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Interview: Amanda Hollander on “Madness Afoot”

Tell us a bit about “Madness Afoot.”

It’s an epistolary Cinderella story taken one step sideways as Prince Charming’s sister surveys the absurdity of her brother’s romance.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

A friend of mine was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week and I wanted to write a fairy tale retelling to entertain her. My mind went to Perrault’s Cinderella, because the premise is so gloriously lunatic. I started thinking about the position Prince Charming occupies in popular imagination with fandoms (and critics) of the character’s various iterations. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade while working on my doctorate and had many outside glimpses of celebrity culture. There is a real energy shift and palpable excitement when someone famous enters a room unexpectedly, but the sheer idolatry can be jarring. I always thought that even more than being a celebrity, how much weirder would it be as the sibling of someone famous? How would it feel hearing people speak in worshipful language and losing their minds over someone you remember sitting in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas and snarfing Apple Jacks? (I speak purely in the hypothetical and this is in no way a direct representation of my brother, Graham, whom it would be rude to name.) I always thought it would be a funny angle for a story, and then layered that over Cinderella. My friend loved the story and said to submit it to F&SF, so here we are.


Amanda HollanderHow has your career as a librettist influenced your short fiction work?

I should say first for the uninitiated, that in opera, libretto comes first and everything else follows, including music. Ideally, payment would come first and everything else would follow, but such are the vicissitudes of creative life. Anywho, a composer relies on a librettist to provide a lyrical and fully developed story that will complement their musical style, and a singer relies on a librettist to make the language singable via a performable, developed character. Then there are mechanical elements that influence how I write, especially how I use vowels (open vowels for high notes unless you’re a total sadist, etc.) and think about pauses, as singers apparently like breathing. My libretto writing itself was influenced by the fact that I grew up in an HOH (Hard of Hearing) household, so I’ve always been very conscious of clarity in word choice and consonant enunciation. This awareness translates well to opera. As an opera audience member, you need to be able to understand who the characters are, what they want, and how they relate within moments of their being onstage, so the audience needs language they can instantly hone in on. I also work with a team, so some of that will be done through my language, some through the composer’s music, some by a singer’s performance, then there’s direction, costume, set, lighting, etc. I think more visually than I did before.

Like opera, short fiction requires that the key information and/or questions are established immediately. One of the great examples in any genre is Carmen’s entrance with Habanera. You instantly know who she is as a character and what she’s about. It’s a genius melding of music and language. So thinking about that immediately in libretto writing helped my short fiction enormously, because I learned to stop and think more about character introduction. When Orsolya writes her first letter, you know in a few lines that she wants to go home, that her brother and a political crisis are preventing her, that she clearly occupies a position of some power (she has the right to interrogate palace employees) and that she is going to be a skeptical onlooker when it comes to this classic romance.

I also notice that in my short fiction I’ve become much more cognizant of when I write lines that are easy to read but would be difficult to sing. (No current plans to torture anyone with my sung rendition of “Madness Afoot.”) Also, some wordplay is easy to understand when reading, but hard to hear when delivered through song, especially complex homophones, which differ from antanaclasis, which works better aloud than in prose. The biggest influence, though, has been how I think about breaks in the story structure. In libretti, breaks allow time for dramatic acting or for the orchestra to come to the front. When writing “Madness Afoot,” the epistolary form gave me a lot of opportunity to play around with the pauses and line breaks to build comedy. I’m also learning to use the same for pathos, because now I can hear the spaces. That extra beat can do so much, whether you’re giving it to the composer, the singer, the audience, or a reader. There’s music in the emptiness.


…and how is writing a libretto similar to or different from writing a short story?

Since for libretti I need to collaborate with a composer, I also need to understand their musical vision for the project, how many singers and instruments we have to work with, how the dialogue or frequency of lines impacts the character’s presence onstage, etc. For the whole opera do we have twenty minutes? An hour? Three hours? The scope of the story changes radically if there isn’t time to change costumes or sets because you don’t want to lose time for the performers. Also—I struggle with this constantly—in a libretto you always have to remember who’s onstage. I have a sticky note on my laptop that says “Who’s on first?” so I remember to check. In my first performed libretto, I wrote a scene where the chorus opens the opera, then sings nothing for the rest of the scene, but…I forgot to have them leave the stage. THEY WERE JUST STANDING THERE. A bunch of people milling around onstage with jack to do kills energy like you wouldn’t believe. The chorus is a bit like Chekov’s gun, in that respect. If they’re onstage, in one way or another, they must eventually go off! Thankfully, a mentor caught my mistake so I had a chance to fix it before submitting the final version. Now I mentally run through every character and the chorus when editing a scene to make sure they make their time onstage earned and, if they’re not needed, exit, preferably pursued by a bear.

Short stories, more than libretti, allow me to play around with form and extensive lines. I don’t have to consider a singer’s vocal chords or sanity. I could use a word like floccinaucinihilipilification and not worry that a beleaguered alto will stab me to death with a tuning fork, although that’s actually a terrible example because that word is highly singable! But, not a word most audience members would be likely to know, so I’d probably eventually be convinced by the composer to chuck it, though I pity the fictitious composer that would need to persuade me. One thing that’s hard to work is letter narration on a stage. For “Madness Afoot,” I got to use epistolary techniques, such as postscripts, valedictions, etc., which I love, perhaps obsessively. There’s a lot of room to mess around. Epistolary fiction would be very, very tricky to translate to stage. I can mess around with homophones and complicated syntax that would be truly nightmarish as part of sung performance. That said, I notice that all my lines are more concise and my storytelling is more precise as my libretto writing considerations bleed into my short fiction.


What are you working on now?

I have an opera, Quake, premiering in LA in 2020. I’m currently working with composer Nicky Sohn on a new opera based on the life of Korean independence activist Yoo Gwan Sun. We spent a month together in South Korea in January intensely working on it and now I’m drafting the libretto. I also start as a librettist fellow at American Opera Projects in October, so happily there will be a lot more opera in my future. As for fiction, I have a couple short stories I’m editing and a new middle grade novel I’m about to query with. And at some point I hope to sleep. I hear it’s great.


“Madness Afoot” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

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