All That Isn't Singing

Interviewee: Judy Reeves | Occupation: Author/Teacher

Neighborhood: South Park | Where Interviewed: Rebecca’s Coffeehouse

What are you writing?

“A novel. I’ve been working on it, it was three years in December. And I’m almost done with the second draft: All That Isn’t Singing. The title comes from an e.e. cummings poem.”

Tell me about it.

“It’s set in 1957, ’58 in Kansas City, Missouri. So, there’s a lot of music in it. The protagonist wants to be a singer. She’s a young girl, 17, 18 years old. She ran away from home to go to Kansas City to be a singer. A woman who recognizes her talent early on — an old, kind of washed up singer — says to her, ‘Anybody can be a success, honey, you just have to be willing to give up everything.’ So off she goes to Kansas City, where she meets a young woman from Cuba. They become roommates and my character gets a job at a radio station and finds a mentor there. It being 1957, ’58, jazz is where it is, rhythm and blues is where it is. It’s also just before the Cuban Revolution. It is my character’s search for success as a singer, and what is that success. And it has to do with how we work with mentors, what happens with that whole power and control, and where a mentor becomes maybe more powerful. Does that silence our voice or give us strength? Are we doing what they want or are we doing our own thing? And the love between a man and a woman, also the attraction between women. And she has always dreamed of going to California to be a star. Her daddy is in California, so part of it is her journey to go to California.”

What made you write it?

“She was a character in another novel that I wrote. In that first novel she ran away from home, and I never knew what happened to her. She was one of three daughters in the other book, called Sleepwalking on the Big Dragon, which is set at a fishing camp at a lake in the Ozarks. That lake is called the Big Dragon, and everybody’s sleepwalking in it. So, she ran away from home in that book, and I finished that one and did rewrites on it and put it aside. And I didn’t know what I was going to work on next — I was just doing writing practice — her voice just kept coming up. She is a really alive character for me. I love her attitude: she’s sassy. I thought, I wonder what happened to her when she went to Kansas City? So I just followed her and it just kind of went from there.

“I’m also really interested in that time. It was the time of the Beats, and change was happening in music at that time too. To tell the truth, I’ve always wanted to be a singer — can’t carry a tune. So, I think in part, writing about a singer is a way I could do it. Also this is the time of the great Western movement, when the freeways were just being made. So, I think this is the beginning of the disintegration of the close-knit families that stayed in one place. And off we all go, on the road. That’s also an exciting theme for me, being on the road. There’s a lot of really rich cultural experience to explore through this young girl’s eyes and through her experiences in the middle of the country, in Kansas City.”

Do you have a favorite passage?

“The one I’m working on, probably. My favorite sections of the book are when Louise, the character, gets to go sing somewhere. Whether she’s auditioning for a little local television show or whether she’s standing up on a clunky little bandstand at this fish fry at fishing camp or whether she’s with this band where they’re going to play at a coffeehouse. I like when she goes to sing.”

Why should someone read this?

“I think all of us have these desires to be what we see ourselves as before that vision gets squashed by making a living and being in the real world. Whatever it is, whether we see ourselves as a singer or a writer or a painter — when we can do anything. I think connecting maybe with the dreams of this young girl, that that will reconnect too. Primarily I think [they’ll read it] because people will like the characters. Or I hope they’ll like the characters. I hope they’ll care about a woman who wants to go to Cuba because of the revolution, who wants to be there at history being made. If you can have characters who break your heart, who give you hope, reach somehow inside of you and connect, and there’s also a story that we care about, not just interesting characters. There has to be a story; we’re made for stories. We love stories, we need stories.”

Tell me about your writing habits.

“Every morning when I get up I go out to my studio, which is two feet from my house. I go out there and I light a candle and I read some kind of meditation. I write a few notes in my journal and then launch into the writing for the day. I try to spend two or three hours out there each morning. Sometimes I get a lot done; sometimes I don’t. I go there probably five days a week. Sometimes six, but no fewer than five days a week.”

Is writing your primary job?

“It’s my meaningful work. I teach also, and I am executive director for San Diego Writers, Ink, a nonprofit literary organization. And that takes a lot of time. I like teaching. I always say that I’m a writer and a teacher because I love them both so much. I don’t know who this poet is — I don’t know who I’m quoting — but he said, ‘Anybody can make a living as a writer. You just have to lower your living standards.’”

What are your relationships like?

“I kind of half-live with a writer; we’ve lived off and on together. He’s a poet, and he does his work at a certain time, I do my work at a certain time. And there’s a lot of mutual support and appreciation for the other’s work. He comes through as a muse for me because his images are so rich. And he’s very disciplined and very productive, and that’s great for me too.

“Almost all my friends are writers. My community is made up of writers. When you talk to other writers, you can discuss things that you couldn’t discuss with somebody who’s not a writer.”

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