I know she hates when I say this, because it makes her sound old instead of like the vibrant, preternaturally youthful woman she is, but Janis Cooke Newman has been one of my most important writing mentors. I read her historical fiction novel Mary in 2007 and loved it; found that she was teaching a one day class in the form and signed up, and have been in her thrall/debt ever since. She’s been a cheerleader, a sounding board, and a connector extraordinaire. I invited Janis to write a music-themed post for her new novel, A Master Plan for Rescue (Riverhead Books, July 2015,) “a magical novel about the surprising acts we are capable of in the name of love,” which is getting all kinds of raves and being favorably compared to Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. I had no idea she’d pick some of my very favorite music acts as part of her literary mixtape.
A Master Plan for Music
by Janis Cooke Newman
Though my novel, A Master Plan for Rescue, is set mostly in 1942, I spent exactly zero time listening to music from that era. This is in keeping with my general feeling about research—I’m not a fan. Perhaps an odd trait for a writer of historical fiction, but I’d rather be writing than holed up with a stack of history books.
It’s the fictional part of historical fiction that interests me—the story. I write—and read—historical fiction because I want to know what it was like to live, and love, and sometimes even hate, during a certain period of time. And you don’t get that from history books.
Much of the research for A Master Plan for Rescue came from the stories my father told me about his boyhood growing up in New York City during World War II. And also from other fiction written during—or about—that time. And when it came to music…sure, all my major characters had their own soundtracks—just contemporary ones.
The soundtrack that belongs to Jack, the twelve-year-old boy who can ‘see’ the radio, is played entirely by The Decemberists. Like all twelve year old boys, Jack stands equally in the realms of childhood and adulthood. And when he loses the person who means the most to him in the world—his father—he copes with his grief by telling himself stories. In my mind, Jack shares an imagination with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, an imagination that would allow him to dream up stories as inventive as those of “The Crane Wife,” and “Eli the Barrow Boy,” and “Billy Liar.”
Want to win a copy of A Master Plan for Rescue? Leave a comment below with your favorite literary character and the contemporary song you think they’d listen to. We’ll pick a winner on Friday, August 7 at 5 pm PST.
And I hope to see you at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 Lasalle Avenue, Oakland) at 7 pm on Monday, August 10th, when Janis will be in conversation about A Master Plan for Rescue with MidlifeMixtape buddy Alex Green!
Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the novel A Master Plan for Rescue, just out from Riverhead. She is also the author of the novel, Mary; Mrs. A. Lincoln, an LA Time Book Prize Finalist, and the memoir, The Russian Word for Snow. She is the founder of the Lit Camp writers conference.