I recently participated in the inaugural Black Girl Magic Book Club sponsored by the McBride Sisters, Robin and Andrea, whose Black Girl Magic wines are some of the best-selling in the U.S. They founded the book club last year with the mission to highlight the stories of Black women authors.
The first selection was Dawnie Walton’s stunning debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. The story traces fiercely independent Opal Jewel, a Black punk artist ahead of her time coming of age in Detroit. Discovered during the early 1970s by British singer/songwriter Nev Charles at a club in New York’s funky creative scene, the two musicians form an unlikely partnership. The story is told through interviews conducted by music journalist, Sunny Shelton, a Black woman who is the first editor of color for Aural, a rock music magazine. Shelton seizes the opportunity to write an oral history of her idol and the politics of the duo’s most famous period. Opal is a heroine for the ages who dares speak the truth regarding the racist music industry and society at large.
Following are excerpts from the author question and answer session hosted by the McBride Sisters. This was Walton’s first book club event, and her excitement was contagious. Over the course of the discussion, she shared her own journey as a writer—from why she felt compelled to tell this story, to her process, and her plans for upcoming books.
Andrea McBride: How did this book come to be? What was the spark?
Dawnie Walton: In some ways I feel like this is a book that I wanted to write my whole life. I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida, grew up in the 90s, and grew up in a family that loved music. My grandparents loved the jazz vocalists … my parents were in their 20s in the 1970s and they were very much into conscious soul music. So those sounds were always in our house growing up. When I was a teenager, it was the Golden Age of hip hop, but also, I have lots of curiosity about rock and roll music and what was going on then. Nirvana had just kind of blasted everything open, so there was all this alternative music and indie rock—those weird but also harder sounds—and I was drawn to that. It was strange for me because it felt very taboo as a Black woman because I rarely saw myself reflected in that music. Writing the Opal character, who is the character who came to me first, I always describe her as the rock and roll star I would have loved to put up on my wall—a Black woman, making this kind of music, who was messy as rock stars tend to be, and very stylish and witty, political, and cool, and very, very Black.
I started working on this in 2013 after watching the movie, Twenty Feet from Stardom, in which a lot of the back-up singers are Black women … I hadn’t written fiction in years, honestly. Opal’s voice came to me first, and I just started writing. What kept me coming back to the page through all that time was the love for these characters—they’re wild and messy, and also my need to process my obsessions with music and popular culture. There were also my anxieties of what was happening in the world around me and how all of that was reflected in media.
I’m so excited because this is my first book club conversation. I haven’t been able to get into the nitty gritty of the book yet. The impetus for the story being told is that in 2015-2016 Opal and Nev are considering reuniting for a Coachella type show, and there’s renewed interest in a heightened political moment against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election. There’s new interest in their origin story. The character who is putting together the book and doing all the interviewing is Sunny, a Black woman who has just become editor-in-chief of the music magazine she writes for. She has a very personal connection to Opal and Nev that she’s never talked about—her father Jimmy was Opal and Nev’s drummer and he was killed during a violent protest in which a rival band brandished the Confederate flag during the Riverton Showcase. Opal was having an affair with Jimmy so Sunny has this extremely complicated relationship and as she’s doing her reporting, she stumbles on a dark secret that threatens to blow up everything.
Robin McBride: Sunny, being the character that’s the magazine editor and narrator doing these interviews, and having your background with magazines, is that a coincidence or did you pull on your experience of being in that world?
DW: I totally pulled on my experience! The format of book is an oral history and basically a series of interviews. Sunny pops up here and there to give her take on what going on. But the oral history form is one I worked with a lot when I was at Entertainment Weekly magazine. It was good form to use for things that are iconic or beloved. I remember we did an oral history about the movie Say Anything, which is a movie that a lot of people love and feel deeply passionate about. It’s a good form to just get voices raw and on the page, and if it involves celebrities—actors, musicians, all these people who have huge personalities. It’s fun to have those voices intersecting with each other and to see where they agree and where they disagree about history. I thought it was a fun way to get the reader engaged in finding the truth between the lines.
RM: Why did you choose to write from so many different perspectives?
DW: I did that because I like the freedom of it. I like to hear from different characters and hear their perspectives. I think in moments, especially the Rivington Showcase scene, the fact that I could pull from so many different perspectives is almost like having a camera in different places. There’s a camera on the balcony, there’s a camera in the lobby, there’s a camera on the stage. So, you’re able to get that full 360 degree view all the time. I also like to have voices in a chorus, with Opal being the primary voice, and everyone around her sort of chiming it. Again, looking at how voices complement each other and how they clash.
RM: We know Nev is not American. How important was it to have a male protagonist who is a white non-American and was this purposeful to exclude him from the struggles of African Americans?
DW: This was me pulling from real rock and roll history. At a particular time, in the late 60s and early 70s, a lot of the British rock and rollers, including the Rolling Stones, a band call Humble Pie, even to some extent the Beatles, were very fascinated by black sounds. Especially like the sound that a gospel church sound would give them. They worked a lot with background singers. This is all documented in Twenty Feet from Stardom, this trend with the British groups being more fascinated and open to that in complicated ways. The Rolling Stones … have this song, ‘Gimme Shelter,’ a showcase for Mary Clayton. Then they have the song ‘Brown Sugar,’ which is … actually quite an offensive song. I wanted to explore those dynamics and that for a lot of these women their careers were made or progressed because they were working with these white British guys, but also that it was messy at times.
RM: You mentioned that you wrote this book over several years. What is your writing process like and what does it take to bring a story to life?
DW: There were definitely phases. It also took me a long time because I had no idea what I was doing. Kind of like going by the seat of my pants. I started working on this in 2013 and at the time I was the deputy managing editor for Essence, which was a very big job … I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and work for a couple of hours before it was time to get myself together to go into the city. If I had the energy at the end of the day’s work, I’d return to the computer. It got to the point where it demanded more of my brainpower than I was able to give it.
That was the point where I applied to a fellowship which I ended up getting and had to make a decision. I had to decide whether I was going to continue in my job or take this leap where there was no money attached … nothing. I was at a point in my career where I had built up a nest egg. I had never really taken a risk like this or bet on myself in this way … I was asking myself some tough, hard questions about how I wanted to live the rest of my life. As much as I loved my job at Essence and working with my colleagues, the thing was, we covered women who were going for their dreams. Those stories were really inspiring, and I think it rubbed off on me in a way. That little voice told me, it’s time, and I stepped out on faith. I took the fellowship and while I was there, decided I was going to apply to MFA programs, but only fully funded ones … because I did not want to go broke paying for a degree when I didn’t know what was going to happen. I applied to 11 programs around the country and ended up going to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Never thought I’d live in Iowa.
AM: How was that?
DW: Iowa City is like a blue dot in a red state and it’s a very cute college town. It was a great break from New York in the sense that New York is very noisy and I need a lot of quiet and focus to work, and it was great for that. The experience gave me the time and the space to really focus on the work. I made myself I promise that I would finish a draft by the time I graduated, and I made it with two weeks to spare.
AM: I’m curious about your writing process and creativity evolves in this process?
DW: I joke a lot about not knowing how to write a novel, but in this sense, I think ignorance was bliss because I didn’t approach the book with a super tight outline, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a process of me driving towards things that excited me in process. Then driving a little bit more, then getting stuck, taking time to think about what would happen, what seemed interesting to me, what seemed complicated that I thought was really compelling, and then driving a little bit more.
AM: Robin and I can relate to that!
DW: It’s about keeping it fresh and fun because it does take so long. You have to feel excited about coming back to the page again and again. That excitement you have is what keeps you working on it.
RM: Can you share with everybody thoughts on your next book?
DW: I am in the dreaming stage right now and for me that involves thinking about characters, thinking about who they are and how they intersect. I’m also thinking about a different time period. I’m thinking about playing with the 90s.
RM: The 90s were fun! I was there for that!
DW: There were some good years, like my college years. I went to Florida A&M. Rattlers, yes! I’m not quite sure what the story is, but I’m trying to get to a place where I’m finding the narrative voice of the book and trying to settle into a pocket with the voice. I’m just playing around right now, and we’ll see what happens!
Dawnie Walton is the author of the novel The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, a “spectacular debut” (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review) that was named one of 2021’s most anticipated books by Essence, Vogue, The Oprah Magazine, Elle, The Independent, Lit Hub, PopSugar, The Millions, and Hypebae. Her work as a fiction writer and journalist explores identity, place, and the influence of pop culture. A MacDowell Colony fellow (2015), a Tin House Scholar (2017), and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA, 2018), she has worked as an executive-level editor for magazine and multimedia brands including Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images, and LIFE. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, she lives in Brooklyn. Read other interviews with Dawnie Walton on this extraordinary book at her author site.