As you may recall, I’ve already reviewed and LOVED Music From Another World by Robin Talley. Well, I’m here today because I have been fortunate enough to pair with the publisher (Inkyard Press) to provide you with a Q&A with Robin Talley! Some of the questions I contributed, others are from other blog writers like myself. I hope you enjoy hearing about the process and story of MFAW and that you read it once it’s published on March 31st!
Q: What inspired you to write in the Harvey Milk era?
A: The history of activism for LGBTQ equality has always been a big interest of mine. Before Music From Another World I’d written two books that both focused on queer characters living in the 1950s, when being a member of that community meant, almost by default, being closeted. I wanted to explore a later era when, for the first time, some LGBTQ people began to see coming out as a real option — but an option with consequences that could be catastrophic. The late 1970s was also when the anti-gay community first started to emerge as a major political player, so that was interesting to explore as well.
Q: How did you come up with the letters to Harvey?
A: From the beginning, my very first kernel of the idea that led to this book was the image of Tammy in her church basement, writing a secret letter to Harvey Milk while around her, everyone she knew was celebrating the victory of Christian singer and TV commercial star Anita Bryant’s campaign to overturn a gay rights law in Miami. I imagined Tammy surrounded by people, but still completely isolated, and reaching out to the only person she’d ever heard of who she thought might be able to understand how she felt. At that time, Harvey was getting a lot of media attention nationwide as one of the most outspoken gay rights activists (he also served as a convenient bogeyman for anti-gay right-wing activists).
Q: What was it like researching this project?
A: It was alternatingly fascinating and depressing. I read one of Anita Bryant’s memoirs — that was the most depressing part. I also read up on the early days of the fundamentalist movement in southern California, which was fascinating, and I read as much as I could about life in the LGBTQ communities in San Francisco during this period, too, which was even more so.
Q: Are there any parts of Tammy and Sharon’s lives that reflect your own?
A: Their lives are pretty different from mine — for one thing, I wasn’t born yet when their story takes place, and I’ve always lived on the East Coast. I did grow up in a more right-wing community than I live in now, though, and I was part of a pretty conservative church community there. Though my church wasn’t politically active, thank goodness.
Q: Did you listen to any specific music while writing the book?
A: Music permeates this book (it even permeates the title!) so it was definitely a part of my writing process. Whenever I was writing or revising a scene where the characters are listening to music, which is a lot of them, I did research to determine what they’d be listening to, then pulled it up on YouTube. Patti Smith is both Sharon and Tammy’s favorite artist, so I lost track of how many times I listened to her Horses album while I was writing. But I also listened to music the other characters like — for example, Sharon’s boyfriend is a big fan of Journey (who, I learned in writing this book, got their start in San Francisco), so I listened to a lot of Journey music from this period, too. And I listened to more obscure 70s punk bands too, some of which I referenced directly in the book, and some of which I used to help develop the fictional bands and music in the story.
Q: How do you choose which era you want to write your historical fiction in?
A: It’s a combination of thinking about which eras I want to spend time in and learn more about — because there’s always a ton of research that goes into writing historical fiction, so I need to make sure I write about an era that I’ll be happy researching for long periods of time — and which eras I can envision characters living in. In the case of Music From Another World I immediately thought of Tammy living in a time and place where she knew exactly who she was but also exactly what she was up against if she was honest about that fact, in a way that was very much specific to a conservative church community during the era of Harvey Milk and Anita Bryant.
Q: How do you balance the intensity of the time period and subject with the love story?
A: That’s just the thing — we’re all living our lives against the backdrop of history, one way or another. We’re living through an incredibly turbulent time in the world right now, just like Sharon and Tammy were in the late 1970s, but people are still going to school, fighting with their parents, getting their first jobs, etc. And, yes, falling in love. For all of us, just like for these characters, we have to figure out how the minutiae of day to day life (and sometimes the drama of it) fits in with the bigger picture, and not lose sight of the contributions we make to the larger world, too.
Q: What is one thing you hope readers take away from MUSIC FROM ANOTHER WORLD?
A: I hope they’ll go on to read more on their own about the events that followed the end of this story. There were a ton of both highs and lows in the movement for LGBTQ rights, and although this story focuses largely on 1978’s Proposition 6 in California, also known as the Briggs Initiative, that was just one campaign out of a much larger movement, and it was the larger movement that laid the foundation for events that we’re still seeing play out today.
Q: What was the most difficult part of the story to write, and why did you feel it was important to include that part?
A: I had a lot of trouble writing some of the things that happen to Tammy near the story’s midpoint (trying to be vague here to avoid spoilers). I hate to ever write about the characters that I care about experiencing anything negative, but the reality of the situation required it. The stakes Tammy faced were simply too high.
Q: What is your favorite thing about Tammy or Sharon?
A: I love the close connection between Sharon and her brother, Peter. That was another element of the story that came to me very early and was crucial in how I envisioned the characters’ lives. They’re siblings and best friends who know exactly how to get on each other’s nerves when they want to, but when it comes down to it, they’ll do absolutely anything for each other.