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Author Janet McNally on Writing about Music
Hi PubCrawlers! Today I'm sharing an interview with my friend and fellow Sweet 16 debut author, Janet McNally. Janet's debut, Girls in the Moon, releases tomorrow, November 29. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and I fell in love with this lyrical coming-of-age story with a rock and roll backdrop. I'm so happy to have Janet here to talk about her debut. She is also sharing a giveaway, so enter with the Rafflecopter below!
Here's a summary of Girls in the Moon:
Everyone in Phoebe Ferris’s life tells a different version of the truth. Her mother, Meg,
ex-rock star and professional question evader, shares only the end of the story—the post-fame calm that Phoebe’s always known. Her sister Luna, indie rock darling of Brooklyn, preaches a stormy truth of her own making, selectively ignoring the facts she doesn’t like. And her father, Kieran, cofounder of Meg’s beloved band, hasn’t said anything at all since he stopped calling three years ago.
But Phoebe, a budding poet in search of an identity to call her own, is tired of half-truths and vague explanations. When she visits Luna in New York, she’s determined to find out how she fits in to this family of storytellers, and maybe even continue her own tale—the one with the musician boy she’s been secretly writing for months.
Like the tide being pulled to the shore, Phoebe is drawn back and forth between her magnetic family members and her own fresh start. Phoebe’s first adventure flows forward as Meg’s romance unspools in reverse, leaving behind only a time-worn, precious pearl of truth about her family’s past—and leaving Phoebe to take a leap into the unknown of her own future.
Welcome Janet! Thank you for being here. Girls in the Moon is about two sisters whose parents were once in a famous rock band together. The book shows us glimpses of the parents’ past in the rock limelight, but most of the action is set in present-day New York City, where one of the girls is just getting her own music career started with her own band. What made you choose to write about music, and about the world of rock in particular?
I love music and I always have, so it just seemed natural to me. To be honest, when I started writing this book I had nine-month-old twins and a toddler, so I don’t remember how it all began. I do think there was something about that wild, sleepless time that let me fall straight into this book, and I probably went toward music because I find it comforting. The music we love is a type of home for each of us, isn’t it? For me, that home is rock and roll and live shows, guitar hum and amp hiss and kick drums. It makes sense that the first novel I finished was in that world. I loved using Phoebe as a main character, too, because she’s an outsider and an insider at the same time. She’s not a musician, but she is a lyricist, and she loves music.
The arts are all over Girls in the Moon—not just music, but sculpture and poetry, too. Can you talk about your personal relationship with the arts and how it influenced this book?
I’ve always been a storyteller, back to the time when I was making books out of construction paper and stapling them together. Most of my characters end up being artists of some sort: writers, painters, photographers, dancers. I think it’s because I can’t quite imagine what it would be like not to be driven to create art. My husband and I have this joke we repeat all the time: What do people do if they aren’t artists? How do they spend their time? Some of them probably spend a lot of their time consuming art (shout out to my beloved bookworms out there!) and that’s great, too. I’ve always needed a balance between production and consumption of art. That works for me. So it works for my characters, too, I think.
My MFA is in fiction, but after my first daughter was born I couldn’t write fiction, so I went back to poetry. I published my first book of poems, Some Girls, in 2015, just after I sold Girls in the Moon. I love poetry, especially the way it lets us say things in this perfect, crystalline, focused way. I haven’t had much time to write it in the last year or so, since I’m writing my second novel, and I miss it. It was nice to write about a budding poet with Phoebe.
I really enjoyed the flashback chapters. How did that writing choice come about for you? What kind of challenges did it present? Did you have to address the changes in the music world, for instance?
In the first version of Girls in the Moon, there were no Meg flashback chapters. My editor Kristen Pettit was the one who suggested that, and as soon as she did, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was so appealing to write from an artist mother’s perspective, as an artist mother myself. My girls are tiny, just as Meg’s are in the most recent flashback chapters, and I could imagine what it would be like to want to protect them from fame and from the world.
I found it really fun to write those chapters. It was freeing to write vignettes that didn’t have to be connected to the chapter previous, to hop around in time. It was a little like writing poetry in that way. You can leave spaces wide open. I was writing about Meg’s life offstage, so I thought I could understand that and render it believably. It was fun, too, to dip into the nineties. Meg is older than me, so I was reaching back before my own experience, but I was a teenager in the nineties so I had some background. There’s something appealing about writing about a time before iTunes and Spotify, when if you wanted to hear a song you had to put on a tape or a record or catch it on the radio. I live in a house with thousands of vinyl records, though, so I guess I’m already living in that world to some extent.
In Girls in the Moon, music and family are closely intertwined. I know music is a part of your own family. How did your family relationships influence this book?
My husband is a musician, as you know, Julie, and we’ve been together for a long time. I spent my early twenties in bars and clubs watching his band play (often in the middle of the night—we stay up late here in Buffalo!). So I know what it’s like to be married to another artist, though I think it’s easier in a way when you’re in different fields. I also know what it’s like to raise kids to have music—the songs and artists we love—be a huge part of their lives. My oldest daughter had a bunch of imaginary friends, and the two most important ones were John Lennon and Ringo Starr. I have so many music nerd friends, too, and that became a big part of this book. Phoebe worries about holding her own with the cool music kids, and what she doesn’t realize is that she’s one of them.
Do you have any helpful tips for anyone trying to write a book where music (or another art) plays a part in the story?
With music, I think it’s all about listening. For me, a soundtrack was essential, and so was my own experience with live music. You can’t write about New York City or Paris convincingly without spending a lot of time there, or you run the risk of writing about some TV version of the city. Same goes for writing about live music. You have to experience it. The added benefit for me is that I do some of my best thinking at live shows. I think that’s because I can’t do anything else but listen and think.
Last question—how did writing Girls in the Moon affect your own love of music? Do you find you approach music differently now?
I don’t know if I approach music differently, exactly, but I do love it even more. I love the way that songs can be time-travel machines, the way they take us back to particular moments in our lives as soon as we hear the first notes. That’s magic, as far as I’m concerned. And now I have a lot of new songs that are memory-stamped with this book for me. I love that.
Thank you Janet--it's been lovely to have you! Congrats on the launch of Girls in the Moon! PubCrawlers, look for the book in stores on November 29, and enter the Rafflecopter below!