Amy Mason Doan joins Zibby to talk about her third novel, Lady Sunshine, which was inspired in part by a song off of the album, Mermaid Avenue. Amy shares why all of her books grapple with nostalgia and past friendships, how she used an oft-forgotten story about Woodie Guthrie to shape the premise of her story, and the unique place where she wrote the novel during the Covid-19 lockdown. Check out the playlist Amy crafted based on the novel here.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Lady Sunshine: A Novel. Congratulations.

Amy Mason Doan: Thank you. So happy to be here. Thank you. Congratulations to you too on your new publishing venture. You have so much going on.

Zibby: I know. It’s really a little bit crazy, but it’s fun. Just a little crazy.

Amy: You’re making time.

Zibby: Making time, but I love it. This is your third novel after The Summer List and Summer Hours. Why this plot? Why now? Tell everybody what the book’s about. Tell us all the good stuff.

Amy: Why now? It’s always hard to answer that question since I got the idea —

Zibby: — So long ago, I know.

Amy: It was twenty years ago. I had this idea when I was a reporter, long before I even started writing fiction. I got it from a song. Actually, I love to show this because I want everyone to buy this record. It’s called Mermaid Avenue. Yes, I still have CDs. It’s by Billy Bragg and Wilco and Natalie Merchant. This is old stuff from the nineties.

Zibby: I loved Natalie Merchant.

Amy: Way back when, when I was in my previous life before I started writing fiction, I loved this one song on here called “California Stars.” I’d just gone through this brutal breakup. I would play this song all the time, as one does. I dug in and got the story behind the song. I found out that the lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie, but the music was made after he died. His daughter got together with some of her favorite recording artists, and they recorded this treasure trove of his lyrics that she had found, this notebook. It’s poetry. I mean, it’s Woody Guthrie. I always had that idea kind of kicking around. I wrote two other novels. I had this idea for a book where there would be secrets hidden in song lyrics. That’s the heart of this book. It’s about a woman who inherits a house. At its most basic level, she goes out to this house to deal with it and sell it quickly. Her name is Jackie. We find out that she spent this amazing time there when she was a teenager, that her uncle who had owned the house was this fabulous musician who hosted all these gatherings, and most important, that she had this amazing friendship with her cousin, Willa, who is missing. So layers and layers of secrets. It’s about that intense bond that you have with people when you’re younger and whether or not you can recapture it later in life.

Zibby: Wow. I love how you set the whole thing up and Jackie is sort of hiding from her boyfriend, doesn’t even want to admit that she has this huge piece of her life. Tell me about that one decision. Was she embarrassed? Why did she not want to share it? What’s that about?

Amy: Poor Paul. Paul’s her long-suffering boyfriend in Boston. Jackie’s living this very quiet life in Boston. She’s a music teacher. She has this basement apartment. It’s all very inside, very safe and comfortable. She keeps Paul at arm’s length. She just tells him, I inherited this house, and I’m going to go deal with it. He wants to come with her. He’s like, we’ll make it into this romantic trip. I’ve always wanted to go to California. She’s like, no, thanks. She’s not telling him because she’s not telling herself how important this place is. It’s called The Sandcastle. It really was this mecca for artists and free spirits back in the day, back in 1979, since half the book is set back then in 1979. She doesn’t want to admit how much it means to her. Her telling him it’s no big deal — it’s a novel, so of course, it’s a big deal or there would be no story. Paul, he is a good guy, but she’s just not letting him in, you know?

Zibby: Yeah, I know how that goes. The way you describe the compound, really, it’s like a summer camp, all the buildings and how she claims slipstream right away and just settles in. You can feel Jackie not fitting in. You do such a good job of even her — she’s so out of place in a way that even her clothes don’t seem to fit right. She wants to wear different clothes. She wants to be someone who she’s basically not to fit in, which some places can make you feel, especially from the past. You just want to shed your blazer or whatever it is.

Amy: When she’s seventeen — I forget if she’s seventeen or eighteen when she first comes. She’s this very rich girl from San Francisco. She’s basically being dumped there by her uncle and her aunt. She looks down, and she’s got pressed, ironed clothes from I. Magnin or some store in San Francisco and looks around and actually wrinkles up her clothes because she wants to fit in. It is sort of like this adult summer camp. I’ve had so many readers ask me if they can go. Does it exist? No, it doesn’t, unfortunately. It’s a place where she can go and be herself. She realizes that. She wants to stay forever at one point until something happens. She really thinks that she is going to stay there, that she’s found this accepting community that she’s been aching for forever. I love that . She ventures out. She’s kind of nervous and not sure what they’re going to think of her, this rich girl from San Francisco.

Zibby: It’s often hard — her dad was out and about with his new wife. What is she going to do? She all of a sudden has all this independence. Then you see how — this is why I’m afraid to give my kids too long a leash. Look what happens here.

Amy: Yeah, she has a lot of freedom. She really does. She has an older boyfriend. Nobody’s keeping track of her whereabouts. She has, basically, her own little house. She has this cabin. There’s all these outbuildings and cabins. Her cousin just sleeps on the beach sometimes. It’s a very unstructured lifestyle. She loves it. She finds a lot of happiness. Then of course, something happens, a big crash at the end of the summer. We don’t really know what happened. In the present tense in 1999, we see that the place kind of starts to come alive again because there’s this group recording a tribute album to her uncle. She keeps delaying her return to Boston. She’ll just stay another week, another week. Poor Paul’s like, what’s going on? The place is starting to become what it used to be for her. She really wants to recapture that.

Zibby: I love how she’s debating if they should do the tribute album or not. She was like, okay, I have two conditions. It all has to go to charity. What was the other one? Something funny.

Amy: The cat.

Zibby: What’s that?

Amy: Don’t let my cat escape.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, don’t lose my cat, of course.

Amy: Of course, I’m a cat owner, so there’s a bit of me in that. She’s brought her cat with her. She didn’t bring the boyfriend, but she brought the cat. Those are her two conditions. She doesn’t want to make money. She has her own reasons for wanting this to happen.

Zibby: This is a sign to pay attention to when you’d rather spend eight weeks with your cat than your significant other. This is time to reevaluate if you are with the right person.

Amy: Paul, the writing’s on the wall. The cat made it onto the plane, but you didn’t. Something might be amiss. I hope I treated him fairly. Even my minor characters — he’s not on the page very long, but I did want to give him his moment. He’s a good guy. He’s just uninformed.

Zibby: I think it’s also interesting how you raise the question of, if somebody’s a public figure and they have unpublished work, whether you’re an author or an artist or a songwriter, whatever, who does that belong to? Is it the responsibility of the people, whether it’s this record label or the family? What do you do with that? Would it have been okay for her to say “I want to keep these private” when so many people are demanding and feel they have a right to that content? When do you cross over? How public a figure do you have to be? Who gets to decide? You must have thought about all these issues.

Amy: That’s a really interesting layer to it. I’ve had long discussions with my partner about that. What if I, God forbid, die and I have an unfinished manuscript? What are you going to do? What’s the plan? Are you going to try to finish it? He’s a writer, so he could. He’s a reporter. We’ve had discussions about that. My feeling with my work is, no. Yet I love this album. I love the idea of combing someone’s lyrics with someone’s music and just the gutsiness of that. It’s both very intimate and just so bold. I’ve had some good discussions with book groups about that. People are really split on whether that’s the right thing to do or not. Do you just leave it intact, or do you try to share it with the world by finishing it? I still don’t know. Mostly, I think with my work, no. With other people’s, maybe. That’s not really fair, but that’s what I’m feeling right now.

Zibby: I feel like it needs to be part of the living will, if you will. It’s something that people should talk to their families about.

Amy: It’s true. I’m sure there are estate lawyers that specialize in such things for very successful artists. It’s an interesting question. The other question is, how can you separate the art from the artist? Jackie really worships Graham, her uncle, when she first arrives. He’s so accepting. He’s so magnetic. He’s like a big lion. He’s got a big beard. He presides over this beautiful place that she loves so much. Then of course, she realizes he’s not what he seems. Yet he’s an incredibly talented and gifted writer and folk musician kind of holding onto the sixties. Lots of good stuff to discuss. I don’t have all the answers. I find the questions really interesting.

Zibby: Agreed. Tell me about your other novels and how they relate to this one.

Amy: I think the common thread is nostalgia. I didn’t realize that when I set off to write. With my first book, that’s set partially in the nineties. That’s The Summer List. It’s about two grown women doing a scavenger hunt like the ones they used to do when they were girls. That’s also set in California. I’m really drawn to these themes of connecting with the past and searching for answers and unfinished business. Summer Hours as well, it’s about someone who’s on a road trip up to a wedding with a man from the past. The tricky thing about writing that book, which came out in 2019, is we don’t know who he is for half the book. They’re driving up in a convertible up Pacific Coast Highway. They have this huge wedding present between them like a wall. I had to write around describing who he was. He could be one of two people. Then we find out who he was. Common theme is definitely reckoning with the past and women wrestling with those things that still matter and trying to confront them as adults.

Zibby: Just to give you your own little psychotherapy here, why do you think you like spending so much time in the past?

Amy: Bring it. I need it. That’s why writing is such great therapy. This has become really clear to me. I have unfinished business with my friendships. I write about friendships more than anything. Even Jackie and Willa, they’re cousins, but they’re friends. I struggled to have the tight friendships that you have for the rest of your life. I was dealing with my own stuff, and I wasn’t a very good friend. There’s a huge amount of that. These books have been great for getting me to work through them. Basically, I think that’s what we deal with. My best friend is a therapist, which is handy. She even saw it in my books. “You like to explore connecting with the past and figuring out why we are the people we are as adults by looking at that teenager inside of us.” I’m just endlessly fascinated by that. I think it’s fun. It yields so many interesting scenarios in writing, but also, obviously, psychologically for me and maybe a few of my readers, hopefully.

Zibby: Absolutely. Have you thought about reaching out to any of those friends?

Amy: I have. The funny thing is, when you publish a book, they reach out to you.

Zibby: Oh, of course.

Amy: You know this, right? You’ve been a public figure for some time. I’ve reconnected with one very special person because of my books. Saw it in an airport. The fantasy is always, some bad person you dated is going to see your books somewhere and reach out and apologize for breaking your heart. Hello, person who listened to this song. That has not happened. I’ve talked to a lot of readers in book clubs who have said that. In The Summer List in particular, which is really a tearjerker in some ways, a lot of women especially have told me it inspired them to reach out to a friend or someone that they had a fight with or just someone they hadn’t talked to in twenty years. That’s lovely. I can’t hear that enough. Life is short. We should do that sort of thing.

Zibby: That’s great. Do you have a playlist for this book?

Amy: I do, yeah. It’s actually in the back of the book.

Zibby: Oh, no, I missed it. I’m so sorry.

Amy: I don’t know if it’s in your copy. It’s probably not in your copy because you had a galley.

Zibby: I don’t have it. I have blank pages.

Amy: You have a TK, right? To come.

Zibby: Yeah, TK.

Amy: Jackie, my main character, loves disco. Willa, her cousin, is kind of holding onto the sixties. She’s more into Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, her father’s type of music, but women. My editor had the brilliant idea of doing a Side A for Jackie and a Side B for Willa. It’s on Spotify. I have it on my Instagram too. It was really hard to narrow down. I spent many, many happy hours picking out these songs.

Zibby: I love that. Awesome. There’s something just so carefree about the book. It’s hard to read it without inhaling some of that vibe, the free-spirited, dancing around the fire pit, that whole ethos or whatever, which is certainly not a part of my day-to-day life. It’s like the anti-iCal, is this book, which is nice. Everybody needs a dose of that.

Amy: Thank you. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote my favorite review. They said it’s a feel-good book because of that nostalgia. We all need that right now, that comfort. Exactly, maybe I was trying to capture that when I wrote it because I certainly enjoyed living that life for a little while.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Amy: I have a new book. It’ll probably come out in 2023 with Graydon House. I’m so excited about it. It’s inspired by a real family who lived a very unusual nomadic life. It’s about the daughter in this large family of boys. I can say that much. Set in California. That’s where I grew up. I can’t say much more except I love it. It’s a huge mess right now. I have a lot to do. It does tackle those themes of nostalgia. Can’t wait. More soon. More soon once I finish it.

Zibby: Awesome. Is this where you work, where we’re doing the Zoom now? Do you work mostly at home?

Amy: In this room? Never. You can see I’ve got my needlepoint that my grandfather did. I’ve got your book and your candle there. This is my master bedroom. I’m only set up here today because it’s the quietest room in my house. My neighborhood, I love it, but it’s noisy. I’m in Portland. We’ve got multiple neighbors renovating their houses and dogs barking. This is the soundproof room. I never work in here. Actually, when I was writing Lady Sunshine, I worked largely in a tent in my backyard. No joke. I think I might do that again for every book. I just had to escape. Everyone was home during virtual school, during COVID. My husband was home working. It was just so noisy, so I fled to the backyard.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Amy: I don’t work in an office. I’ll work anywhere that I can just have some quiet.

Zibby: In the tent, did you put a desk in the tent? Now I’m getting inspired by this idea.

Amy: I’ll send you a picture.

Zibby: Are you on a sleeping bag in the tent? How are you doing this?

Amy: This was actually a thirty-year-old Kelty camping tent, my trusty tent that I’ve had forever, very small dome tent. No room for a desk, but I can’t work at a desk anyway. I usually work reclining. I did have a mattress and a huge amount of pillows. It was like a big nest. No Wi-Fi, which is great when you’re a procrastinator, as I am. It was just me out there listening to the drizzle and the birds. Sometimes I would sleep out there and wake up and write. I like to write in the middle of the night sometimes. I forget that I did that. It is a little strange now that I think about it. I made the decision immediately. I just fled. I staked my tent out there. That was going to be my creative space. It worked. I finished. I love the book. I highly recommend it.

Zibby: I got a tent for my kid’s birthday. We put all sorts of pillows and brought a mattress from inside and everything. Then I didn’t realize there was a sprinkler right there, so everything got completely soaked through. This is just another reason why I am not a camper. I can’t even camp in my backyard without ruining something.

Amy: I had some leaks. I’m in Portland. It rains in the summer. I think I started this in March of 2020. Definitely had some serious leaks. I would put golf umbrellas around the entrance. I had a whole system. My neighbors all saw it from up in their upstairs. They’re like, what is going on? Are you fighting? Are you and Mike having some issues? No, it was just a creative decision.

Zibby: I love this cover. Were you involved in the cover design?

Amy: A little. I can’t take much credit for it. Gigi Lau and Mary Luna at HarperCollins designed it. They’ve designed all my covers. I just love it. I think it’s Willa more than Jackie. It just captures the vibe of The Sandcastle, the flower crown and everything. Thank you. I think it’s one of my favorite covers, but I’m a little biased, of course.

Zibby: I agree. I think it’s awesome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Amy: You’d think I would have a tight answer for that at this point. Kill the butterfly. I wish I could take credit for that. Have you heard that expression before, killing the butterfly?

Zibby: Mm-mm.

Amy: It’s Ann Patchett’s. I think she wrote about it in an essay, “The Escape Plan” or “The Getaway,” in her collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It was about how you have this perfect idea in your head. That’s the butterfly. That’s your story that you think you’re going to write. What you do when you finally sit down to write, when you stop procrastinating and you’re in your tent or wherever you are, you smash it. You smash that butterfly right on your keyboard. It’s such a vivid image. That is really what it is. That’s the pain of writing and the risk and the fear of failure, all of that, that psychological game of writing that makes it so hard. It never changes. I’m on book four, and it’s still hard to kill that butterfly. It’s never what you think it is in your head, but it’ll be something else beautiful. That’s my best advice.

Zibby: Love it. That’s great advice. Amazing. You’ve inspired me now. I want to play this music and dance around and pretend I’m a free spirit and much cooler than I am.

Amy: You’re very cool.

Zibby: I really loved your characters and the setting and the story. You took me away. It was great. That’s what I look for in a book.

Amy: Thank you. That’s high praise. Thank you, Zibby. I’m such a fan. It was so nice talking to you.

Zibby: It’s so nice talking to you too. Take care.

Amy: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.


LADY SUNSHINE by Amy Mason Doan

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