Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Garine Isassi talks about her musical novel, (it's filled with original lyrics) Start With the Backbeat, and about rap, rivalry, race and genre
Singer/songwriter/bookwriter Garine Isassi has done something different, writing a "musical" novel, filled with lyrics, so of course, I had to interview her. This is her debut, too, which makes it more special. Thank you so much Garine, for being here.
For me, every book is like a haunting. I have to write to understand. What compelled you to write Start with the Backbeat?
It’s amazing that you use the word “haunting” in your question, because that is exactly how I was compelled to write this novel. It began simply as my personal memories. I've been in a few rock bands and spent quite a bit of time in nightclubs. I worked in a racially diverse office at a New York record label, during a time when most businesses were definitely not diverse. I witnessed a lot of clashing of culture as rap music rose to the mainstream, during the same time that alternative/punk rock and heavy metal were also hugely popular. I saw the highs of success and the lows of prejudice, sometimes within the same event.
In the years since, while I was busy writing creative non-fiction and news articles, memories of that time period in my life haunted me. Scenes danced in my head while I was falling asleep at night or while I was in the blank meditation of highway driving.
Then, I came down with a case of the “What If’s.”
What if I sang for that one executive? What if some of my former co-workers (specific and opposing personality types) had to sit in the same car together? What if their jobs depended on them melding their different musical passions and ethnic backgrounds?
What if? What if? What if?
I thought about writing a memoir, but, frankly, that idea scared the hell out of me. Finally I saw that I could use my knowledge of the music industry to illustrate some of the issues that I experienced in terms of race, social class, and culture. In order to show a larger truth, I felt that I had to write it as fiction.
I love the subtitle, a musical novel. Can you talk about this please?
Although I wanted to this book to be about some serious issues, I still wanted the tone to be light and funny - of course, with a bit of a cynical twist. (That’s what I do.) That said, I am a huge fan of the traditional musical comedy. So many of those films in the early days of Technicolor centered around show business and everyone was way too peppy - they were all like, “Let’s put on a show in the barn!” and would break into song in the middle of conversations.
It is so hokey that it is wonderful! I love movies like Singing in the Rain from the 1940’s to Grease from the late 1970’s and more recently School of Rock and TV shows like Glee and Smash. I wanted to create a novel where you felt the same impact of the songs as in those visual mediums.
Since it is so hard to describe music in text, I took the tact of writing in lyrics of full songs and working scenes around them with the characters’ reactions and feelings in ‘real time’. The songs in my book are not there as filler. They carry storyline and character development along.
Also, as a songwriter myself, it was important for me to convey the artistic need to express yourself musically. That is why I chose to have very different types of characters as the musical artists – a fragile starlet, a cocky showman, an almost shy rapper, a cool DJ. There is a video of me singing one of the five songs from the book, entitled Your Mirror, on my website.
Can you also talk about the diversity in the novel, and how we can get rid of stereotyping people?
Right now - post election - this issue is more important than ever! I believe that the main reason stereotyping exists is because of laziness. If I can pigeonhole you as a member of a certain group, then I don’t have to take any time or mental power to get to know you. If I can take the thing we disagree about and make that your whole person, then I can write you off. This is not just the majority against the minority. It is within communities, across political spectrums, and even within families! The problem with that, of course, is that no three-dimensional human being fits neatly into any one stereotype.
As I wrote Start With The Backbeat, I was exploring how people deal with that, especially in an industry where your persona is almost everything. The whole point is the importance of openness and authenticity.
While it is easy to recognize overt racism, we are all guilty of unconscious bias if nothing else. We assume all kinds of things about people based on their appearance, both positive and negative, without any real evidence – that a plump grandmother is likely to be sweet or a tall, beautiful woman is bitchy or a white man in a gimmee cap is an uneducated hick. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. But becoming conscious of when you are doing it will bring you one step closer to breaking the habit of stereotyping people and closing them out.
This is a time when we have a real opportunity to get out of our echo chambers and really engage with people. We have to dig deep though. It is a brave act to respectfully converse with people who do not look like us, come from the same background, or who we may passionately oppose ideologically.
There is an amazing story about local African American musician named Darryl Davis, who spent time with members of the Ku Klux Klan in Maryland. Over years, he would meet with them and organize small groups to talk, listen, drink beer, etc. The KKK members had never been in real conversation with a black person before this! Just by engaging respectfully with them and following through, Darryl led many of them to leave the KKK – including the ‘Grand Dragon’ of the Maryland organization. Now there is no longer a branch of the KKK in this state! That is powerful. (Read about that story here) The bottom line, and I will quote Darryl here, is, “When you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself.”
What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Wait for the Muse? And how important is music in your writing?
As I mentioned above, I definitely waited for the muse to start this book! But once that hit, I shifted into “planner” mode. With a full-length novel that has multiple subplots, I didn’t want to risk getting them confused or ending up with a storyline that went nowhere. I actually used an excel file to track plot points per character and the key times where the subplots needed to intersect. I know that might sound a bit anal, but each character had to be in a certain place in their own journeys by the time of the plot’s climax.
I don’t write on a schedule, though. I am not the type who can sit down every day at a certain time and write. Finding the time and mental space to write is a challenge for me right now.
As far as how important music is to my writing, music informs everything I do. I can’t wash the dishes without the influence of music. It is ingrained so deep that it is just part of my thought process. But, I can’t have music playing while I write. I end up paying too much attention to the songs and get distracted. I also don’t want everything I write to be about the subject of music.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I am still obsessed with diversity and inclusion. I am also doing research on how it applies to the historic stories of American immigration – the proverbial ‘melting pot’ that wasn’t. Hopefully, this will lead me to my next novel.