‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’ is the Fictional Oral History You Have to Hear
Debut author Dawnie Walton crafts a beautiful blend of voices—brought to life by a huge cast—to tell an epic tale of a 1970s musical duo who burned bright, and ultimately illuminated race, class, and gender issues in America.
April 1, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible editor, Abby West, and I'm excited for you all to meet today's guest, author Dawnie Walton, whose debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, was one of 2021’s most anticipated releases. The audio version of this fictional oral history of a beloved rock-and-roll duo who shot to fame in the '70s New York boasts a fantastic multi-cast lineup including Bahni Turpin, Janina Edwards, James Langton, and André De Shields. Fire! Dawnie Walton, welcome.
Dawnie Walton: Abby, I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
AW: Of course. This is about as far as I can go pretending like you're not one of my best friends in the world.
DW: Like for years, literal years.
AW: As though I have not had the pleasure of being on this journey with you, to this moment, to seeing your dream baby, blood, sweat, and tears come to life. So yeah, guys, I'm going to ask questions that other people who don't know you are going to want to hear the answers to, but this is a moment.
DW: It's going to be a kiki, it's going to be amazing. There might be tears, I don't know. We'll see, yeah.
AW: A touch. So we met back at Entertainment Weekly, and then we went on to work again together at Essence Magazine, where you were deputy managing editor. Big job.
AW: Doing all the things. Then you decided that it was time to leave and pursue your life as a novelist. You've got to share with the rest of the world how you came to that decision, which is huge, and just what helped you get there. Why that moment?
DW: Writing has always been something that I had done on and off as I had time, throughout the years since I was a kid, honestly. At the time that I started this novel, it was in 2013 and I was going through some transitions in my personal life, stuff that you know about as my friend. It was a real crossroads, and I thought, "What am I doing?" At Essence, we covered so many phenomenal, inspiring women who were really following their passions, their dreams, and I think part of that really stuck with me and made me think, "Why haven't I really actually tried to do this, something I've always wanted to do?"
"...This cast, they came back to me with a list that I was like, I wrote my agent, "I'm screaming. I cannot believe this is happening.""
At the time, I had this spark of an idea after watching concert footage from Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, which is a 1984 film, and I was just watching it on my sofa at home and you see Talking Heads' front man David Byrne at the center of the stage and he's doing his weirdo dancing thing, but then the camera pans over and you see his Black background singers, whose names I've since learned are Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. It just fired all my synapses somehow and I just had this urge to reach my hand in the screen and pull one of them to center stage, to perform with David Byrne for the rest of the show.
It sparked all these what-if questions that I swear to you would not let me go. We would be in meetings for work and half my notebook would be scribbling little ideas in the margins, and this was getting up at 5 a.m. and working on it before going to the office, and if I had the energy after work, working on it at night. It got to a point where I wanted to really see what I could do with it, because I felt like I was strongly onto something. At the same time, coming from magazines, it was a really challenging time. The higher up I got, the bigger my job got, the farther away I got from writing and working with words and the things that I got into it for in the first place.
So it was kind of a transitional moment for me and I decided ultimately… I got this amazing fellowship, and when I applied for that, I promised myself that I would really go full tilt if I got it. I found that I had to follow through on that promise to myself, and that was the beginning of it.
AW: So that amazing fellowship was the MacDowell Colony, which was huge. How much of the Final Revival—I happen to remember that it wasn't called the Final Revival back then—but how much of it had you written by then, before you went to the fellowship?
DW: I had probably written about two-thirds of a first draft when I went, and I went with the intention of finishing it while I was there, and I was very productive. I wrote about 80 new pages of it but still had more work to do. While I was there, I decided to, because I had more work to do, I was like, "I'm going to do an MFA program." So I applied to programs and ended up leaving you and all my amazing friends for two years to move to Iowa.
AW: I think it all paid off and we're pretty glad you came back, but was the time you were ideating this, was that around the 20 Feet from Stardom documentary that was looking at the backup singers?
DW: It was, absolutely. Yes. So there's little things that I learned watching that movie that are in the book, the whole thing about the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter” and Merry Clayton being such an integral part of that song, and representing this soulful sound that a lot of rock bands at the time were trying to bring into their music. So yeah.
AW: Yeah. One of the things I love, besides the fact, guys, that I love Dawnie, I love that what you did is you followed through on that famous Maya Angelou quote, "Write the story you want to see." You were music themed, rock-and-roll themed, growing up in Florida and being the only Black girl into rock, and created a character. Listen, Opal lives rent-free in my head. She's unique, yet recognizable, her flair and her counterculturalism, yeah. She's also the person you always wanted to be.
DW: I'm so glad you said that, because she says things that I would never say myself, but it doesn't mean I'm not thinking them. So it's like Obama's anger interpreter sometimes, that's how I was playing with Opal. But she was definitely a really incredible character to write, and her voice was the one that actually came to me first and super strongly, super strongly.
AW: Okay, that was the question I had. So it came, so not the plot necessarily, but the theme and the story came to you first and then the characters, would you say?
DW: Well, no. I'd actually say the characters or broad strokes of the characters came first. So first came Sunny's voice, actually the first oral histories that you read in the book, where it's Opal and Pearl, are the first pages I've ever written in the book. So it started there and then I started thinking about the Nev character, so Nev came first, and then thinking about all the supporting characters that would have been around them, Opal's stylist and the album producer and the label head and the secretary that works with the label and all these things woven gradually.
But I tell you who came really almost toward the end, the last character was Sunny, and Sunny is the character through which, she's the lens through which we see these two different timelines unfold, because there's a 1971 timeline and a 2016 timeline. She's the journalist who's weaving the interviews and the stories together, and she interjects at certain moments with her observations and her own personal story, because she has a connection to Opal and Nev and how they became famous.
AW: Yeah. This is about so much more. It's ostensibly about Opal Jewel, and let me intercut this one, but it's ostensibly about Opal Jewel who is a fiercely badass Black woman from Detroit, who was counterculture and Afro-punk before that was a thing, right?
AW: Had the style and attitude to match that, and she pairs up with a British singer–songwriter by the name of Neville Charles to make rock music together, and they burn bright and amazing for a short period of time. We have Sunny, decades later, working on their oral history as they're pondering a reunion, a highly anticipated reunion. There's so much more in there, it touches on race, on gender, on reconciling the past. When we get a little bit later, I'm going to tell you what my favorite takeaway line is, which you might be surprised about, because I want to ask you more about it.
But the way you thread the racial themes, and I know you started writing this in 2013, you're deeply in the writing in 2015 to 2016, when a lot of Black Lives Matter conversation and protest and things were ever present, and somehow it still feels even more relevant today in 2021. We've talked about how crazy that is sometimes that things feel so prescient, and how has that been for you watching that play out? You put the baby to bed about a year and a half ago.
DW: I know, right? Well, what's interesting, the thing that people key in on a lot about feeling super relevant are the parts having to do with the Confederate flag, because this is something that has sparked a lot of conversation recently. On January 6, we saw the literal flag of traitors paraded through the United States Capitol building. But the truth is, is that was always part of the story when I was writing it, and it's because I'm from Jacksonville, Florida, which is also where Lynyrd Skynyrd is from, a very famous Southern rock band, "Sweet Home Alabama." They very much integrated Confederate flag imagery into their music.
So I have a Southern rock band in the novel called the Bond Brothers, who are loosely based on Southern rock bands at the time, and just the Confederate flag and everything related to the Confederacy was really big where I'm from. I was zoned to go to Robert E Lee High School, but luckily I went to a different school, I went to a public magnet [school]. It was funny, whenever I was stressed out about school, my mom would lightly threaten to send me to Lee, and I would be like, "No, no. I can't go to Lee."
AW: I can see her and her dimples doing that. I feel like you couldn't throw a rock and not hit a Robert E Lee school down South.
DW: Oh, my gosh. Right. But it's like you go in a convenience store and you would see a Confederate flag on keychains and you would see Confederate flag bikinis on the beach. Of course, growing up, Dukes of Hazzard was a hugely popular show and I was little. I had no idea what was on that car, it just looked really cool to me. But what was interesting was I've lived a lot of different places, and for a time, I lived in Portland, Oregon. I was working for the newspaper there. I went on a road trip with a friend to Seattle and we had a flat tire between Portland and Seattle, and got towed to a gas station where there was Confederate flags plastered all on the inside of the gas station in Oregon.
"One thing that I hope that people take away from the book is an understanding that having community is important, having true friendship is important."
I'm thinking, "I am not in the South. What is this signaling?" Deep down, I always knew that it signaled something else, it's not what people claim it to be, and so I was always interested in how imagery plays out in music and how the two work together. So that was always part of the story, and so to see the conversations around the flag coming up again and again, it's not surprising. It just feels almost cyclical. I do remember in the middle of writing those scenes, I was also thinking about Bree Newsome, who we covered, I think, at Essence, the state flag and pulling it down and that being such a powerful and symbolic moment. So all those things were percolating in my head.
AW: It makes sense. Some of these things, they're cyclical for a reason, because they're not really addressed, they haven't been properly addressed and moved forward from. It's funny you bring up The Dukes of Hazzard. I felt so betrayed when I got older and realized. I came here from Trinidad at four, so my family didn't have the context for American South symbolism, any of that, so it was just the show that we sat around and...
DW: The horn played "Dixie," what? I'm trying to imagine the position that our parents were in just not wanting to destroy our childlike wonder and innocence, but also like, "Oh, what are we going to..."
AW: Think about the looks every time you ran through the house going, "Yee-haw."
DW: Yeah, yeah.
AW: The oral history format works so well on here. What led you to that? How did you get into that format for this story?
DW: It's something that I always really loved when Entertainment Weekly would do oral histories. I remember, I think our friend Jason Adams, shout-out to Jason, did one on Say Anything, which was one of my favorite movies, and I always thought it was so cool the way that memories played with each other. You have the voices of all these people who worked on these projects, and often they are very big and bold voices, because they're celebrities and they have personality, and so you get to hear their story in their own words. But there's also an understanding that people are presenting themselves in a certain way, so I wanted to play with that idea.
Then I had also just read some amazing pop culture books that were formatted as oral histories. There's one called Live from New York, which is about Saturday Night Live, which is one of my favorites. I always loved the format and I felt like a lot of people I think would assume that it would be a restrictive format, but actually, because it gave me so much structure, I felt like I could play within the lines. So it made the writing easier for me, in a sense, to just let the voices come out onto the page.
AW: It allowed for that layering that you were talking about with the different voices as well, and the going through the decades. That helped in there as well. For the format, you really tied back into your history as a journalist, and with Sunny, our intrepid journalist who is our narrator almost and takes us through this journey, she's recently been appointed editor in chief of Aural Magazine. How much fun was it for you to create a music magazine and create a music magazine world that way?
DW: So fun. I was asked recently if Sunny is sort of me, and in some ways, I think that she kind of is. There's certainly… There's a scene in the novel where I'm writing about a meeting and I feel like I've been in a meeting like that.
AW: It might have felt familiar, I'm just saying.
DW: Yeah. But I think that it was really interesting to think about what her stakes would be as a journalist, working at a very challenging climate for media, where print media's really struggling to evolve, to digitize properly and figure out how to retain audience and balance brand integrity with advertising dollars and all of those things that she would be thinking about. So my experience definitely was helpful to imagine her layers of anxiety and paranoia, not just trying to tell this story that feels deeply personal to her, but to stake her career on it. Yeah.
AW: I think that all the other parts that were less familiar, or at least less deeply familiar around the music industry, what did that research take for you? Because you're really digging into the record deal structures and company, and creating…
DW: Oh, Rivington Records.
AW: Rivington Records.
DW: Yeah, yeah. The research for this was great fun actually. You can find so much online. Like going into The New York Times time machine and reading old reviews and how things were covered, so going back into Billboard charts from the 1970s and literally seeing what was on the top, what were the top 20 songs, and having fun with understanding where Opal and Nev would have fit on that chart, where they would have peaked.
AW: Their cohort was, yeah.
DW: Exactly. Watching lots of videos on YouTube from late-night chat shows and seeing how groundbreaking those interviews felt, and how unfiltered celebrities used to be back then, as opposed to today. I watched lots of [Dick] Cavett, John and Yoko on Cavett, things like that, watching performances. I think I've picked up a lot from just working at Entertainment Weekly and Essence, attending various functions. The novel ends with a huge music festival and understanding how festivals work and how media at festivals work. The fact that the photographers come in and only shoot the first three songs of a concert, all those little details were really taken from experience in the field working on Essence Festival or different things like that.
AW: Yeah. It allowed you to, since it goes through decades and you have at least two, I might be wrong, three crescendos, you were able to build tension in three different spots around the storytelling here, and that felt really seamless, and I know how hard that actually could be. Had you always planned that three-act structure?
DW: No. I worked very hard in revisions to get that, that structure and pacing right. Yeah. I always knew there would be the 1971 concert that puts Opal and Nev on the map, no spoilers, but I always knew I was driving toward that concert, but I didn't know. It took me a really long time to figure out what would happen after that.
AW: Okay. We talked about the various voices and layers on there, which makes it an engrossing read, but then it comes time for you to hand it over for an audio version, and I remember having these conversations with you way early on even about whether it required a multi-cast or not, and I'm really glad you guys did, "Lean into the multi-cast," because you have a phenomenal cast. Also, I know you and I know how… thoughtful, I'm going to go with thoughtful and deliberate you are.
DW: Those are very nice words. I know you mean other words, and you're absolutely right. I'm very controlling sometimes over these things.
AW: My lovely control freak friend, how was that for you to turn over your baby for their interpretation almost?
DW: Well, I have to give props to Simon Audio, because this cast, they came back to me with a list that I was like, I wrote my agent, "I'm screaming. I cannot believe this is happening," because for a while, we weren't sure what approach they were going to take, as you said. We didn't know if it would just be a couple voices doing various characters, or if it would be a full casting. They came back, like, boom, Bahni Turpin, Opal. Wow. The whole team has been very… They have solicited feedback in terms of how I hear these voices, and have come to me with questions. I've been so happy to be part of that process. Yeah. I am thrilled.
AW: I love that. I think I said, when you told me that André De Shields would be playing...
DW: How perfect for Virgil? Virgil Lafleur is Opal's best friend and stylist, and he is very funny and droll and just like he's André De Shields.
AW: Yes. When you said it, I was like, "Of course."
DW: Amazing, amazing.
AW: It's partly because my favorite line, as much as I love Opal, and Opal, like I said, lives rent-free in my head, my favorite line is one of Virgil's. Because for some reason, I just think it encapsulated everything for me around the characters, that "Many things can be true at once and we must find the inspiration in the materials we have." I was like, "Yep." There it goes, that's my takeaway.
DW: Yeah. Virgil, not only was he a fun character to write, but I think he's so integral to bridging the two timelines, because he's so challenging to Sunny and to the way that she's thinking of things. There were many moments where, like when I needed someone to do that work, it was Virgil just very naturally who was doing it, as someone who has loved her for so long and been that best friend who can also call you out when you need it.
DW: But also be incredibly protective of her and understanding the vulnerability beneath her façade. So Virgil is a really special character for me.
AW: I like that you made him just as layered and complicated as Opal and Sunny. He's not just the diligent bestie ready to show up whenever you want, and he's challenging in a way that is fully dimensional. Because often, you can have that stereotypical gay best friend, he gets to have a life that is his, that he's decided he gets to have. It's not given to him, they have a loving relationship, he and Opal, but it's complicated.
DW: It's complicated, and he's very clear with her that he has his own life and his own dreams to follow. That was really an important point for me to make with him, to give him that dimension and that kind of life.
AW: So that was my main takeaway. If pressed for what you hope the takeaway for your audience would be, what would that be, if you had to choose one?
DW: Wow. I think one thing that I hope that people take away from the book is an understanding that having community is important, having true friendship is important. There are all these big themes, I guess, in the book that it does touch on race and gender and the disparities in the music industry, and how one character can skyrocket while the other's idling in place through no real fault of her own. But I think I don't want people to lose the real love between certain characters and how meaningful they are to each other. As complicated as Sunny's relationship with Opal gets, she still really admires her, she still really looks up to her as a trailblazing figure.
So a lot of that love between a Black woman and an elder figure who inspires her in offbeat ways is a big thing that I would like people to take away. Again, I think the relationship between Opal and Virgil is one of my favorite, favorite things. Also, the relationship between Opal and her sister Pearl, which is also complicated, but at the end of the day, no matter how much they bicker and say sniping things to each other, there's a lot of love there. In her darker moments, Opal can call Pearl and be like, "What should I do?" She might totally dismiss the advice, but she still calls. They show up for each other. So I think that's a really good question. I hope that people feel that.
AW: That love, I like that. When you talked about Opal saying the things we only wish we could say, I remember thinking, "I always feel like I have to be more like her sister, but I want to be more like Opal."
DW: It's funny you say that, because a few people have said to me, "I'm a Pearl. I really identified with Pearl." They are very opposite figures in a way that was fun to think about.
AW: I love it. So I can't let the author of a book that plays out so cinematically in anyone's head not answer the question of what might be next for the Final Revival of Opal & Nev?
DW: I don't have any headlines to report as yet. We'll see. We'll see. As one of my BFFs, you would be one of the first to know via text.
AW: I've got to tee it up for the people. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev plays out quite cinematically, like I said, when we've talked about the characters and who would play, I'm like, "Yep, that's him. Yep, that's her." Because they are so unique and distinct and relatable at the same time, and people are going to love them. So, Dawnie Walton, thank you so much for joining us.
DW: Thank you so much, Abby.