Songs In Ursa Major
Author: Emma Brodie
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Written by Columnist Diane Slocum
In the book, Songs In Ursa Major, Jane Quinn, and her band, The Breakers, are thrown into the spotlight when the headliner is a no-show for their island’s 1969 annual festival. The crowd that had come to hear Jesse Reid’s performance and swoon at his charisma grumbled and began leaving. But when Jane starts singing Jesse’s folk rock hit of the summer with her own additions, she wins them over. It turns out that Jesse crashed his motorcycle on the way to the show and Jane gets to hang out with him as he recovers. This leads to The Breakers’ opportunity to record an album and go on tour with Jesse. Despite these early promises, Jane learns hard lessons about the music industry and her place in it.
AUTHORLINK: How did you start your story? What was the first thing you thought of?
“I loved the idea of these women who lived wildly…”
BRODIE: The first thing I started thinking about were the Quinn women—I knew I wanted to write about a matriarchal family on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, and that they would be an old family, with many generations of stories. I loved the idea of these women who lived wildly, who were partnered with the Island itself. I wanted to escape into their world.
AUTHORLINK: How did Joni Mitchell and James Taylor fit into your plans?
BRODIE: I knew from the beginning that there was going to be a musical component to the story. I had JT on the brain because I love him and because I grew up hearing about him and Carly Simon on Martha’s Vineyard, and that gelled with the Island piece I already had. It was actually while reading Carly’s autobiography that I first learned that JT and Joni had dated, and that kind of cracked the story open—specifically realizing that JT had originally written You Can Close Your Eyes for Joni and that she had written Blue about him. I was really inspired by the idea of these songs having stories that their own popularity has transcended.
AUTHORLINK: How did you know so much about the music industry?
BRODIE: I researched female performers from the time period I was writing about—Carly Simon, Carol King, Joni Mitchel, Linda Ronstadt—and there were common refrains in all of their stories about dealing with sexism, creative control, and the dominion of image. I also work in book publishing, which is another talent acquisition-based industry, so I was able to use my own knowledge of launching media as a framework for my research.
AUTHORLINK: Did you write all the song lyrics? Did you know in your mind how the songs sounded? How did you work on the songs? Did you think about completing the songs?
” I did write lyrics for all the songs in the book…”
BRODIE: I did write lyrics for all the songs in the book—I wanted the conversations/ articles about the songs to feel real, and when people talk about music they love, they refer to little bits offhandedly…and in order to do that I needed to have the full song. It was tremendous fun—I had to write about thirty songs because not only do Jane and Jesse have tracks, but so do Morgan, Lacey, and Loretta…not to mention Jane’s band, which has an entire album. For some songs, I had a melody in my head—”Ursa Major” and “Lilac Waltz” were like this. For others, my brother, who is a fantastic musician, actually wrote arrangements—he did about ten, including “Spark”, “Wallflower”, “A Shanty”, and “Little Lion,” which was amazing to experience. And then for others, I just had a vibe in mind of how I wanted the song to feel. A lot of Jesse’s music was like that for me—”Sweet and Mellow” is a prime example.
AUTHORLINK: How did your title for the book evolve?
BRODIE: I actually found the title of the book while trying to figure out a name for Jane’s band—which, incidentally, was originally going to be called Harpoon, until my editor saved me from myself. I was looking through a tarot deck (Kim Krans’ Animal Spirit Deck—highly recommend) and I kept drawing the bear card. As in, I shuffled the deck fully several times and kept drawing the bear card. It made me pause— and then it struck me how the western legends around the constellation Ursa Major (big bear) actually correlate with heroin addiction—the big dipper is a spoon, the bear is withdrawal. And I loved the play on musical keys, keys of the piano, stars are the key in a map. I hadn’t written the song yet, but I knew this would be the title of Jane’s seminal confessional album, and from here it became the title of the book.
AUTHORLINK: Despite his job in the music industry (and his father) Willy is one of the nicer characters in the story. How did his character develop?
“I rested the book for about two months between my first and second drafts…”
BRODIE: Willy began for me as an archetypal corporate yes man trying to fence sit—the guy at the head of the board table who ~doesn’t wear socks~ to remind you he’s a rebel and who lives in ~Williamsburg~ because he’s that subversive. You know the ones! In my first draft of the book, he was a nice guy who was weak, and who ultimately didn’t have the backbone to stand by Jane when it counted. I rested the book for about two months between my first and second drafts, and when I came back to revisit it with clear eyes, I realized that Willy is actually Jane’s foil, not Jesse; and as soon as I began to dig deeper into the parallels between Willy and Jane—inherited relationships with the music industry, long family legacies, a wild love of art—he came to life. As I moved through the revision, he evolved in a really hopeful way that surprised and delighted me.
AUTHORLINK: When you were writing the story, how much did you plan ahead? Did you know early on some of the key elements that would turn out to be important?
“…the “how” of it was totally up in the air and discovered during that draft.”
BRODIE: The first draft of the book came out quickly and was not stylish—but that’s mainly how I found out what happened, was by writing it. There are key turns that happen around every quarter of the book, and I knew those before I started writing—but the “how” of it was totally up in the air and discovered during that draft. Then after the break I mentioned and some analysis, I was able to go back and rewrite it more intentionally, to take a better shot and the things I’d tried to do but executed poorly, and to embrace the happy accidents that had come about along the way.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
BRODIE: I don’t know yet! Some days I think I have ten good ideas and other days I think I have none. The truth is I am nursing a book hangover from Ursa Major—the Willy in me is saying “saddle up and move on” and the Jane in me is having a hard time saying goodbye! If there’s one thing I admire about Jane, though, it’s that she is always true to her own taste, and I want to try to emulate that going forward.
About the Author: Emma Brodie graduated from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. She is a frequent contributor to HuffPost and a faculty member at Catapult. She has worked in book publishing for ten years and is currently executive editor at Little, Brown’s Voracious imprint. Songs in Ursa Major is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and dog.