Past Lives: Arya Roshanian
Past Lives is an interview series with School of the Arts Writing faculty, students, and alumni who began their professional lives on different career paths. In this series, we discuss the lives they led before they became artists—and how their work in other industries informs the creative work they do now. Here, we talk to Fiction student Arya Roshanian about grandiose personalities, humor and tone, and appreciating opera in the 21st century.
You’ve had quite an interesting history of experience in music. Can you start by telling me how you got involved in opera?
AR: When I was a kid, like four or five years old, my mom would play classical music while I went to sleep. My mom put my sister in classical arts, like ballet. I wanted to do ballet, but my mom said no, because she assumed boys don’t do ballet. But she let me do music. She also put me in sports and all those extracurriculars, but I definitely felt more inclined to the arts. So she enrolled me in piano lessons and as I was getting older, I always had my foot in some sort of art.
I dabbled with visual arts and theater. It was difficult for me to pin down what I wanted to do. I cast a wide net, but I just always returned to music. When I was in 10th grade, I started training in classical voice. Really all you can do until you’re that age is take piano lessons or learn a different instrument, or do children's choirs, all of those sorts of things to get you ready for training in opera. The difference between singing and playing an instrument is that [when you sing] your instrument is a part of your body, if you injure it or if you harm it, it's a completely different recovery process. And some people don't recover. You're very careful to not over-exert your voice as a kid.
How long were you involved in this world?
AR: I knew I wanted to do music in college and my parents were very skeptical. They thought it was a hard industry. They didn't know if I was good enough. But when I applied to opera programs at universities, and I got into most places, I think that's when my parents realized that I could have a shot—it wasn't just a pipe dream, I actually could achieve some success. So I enrolled at USC, one of the best music schools on the West Coast.
It's a pretty professional program. They treat the rehearsals and the entire program in a way that feels reminiscent of what it's going to be like in the professional world. But as I got older, I realized that performing wasn't what I wanted to do. I still loved opera and I still loved music, but I became more introverted. As a kid, I definitely wanted to be the center of attention. As I got older, I became more introspective and I got really bad stage fright. I was in my head a lot. With something like opera, there's only so much you can do to practice and get better. Essentially, if someone doesn't think you're good, they're basically saying that you suck. You don't have the voice. And I kind of took that to heart—a lot of it was my own insecurity. It's so subjective. Somebody can think you're great and then somebody else can think you're . . . not great. It really makes no difference to how successful you will be. At that point, I took a year off because I thought, “Well, I don't want to continue a degree that isn't making me happy when I know I don't want to do it anymore.”
How did you figure out what you were going to do next?
AR: Music had always been a big part of my life, classical music specifically, but then when I returned to school, I thought, “what can I do?” because I had put all my eggs in this basket of being a performer. It’s a really difficult process to switch programs at a school like USC. I wanted to change to English, but it would've required me to apply from the School of Music to the School of Arts and Science. It would've required me to stay longer in school. And I thought, “Yeah, well, I'm not gonna stay longer.”
I ended up switching to music history, which is just a humanities approach to music and musicology. I felt like that was kind of the best-case scenario, and I'm happy I did that. I didn't realize it at the time, but I like that my background is in music. Now I realize that maybe it is an asset because, especially in a program like creative writing where so many people come from English or a creative writing undergrad program, having a background in something else… I don't want to say it gave me an edge, but I think maybe it’s of more interest to people that I didn't come from the background which seems like it’s the pipeline. It's tangential, but it's not as much of an obvious line.
What led you from music history to writing?
AR: Maybe I should be more in the moment, but I'm always thinking about how what I'm doing now can help my future. So I thought, "okay, what can I do?" I joined the school newspaper and I realized that there weren't many people writing about classical music. It's pretty niche. So I thought I'd do music writing. I became an editor at the school newspaper. That was the best decision I could have made because I got an internship at Variety right after I graduated, and that's what kind of led me into music journalism. Now I do general Arts and Culture. I still write about music, but because I have an interest in a bunch of the arts, Arts and Culture is good. It gives me options.
Was that your first experience with writing? Had you ever written fiction or creative nonfiction before then?
AR: I'd always done well in my English classes and I'd always been a reader, but it wasn't something that I had ever really thought to pursue. I wasn't very popular growing up, so I read a lot. When I say I became more introspective when I got older, I think it's because I spent so much time reading and so much time lost in thought. That's kind of a cliché now, but I think there's a reason why that's a cliché, because it's generally how it happens.
I liked reading because I was able to create worlds in my head and I think there are pros and cons to that. I felt like maybe I was living in my head a little bit too much, but when I was deciding what I wanted to do, I thought, “Well, I’ve always done well in my writing classes in school, so maybe this is what I should be doing.”
Was it a smooth transition?
AR: Being a writer is still very competitive, but at this point in my life, the insecurities I have with writing aren't the same insecurities that I had when I was singing. It's less vulnerable, I think. When you're singing in front of people, you can see or feel their reactions. Even in a workshop, when we're critiquing, I don't take it as personally if somebody says, “You don't have talent.” It’s a lot more subjective.
When I took some time off, I worked at a used bookstore in my hometown. That’s what actually got me interested in writing. I knew I wanted to write fiction, but I waited to write short stories until much later. Actually, the first short story I wrote was in January of 2020.
When you first started writing fiction, were you already incorporating music into your work?
AR: There's definitely classical music tied into that first story, but it's not about music. Right before the pandemic, I had actually left journalism. I had gotten a job working at a classical music agency, and I was still freelance writing, but I just needed to do something to make money, which is ironic because the job paid terribly and it was probably the worst job I've ever worked in my life. I was fired before the pandemic, and I took that as a sign. I realized that I needed to be writing. hat lit a fire under my ass. I was like, “this is what I’m gonna do.”
And then March 2020 happened. As awful as it may sound, it was a blessing at first, because I couldn't really apply for jobs. I knew that I wanted to do an MFA, but I felt like I just needed to figure out what I wanted to write about. I like to prepare for things and so I thought I would immerse myself in as much reading as I could and that's how I was going to learn how to write.
I'm very thankful that I did that, because for me, that was the right process. Everything that happened in my life up until now has made me a better writer. I don't know what kind of writer I would be had I not gone through that.
Singing is so much about breathwork and phrasing, does that affect the way you construct sentences?
AR: Music allowed me to approach writing from a different point of view. I do think about prose almost like a melodic phrase. When I'm writing a sentence, I'm always thinking about the rhythm of the sentence and asking if it sounds musical, in a way. I read it out loud. There definitely needs to be substance behind the prose, but I'm such a sucker for beautiful and melodic prose.
As a classical singer you must have been singing in many different languages. Does that affect your work now?
AR: In college, I took French, Italian, and German. In most music programs, you have to take the elementary classes of all three. You have to continue all the way through with one of them. I took a few years of Italian. Once I graduated, my Italian was pretty good. I was almost fluent.
Now I wish I had kept up with it, because I think foreign languages are very helpful in terms of literature, also. There's only so much that's being translated into English. I wish that I could read some of these great books in their original languages, which is why I'm taking Russian now. I’ve become a fervid Russsophile in the last few years. I try to pull from all of my different experiences to help my writing. With a field that’s as competitive as creative writing, you need to find an avenue that only you can do. That is what’s going to get the attention of editors.
Is that why you started writing about your experiences in classical music?
AR: When I started my novel about opera, I genuinely thought that nobody was going to care about it. In general, people don't really listen to classic music or care about it. But maybe the reason is because it's so foreign to people. They don't know it. I realized that people think it's cool and they want to learn about it.
I'm not trying to spoon-feed it, but the question is, how do you talk about classical music to somebody that doesn't know about it, without being patronizing? How do you explain so it's clear to people, without dumbing it down? That has been a big lesson for me, learning how to write about music. The example I’m always thinking of is, how do you explain color to somebody who can't see? How do you explain what somebody's voice sounds like? Or how do you explain what a composer's music sounds like through words?
Of all the things in my novel that I spend the most time on, it's those moments when I'm describing music, because it's imperative that it's described correctly, but it's also described in a way that people can understand.
How did you come to develop your own process for writing fiction?
AR: My writing process is slow—for the novel that I'm writing now, it's really like a block of marble and I'm just chipping slowly away at it. I definitely overthink, and I think that's also kind of the downside to all of the research—quote unquote—that I did, to learn how to write—because I think after a certain point, I was pulling from too many sources and too many different kinds of writers. What kind of writer do I want to be? Eventually you just have to let it go and just trust that whatever you're writing is going to work. At this point, I have a pretty good grasp of my voice and my tone. And I think sometimes I don't trust it. I always think, “Oh, maybe I should emulate this writer more.” That's something I really have to let go of.
As you’ve said, most people have little idea what happens inside the modern-day world of opera and classical music. As a writer, do you feel your book is offering readers the chance to peek behind closed doors, so to speak?
AR: Yeah, definitely. When I tell all my opera singer friends that I'm writing a novel about modern-day opera singers, they're all like, “Oh my God!” I think it makes sense to them because you really are kind of siloed in the rehearsal process. Basically, the only distractions that you have are yourself and other people who are there. And so naturally, the smallest thing is going to be the end of the world or the best thing that's ever happened to you. So it makes for good material.
And opera singers are…the stereotype of that grandiose personality, that stereotype comes from somewhere. A lot of them are very outgoing and…a lot.
It sounds like the perfect ingredients for a novel. You've got this isolated setting, where nobody has perspective and everyone has a gigantic personality.
AR: Yeah. It's definitely a large cast of characters, but there's my protagonist, and it's a very observational novel. He of course injects himself into the narrative, but it really is an intimate depiction of what it is to be that isolated.
I feel like all the novels about opera I've read in research have been period pieces. Like Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, which is wonderful, but is set in the 19th century. All of the books about music are rooted in the past. Ian McEwan just came out with a novel about piano lessons, but it's set during World War II. Mine is pretty contemporary.
How does this antiquated art form translate into this century? What is opera like today? Not many writers have experienced that personally, and I think maybe [you should] only write about it if you have done it. When somebody’s writing about classical music who doesn’t have a music background, I can tell right away. That's an important thing for me. You can't pretend to be an expert about something that you know nothing about. If you're going to write about classical music and you don't have a background in it, it's going to be very difficult to write about it convincingly. But then on the other hand, because so few people have knowledge about classical music, there aren't many people calling them out as incorrect. How many people know the insular world of being an opera singer? Not very many people. The biggest compliment would be an opera singer reading my book and telling me, “you got it right.”
I'm just curious, do you sing anymore?
AR: I mean, I sing every day in my own apartment, not publicly anymore. I'm always just singing, you know? On my walk here, I was listening to opera. That's always still what I listen to. I think it's still my greatest love. I still go [to the Metropolitan Opera] a lot. They're doing an adaptation of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which I get to review, which is really exciting.
Opera and literature have always gone hand in hand, if you think about what operas are being adapted. Almost every Shakespeare play has been adapted. When you're thinking about what to adapt into an opera, usually the first thing people go to is literature, or mythology, or any sort of story that's been written down. It's very rare to see something that is an original story. And I think the natural trajectory of my career makes sense because opera and literature have always been connected. So, I feel like in some ways, I'm not really doing anything that different from what I was doing before.