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Q&A with Daisy Goodwin - Diva



By Beth Moore


We are delighted to welcome Daisy Goodwin to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Diva, released on the 14th March 2024.


In the glittering and ruthlessly competitive world of opera, Maria Callas was known simply as la divina: the divine one. With her glorious voice, instinctive flair for the dramatic, and striking beauty, she was the toast of the grandest opera houses in the world. But her fame was hard won: Raised in Nazi-occupied Greece by a mother who mercilessly exploited her golden voice, she learned early in life to protect herself from those who would use her for their own ends.


When she met the fabulously rich Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, for the first time in her life, she believed she’d found someone who saw the woman within the legendary soprano. She fell desperately in love. He introduced her to a life of unbelievable luxury, showering her with jewels and sojourns in the most fashionable international watering holes with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.


And then suddenly, it was over. The international press announced that Aristotle Onassis would marry the most famous woman in the world, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, leaving Maria to pick up the pieces.


In this remarkable novel, Daisy Goodwin brings to life a woman whose extraordinary talent, unremitting drive, and natural chic made her a legend. But it was only in confronting the heartbreak of losing the man she loved that Maria Callas found her true voice and went on to triumph.



Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your career, and, without giving anything away, about your new novel Diva?


I was born in London in the last century.  My parents divorced when I was five, and I lived with my father in London, but I spent half the holidays and every other weekend in Swanage Dorset.  These two households could not have been more different  - in one bedtime was eight thirty but in my mother’s house it was non-existent .  Because of this I learnt to tell a convincing story at an early age. 


I studied history at university, I have always  been fascinated by the texture of the past, and I was naturally drawn to writing novels set in the past.  My first novel The American Heiress was set in the 1890’s, The Fortune Hunter in 1870’s, Victoria in the 184O’s , but with Diva I have come all the way into the twentieth century. 


My first job was at the BBC and I worked in television for about thirty years. My finest moment was creating Grand Designs which is still going strong.  I started writing novels  at weekends while I was in TV and quit to become a writer when I wrote Victoria and was asked to adapt it as a drama.  My latest novel is called Diva, and it is based on the life of the greatest opera singer of the twentieth century, Maria Callas. It is a story about a musical genius who is facing the end of her career.

 

First of all, seeing as this is based on a true story, what was it that drew you to Maria Callas’ story?


I first heard Callas sing when I was eight years old, my mother came home with one of her records and from the first bars of Casta Diva I was hooked. I just found her voice so thrilling, and it has become the theme music of my life. When I began to read more about her extraordinary life I realised that she would make a great subject for a novel. I wanted to write a book where the reader can see the world through Maria Callas’ eyes.  Another reason that I wanted to write about Callas was that like Queen Victoria, I felt that she had been misrepresented in a gendered way, and I wanted to write a more empathetic portrait.

 

There must have been so much information to devour about Callas, can you tell us about the research process - for example what resources you might have used and how you approached such a wealth of information from one woman’s life and career?


I read everything I could lay my hands on about her.  There have countless books about her, including ones by her mother, her sister and her ex husband! I read newspaper articles about her written at the time, and have watched every scrap of documentary footage that exists.  I found myself going down all kinds of research wormholes – the life of Elsa Maxwell for example, or the interior of luxury yachts in the 1950’s, but in the end the most rewarding research was listening to Callas sing.  There is a quality to her voice that is unmistakeable.

 

Leading on from this, how did you decide which parts of Callas’ story you wanted to tell?


My US editor who is a big Callas fan said, ‘ Start with the evening where Maria goes out on the town knowing that her lover Onassis is marrying Jackie on Skorpios.”  It was a brilliant suggestion, because is a moment of high drama – I think it must have been one of the greatest performances that Maria ever gave. From there I wanted to go back to look at what shaped Maria Callas, and why she might have been vulnerable to the lure of a man like Onassis.  She didn’t need the money or the fame,  so what was the attraction?  I realised that it was all about timing, she was beginning to lose her wonderful voice.  When she met Onassis she thought that he was somebody who loved Maria the woman, not Callas the singer. 

 

How, also, did you decide when to keep something entirely factual or when to embellish for dramatic effect, as is typically the case with the adaption of a true story?


This novel is based on what we know of Callas’ life but of course every conversation, every thought Maria has is entirely fictional.  All the characters are real and some of the things they say are direct quotes – I am not a good enough writer to invent a character as extraordinary as Elsa Maxwell, but I have allowed my imagination to roam when it comes to writing about Maria and Ari.  It is based on what I think happened, and is true to my perception of them as people.  I could have written so much more about Maria and her mother, it’s a fascinating subject, but then the book would have been a thousand pages long.

 

 

Having not heard of her before, I enjoyed reading Callas’ story a great deal. I liked being there to see her grow and deal with the influences on her career and life. Can you tell us a little about why you chose to tell her story now and why a modern audience might be able to relate to Callas?


I think a modern audience will appreciate Callas the singer took no prisoners.  Opera was run by powerful men in the 1950’s, but Callas did not respect the patriarchy at all.  She once said, “ I don’t care about money, so long as I am being paid more than everyone else.”  She shocked the music establishment when she refused to sing in Vienna unless she was paid the same as von Karajan, who was the most famous conductor in the world.   Because she always wanted to rehearse longer and more intensely than anyone else, she was called ‘difficult’ (an adjective that is reserved for women who make demands, no man is ever called difficult) but as she said, “ I am as difficult as I need to be to achieve perfection.”  Callas was unrepentant about her talent, and I think that makes her very modern.  You might say that she is the ultimate girl boss.

 

Are you an opera and/or Callas fan, and do you have a favourite recording or performance of Callas you enjoy?  


I love opera and Callas in particular.  But I have tried to write the book for people who know nothing about opera.  One of the most fun things I was asked to do was to put together a Diva playlist on Spotify with all my favourite tracks on it. I recommend Casta Diva from Norma, as a starting point, and you can’t beat watching the second act of Tosca with Callas and Tito Gobbi on YouTube, it is sensational.

 

You’ve had great success with your literature in the past and your book Victoria was adapted by yourself into a television series. Is Diva something you’d like to also see on the screen some day?


Of course! When I write I always see what is happening in my head.  It really helps me to be in locations where Maria was, once I know the geography my imagination goes to work.  The best thing I saw during my research travels was the amazing chandelier like headdress she wore when singing Turandot.  It gave me goosebumps to touch it, knowing that Maria had worn it once.  In my dreams someone like Lady Gaga will play Maria , she has the right mix of arrogance and vulnerability.

 

If people enjoyed Diva do you have any other books you’d like to recommend to them or anything that inspired your writing process you’d like to mention?  


I think Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates which is based on the life of Marilyn Monroe is wonderful. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is another great book based on real life characters.   I read Those Who are Loved by Victoria Hislop for an idea of Athens in war time, and Celebrity Circus by Elsa Maxwell one of the characters in my book is fascinating .  She was a lesbian and clearly in love with Maria but couldn’t ever admit it.

 

Finally, just for fun what is one song you’d use to describe Diva?


What’s Love Got to Do with It?  Or I Will Survive!



Daisy Goodwin’s work as a TV producer and presenter includes Reader I Married Him, Bookworm and The Nation’s Favourite Poems; she is also the creator of Grand Designs and the hit ITV drama Victoria, which has sold to 134 countries.


She has edited numerous poetry anthologies, including the bestselling 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, and is the author of Silver River, a memoir, as well as three bestselling novels: My Last Duchess, The Fortune Hunter and Victoria. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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