative ploy in novels to refer to a story as if it were not fiction but real. Defoe does it in Robinson Crusoe, for example. There may well have been someone living in the vaults under the opera house. But I have no way of knowing what is invention and what is real in Leroux’s story. The prologue reads like many fiction prologues of the time. The tone and style is not that different from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories, for example. I won’t dispute that there was evidence that Leroux found and that inspired his story. His setting, for example, seems to be scrupulously faithful. But I’m not convinced that he was simply documenting what happened.  

5- Including Meg as the main character is really interesting, can you tell us the origin of this idea?


When I decided that my story had to give Erik a second chance and a chance, in particular, at love, I also knew that it would not be with Christine. Christine had made her choice. To rewrite that moment when he released her and showed that he could be selfless in his love would be a betrayal of the beauty of the original story. I also believe that we can love more than once and that we can love more than one person. So although my version of the Phantom/Erik never forgets his adoration for Christine, he does find that he is not doomed to pine forever over one lost love. Love is not governed by destiny; it is something for which we must strive and work. I also knew that I wanted someone who had also been a witness to this story and who, like Erik, had stood in the shadows, watching the story unfold. The irony of someone who was intrigued and perhaps a bit enamored already of the Phantom, watching the Phantom as the Phantom had watched over Christine, was a major factor. When I tried to think of who might be a likely character, it struck me that Meg provided just the right opportunity. Like Christine, she is young and beautiful. As Mme. Giry’s daughter, she would have access to information. I also wanted the character to be part of the same world in which Erik had been living. The world of performance and of opera is too fundamental to him to rip him from it. It made sense that someone from that world would be the only true companion for him. In Schumacher’s version, Meg is curious and courageous. In spite of fear, she finds the hidden corridor behind the mirror and enters. Later she heads the mob in search of the Phantom, but her motives are not clear. Interestingly in that scene she is dressed in trousers, which suggests that she is a very unconventional character. She is also the one who finds the mask, a nice foreshadowing for my series. It didn’t seem like too much of a jump to have her follow after the Phantom, to save him like her mother had years before. Having been raised with Christine, Meg affords some interesting dramatic possibilities, too. Is she jealous of Christine? Is Erik’s initial attraction to her just a pale substitution for his true love? All of these problematic factors made her an exciting character to include in the mix. In addition, I felt there was a good deal of development yet to be done with all the characters, but especially with Meg.

6- Have you read Leroux's book? What's your opinion about it.


Yes, I read Leroux’s novel. It’s an amazing blend of humor and horror and pathos. Great storytelling.  Without this novel, we’d not have so many other versions of the Phantom. I find the character tremendously sad. Leroux’s interest in telling the strange events in the opera house, using both the Gothic and yet debunking it at the same time, lends itself more to detective fiction than romance. It’s a fascinating blend of mystery and adventure and Gothic. What most surprised me was the humor. I also love the trickster aspect to the Phantom.

7- Your novel's story is really original and imaginative, can you tell us where your inspiration came from?


As I’ve already mentioned, the heartbreaking end of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Joel Schumacher, was the catalyst for my writing The Phoenix of the Opera. But it was also, in part, how that story resonated with so many other stories that I have read and even films that I’ve seen. I couldn’t get out of my head Schumacher’s allusions to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête 1946). But everything—the Bronte sisters, Frankenstein, Jane Austen (as strange as the latter might seem), The Crow (Dir. Alex Proyas, 1994)—resonated in the story.


From the beginning, as I sat down to write The Phoenix of the Opera, I knew I wanted to accomplish four things: 1) Someone would go in search of the Phantom and rescue him from despair; 2) It would take a long time for him to get over his obsession for Christine; 3) He would come to realize that he loved the woman who dared to follow him into the vaults to rescue him; and 4) I wanted the main characters to interact with a degree of social and psychological realism, which would guarantee contradictions and solutions that were neither neat or perfect.


I was surprised when I reached the end of The Phoenix of the Opera that I had not quite accomplished all four of these goals. I had paved the way for Erik to love again and to find a new life. But I still needed another novel in which to complete the love story between him and Meg. That’s when I realized that a major disruption—the hero’s journey—was necessary for him to grow as a character, that he would have to face and battle the monster inside him, and that after this journey he would come back to find his true heart’s love. There’s a bit of The Wizard of Oz in this and a lot of the Odyssey. That was the genesis and plan for Out of the Darkness: The Phantom’s Journey.


After that, I might have stopped writing. But the characters are too dear to me. So I wrote The Phantom’s Opera in which the focus is on whether or not our past determines who we are. Phantom Death is the novel in which I bring together various threads in the series and suggest a resolution. In each novel there is growth in the characters, especially in the Phantom, and also in the relationships among the characters. One aspect that many readers have remarked on is my treatment of Raoul. The development of the relationship between Raoul and Erik took me somewhat by surprise myself. But it’s an aspect of the development of the series that I really enjoy.

8- Writing your book has been a nice experience for you? Why?


It was an amazing experience because the scenes, the dialogues, the images just flowed. Some days I would wake up with the first words of the next scene already in my mind. As I wrote, the scenes unfurled as if I were watching and listening to them. It was as close to automatic writing as I’ve ever come. I loved the process of writing these stories because they were what I wanted to read myself. Only once I was done did it even occur to me to show it to anyone else. The experience of writing the Phoenix series led me to try my hand at other novels, too.

9- What do you think about the new Phantom musical sequel?


I adore Webber’s music. My other favorite score is the one for Jesus Christ Superstar. I was surprised that Webber chose The Phantom of Manhattan as the basis for the sequel. But I imagine it was exciting to him to think about staging a sequel and to have the story unfold in New York. I’ve not yet seen the stage version of the original Phantom of the Opera but plan on doing so soon. I’m sure that if I get the chance I’ll see the sequel. 

10- Tell us about your future projects.


I’ve a number of completed manuscripts that I would like to circulate, including a contemporary vampire romance (Blood and Satin), a post-apocalyptic romance (Sol’s Weapon), two period romances (Broken; Love’s Apprentice), and an erotic romance (The Contract). I also found myself pulled back to the characters in The Phoenix Series and wrote a possible fifth and sixth novels, tentatively titled Phantom Madness and Phantom Murder. I’m currently revising and considering my options.


Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about my series of Phantom novels. They have been a wonderful experience for me.


Do not copy without permission from Ladyghost at myspace