Amy Mason Doan Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Amy Mason Doan

Amy Mason Doan

An interview with Amy Mason Doan

Amy Mason Doan discusses the story behind her novel Lady Sunshine

It started with Wilco's song "California Stars."

San Francisco, 1998. I was twenty-five, and the plaintive tune had become my "earworm"—an ugly word for beautiful music. I played it on my red iPod Shuffle in the dingy studio apartment I shared with another girl and her boyfriend, and when I jogged along the foggy Marina. I listened to it when standing on packed buses to and from my dispiriting job as an advertising analyst, and when I couldn't sleep, which was often. I was lonely after a breakup, and the lyrics, about longing to rest one's "heavy head" on a bed of stars, became my lullaby.

A month after I first heard the song, I learned the story behind it from a radio show, and that became as much of an obsession as the song itself. The lyrics were part of a treasure trove of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lines that his daughter, Nora, had brought to Billy Bragg and Wilco so they could set them to music—which became the album Mermaid Avenue.

The gutsy intimacy of this project fascinated me. How brave it was to take a dead genius's words and meld them with your own music. How did Nora Guthrie feel about Bragg and Wilco's interpretations? What secrets of her father's might the lyrics hold? These questions became the seeds of Lady Sunshine—about a woman, Jackie, who unexpectedly inherits her folk-singer uncle's iconic estate and the tribute album that a rising producer convinces her to record on the property.

For Jackie, the album further complicates the already-difficult task of preparing her estranged family's estate for sale. She spent just one summer there as a teen in 1979—falling into an intense friendship with her cousin Willa, discovering her own musical talent and plunging into a free-spirited bohemian lifestyle—but it abruptly ended in a tragedy that changed her forever.

I began to wonder, what if Jackie's legendary uncle wasn't who everyone thought he was? What if excavating his music reminded her of a lost time—and a lost self—she desperately wished she could recapture? Younger Jackie worshiped powerhouse female singers like Donna Summer and Debbie Harry, just as folk-loving Willa revered the brilliant "J singers"—Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. These women were strong and outspoken, like Jackie once was, but she now lives a quiet, safe life as a piano teacher.

As an adult, Jackie discovers a startling clue buried in her uncle's lyrics—and realizes that she may be wrong about what happened that summer long ago. She must choose whether to run from her task, and the truth, or to let the music come to life and provide the answers she's been looking for all these years. Lady Sunshine is my tribute to the inescapable tug of the past, the generous spirit and hypnotic bass line of the 1970s and the endurance of art and music against all odds.

Billy Bragg said that while recording Mermaid Avenue, one lyric struck everyone in the studio: "I may go/Down or up or anywhere/But I feel/Like this scribbling might stay."

It's such a bold, joyful statement. I hope Lady Sunshine captures a fraction of that joy, and my determination to write novels that stay in readers' hearts for a long, long time.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Lady Sunshine jacket
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