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Seventies vibes and a New York scene. A protest about a Confederate flag from Opal, a funky Black punk singer. A journey into hidden stories of her entertainment world and her connection to a younger journalist. These are themes in Dawnie Walton’s new novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. And you can enter for the chance to win a copy in our new Sisters giveaway.
In the book, Opal is “bald-headed, gold-suited, and fierce as Nona Hendryx or Grace Jones.” The story follows the rise and fall of her musical journey with her electric partner Nev and their fictional early-1970s biracial rock ’n’ roll duo. It’s told in an oral history style — a book within a book — with alternating comments from various characters. And the novel’s storyteller is S. Sunny Shelton, a pioneering journalist with a past familial connection to Opal.
It’s at times so realistic that you may think Sunny is the writer of the book. But the novel’s actual author, Walton, is in control of her characters and her journalism chops helped her structure the story.
Walton got the idea for the book while working as an executive-level editor at Essence in 2013. She was compelled to write for fun — "the idea of these characters would not let me go,” she says — and received an opportunity to attend the MacDowell writer’s residency to focus on her dream.
She then decided to apply for grad school, quitting her media job in the process and living on her savings. She believed in the story of Opal and Nev that much. “I mean, at that point I was 40,” she says today. “And it was like, ‘OK, I want to start from the bottom in a new career. If I don't do it now, when am I going to actually give this a shot?’”
Read on for more takeaways from the author, now 44. Reminisce on the glory days of the ’70s and its electric music scene. And then enter to win your copy of this new book in our special Sisters giveaway! The sweepstakes runs April 20, 2021 at 12 p.m. Eastern through April 23, 2021, at 12 p.m. Eastern — just for you! (This interview has been edited for length.)
How would you describe this story?
The premise is this is an actual book written by a journalist called Sunny Shelton who is telling the story of Opal and Nev through interviewing them and interviewing their friends and colleagues that they made music with in the 1970s. They're recounting the story of a 1971 concert where the journalist's father was actually killed. The concert is how Opal and Nev become famous. So the journalist has some complicated feelings toward this band. Then as she sort of digs deeper into the story, she began to sort of honor some secrets about that incident.
The book contains details like those about early singing in church and Opal’s alopecia. How important are these details for character-building?
I knew the church would be part of the narrative because so much of the history of rock ’n’ roll is in the Black church […] in the blues. These are the roots, this is how rock ’n’ roll started. And thinking about Opal's alopecia, I really wanted to create a character who was almost like superheroic to me in the sense that she is able to overcome kind of so much that — in her case — it's some childhood-like teasing, it's being different, she's dark-skinned, she's losing her hair. And yet she still has like, she's very self-possessed, but she's also very human.
How much of you is in this book?
Probably there's a healthy amount of me in Sunny, the journalist character. We had sort of a similar career path, but also Sunny kind of grew up loving rock ’n’ roll, but feeling it was sort of taboo for her to like because of her complicated relationship to Opal. For me, it was being a young Black girl and being into music where I didn't often see myself reflected very much. And so the book comes out of my personal desire to have had at a certain age an Opal-like figure that I could have looked up to. And in the research for this book, I realized there were women like that. I just didn't know about them because they're so often, Black women are so often marginalized or erased in rock ’n’ roll. So I wanted to create a character who sort of breaks through to the mainstream in a way that's undeniable and becomes a heroine for a funny character.
How do you feel now about the book?
Sharing this story that is really sort of close to my heart and very emotional. For me to have it in the world is a beautiful thing. And also kind of a vulnerable thing […] because that requires some vulnerability, as well about my background, and my relationship to music, and all of those things.
I can appreciate that. One thing that’s important for us at Sisters is to highlight stories. Finally, is there anything else you’re looking forward to?
I'm very excited to talk to you because I wrote this book for Black women. I'm very happy that it's finding its audience.