The Music Girl

Kain Fairbrooks cover

“Music is what feelings sound like,” wrote an unknown author. In Kain B. Fairbrooks’ new release, The Music Girl,” a victimized child kept in isolation by her own parent not only discovers that the timeless power of music holds the key to express her emotions but also to facilitate her freedom. At just 20 years old, Fairbrooks is a newcomer to the writing scene but has made the inventive decision to ignore many of the conventions of fictional storytelling and write The Music Girl as a poem.

Interviewer – Christina Hamlett


Q: For starters, tell us a bit about your journey as a writer and what (or who) inspired you to pen your first story?

A: Ahhh the one who inspired me was my mom. She used to tell me and my sister stories only using her imagination. And I absolutely loved it to death! She would even encourage us to tell stories back to her and this started my whole “I wanna be a writer” when I was five years old. In first grade, the principal of my elementary school noticed that I wouldn’t go out for recess but I would spend my time writing inside. I showed her a short story I wrote and she loved it and got it published. It sat in the school library for years while I was attending there. After that I played around with my writing, improving it- learning more techniques until the end of high school where I started getting…haha somewhat serious!

Q: Did you read books before bedtime as a child?

A:Yes I did! Just quite a few, though.

Q: What are some of the titles we might have found on that childhood bedside table?

A: The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter was one. The Road To Elyon, Dr. Seuss’s array of stories, a bunch of fairytales, Mother Goose, and newspaper comics!

Q: So what might we find on your bedside table these days?

A: Haha nothing! I know, it’s weird.

Q: One book at a time or multiple books?

A: One book at a time. It tastes better that way.

Q:  Would you describe yourself as an introvert or an extrovert and what influence does that have on your creativity, energy levels and response to feedback about your work?

A: I would think I’m an extrovert. Sometimes my creativity runs really high and boosts up my energy causing me to write multiple stories at once. Especially when I’ve had a social interaction.

Feedback can either make me go “I like your criticism! Let me get started on that right away! Oh! I can even do [insert a bunch of random things]” or “gbvaghvbdhbj why did I even start writing this- I’m a horrible being.”

Q: Tell us what The Music Girl is about.

A: The Music Girl is about a young lady who went through ten years of abuse and neglect from her envious mother who locks her in the attic. In the attic, she realizes that she wasn’t alone. There stood a very old piano that still worked and so she began learning how to play. Crying out her pain through music. One day, she escapes her mother’s wrath by killing her mother and burning down the mansion she was held captive in. She throws away her name and all that she is and begins her musical journey, learning how to play various instruments from people off the streets and professionals.

Q: The choice to craft The Music Girl as a poem story is an interesting one. What governed that decision for you?

A:  There was this story before The Music Girl that I wanted to write in the fashion of a poem but tell a story. Though, my inner thoughts told me that people wouldn’t like it- I shouldn’t try it- what if people don’t get it? So I dropped the idea, now regretting it horribly! But a few months later, I thought of The Music Girl and went…maybe it won’t be so bad? What’s the worst that can happen? A few chapters later and I absolutely loved writing in such a strange way. Also the people on Figment* helped me see that this was a great decision to write it like this, so I kept it!

(*Interviewer Note: is an online forum where writers in a multiplicity of genres meet, create, share and connect with one another.)

Q: Did you work from an outline or just allow the scenes to flow spontaneously?

A: I let the scenes flow naturally. Though sometimes I wished I used an outline.

Q: Writers often spend a lot of time editing, editing, editing. Did you do your edits as you were writing or wait until the entire thing was finished?

A: I edited as I was writing it. Because I posted each chapter on Figment every day, I had to make sure that it was on point or else my conscious would get to me. ‘Why did you post that crap?’ it would say.

Q: Was there anything significant you ended up editing our prior to publication?

A: I’m pretty sure I ended up doing the opposite and adding more in than editing out.

Q: Who’s your target readership for The Music Girl and what would you like them to take away from it by the time they reach the end?

A: Probably adults who had a horrible past and couldn’t let it go. I wanted to show people that things happen, horrible things, and it’ll try to pop itself up back in your life and make you afraid of the future. But you can’t let it do that. You can’t let it ruin you. Something like that, I suppose.

Q: The choice to self-publish has become a popular one for today’s writers, especially insofar as the desire to control one’s intellectual property and move it on to the market as quickly as possible. What are some of the things you learned during this process and what are you doing to spread the word that your new book is available?

A: Some of the things I learned are that there are people willing to help you spread the word but also to do your research beforehand. I ran into a lot of free promotional things while trying to spread the word. People do free postings on Facebook, tweets from Twitter, and give your book a read and make a blog post about it. Even book tours. It’s really incredible!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the process of publishing two illustrated children’s books by Light Books and working on a horror novel called Thy Broken Mind which you can vote for online!

Q: What do you do if you come across a dry spot in your writing or hit the all-dreaded writer’s block?

A: I usually walk away and go hang upside down on the couch while looking at Oblique Strategies on my phone. Or play video games! Depends how bad it is.

Q: Ever have a bad day? If so, what gives you strength to get through it?

A: Yes I have! Laughter and music. Sometimes when it rains, it pours hard and you forget to laugh.

Q: Morning person or evening person?

A: Evening!

Q: Cats or dogs?

A: Dogs all the way!!

Q: Boba or Cheesecake?

A: Oooh….cheesecake. I’m sorry my beloved Boba.

Q: Movies that make you laugh or movies that make you cry?

A: Movies that make me laugh.

Q: The most favorite thing you have in your closet?

A: My Alucard cosplay coat that I got autographed by Crispin Freeman, an English dub voice actor!

Q: Pandas, polar bears, koalas or grizzlies?

A: Pandas!!

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: That I enjoy raves!

Q: Where can they learn more about your work?

A: Probably the best place is my Figment page, which has all the rough drafts of a lot of my writings, Basilica Press, and Twitter!

Porcelain Keys


Over the course of the last year and a half, I have read more books than I had read in my previous years combined, and among those stories, I have my favorites. Sarah Beard’s debut novel, Porcelain Keys, is one of them.

Sarah put a lot of her own heart into her words, and though it took her five years to get the story to where she wanted it to be, the perseverance seems worth it. I was captured from the first sentence and the rhythm swept me up to the last page. Visit Sarah at

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste


Q: Porcelain Keys centers around Aria, a gifted pianist. As a music aficionado, was the process of writing fiction much like that of composing?

A: Since music is mostly a hobby for me, I generally don’t put too much thought into my piano compositions—I just sort of let my heart lead the way. Whatever I’m feeling or thinking about comes out as music. Once I get a melody down, I’ll usually add some depth to the piece, but for the most part they’re just simple, heartfelt compositions.

I guess the first drafts of my books are that way, too. I just write what I feel without thinking too much about whether or not it’s going to work. Then once I have the story down, I go back and analyze it to death. I tear it apart and rework it over and over until I get everything just right—plot, characterization, pacing, setting, dialog, conflict, tension, etc. Each element has to be considered separately, then together as a whole.

A book could be compared to a symphony or concerto. You have all the different instruments playing different parts, serving different purposes, and when all put together you have something grand and beautiful. I don’t compose musical concertos, just little solo piano pieces, so it’s simple and easy. My books, on the other hand, are literary concertos. If one instrument (pacing, plot, etc.) is out of tune, it sours the entire work. Only when all the instruments work together and complement each other can a literary concerto become a moving masterpiece.

Q: Yes, it’s an intense process with editing being the primary focus. Throughout thefiveyear journey of writing your novel, what are some key moments or pieces of advice that strengthened you to keep moving forward?

A: There were countless times I wanted to give up during the writing of this book. Like when my critique partners would point out plot problems that seemed too big to fix, or when I couldn’t pin down a character’s motivations. I would go home feeling discouraged and would want to scrap the whole thing. But a woman in my writers group, Shauna Dansie, once gave me a great tip. She suggested that when I come across a story problem that seems impossible to fix, that I should write it down on a little piece of paper and set it aside somewhere safe, then continue working on other parts of the story. The theory is that you know in the back of your mind that there is that big problem that needs to be fixed, but you don’t have to worry about it because you have it written down somewhere. So your subconscious does all the work. And one day as you’re folding laundry, the solution just pops into your head. Or you wake up in the middle of the night, and you know why your character did that stupid thing. It worked every time.

Another piece of advice that stuck with me was one I received at a writing conference. I was sitting across the table from a literary agent at dinner (great opportunity—or so you would think) and I told her a little about my book and asked her which genre it would be—YA or women’s fiction—since the story begins when my character is 17 and ends when she is 19. New Adult was not yet an official category, so she basically told me that no publisher would ever pick up my book because there wasn’t a market for it. My shoulders must have visibly slumped because author Stephanie Fowers, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said something like, “Don’t worry, Sarah. Just write the story you want to tell and don’t try to fit into anyone’s definition of what makes a marketable book.” I took her advice to heart and stopped worrying about trends and categories, and just wrote what I wanted to.

Q: That’s brilliant advice, since we can’t really help but write the story that is there to be told. Without being outwardly religious, there is a certain quiet weave of spirituality in your writing. Life seems to hold its own essential divinity, as you would have experienced in giving birth, surviving cancer, and living in general – but did you seek to share a particular message, or was the writing organic?

A: When I first started writing Porcelain Keys, I didn’t set out to share a specific message or lesson, I just wanted to write a great love story. But I think on an unconscious level some of the lessons I’ve learned in my own life seeped into the story. I’ve learned from experience that it’s possible for people to change and overcome character flaws, and that damaged relationships can be repaired. I also know that grief can cause people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. So as I wrote the story and my characters did certain things, I used my own life lessons as a reference to help me decide whether or not their actions were realistic and believable. It wasn’t until after I finished writing the story and had to start describing it in query letters that I really thought about what messages it contained.

Q: That’s awesome. On your blog you shared the inspiration of Porcelain Keys but we didn’t read the particulars of the scene that germinated your book. If you remember, please share it with us.

A: Yes, I remember the exact details of the scene. In fact, I still have it saved in a first draft (it’s horribly written, by the way). I didn’t share it on my blog because my story changed over time and the scene ended up having no relevance to the story. But it was a scene where Aria comes home from college for summer break, and she is going through a box of memorabilia when she discovers a necklace that Thomas gave her before he left town. She is surprised to see it because she thought she had gotten rid of it, and it brings back all the memories of their time together and the painful events surrounding his disappearance. This is the scene that sparked all of the questions that led me to my story. I had to know who these people were, why Thomas had left, and why he hadn’t returned as promised. For me, it was like an intriguing mystery that needed to be solved. And as I discovered the answers to these questions, I fell in love with the characters and knew that I had to tell their story.

Q: Thank you for sharing that. This is perhaps like asking you to name your favorite child, but do you have a favorite scene from your book? One that, no matter how many times you read it, resonates with you?

A: This is a tough one to answer without giving away too much of the story, but one of my favorite scenes is in chapter nineteen when an unexpected visitor walks into the parlor. My heart swells every time I read it, even though I’ve read it five million times. I also love the scene where Thomas gives Aria a painting—it always brings tears to my eyes because I know how much it means to her. The hardest scene to write was in chapter twenty-two where Aria and Thomas have a long talk—I must have rewritten it at least a dozen times—but it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Q: I loved those scenes, too. That seems to be the hardest part of being a writer, or any artist—knowing when to step away from the story and let it out into the world. Porcelain Keys is published by Sweet Water, an imprint of Cedar Fort. You mentioned that they have been wonderful to work with – what have been some of your adventures in publishing?

A: I haven’t had too many adventures in publishing since this is my first novel, but I did spend about seven months querying literary agents before being accepted for publication by Cedar Fort. During that time I sent out a total of 45 query letters, and got a few bites, including a 2000-word email from an agent listing all the things she loved about my manuscript—and all the things she wanted me to change. I was on an airplane when I got her email, ready for takeoff, and I only got the gist of it before I had to turn off my phone. I spent the four-hour flight wanting to die, and then give up writing, and then die again. It’s the worst feeling, spending hundreds or even thousands of hours on a manuscript, only to have someone tear it apart and tell you all the things you should change.

But when I got home and got a good night’s rest, I opened the email and read it more thoroughly. I realized that she actually really liked my book and had a lot of great suggestions—which was a good sign. Literary agents don’t usually give that much feedback unless they’re really interested in your manuscript. So I took most of her suggestions and implemented them. But there was one big change that I didn’t agree with and felt would make my entire story collapse. Because of this, I didn’t feel she was the right agent for me. So I kept sending out query letters to other agents. Around this time, a friend lent me a book that was published by Cedar Fort, and I really loved it, so I decided to send my manuscript to Cedar Fort. And two months later I got an email from their acquisitions editor saying they wanted to publish it—just the way it was.

Q: Congratulations! You also mentioned that you look forward to a long working relationship with Sweet Water. Do you have a second book planned?

A: I’m working on another young adult romance right now. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s set on a California beach and involves chocolate, surfing, and supernatural elements. I also have detailed outlines for two more after that, both young adult romances.

Q: That is wonderful! What will you take from this launch, to utilize in your next release?

A: I’ve learned that when it comes to getting the initial word out about a book, bloggers and book reviewers are a writer’s best friends! Also, it’s pointless to stress about things that aren’t in your control, like which bookstores will pick up your book, or whether or not reviewers like your book. Stress kills creativity, so I’m learning to stop hovering and instead get back to what I can control: writing more books!

Q: Good plan! What, if any, is/are your life motto(s)?

A: I don’t really have a life motto, but there are things I try to remember everyday: That life is short and that I should make the most of each moment. That worldly success is enjoyable, but can’t bring lasting happiness. Only my relationship with God and my family can do that. They are the constant in the ups and downs of life. They will be there when fans and literary agents and publishers are not. So God and family always come first, because to lose my relationship with them would be to lose everything.


Dark Secrets

Dark Secrets cover

Stalkers, rock singers and one woman who vows never to fall in love makes for one juicy story, but when you toss in sudden wealth and secrets, you’ve been lured into Dark Secrets, the new adult suspenseful novel by Josephine Harwood. With a background in writing screenplays and a penchant for romance reads herself, Ms. Harwood talks to You Read It Here First about her career as a writer, and even throws in a little about her former dreams of being a rock star.

Interviewer: Christy Campbell


When and how did the plot for Dark Secrets first come to you?

My earliest printed copy of my story was dated February 1984.  The original title, Just Friends, was written in dialogue only, like a play.  My friends and I were crazy in love with Jon Bon Jovi, so I thought it would be fun to write a play about a girl who falls for a hot-looking garage band singer.  Of course the girl has a beautiful sister who wants him, too…creating the conflict.

So, I made copies for my friends, we all chose a character, and we read the play out loud.  On the rare occasions I could get a guy to read along with us, I always looked forward to their feedback and suggestions.  Their advice helped me write more accurately from the male perspective.

You originally wrote Dark Secrets as a stage play. What prompted you to switch gears and adapt it to a full-length novel?

Well, whenever I received comments or suggestions about the play, I would revise the story for the next group reading.  I began to add more dialogue and more scenes to keep the continuity of the story flowing.  Inevitably the length of the play was reading more like a screenplay for a movie.  My friends mentioned the story would make a good book.  Spurred on by their encouraging words, I decided to rewrite the play as a book.

Let’s talk about the adaptation process and the challenges you encountered of reworking a story first destined to be performed aloud by actors into a print medium to be enjoyed silently by readers.

The original story’s content was honestly a little boring and dull.  Everyone was nice to everyone else.  There was jealousy among the sisters, but the dialogue was kind of juvenile and silly.  The story was filled with playful sarcasm and good humor, but there were never any serious issues or major conflicts; no reason for a hero or a heroine.  The story clearly reflected my naïve view of the real world.

Then, my mom suffered a massive stroke when I was six-months pregnant with my first child.  Suddenly, my practically-perfect life had become uncertain and incredibly unfair.  It was time to face the cold reality of the real world and grow up a little.  My husband insisted my parents move in with us, and we helped my dad take care of my mom for four years.  When she passed, I started working on my story, again, with a completely different attitude and style of writing.

I knew I needed to revise the original dialogue.  My characters were almost as naïve as I had been.  I created more adult situations for them along with mature conversations.  I also tossed in a stalker to add a little suspense and mystery to the story, and I changed the name from Just Friends to Dark Secrets.

I envisioned Dark Secrets playing out like a movie on the big screen, and that helped me a lot when I needed to describe scenery and settings.  But I knew I needed the reader to not only see the scenes I wrote, I needed to tap into all the other senses as well.  This was a very time-consuming process because all I had to work with was straight dialogue, but I loved and welcomed the challenge!

Have you written any other plays?

A friend of mine was convinced all Christian people were arrogant and self-righteous, and I asked God how I could help her.  He gave to me my very first Christian play, A Sister’s Love.  I gave it to the drama ministry and the play was performed for the public at our church.  It’s about two sisters; one a devout Christian and the other a non-believer.  When the Christian sister gets into a car accident, the non-believer meets members of her sister’s church one by one in the emergency waiting room.  Not only did my friend see the play, she was my co-director, and she even started coming to our church.  My friend was my loving sister, Diana.  I plan to turn this play into a book.

On the last night we performed, A Sister’s Love, a young man came up to me after the show and said, “Miss Josephine, can I be in your next play?”  I was so touched, I asked God for another play.  That same night, He gave me my second Christian play, a story about teenage suicide called, Second Chance.  I wrote this three-act play in one night.

I plan to turn this play into a book as well.

What has theater taught you about character development, dialogue and staging?

I had never been on stage before or even worked behind the scenes, and suddenly I was directing my own play.  I was very anxious to share the powerful message behind this story, A Sister’s Love, but first, I had to put my ego in check and listen and learn from the people who worked in the drama ministry.

They taught me how to set the stage, where the actors should stand, and when to make the transition from one scene to another.  I learned about stage lighting and musical timing to empathize a character’s emotions.  I also learned about crucial voice projection originally written as whispered dialogue.

Fortunately, I was blessed with an incredibly talented group of people, and everyone involved in the production seemed to share my passionate goal; to share the love of our Lord and Savior without being arrogant or self-righteous.

One of your characters is a garage band singer.  Have you ever been in a band?

Yes.  Although my garage band singer, Rick Anderson, is a fictional character, the burning passion he feels about wanting to be a famous rock singer is from my own personal experiences.  Back in the early ‘80’s I wanted to be the next Pat Benatar or Joan Jett.  I sang in a couple of bands, but obviously, neither Pat nor Joan had anything to worry about it.

Your female characters experience psychological abuse.  Were these themes drawn from personal experiences or extensive research?

Many women I know have confessed to me that they have suffered some kind of abuse from a boyfriend or husband.  From these women I have learned there is a misconception about putting up with someone.  It is insulting to them when a clueless female flips off, “I would never let any man do that to me.”

Physical abuse does not happen overnight.  There is a long period of psychological abuse; a brainwashing method.  It’s not easy to walk away from someone who has convinced you that you have nowhere to go.

Tell us the story about the song lyrics that appear in the book.

I wanted the reader to believe Rick was a musician and songwriter, so I included a couple of my own original songs throughout the book for him.  I also added my songs for my fictional rock band, Roulette.  Roulette, by the way, is my tribute to my favorite rock band, Bon Jovi.

The original song in the story, I’m Watching You, was specifically written for my stalker.  This particular song was inspired by one of the biggest hits of the ’80’s, Every Breath You Take, by The Police.  I remember watching an interview with the incomparable singer/songwriter Sting.  He explained the song was about control and surveillance.

I had never made the connection before and the information fascinated me, so I decided to read the lyrics without listening to the beautiful music.  Chills ran through me, my heart started pounding, and I could almost feel someone watching me as I read the words.  Despite the true meaning behind the lyrics, I still find the song hauntingly beautiful.

You’ve identified your target market as “women age 40+.” Any particular reason you chose this demographic?

Well, my romantic-suspense novel contains what I describe as, sensual content for the mature reader.  For this reason the book has an adult rating and is highly recommended for mature readers over the age of seventeen.

I would love for any women or man for that matter to read my book, and I honestly was torn about choosing a specific demographic.  I guess I wanted to target a special kind of woman.

She is strong and beautiful inside and out, but she doesn’t realize it.  She has willingly and selflessly given all she has to those she loves, and she places herself on the backburner without hesitation.  She may be single, married, divorced, or widowed.  She may feel lonely, unappreciated, and even invisible.

Every single one of you ladies is special.  You all have the right to be selfish once in a while, and you all deserve a little Me Time, whether that means soaking in hot bath with lots of bubbles…or getting lost in a book filled with mystery, suspense, and lots and lots of sensual romance!

Who inspires you as a writer?

Some of the best lines for my sexy alpha male character, Rick Anderson, are direct quotes from my husband.  I’ve known him since the summer of ’79.  He is my inspiration; my rock, my best friend, and the love of my life.  He is the reason why I can write romance.

I must also give credit to my amazing Lake Orion High School English teachers; Ms Diana Lee Mills and Mrs. Judith Skiba.  They never failed to encourage my passion for writing.  I hope one day they will know just how much they meant to me.

What genres and titles currently inhabit your own bookshelves?

I love reading romance and romantic-suspense novels by Lisa Kleypas, Lori Foster, Carly Phillips, Christina Dodd, Karen Robards, and Kat Martin, just to name a few of my favorite authors.

I like very suspenseful genres written by Lisa Jackson and Dean Koontz.  I also enjoy classics like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

I am a book junkie.  I love to step into a Barnes & Noble and just inhale…deeply.  Once I finish a book, I can’t wait to open the next one.  Sometimes I have four books, different genres, going at once.

I am currently reading Kat Martin’s Against series.  I love the way she writes!  Many times I’ve had to stop reading one of her books…and catch my breath before continuing!

What’s up next for fans of Josephine Harwood?

Fans? That word feels so strange to me, because I’m a first-time author barely getting my name out there.  I can tell you this…it is an indescribable rush when people tell me they didn’t want to put my book down.

I’ve had one woman tell me she was annoyed when her husband came home, because she would have to stop reading to fix dinner!  Another woman told me she was reading well into the night when she should have been sleeping.  One of my male readers told me my love scenes should come with a warning label; may cause shortness of breath and severe heart rate acceleration.

All of these compliments mean so much to me.  I’ve always wanted to write a book, but taking into consideration this is my very first attempt, I never dreamed I’d receive such an overwhelming response to my story.

I am currently working on my second novel, Empathy.  This is the story about Delilah Walker, a caregiver who becomes too emotionally involved with her client and the client’s family.  If you enjoyed the slow and steady passion that builds between Rick and Angela in Dark Secrets, you will love the sensual heat that radiates between Delilah and Bryan, the client’s oldest son.

I’ve been asked more than once if I will write a sequel for Dark Secrets.  The answer is yes.  Empathy will introduce April Callahan, and she will have a past connection with Gemini’s sexy lead guitar player, Chris Marringer.  My third novel will be about Chris and April.  Can The Starview Casanova find true love?

How can readers contact you?

I crave feedback, comments, and suggestions!  I shamelessly beg for Facebook likes and book reviews.  If you are reading my book, I would love to hear from you!

Please, visit my author page on Facebook:

Or write to me via my email address:

My romantic-suspense novel, Dark Secrets, is available at major online ebook retailers including Barnes & Noble and iTunes, but only Smashwords offers a FREE six-chapter excerpt.  I am not available on Amazon, but you can use the Smashwords link to download my story to your reading device of choice including Kindle.

Smashwords webpage:

Thank you, so much, Christina Hamlett, for this wonderful opportunity to promote my very first novel, Dark Secrets.  I also want to thank you, Christy Campbell, for all your help with this interview and allowing me to share a little bit of the history behind the birth of my story.

I hope everyone who reads this interview will visit my Facebook page and leave a comment or like!  Be sure to check out the FREE six-chapter excerpt on Smashwords.  There are no hidden fees, no obligation to buy, and nothing to lose!  I sound like a commercial, don’t I?  Thank you, so much, for reading this interview.  I hope to hear from you soon!

The Days of Song and Lilacs

Days of Song and Lilacs

When I was 10 years old, a new movie – a musical starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones – was opening at a theater in downtown Seattle. It was pouring rain (does it ever do anything else in Seattle?) but the line of filmgoers for that Saturday matinee stretched all the way around the block. Even at a young age, I knew I was about to see something really special. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of The Music Man and yet with the passage of decades, those same feelings of anticipation and joy return every time I catch it on television, pop in the well-worn DVD, or – for that matter – hear a marching band.

You can, thus, imagine my excitement when I discovered author Mary Beth Sartor Obermeyer whose path crossed early in childhood with that of Meredith Willson – the musical genius who brought River City, Professor Harold Hill, and Marian the Librarian to life. For anyone who loves nostalgia, tap dancing and being inspired by a beautiful message, The Days of Song and Lilacs is a must-buy delight.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: The Days of Song and Lilacs is a lovely title. What’s the story behind it and what inspired you to share your story with others?

A:  In Mason City, Iowa, in 1954, everyone seemed to have two things in abundance: music and lilacs.  Those nubby blossoms nodded along every alley, guarded each yard, I even think they made us dizzy!  And those marching bands practiced like mad, down most every street by day; and piano music floated through the sash of every window at night.  And live entertainment was everywhere, pre-television, served up like dessert—at Vivian’s Bridal Shower, Farmers’ Round-Up, Stunt Night in the Park.  I got to tap-dance out almost every night!  And, to boot: I lived down the street from Meredith Willson, who was composing his beloved The Music Man for Broadway, and—we had the same accompanist, the elderly Mabel Kelso.  Who could ask for anything more?   I was 12 years old.

Q: What ignited – and zealously fueled – your unabashed passion for wanting to tap-dance all the time?

A:  Because I could!  I lived in a time and a place.  And I didn’t have just a pulse; a metronome clacked inside me!

Q: Were there other tap dancers in your family tree or were you the first?

A: I was first.

Q: Are you still tap-dancing and, if I may be so bold, how old are you?

A: I am 71 and 1/2.   Just last week I shredded the little wooden stage at Subtext; A Bookstore, St. Paul, tap dancing, after a reading.  Sometimes I tap sitting down, an art form I developed when I decided to tap and play piano at the same time.  My mother always said I would never waste anything that I learned.

Q: Knowing Meredith Willson and sharing his accompanist had to be an incredibly inspiring experience for a young girl growing up in a small Iowa town. Tell us about it.

A: Mason City was the biggest town around.  It seemed normal to see artists grow up in Mason City and return as celebrities.   (Bil Baird is another star, home across my alley.  I played with his elderly mother and heard of her professional puppeteer—he did the “Lonely Goatherd” scene in The Sound of Music film.)  Mabel spanned decades, accompanied Meredith in 1917 when he played the piccolo, me mid 40’s-mid ‘50’s.  I followed his struggle to Broadway through her, his letters, calls, visits.  He was loyal and never gave up, qualities I believe were in the air in that town.

Q: There was quite an age difference between you and Mabel Kelso, your accompanist. Looking back, would you best categorize your interactions as that of a parent/child, teacher/student or friend/friend?

A:  We were a team!  She went with me for every program; we shared syncopation, stop time, the intro, the tacit.  I knew her look, an “atta girl,” tossed over her shoulder, her arms pumping away.  Actually, at that time, in small towns everywhere, children spent time with their elder neighbors.

Q: What’s your favorite Mabel story?

A: She was such a professional that everything seemed to stay stable, and so the memory is of constant music, support; she was a strong woman—treasurer of the musician’s union!  And strong yet 10 years after her stroke.  Meredith had a little piano made to roll over her bed.  He played the left hand over and over, but she didn’t respond.  He whispered, hummed, cheek-to-cheek—and didn’t she play the right hand!  And I have the photo, p. 290.  After my book was out, Patty Paul sent me photos of Mabel as a young woman, in a band with Patty’s father, for WCCO Radio, and they traveled in a van with their name on it.  The young Mabel was cute and tiny, perky, posing with the fellows, she almost danced off the page, to sit by me again.

Q: What’s your favorite story about the composer?

A:  Just when Meredith was pushed to do the new sure gangbuster hit, “Injun Joe,”—Meredith cold-called a big producer, Mr. Bloomgarden.  “Okay, come by my townhouse at midnight after my show, do a quick run-through,” he said.  After, Meredith, with wife Rini at his side, skated home on ice, to their hotel, in New York City.  Next morning the producer called them to his office.  “Meredith,” he said, “I would be honored to produce your beautiful musical.”  He would always treat Meredith and his music the way Meredith treated everyone, all of his life.  Sometimes life is fair.  Also—in 1981, when I organized the World’s Largest Marching Band, Minneapolis, Meredith came to the airport, not sure where he was, elderly, and—he bowed and kissed my hand!  Our memories of Mabel, I am sure, photo, p 295.  And that evening, when he stepped up to conduct, he paused, uncertain.  But when the band started he began to chant: “Whatta band, whatta band, whatta band!” and into full motion he went.

Q: Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Willson’s signature musical. When The Music Man first came out, what aspects of Mason City and its denizens – both good and bad – did you recognize in his fictitious “River City” backdrop?

A:  It was my town; it all seemed normal.  Newcomers did have to figure us out: “Come give Iowa a try!”  Imagine, though, the librarian and the piano teacher were the same person, about the biggest jobs in town.  I looked forward to falling in love on that bridge, but not with some shyster.  And I knew there was trouble wherever young boys gathered.  But our mayor was nothing like Mayor Shinn.  Ours was Ken Kew, nice and well-spoken, and he had a glass eye, made him unique.  When the film was re-made, now the town had all colors of people.  The Mayor’s wife wasn’t quite so silly.  (Both versions: the townspeople all, had music, and lilacs.)

Q: Were there any elements of the 1950’s that you really didn’t want to write about?  Did you leave them out or write about them anyway?

A: My mother did not tolerate divorce and so for her that eliminated a lot of people I adored, including Meredith Willson, Bil Baird, (but not his mother); Jackie Gleason (although we could watch the June Taylor dancers at the top of his TV show and then snap it off.)  So I couldn’t let Mom gush in the book when I knew she didn’t approve.  But the biggest thorn was that our big show in Mason City was “Darktown Varieties,” opened  with a minstrel line.  Unless I scissored a few blackface out of cast photos—and the occasional Al Jolson Impersonator,  p. 74—and re-named the show (that the whole town was in)—  It had to be in the story—one year I got the singing-dancing-acting lead, with Jack Johnson, we were 11 and 13.  So I went to a PR agency that specialized in African-American lore and history.  Their advice?  I’d been 12 years old, they said.  This was my opportunity to tell how it felt to jitterbug in those scenes, and in many North Iowa towns that had similar shows.  (The rest of the show wasn’t minstrelsy, only the opening.)  So I documented how and when it faded.  And now—the only African-American child in our school, front row in the cast photo, p. 134, emails me scenes for her own book-to-be. And how did she feel about the minstrelsy, nine years old?  “I didn’t think anything,” she says.  “They weren’t real.  No one looks like that.”

Q: What influence did your parents have on your young performing life?

A: During the depression, my mother worked in her brother’s movie theatre and she saw every musical 10 times.  I got the costumes!  And my dad loved big band music.  When he was at the University of Chicago, the ‘30’s, they lived in a hotel; the Lawrence Welk Band performed in the penthouse every Saturday night.  I got the music and dance lessons!

Q: How about your peer group? Were there other children “dancing out” almost every night, on programs, in the pre-television era of the 40’s and early 50’s?

A: Lots did—whistlers, entire accordion bands of children, and mimes; they played the bones, harmonica, most played an instrument, or sang.

Q: Did anyone ever tease you?

A: Yes, because I was different, perhaps I danced out more than most.  And the petticoats, costumes to kazoo.  That is what children do—find the one who is different, for any reason—and go for it.  But it was not bullying, just pick-picking, because they could. It is human nature to look down on someone.  Because I was so busy dancing I didn’t get to do things with them.  So I just avoided the cloakroom before school started.  When we were making music for school plays and shows—no problem.  Now they are the best readers!  I discovered that the man who came to the side door with fresh fruit and vegetables was really paying his doctor bill!

Q: Do you remember the first time you ever tap-danced for a public performance? What were the emotions in play for you that day?

A: My earliest memory is at four, I was the cheerleading mascot and did all the cheers, middle of the gym floor, at basketball games.  I loved the rhythms I made, the back and forth with the crowd, never got over that phenomenon, and I always knew that I earned it with hard work.  The day I got tap shoes, traded up from the white lace-up high-top baby shoes, was huge.

Q: What was/is your favorite tune to tap to?

A: When I was on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, he played “Stump the Taps” with me, live.  Butch Thompson played the piano, and I tapped, to—Clair de Lune; The Minnesota Rouser; Amazing Grace, others.  Wabash Cannonball.  If Butch Thompson plays—I can dance.  He is a premiere pianist.  Oh!  Morton Gould wrote The Tap Concerto and I did the 20-minute, four-movement piece, tap written into the score as percussion, toured with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Q: How do you feel your own music education and performing experience compares to those growing up today and those who have turned professional?

A:  It’s all music.  A crowd in any form is an audience.  I did get more live performing experience than many can get today.  Nothing stuns like standing on a stage when the curtain doesn’t open or the music doesn’t start.  No excuses.  Do it.  And I had constant music education in my school, Holy Family.  I wish music education, for all.

Q: Twice in the book is the poignant theme that music stays in the bones after much else has left; specifically, for Mabel Kelso 10 years after her stroke in Mason City and for Meredith Willson, 80, trying to guest-conduct the World’s Largest Marching Band in Minneapolis. How and why do you think this happens, that music stays until the end?

A:   I saw it happen, twice, and I have the photos.  The book, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, helped me reflect and I shared it with my doctor father.  Music changes the brain, connects to the rhythm of the body, relaxes, pulls out a different person.  Some might call it magic; others see science.

Q: Every believable main character in a story falls out of character at least once. What did you allow your character in The Days of Song and Lilacs to do offstage and what caused it?

A:  “Well.  Doesn’t that frost your tits!” she said, back seat of her parents’ car.  And that was usually reserved for Iowa cow/farm talk—but she was 12, and oh, the frustration.  She’d just tapped her heart out on the floating stage on Clear Lake, the 4th of July and—she placed second, fourth year in a row, criminy!  But it was in that moment she realized: contests are contests!  No way can judges compare whistlers to tap dancers to mimes—or one child to an adult cowboy band.  And then came fall, and another way-out day; she was craving to just be one of the kids, for once.  It was half-time of a basketball game.  So, she swung like a monkey, high on the bars over the toilet—pumped too high—and she slipped, fell into the toilet, gashing her knee.  Actually, she was out of character quite a few times.  She really did not care to tap dance with her baby sister at first, the magnetic whipper-snapper-tapper, Julie.  We did, however, tap on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, in New York City!

Q: What do you envision as the primary takeaway value for your readers when they reach the last chapter?

A: It was a time and a place, the stars crossed.  All wasn’t idyllic, then or now.  But music has the power to soften prejudice, ease economic situations, it changes the way the mind works, a case for music education for all.  And it stays in the body to the last, when much else is gone, how nice is that?

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?

A: A columnist, Barbara Flanagan, Star Tribune, reported that I had written the manuscript and “it will be published.”  After, she recommended two regional publishers.  Also, my instructor/editor at The Loft, Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Lost and Found; A Memoir of Mothers, had a good experience with her book at North Star Press.  Two weeks after my query, I was asked for the manuscript and…

Q: You have other titles out there, too. What are they and do they embrace a music theme as well?

A:  Yes.  The Biggest Dance; A Miracle on Concrete –the1,801 tap dancers I put on Hennepin Avenue, the toughest street in downtown Minneapolis, to open the newly-renovated Hennepin Center for the Arts.  Not the regular wine and cheese!  A little-engine-that-could kind of story, the scene was a grass-roots explosion of tap dancers of every size, all in tap shoes, dressed in their own red white and blue.  A lot of the arts culture of the time is in this book, 1979, Twin Cities.  (I was on the faculty of the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the time.)

The second book, Big! World Records in the Streets; Plus Tap-Dancing Galore!” tells the tale of six more large-scale people events, all went into the Guinness Book of World Records.  I had my own event/event publicity company, TA DA! Special Events for 10 years, a good use of a lifetime of dance and music and a journalism degree.

Q: What would your readers be the most surprised to know about you?

Well, it surprised me!  I needed to get my underpants to match my flapper dress, a shade of cream, not glaring white.  I was between the one rehearsal and the first performance, a solo in The Boy Friend, with the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, with Christopher Plummer!  So.  I went home, made some tea, and dipped the pants in, concentrating: was the boiled wet color right?  It would dry lighter.   I absent-mindedly drank the tea!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I proposed a class, yesterday, “Catch the Lightning; Creative Book Marketing” to the Loft Literary Center, for January; and I finished—as though any manuscript is ever finished—a story about finding my grandfather’s medical journal of the Winter of 1918—the flu pandemic.  He became Iowa history, Iowa’s Doctor of the Year, 1953, by the Iowa State Medical Society.


Readers can learn more about Mary Beth – and buy her books! – at