Jen Comfort is joining us today to talk about her novel, Midnight Duet Here’s the publisher’s description:
From The Astronaut and the Star author Jen Comfort comes a wildly electric romance about two musicians who collide on the stage of a Nevada opera house.
Self-professed diva Erika Greene has it all: a starring role on Broadway, legions of fans, spectacular natural talent. But after an accident on stage leaves her face scarred and her career in shambles, Erika retreats to Paris, Nevada, where she’s inherited a ramshackle opera house in desperate need of some TLC.
Erika pours her savings into the building, but it’s not enough to stave off casino developer Raoul Decomte’s avaricious gaze. With foreclosure imminent, she leases the space to some unexpected tenants: a German hair metal band, fronted by glam rock god Christof Daae.
Erika is tempted by Christof’s low-slung leather pants―and even more so by his ambitious drive to make Nacht Musik international superstars―but he’s off-limits. The rest of his band thinks he’s still dating their beloved keyboardist, who is conveniently not present on this jaunt to the American Southwest. When Erika finds out Christof’s been unceremoniously dumped and is trying to keep it under wraps, she makes a deal to keep his secret…for a price, of course.
Christof is desperate to hold the rest of the band together after his keyboardist’s departure, but he can’t maintain the charade forever. Nor can he resist the opera house’s mysterious proprietor, who tempts him with midnight singing lessons. It isn’t long before sensuous nighttime interludes turn into smoldering backstage encounters.
But can their newly ignited passion survive the searing light of day? Or will their beautiful duet turn into a brokenhearted power ballad for one?
What’s Jen’s favorite bit?
With any retelling, the writer has a choice: pay subtle homage, or go all-in. But this is The Phantom of the Opera we’re talking about–subtlety was never an option.
Yet when I set out to write a gender-flipped, contemporary, rom-com retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, my biggest challenge was recasting the titular Phantom as a modern woman, while still capturing the over-the-top spirit of the original book, the Broadway adaptation, and the brilliant-terrible campfest that’s the 2004 movie version.
You see, in the world of romance novels (and this holds true in other genres, but it’s especially entrenched in this one), there are certain things you can get away with when writing male characters which readers don’t love seeing as much in their female ones. The original Phantom is obsessive, melodramatic, deeply lonely, a musical genius, and (spoiler from 1909) a casual practitioner of blackmail, arson, and murder. And as Phans know, he’s tragically ugly-hot in that broken, “I can fix him!” toxic way that appeals to proponents of the Bad Boy in love triangle dynamics.
I wondered: how do I translate that to a 2022-era antiheroine readers will want to root for? Should I tone down the Phantom’s less desirable traits so I could present a more palatable heroine for readers to love?
Nah. I wrote this book in year two of the pandemic; I was unemployed, going through a divorce, newly diagnosed with autoimmune disease, the world was on fire, and I decided I didn’t have the four-letter words to tone it down. I was going to write an antiheroine, and I was going to go, fully, completely all-in. And not just with her character, but with everything: the camp, the meta references, the purple prose, the ironic humor, and the weirdness. This book is my toxic antiheroine! Besides, it wasn’t my job to stop me from torpedoing my fledgling writing career with a book that was too extra–that’s what my agent and acquiring editor are there for!
Still, when I wrote the opening scene to Midnight Duet, I was sure it’s inevitable fate was the cutting room floor. I was certain it was too much. So the fact that I was allowed to keep it in, and that for some reason it didn’t alienate every reader who picked it up, delights me to no end.
The most important thing you should know is that the opening scene is a prologue. Conventional wisdom says writers should throw readers into the action and work backstory in later. There’s no dearth of writing advice suggesting prologues are amateur moves. Some editors straight up won’t read ‘em.
“You know, they say you should never do prologues.” (Midnight Duet’s opening line.)
But if you’ve ever seen The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, it starts with a prologue. (Technically, it’s a flash-forward–but same execution, same effect.) Therefore, I was going to have a prologue. And in this prologue, I was going to make sure my readers knew that the heroine of this novel–the one they’d be rooting for in her quest to redeem herself and win the love of a man who wears pleather pants in May in Nevada–is in fact, not a heroine at all. She’s our antiheroine, and she’s a straight-up, no-holds-barred bitch.
Erika Greene, as we learn in this chapter, is a Broadway diva starring as Fantine in Les Miserables. She’s an unparalleled talent, she’s spoiled, she’s hot–she’s better than everyone else and she knows it. The only reason she likes doing her makeup in the general cast dressing room instead of the private rooms for soloists is that she likes the attention when she shows up late. Erika ignores her castmate, fawning sycophant Misty, who is recounting the plot of an imaginary musical she’s written called Sporeceress, in which the antiheroine is introduced to readers via a–you guessed it–a prologue. “I know they [prologues] can be kind of tacky, but I think it’s necessary to reveal my antiheroine’s origin story. I want the audience to see how awful and unlikeable she is, you know? I want them to absolutely despise her…”
Oh yeah, and Erika slept with her understudy’s boyfriend the night before. When said understudy, Carla–a sweet, wholesome ingenue from Oklahoma–tearfully confronts Erika about this dramatic betrayal, Erika denies, lies, and then–when the jig is up–tells Carla she’s actually done her a favor. Erika feels little remorse, because she’s hungover and can’t wait to go home to her lavish high-rise apartment, where she enjoys being as far away as possible from the city’s menagerie of vermin.
Do you absolutely despise her yet? Don’t worry! There’s nothing I love more than the comedy of dramatic irony. And just like in the opening scenes of 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera movie, it’s not long before our egocentric diva suffers a tragic accident from a falling stage piece. In this case, it leaves Erika with a scarred face and prematurely ends her skyrocketing Broadway career with a dramatic fall from grace, and no one is sad to see her go. When readers meet Erika next, she’s wallowing in a pool of self-pity in the dank basement of her great-great grandmother’s old opera house somewhere in Nevada, where she lives with a menagerie of vermin and a whole lot of regret.
But just like Misty’s mushroom sorceress in Sporeceress, Erika’s journey is all about growth–learning to love herself and others in the darkness so she can emerge into the light.
The same could be said for this book: it came from a dark place, and it starts out in a dark place–but I hope Erika’s dramatic, over-the-top, all-in story of redemption will bring readers a bit of light.
Jen Comfort is originally from Portland, Oregon, and dabbled in astrophysics before spending a decade working in restaurants in New York City and Portland. Now, she writes romantic comedies about hot nerds with very cool jobs. She spends her free time growing plants destined to die before their time, playing video games, and encouraging her two cats and malamute-husky dog to become internet famous with zero success.