EIL: Everything I've Learned

Dawnie Walton's Musical Journey from Media Exec to Debut Novelist

March 30, 2021 Mark Armstrong Season 1 Episode 3
Dawnie Walton's Musical Journey from Media Exec to Debut Novelist
EIL: Everything I've Learned
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EIL: Everything I've Learned
Dawnie Walton's Musical Journey from Media Exec to Debut Novelist
Mar 30, 2021 Season 1 Episode 3
Mark Armstrong

Dawnie Walton is the author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. It's her debut novel, and it's a story that came to her at a pivotal moment in her life, inspiring her to make the leap from journalist and media executive to author. The novel tells the story of a fictional rock duo, Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, who shoot to fame in 1970s New York City.

Walton is a MacDowell fellow, a Tin House scholar, and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Edited by Ashur Rayis
Music by Mark Armstrong and Ashur Rayis 

Get updates from EIL: https://markarms.com/newsletter/
EIL on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/EIL

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Dawnie Walton is the author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. It's her debut novel, and it's a story that came to her at a pivotal moment in her life, inspiring her to make the leap from journalist and media executive to author. The novel tells the story of a fictional rock duo, Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, who shoot to fame in 1970s New York City.

Walton is a MacDowell fellow, a Tin House scholar, and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Edited by Ashur Rayis
Music by Mark Armstrong and Ashur Rayis 

Get updates from EIL: https://markarms.com/newsletter/
EIL on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/EIL

Support the Show.

Dawnie Walton: I remember before I hit the submit button, like my finger was literally hovering over the button and I made a promise to myself, I said, if I get this, if I'm lucky enough to get this, I'm going for it, I'm taking the leap. 


Mark Armstrong: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Everything I've Learned, a podcast about lessons, mistakes, and other turning points. I'm Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads. As always, you can support the show by going to patreon.com/EIL.

I hope you're all doing well today. I'm excited to chat with Dawnie Walton. She's the author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. It's her debut novel, and it's a story that came to her at a pivotal moment in her life and helped her make the leap from journalist and media executive to author. The novel tells the story of a fictional rock duo, Opal Jewel, and Nev Charles, who shoot to fame in 1970s New York City.

Dawnie is a MacDowell fellow, a Tin House scholar, and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. So without further ado, here is my chat with Dawnie Walton.


Mark Armstrong: Dawnie, thank you so much for being here.

Dawnie Walton: It is my absolute pleasure to be here, Mark. Thanks for having me.

Mark Armstrong:  I should say, full disclosure that you and I have known each other for many years. And we are currently working on some projects together. And, congratulations on this book. I loved it. And I'm going to try to get through this interview without spoilers.

 Dawnie Walton: Tougher than it seems.

Mark Armstrong: So Opal Jewel, she's such an unforgettable character. Tell me a little bit about who she is and how her story came to you in the first place.

Dawnie Walton: Sure. So I really think of Opal as you know, the icon I would've  had pinned to my bedroom wall when growing up in the nineties, Black girl loving rock n roll in North Florida, which is really more like South Georgia — not like Miami, Florida, very Southern, very conservative town And she is a Black American woman who teams up with a white Englishman in the early 1970s to make weird rock and roll music She's a little bit of the expression of my passions for alternative music, indie rock, punk, proto-punk, all those sort of forms that I was drawn to in a very taboo way. And she is like some of the most iconic women in rock. She's badass, she's a little bit messy, but she's also political and stylish. And the most important thing for me with Opal is that she loves the skin that she's in. Like she has no issues at all with her identity and she has no problem telling you who she is and what she stands for.

And growing up in Florida being drawn to these forms it wasn't something that I saw a lot growing up. I didn't see myself reflected too much -- you know of course there are icons who are Black men, there's the band Fishbone, and then there's Bad Brains, and then of course before all that Jimi Hendrix and all these sort of rock n roll gods, but not a lot of people who looked like me, bringing that kind of energy to the music. And so I sort of wanted to pull from women who had been erased from rock history because it's not like didn't exist. Those women were there -- there was a cult funk rock legend named Betty Davis. In the style of Grace Jones there's something kind of punk about her. And Nona Hendryx and LaBelle -- artists who are often kind of put into like a soul category, and in some ways they are, but they were also very rock n roll. They weren't promoted as rock n roll.

And so, you know, I didn't have them as, as icons. And so it was really kind of about imagining a figure that took little bits of DNA from all these women. And kind of imagining her into the early 1970s in New York City, which is a time and place I'm a little bit obsessed with. 

Mark Armstrong: So did the making of this novel start with that character in the first place with Opal?

Dawnie Walton: so I'll tell you how it started. It was the end of 2013 and I was watching a documentary, called 20 Feet from Stardom. If you haven't seen it, it's great film about backup singers, a lot of them being Black women -- Merry Clayton who sang on “Gimme Shelter,” other women whose names people might not know. And at the very beginning like toward the beginning of that documentary there is footage from the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, which is one of my favorite concert films. And at the center of the stage you see David Byrne doing his weird sort of David Byrne dancing thing with guitar. Then the camera pans over and you see these two Black women, who are just giving everything to the performance. They're singing and they're dancing and they have on these gray, short suits that kind of matched David Byrne's suit. And I had this urge to literally stick my hand in the screen and pull one of them to the center of the stage and just watch David Byrne and one of these women perform for the entirety of the concert, and it just sparked a bunch of What If questions in my head. What if there were a duo that looked like this and made music like this -- sort of avant garde music together, and I just started riffing from there and I started with Opal's voice.

Hers was the one that came to me first.  And so the first oral histories that appear in the book are the first words that I wrote of the novel. and I just started going from there and seeing where the voices took me.

Mark Armstrong: And the way you've constructed it is as an oral history, which to me seems like a very difficult thing to pull off. How, how did you decide to take that format?

Dawnie Walton: So I have a background as a journalist. I worked for many years at Entertainment Weekly and oral history was a form that we used a lot to tell the stories of iconic albums or movies, to get all the voices that were part of the making of something that was big and beloved on the record.

And so it was a form that I just always loved for the way that voices interplayed, but also to see how memories compared and contrasted. There's a lot of humor in that. And I also read a lot of oral histories. One of my favorite ones is called Live from New York by Tom Shales, which is a history of Saturday Night Live, and there was just so much drama to be mined. 

And then you also have the sense of an invisible narrator, you know who was actually the person putting the pieces together, sort of weaving the story, weaving the voices to tell something larger. And although it seems like it's super structured and it is in many ways, like I felt like it gave a shape and a form within which I could really play.  And it just allowed for a playfulness that was very freeing as a writer.

Mark Armstrong: To your point with the oral histories where you can you can see one person constructing a narrative, and then another person sort of come in and undercut that narrative. And so the questions of what really happened really come to the foreground there.

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. And I think it makes the reader a very active participant in sort of trying to parse who it is they're going to believe, you know? And that was fun. That was a fun piece of the project as well. 

And then also having, the journalist character in the novel who you sort of begin to understand her biases and  what she believes in the way that like things are constructed. So, I think the reader remains engaged throughout sort of putting the pieces together themselves. 

Mark Armstrong:  As you mentioned, the story is interwoven with the story of this music journalist, Sonny Shelton. Who has a personal connection to Opal and the group and the story. So how did, her character develop during this process?

Dawnie Walton: You know, it's so funny. Sunny developed very late in the process. I had written probably about two-thirds of a draft before Sunny came into the picture and what happened was, I went to Iowa Writer's Workshop, you know, I was very, blessed to get into that MFA program. And for the first time I was showing a workshop of people what I was working on, and in my very first semester, my classmates, you know, they said, Cool, we really like this, but we're very curious about who's putting this together. Like who's telling this story? And so from that point, I started writing things over, you know, keeping in mind that the characters are speaking to someone. and thinking about what they would divulge to her and what they would not divulge to her. And I thought it would add an extra, very interesting complication to have that journalist character have a personal connection to Opal and Nev.   

So Sunny has a very personal connection and this is not a spoiler to say, because it's stated in basically the first page of the novel, but her father was a drummer for Opal and Nev and he also was having an affair with Opal at the time that he is killed during one of their concerts, there's a riot that breaks out. And her father is beaten to death by a racist gang. And at the time of this, Sunny's mother is pregnant with her, so she never meets her father. So there's this curiosity with her father, a fascination with Opal that is sort of taboo for her because of course like her family has issues with Opal being the mistress to Jimmy.

So it just felt very sort of rich, to mine and to sort of have this fascination be extra taboo and so, you know, it was really kind of interesting to think about how she would be reacting to some of the more cavalier things that are said about the relationship, her father and Opal had, and it was very hard to think through, but I really loved the way that it turned out.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. To that point, we see, you know, we see Opal's life through the lens of all of these relationships through Sunny's, through her friend Virgil, through her musical partner Nev Charles. And it seems like she is trying to figure out who she can really trust during this process. So how does, how does that play out?

 Dawnie Walton: You know, the one thing that I was always trying to keep in mind when it came to Opal was, she's very young when she sort shoots into the spotlight She's only about 20 years old. And I was thinking back to when I was 20 and still figuring out a lot of who I was, you know? And so I was thinking about a character who had grown up a bit of an outcast in some ways. And sort of developed a very tough exterior and a bluster. And combining that with someone who is really still trying to find their voice and trying to find themselves as an artist. And suddenly propelled to through this really complicated incident, because they get famous after the night at the concert -- they sort of make the headlines and the fascination with them goes from there. And so it was really about like thinking through the mistakes that she would make, and getting to know her beneath that shell. And I think that's part of Sunny's challenge as a journalist is to sort of dig beneath that and get at the person that she actually is.

Mark Armstrong: And you mentioned that this story takes place in the early 1970s. And in the book we see Opal facing sexism and racism, not only in the music industry, but also facing experiences that are still relevant to what's happening right now in our country. How did you think about that and how did you decide on this time period tell that story?

Dawnie Walton: Well, I think it's really interesting that, you know, a lot of people have said that they have enjoyed sort of the commentary on, on the music industry. And that was never really my intent, really. I just wanted to show, you know, no matter what the industry was, I think she would have faced certain things.

I think we see to a less extreme degree, you do see moments of Sunny in her workplace and you see some of the microaggressions and things that she faces as a Black woman, as a trailblazer in her field, magazine journalism, as a first and as an only in the room. And so thinking about the fact that there weren't a lot of Black women making the kind of music, or at least being the frontwoman, for groups, that were making this kind of music in the early 1970s and thinking what that would have been like for her, the early 1970s, you know, were such an interesting time for music. It's just before like punk, it is before hip-hop, but you have like all kinds of genres kind of forming and mutating, you know, you have different kinds of rock. Like you have, people like, of course, David Bowie, but then you also have this Southern rock movement, which becomes like a big thing, in this novel.

And I do think it has been eerie to see how relevant some things about this book are. You know, it's also not a spoiler to say that the riot at the concert breaks out because Opal launches a protest against the Confederate flag on stage. It's a showcase concert and there's a Southern rock band on the label. And they, you know, sort of parade around in that iconography and she of course has a problem with that. And so, you know, just watching in January, the imagery of the man with the giant Confederate flag in the Capitol was chilling, you know? But I think a lot of writers, a lot of Black writers, sadly like the things that we write about, like, this are often eerily resonant. Like there's, there's always something in the headlines, unfortunately, that is like, Oh yeah. Okay. This is still happening. this is still, painful. This is still a problem. These are lessons that we still have not really learned. 

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. I mean seeing, especially something that is taking place in the early 1970s and seeing that things have not changed in so many ways. I had just read the book in, December and thought a lot about the Rivington showcase as depicted in the book. New York City, Detroit, and the South play prominent roles in this book. And so how did you think about place when it came to the story and the characters?

Dawnie Walton:  I'm from Jacksonville. And that is the hometown of Lynyrd Skynyrd. And so you know, in many ways Lynyrd Skynyrd are a great band. You know, they had some great music, but it's also, for me, it's in inextricable from that imagery and what that means. And so, you know, the Confederate flag is something growing up that I saw all the time, like on key chains and convenience stores, you know, bikinis at the beach. It was everywhere. And I'm of a certain age, so I grew up with the Dukes of Hazzard being very popular, you know, the car with the General Lee on the hood. It was always very complicated. And what was more complicated for me actually was when I left home and I was living in places like Oregon, you know, I lived in Portland for a while and I was on a road trip between Portland and Seattle and had a flat tire and, got towed to a gas station where there were Confederate flags all over the place. I was like, okay, what is this about? Because this is definitely not the South. It's not about Southern heritage completely. It's completely about white supremacy.  

Detroit I loved as a setting and as Opal's hometown, because it has such a wonderful musical legacy, you know, of course there's Motown, but you also have some really incredible punk bands and proto-punk bands coming out of Detroit. You have the Stooges, and there's also a proto-punk band called Death, who were three Black men who were brothers and made really  incredible music. There's a documentary, if you haven't seen it called it's called A Band Called Death. 

But also because, when I was in college, I went to Florida A&M, which is a Historically Black University. And there were a lot of students who came from Detroit, and they went to this high school called Cass Tech. And some of these people are still my friends, so they'll laugh when they hear this, but they came in completely prepared for college. Like, they were super confident and super driven and brilliant. And I was just always kind of in awe of the Cass Tech kids. So it was a combination of that, from Detroit.

And then Nev my, character is a Brit, he's from England. He's from Birmingham. And he's also a bit of a misfit character. And I wanted him not to be from a place like London. I wanted him to be from, a city that, you know, sometimes is a little bit looked down upon.

I think, you know, in Birmingham they have, and it's weird to me because I always think British accents are always posh, but there's, it's called the Brummie accent, out of Birmingham. And it's kind of like, made fun of England apparently. and I wanted to have like a touch of that in Nev that he came from a a bit of a gritty town where, you know, people from London might be a bit snobbish toward him and it's something he's always trying to overcome.

Mark Armstrong: And New York City…

Oh yeah. So I've been living in New York since 2000, pretty much with a small break in there for grad school. I kind of wanted to take people from all these places and like stick them here in that era, CBGB's, I think opens in 1973. So we're just on the brink of that. You still have Max's Kansas City and when music has sort of elevating to a sort of avant garde artsy form and downtown is a big part of the book, but also Harlem with the literary history and I just wanted to sort of have like an uptown and a downtown and have both those things be part of the book.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah, that's great. This sort of dovetails -- you spent many years as a journalist and a media executive before pursuing fiction. So tell me a little bit about that journey. 

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. So, for a long time I was a really straight arrow. Like I went to college for journalism and I ended up a journalist. And I was always sort of a practical person. And so, you know, I thought the way that I could work with words would, would be through journalism. So, I started in newspapers in the nineties. And got on like an editing track pretty early on. And then in 2000 I moved to digital and I was working -- my first job in digital was for a music website that died almost as soon as I started that job. It was Sonicnet. Yes. They had like this whole national TV ad campaign where it was like Beenie Man and Sheryl Crow, and then it just died. And so I was still with digital for many years and I was working for websites of magazines. And then eventually I was sort of working in these hybrid roles where I was doing things for both print and digital toward the end. 

And, you know, I had a wonderful career and I feel like there's a piece of every job I've ever had in this novel, weirdly. I'm very grateful for every job I ever had. But the thing about moving up in media is that the higher you go, the farther away you get from why got into it in the first place.

And so I wasn't writing, I wasn't even really editing anymore. At the end I was doing a lot of budget stuff and managing people at a time when the business was really depressed, you know, magazines are not... They're really struggling in this landscape now. And my last job was at Essence magazine, the magazine for Black women, iconic magazine, and I was surrounded by stories about Black women who had made a way out of no way and made their dreams come true,  at every stage of life. And I just thought, maybe it's my turn. What am I doing? You know, like I'm not writing anymore. And I have all these great ideas and I jot them down and I don't take them any further. Maybe it's time that I really kind of buckle down and focus on this. And that's when I started like the first few pages of this novel way back when.

Mark Armstrong: Wow. So this was, this was 2013 and, were you still working full-time and doing it on the side? 

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. Yeah. So I was working full time and I would wake up at like, 5 AM and try to squeeze in some writing time, before I had to get ready to go to work. If I wasn't too tired at the end of the day, I would also write at the end of the day. And it was an idea that gripped me. More than any idea has ever gripped me. And that's what kept me coming back to that computer. So early in the morning was that, you know, I was just thinking about it so much. I was thinking about it. I probably shouldn't admit this, I was thinking about while I was at meetings at my job, you know, I was thinking about it when I was cooking dinner.

If you open the notes mode in my phone, they're like a disaster of old notes and like little ideas that I wanted to jot down and so I was sort of working on this novel at first, around the edges of my day. Until it, it reached a point where I felt like, okay, I'm, I'm ready to devote more to this. 

Mark Armstrong:  I've talked to a lot of people who would, you know, myself included attempt things like morning pages, but like, onto this specific idea and worked from that idea first. Is that correct?

Dawnie Walton: Yes, that's correct. 

Mark Armstrong: So you felt like you had enough and what was the next step from there? 

Dawnie Walton: I had a friend, who told me about MacDowell, which is a residency for artists. And these programs are so incredible because basically they support you for a few weeks out of your life. You go, and they cook for you, you know, they give you a studio to work in.

There's no internet, except in the library. And you're basically free from distraction. And, um, you're allowed to just focus on your art. And I had a friend, who had gone and said, you know, I think that you should apply to this. And if you apply to this, I will write you a letter of recommendation.

And so I thought, okay, sure. Why not? You know, like I looked at their requirements, like I already had written enough pages for a sample that was required. So, I remember before I hit the submit button, like my finger was literally hovering over the button and I made a promise to myself, I said, if I get this, if I'm lucky enough to get this, I'm going for it, I'm taking the leap. And I got in then I was like, “Oh wow, now I have to do this thing.” Because the thing was, I could have done two weeks at MacDowell, which means you know I could have taken vacation time for my job and gone back to work. But I knew that that would feel dissatisfying. And so I decided to do six weeks and I decided to, to quit. And just figure it out on the other end of those six weeks. And what ended up happening was, I went to MacDowell and it was the, one of the most magical experiences of my life to be in an environment with all of these other artists.

Writers, composers, photographers, painters, and just learning more about how one makes a life in ar. So, not only am I making progress on this novel on these pages, I'm being so well taken care of and just being able to focus on my work, but I'm learning about MFA programs.

I'm learning about fellowships, all these opportunities that I really evangelize to anyone who asks me for advice, you know, I think it's a travesty that, people don't know more about the opportunities that are available. And so I ended up deciding while I was there to apply to MFA programs. And I got back to New York in October and the deadlines were like December.

So I had to get together samples. So, you know, I had to take the GRE for a couple of programs. That was a whole thing. but I, I decided to do it and I ended up, being accepted to Iowa and I ended up going there. 

Mark Armstrong: Tell me what you tell other writers when it comes to whether they should consider an MFA. Why is that important? 

Dawnie Walton: Well, the best thing that an MFA program gives you is time and space. And when I say, when I recommend MFAs, I'm always talking about fully funded MFA programs. So these are the programs that you don't pay to go. You actually go and you have no tuition. And then also you get a stipend for living.

It is a very modest stipend, but it's enough to get by. So, time and space to write, and to be sort of immersed in, a writing community are the things that are wonderful for developing whatever it is that that you're working on. When I went, I was the oldest person in my year. There are people of all ages that go, but I happened to be the oldest and I loved it actually, because I felt like I was focused, and I came in with a project. I knew what I was doing. It almost felt like a mission coming in. And I felt like I had the experience to build communities and build networks, you know, through my professional life. And it just was a great, late bloomer gift to me to be able to do it.

And it requires some sacrifice, you know. Almost all of the fully funded programs, you have to, you have to live in the place where you go. And so, you know, I was living in Iowa, which is a place that was, you know, Iowa City is a lovely town, but it's certainly not a place I ever thought that I would be living for two years. But it was a magical little bubble of literary excellence. And I learned so much, through workshop, through reading other people's work and understanding the mechanics of writing. I learned so much from very generous professors that I had, and I built that community that is still supporting me to this day.

Mark Armstrong: Your Iowa experience makes me think of, we've been all remote working for the past year and realizing the the importance of real connection with people, especially people who have sort of similar goals and motivations, because that is so energizing to be around that and to, to push each other. I feel like that’s something we’re thinking about a lot in this pandemic moment where we’re all sort of cooped up. 

Dawnie Walton: You know, it's, it's been hard. And yet, like you know, I try to get together with my friends that I met in the program at Iowa on Zoom every once in a while. It's not the same, but it's something, it's something. And you know, one of the things that, I loved so much about Iowa, is that the director of the program, Sam Chang, she really believes in, making the program what it should be, which is, you know, a diversity of writers and voices. And so, Black community is something that like, has been everything for me and for my career. And it was the same at Iowa. There were, Probably eight Black women in my year maybe, or maybe between the two years. I can't remember, but we were very tight and very supportive of each other. And we actually, it wasn't just about us. Like we also wanted to like make the program better for the future. And so, we did make a trip, to DC and we did an event at Howard University where we talked about the program and really were inviting people to apply and,  really evangelizing for these opportunities that people just often don't know are out there and that exist. And so, you know, I was really proud to be part of that.

Mark Armstrong: So how does it feel now? Years of work come to this?

Dawnie Walton: Surreal, it's surreal. It's very cliché, but you know, Mark, it's a dream, it's a dream come true. And some days I'm really pinching myself. I've been very fortunate to have wonderful publishers in both the US and the UK who have really put their all behind this novel and evangelizing for this novel. And it feels -- it's exciting and it feels slightly vulnerable as well, you know? It's one thing to share what you're working on with a small workshop of people. It's another to have it out in the, in the whole world. And have it reviewed by people on GoodReads and like all of these things, you know, it's, but I am just like thrilled. And my husband, my family are very supportive and excited, and I think one thing that happens to a lot of writers is you immediately start freaking out about the second project. Like what's next, what's next? And so I, I'm trying to be present in this moment and enjoy this moment before I start having those freak-outs, although I do have them. But yeah, just trying to, take it all in and, you know, express gratitude and. be supportive of other writers also, you know, who are, who are publishing in 2021. It's, it's an exciting year. I can't believe it's finally happening, because it is quite a long process from when you finish a draft to, this kind of moment. It's a long, it's a long time.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. When did you finish your draft and submit it to an agent? What year was that?

Dawnie Walton: Yeah. So I finished right under the wire. I  told myself I was going to finish before graduation. And I finished two weeks before graduation in 2018. I came back to New York and I submitted to agents almost immediately, and ended up making one of the best decisions in the process, which was, choosing my literary agent, PJ Mark, who from the start has embraced everything about this book and encouraged me to lean into the risks that it takes. And so he and I worked on a couple drafts together, before it went out to editors. And that process probably between getting the two drafts that I did and, you know, figuring out the right time to send to editors. Because you know, the novel at that time was probably a hundred pages longer than it ended up being. And so it was long novel and making sure the editors had the time to read it. And so we went out to editors, I think in 2019. And then the process from there went very quickly. Dawn Davis, formerly of Simon & Schuster, buying it, which was very thrilling.

And then I worked on a few drafts with Dawn. So getting that stuff right. And then it goes through copy edits, and then there was something like six rounds of page proofs. Yeah. So now here we are in 2021. Yeah. About, about two years after it was acquired. 

Mark Armstrong: The book is called The Final Revival of Opal & Nev and, everyone go out and get it. By the time this interview will be… it will be out. So, Dawnie, this has been wonderful. Thank you again for being here.

Dawnie Walton: Thank you so much Mark for having me.


Mark Armstrong: Well friends, that's it for this show. Thank you again to Dawnie for being here, and thank you for listening. This episode was edited by Ashur Rayis. If you'd like to support the show, write us a review on Apple Podcasts, or you can go to patreon.com/EIL. We'll see you soon.