Back in September 2019, local sci-fi/fantasy author Sarah Pinsker launched her first novel, A Song for a New Day, with an event at the Ivy Bookshop. An award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy, Pinsker’s short stories have been translated into many languages and are collected in Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea. In addition to being a successful author, Pinsker is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and a local darling rock band called the Stalking Horses.
But if you’ve read her first novel, A Song For A New Day, you could have guessed some of this, because Pinsker’s autobiographical details create much of the scaffolding of the book. One of the main characters is a touring singer-songwriter, and a post-apocalyptic Baltimore (there are still diners and grungy basement music clubs) is a major setting. The details of life on the road, the descriptions of music and music venues, the view of the Bromo Seltzer tower from a hotel room … all these are vibrantly real. These realistic details support a brilliantly imagined plot which at the time it was published would have been described as speculative dystopian fantasy, set in the future.
Some of the elements of the book, particularly the way technology has evolved and corporate America operates, still qualify as fantasy. But another big part of it has become the daily news. I read it for the first time last week and was amazed to find shockingly accurate descriptions of a world where public events are shut down and social distancing is the rule. Reading the scene where it first begins, and the president orders everyone to stay home, and Sarah’s protagonist Luce Cannon has to decide whether to cancel her show – I exclaimed out loud. I had gone through a nearly identical thought process the week before. The way the contagious plague in the book begins, the first deaths, the fear of human contact that comes in its wake – all on the money. I kept wondering how the author must feel, watching her fantasy turn into news headlines.
Metafictionally enough, I was able to ask her at an online book club organized by the Ivy Bookshop, which meets weekly on Tuesday nights through the quarantine. A few dozen Pinsker fans assembled to discuss A Song For A New Day. Here’s a recap of that discussion.
Baltimore Fishbowl: So – how did you feel when your fantasy plot began to turn into reality?
Sarah Pinsker: Not good. Some science fictional ideas are meant to inspire us to do better, and some are meant to warn us off of bad paths. This is a hopeful book in that I do think it models some ways out of this situation, but it was a hard enough situation to live with while I wrote the book, and I never intended to live it.
It was never meant to be non-fiction, but that’s one of the hazards of working with near-future speculative fiction: you risk being lapped by the present. I’ve had aspects of other stories turn into reality, but this has been eerie. Most of it comes out of “what if” questions. I usually interrogate an idea by asking who would be hurt the most by it and who would be helped the most, and moving from there into figuring out who my characters are. As a musician myself, I’m often drawn to the question of what would happen to musicians in X situation.
BFB: You’ve made your mark as a writer, and won lots of prizes, in short fiction. Now after over 50 short stories, a novel. Tell us about this decision and this process. What was the first spark?
SP: This novel is an expansion of a novelette called “Our Lady of the Open Road,” which followed one of the novel’s two main characters. I’m pretty sure that story was inspired by the Our Lady of the Highway shrine on 95, and the question of what a musician who loved the road would do to stay on it in a world that had no place for her livelihood anymore.
BFB: The main character’s background – she is from an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn which she is estranged from because she is queer. Later, she hides this part of her identity from everyone. How does this fit into the themes of the novel?
SP: The novel looks into different modes of belonging and found family. She’s estranged both because she’s queer and because she wanted to play music. Her community didn’t allow women to play music (strangely, also a theme in the new Netflix show Unorthodox), and she has to create herself afresh. I love working with characters who feel compelled to make music, or who don’t play but are transported by live music; that’s probably the most autobiographical thing in the book.
BFB: There’s an issue in the novel with Luce hating to always have to play her first big hit, Blood and Diamonds. She so desperately wants to get away from it that she changes her band name and wears disguises. Is Blood and Diamonds – and the other songs in the book – a real song? Will we ever hear it?
SP: I gave her a reluctant hit because I know a ton of bands in that situation; they have a single that sounds nothing like the rest of their album, but it takes off, and they get stuck playing it at every show until the end of time. It isn’t necessarily that she hates the song, but it doesn’t speak to who she is anymore, and she doesn’t like to play songs that she can’t connect with, even if she wrote them.
The songs are real in that I know how they go, but I haven’t recorded them and currently don’t plan to. I like leaving some of that to the imagination; you’ll notice there are no lyrics in the book and no descriptions of exactly what the band sounds like. I’m a big believer in letting people fill in the blanks, and I get a kick out of hearing what they think the bands sound like. Maybe someday I’ll give somebody the lyrics and let them do a cover album of Luce Cannon songs.
BFB: Since the 1990s and the internet, it seems like music has moved away from the corporate, major-label model, with many more DIY possibilities and entry points. Dozens of artists have come up through independent channels – you among them. One of the major themes in the book is the corporatization of music and its attempt to co-opt and crush the independent underground. How does that fit in with where we are now?
SP: Right this second, we’re in a place where people who made their living touring (or playing nursing homes, for that matter) can’t make a living anymore. I’m terrified for my musician friends, and also for that whole ecosystem. How do the little clubs people come up in possibly survive this? And right now we’re seeing musicians playing every hour of the day online, trying to buoy our spirits in the way that only music can, with their Venmo and Paypal addresses at hand so they can make a few bucks. That’s all great, as long as the money is flowing toward the musicians. It’s easy to see how it could easily go bad, also, if the gutting of net neutrality allows some sites to be throttled in favor of others. Who decides which musicians get heard? What happens if the less profitable get de-platformed, or if the money starts flowing toward corporations instead? Just look at how Facebook encouraged artists to get official Facebook pages, to get their fans to “like” their page, and then started making them pay to reach the people who want to hear from them. I hope everyone who is checking out online concerts right now tips the musicians and buys from them on Bandcamp or on their own websites, rather than streaming them on sites that pay fractions of pennies.
BFB: What are you reading now?
SP: The other ecosystem I’m worried about right now is indie bookstores and publishing, so I just bought a huge stack that I’m eager to dive into as soon as I turn my next novel draft in: Off the top of my head it includes NK Jemisin’s The City We Became, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Ken Liu’s collection The Hidden Girl & Other Stories, Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Girl, KM Szpara’s Docile, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. Some of those are a little heavy, so we’ll see; I’ve mostly been in the mood for lighter stuff this month.
During my discussion with Sarah, the audience posted questions in the chat window. Here are a couple of those, with Sarah’s answers.
Do you think this current crisis will boost or cut interest in apocalyptic fiction?
I’m not really good at prognosticating trends. It seems to me there are a bunch of people out there interested in pandemic reading, and others who want to read lighter work or work that has nothing to do with the situation at hand. A lot of people are writing to me and thanking me for writing something that both speaks to the current situation and provides hope. I’m glad I could do that for them.
Since so much of the novel is set in Baltimore, how many real locations did you include/reimagine?
Real landmarks in the book off the top of my head: the Bromo Seltzer tower, the Walters, Camden Yards and the Ravens Stadium, Red Emma’s. Luce’s basement club and the other venues are a mix of a number of real places, current and bygone, including the Charm City Art Space, the Undercroft, Joe’s Movement Emporium in DC, the Reverb, and assorted places I’ve played around the country.
For further reading:
Several audience members mentioned as a favorite a novella called “And Then There Were (N-One).” Pinsker tells us, “The title is obviously an Agatha Christie nod; it’s a murder mystery in which the murdered person and all the suspects are the same person. It was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Neffy, Eugie Foster, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. It’s available free online.”