Dawnie Walton talks with Zibby about how she made the pivot from her twenty-year career in journalism to writing her debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. The two discuss the support system Dawnie found in her Iowa Writers Workshop peers, creating deep connections in our virtual era, and the Talking Heads concert footage that inspired her inventive new book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dawnie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

Dawnie Walton: Amazing. Zibby, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I have to say, when I started this book, and you have an editor’s note in the beginning, I was like, oh, I guess Dawnie’s name is really Sunny. Okay, so her real name’s Sunny Curtis. I didn’t realize this is sort of part memoir. Then I was like, I am a moron. That is not at all what’s going on. This is all fiction. It is so clever and so unique and awesome.

Dawnie: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners how the concept and structure of the book, how you came with it and then more about just how you came up with this idea in general.

Dawnie: I’ll start talking about the structure. It’s a fictional oral history, which is basically a series of interviews. It’s interjected with bits of memoir from the journalist who is putting together this story of Opal and Nev who are an unconventional duo, a black American woman and a white Englishman who make music together in the early 1970s. I worked many years as a journalist, at Entertainment Weekly, actually, for about six of those years. Oral history was a format that we always used to tell the stories of big, beloved movies and albums just to get the story from all the people involved of how those things came together. It was always a format I really loved to read stories in because you had voices overlapping. Those voices were often celebrities, so they were full of personality, really big voices coming through. Also, the ways that memories would compare and contrast, and so the reader is also kind of looking for the truth in between the lines of everyone’s memories. I was really intrigued by that idea for this book.

Zibby: Wow. Then when did you decide you wanted it to be about performers and this relationship between them and to have this editor be a voice? The oral history — sorry, I’m stumbling over my words. Oral history is such a cool concept in general because it’s almost like this could be a podcast, the whole book. You just hear it.

Dawnie: I love that idea.

Zibby: Right? Got to do it. I’m sure you have lots of plans to do things like that using the oral history of it to make it a companion piece, if you will.

Dawnie: The audiobook is going to be awesome, I have to say. We’re very excited about that.

Zibby: You must have amazing people reading all the voices, yes?

Dawnie: Yes, I cannot wait to share more about that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s going to be great.

Dawnie: I’ll tell you a bit about how the idea sparked. In 2013, I was watching concert footage from one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads. At center stage, you had the front man, David Byrne. If anyone remembers the “Once in a Lifetime” video, he dances in a really quirky way. He’s just such a fascinatingly weird figure that I’ve always really loved. Then the camera pans over. Then you see to his left, his backup singers, two black women whose names I’ve since learned are Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. I found them so fascinating as well. They had these braids and this red lipstick. They had these gray short suits that matched his boxy gray suit. I had this crazy urge to stick my hand in the screen and literally pull one of them to center stage with David Byrne and just watch them for the rest of show. I just could not get that image out of my head of these two people together. That sparked a series of what-if questions. What if two people like this really did get together and make artsy, weird rock and roll music? I just started going from there.

Zibby: Even in your opening, in the letter where Sunny, who is the protagonist telling the story, has her own really powerful story with her own death of her father and the mother’s alter ego of sorts in the family with having to compete, essentially, against somebody with so much spotlight on her and all of that, and the secret, it’s a lot of pain and also a lot of gratitude deferred when she realizes what’s been going on all these years. Then undertaking this big project, it’s so neat. I’m not making much sense. Tell me about how you got your start as a writer. I know you were at Entertainment Weekly and all these other things. You have an MFA and everything. Tell me more about your journey to getting here.

Dawnie: Again, I was a journalist for twenty years. I got into that field because even as a kid, I was very practical. I always loved to read. I always wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t know that you could actually make a living doing that. It wasn’t something that I thought was a practical thing to do. That’s why I entered journalism. The secret about journalism is the higher up you get, the less writing you do. Near the end of my career, I was an executive-level editor at Essence magazine. Wonderful brand, loved my experience there, but it was a lot less about writing and a lot more managing people, doing some light editing. I still had this craving inside me to express myself creatively. I started writing this book kind of on the edges of my day, really early in the morning. If I had the energy after work, I would work late at night. Any time of day that was quiet and my emails weren’t blowing up was when I was writing. I reached a point with it where I just wanted to focus on it full time. I had a friend who was a writer and was telling me about all the opportunities that are out there, the fellowships and things like that. I applied for a fellowship at an artist residency called MacDowell. I got in. When I applied for that, I promised myself that I would really go for it if I got in really not thinking that I was going to get in. When I did, it was like, okay, time to jump. I did. I ended up, while I was there, learning about such a thing as an MFA. That fall, I applied to programs, got into Iowa. That’s where I finished the first draft of this.

Zibby: There’s such an allure of Iowa and MacDowell and Yaddo and all of these places. What was it like to actually be there? What was it like, both of them? When you got to MacDowell, did you meet people there who are the most brilliant writers ever?

Dawnie: Yes. Jeremy O. Harris was at MacDowell when I was there. We all knew that he was a star. We were like, oh, yeah, he’s going to be famous. Of course, now he is. When I was there, it was the wildest feeling. I had climbed so high in my professional career, but I felt like a deer in the headlights when I was there because I knew nothing about the artist life. The cool thing about it was that it’s interdisciplinary, so there were visual artists and filmmakers and composers. They were so warm and welcoming to me. I will say it took probably the first couple of weeks just to realize that this was real life because it felt like such a dream. It was so amazing to have that time and that space to just focus completely on your art. It was such a gift, such a gift.

Zibby: Wow. I always wonder, what if you got to one of these places and you couldn’t think of anything to write? Would that just never happen?

Dawnie: I think sometimes it maybe does. I think the quiet and the absence from the busyness of your everyday life kind of puts you in a headspace where you’re able to just think creatively and play around with different ideas. Highly recommended.

Zibby: When you got to Iowa having already been a journalist for twenty years, what was that like? I feel like it’s like the Rodney Dangerfield Back to School moment where he’s all of a sudden — right?

Dawnie: It’s so funny, Zibby, that you say that because I was the oldest person in my class, so I did kind of feel like Rodney Dangerfield. Because I knew what it was to work and I knew all of those things, the whole thing just felt like a blessing. I was like, I can’t believe I get to do this. It was great. I loved building community there, especially with the other writers of color. It was really important. We’re still very close to this day. We do Zoom catchups and all of these things and support each other. I think also because I was older, I went in with a confidence in what I was doing and an understanding of what feedback to take and what to sort of leave on the table. I had a very clear sense of what I was doing. Age, in that way, really worked for me.

Zibby: Did you finish this book there?

Dawnie: I did, yes. I promised myself I would finish a full draft of it by graduation. I think I finished just two weeks before my deadline.

Zibby: Did that involve workshopping?

Dawnie: Oh, yeah. A lot of my classmates have read chunks of this novel. I workshopped maybe three semesters out of the four. I took one off at a point where I was sort of blocked with the novel and not sure what happens next. I took time off to work on some short fiction. Yeah, I workshopped it heavily. It was incredibly helpful.

Zibby: It’s almost like, in addition to all the different characters that you profile in the novel, you’re also sort of carrying forward all the people you did your whole program with. You have so many people with a hand in it. It’s a collaborative production in a way. It’s so cool.

Dawnie: It does feel that way. Yes, I’m so thankful to so many different people. Even people in pandemic, I have made such wonderful community just online between Robert Jones Jr. and Deesha Philyaw and some wonderful champions. , Kiese Laymon have all been great people I’ve never actually met in real life, but we found a way to have conversation and community with each other which has been absolutely wonderful.

Zibby: Robert Jones Jr. was on my podcast. He was so nice.

Dawnie: He’s awesome, isn’t he? He’s so great.

Zibby: I feel like real-life friendships, what does that even mean? I’ve connected with so many people this year. I’m like, I don’t even know. When I walk out on the street, am I going to know everybody? Now what? Are there any people who might be @NYCFlowerGirl? Maybe that’s her. I don’t know. It’s just crazy, the way relationships have morphed virtually. I’m interested to see the integration of how you absorb new relationships that you make and then put them with the old ones when this whole thing, god willing, ends.

Dawnie: The funny thing is that Robert and I figured out we’re neighbors. He literally lives doors down from me. We’re so excited when this is all over to get a drink or a coffee or something like that.

Zibby: So what are you working on now?

Dawnie: Right now, I’m really trying to savor this moment. Being a late bloomer, I still am pinching myself that this is happening. I’m trying not to freak out about the next thing. I do have an idea for a second novel. When things quiet down a bit, I’m excited to sit in some quiet time and really think through the characters because that’s how things really spark for me, is thinking about characters first. I’m eager to put some meat on those bones.

Zibby: That’s exciting. coming and all sorts of fun stuff. That’s great. In terms of how you would attack it now that you don’t have the structure of a program but you’ve taken all that knowledge with you, have you thought about — not to say you have to start thinking about your next project, but how do you take all those lessons of community and collaboration and everything and then when you’re not in one of those structured settings, how do you then move forward and start your next project?

Dawnie: It’s about just leaning into what feels natural for me. In writing fiction, I’ve never been a huge planner. It’s always been a space where I come in and play and sort of let the characters unfold how they naturally do instead of having pinpointed plot points. It’s that for me. It’s also reaching out to my Iowa friends who are all over the country doing their own things and saying, hey, do you mind reading this? We still trade work and give feedback.

Zibby: That was a silly question. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because you’re not in the program you don’t still have the same —

Dawnie: — It’s different, though, because people, they’re very busy. People have kids. They have jobs. It’s different from being in that bubble of Iowa where you knew for sure every week you’re going to be workshopping somebody.

Zibby: Do you miss the journalism world?

Dawnie: I miss my friends from the journalism world. Working at Essence was such a wonderful experience because the women that we covered were so inspirational themselves. It was so wonderful to connect with women like that and to work on the live programming we did, Essence Festival. That kind of thing was really fun. I have to say I’m happy not to be managing people or managing budgets or anything like that anymore. Especially, it’s a really tough, tough climate for print media. It has been for some time now. I don’t miss that part, but I miss the people for sure.

Zibby: That’s such a shame that this is happened to magazines. I just read, there’s a woman named Kristin van Ogtrop —

Dawnie: — Yeah, Real Simple. I know Kristin.

Zibby: She has a new book coming out called Did I Say That Out Loud? She has a whole chapter on when she ends up leaving Real Simple. You can just tell how emotional she was about it, what happens when your baby becomes a true business on the chopping block in a way. She just captured what has been happening. I interned at a magazine when I was nineteen, so this is a long time ago. As a bystander, I’ve been witnessing this slow shifting that’s happening with the industry. I’m so stressed out about it because I love print media.

Dawnie: Absolutely, it is a really emotional thing. It really, really is.

Zibby: I’m sorry. To have something so creative be taken apart, it’s a big bummer.

Dawnie: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Dawnie: I was thinking about this question. I think for me, it boils down to two things. It is, find time and find community. Community can be anything from a writing community of people that you’re trading work with and workshopping, or community can be your support system, your family and your friends that take over some things off your plate so that you have the time. You have to put time into it. You have to sit in the chair and do the work. You need that mental space to think and to play. Those two things would be my top advice.

Zibby: Those are great things. I miss those things. Awesome. Thank you. I’m glad both of our internet somehow —

Dawnie: — I know. I was so worried. I’m glad it worked out.

Zibby: Thanks for this super creative, awesome book, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. I’m excited to see all the things that come from it and whatever you do next. It’s just super exciting.

Dawnie: Thank you so much, Zibby. Congrats again.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Dawnie: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Dawnie: Buh-bye.


The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

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