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Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
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Songs in Ursa Major

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Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Jun 22, 2021 | ISBN 9780593318638

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  • Jun 22, 2021 | ISBN 9780593318638

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A New York Times New and Noteworthy Book • A Wall Street Journal Best Book to Read This Summer A Bustle Must-Read Book

“Inspired by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor’s romance and creative collaboration, this alluring debut has an Almost Famous vibe as it explores the gritty—and sometimes chauvinistic—side of the music industry.”
People, Book of the Week
“In the vein of Daisy Jones and the Six and The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, Songs In Ursa Major is an intoxicating chronicle of the music industry, inspired largely by the love affair between artists Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.” 

“A delightfully engaging novel about music and chasing after your dreams… Brodie plays all the right chords in her debut… we could all use a bit of carefree fun as temperatures warm up this year. So whether you’re not quite ready to rip off your mask and go sway in the middle of a festival crowd, or you just need a break from all your post-vaccination celebrations, Songs in Ursa Major is a great opening act to the summer.”
—Cory Oldweiler, The Boston Globe

“Brodie works with big themes — individuation, mental illness, legacy, self-destruction and redemption — but her touch is lighter than an onshore breeze. Little surprise that Village Roadshow has scooped the novel up for development as a movie… You can tell when a novelist truly loves her heroes and despises her villains… Ursa Major is plotted so tightly, its characters so vividly rendered, that you barely notice the author’s thumb on the scale.”
Chris Vognar, Los Angeles Times

“Emma Brodie’s debut lilts easily between the power chords of a rock anthem and the soulful nostalgia of a blues ballad, evoking the seventies rock scene through two compelling protagonists: Jesse Reid, charismatic rock star on the rise, and Jane Quinn, electrically gifted songstress struggling to get her foot on the ladder of the music world. Their passion for each other, for performing, and above all for their music makes for splashy, engrossing reading. Songs in Ursa Major is pure sun-soaked summer fun.”
—Kate Quinn, bestselling author of The Alice Network

“Buzzy… If you’re missing live music, look no further than Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie.”
—Real Simple

“Brodie captures the early-’70s singer/songwriter scene in intricate detail, chronicling the ups and downs of the lives of working musicians—the grind of touring, the strain of recording, the joy of performing. But it’s also a novel about the inner life of a talented, unique woman determined to maintain her identity, even if it means sacrificing her chance at stardom.”
Nanette Donohue, The News-Gazette

“Entrancing… This superbly crafted debut novel immerses readers in a story of family, love, and music from the first page. Brodie makes a point about the destructive force of drug abuse, and bears witness to unsavory business practices in the music industry. This book would make a wonderful movie; readers will long for an album of Jane’s songs to go with it.”
Library Journal, starred

“Inspired by the folk rock scene of the late 1960s and ’70s, Brodie’s debut novel follows Jane Quinn, an ethereal and talented musician, as she navigates love, loss, and stardom… Brodie thoughtfully probes the different ways men and women were treated in the music industry: the men coddled and protected in the face of their faults while the women (especially rule breakers like Jane) were taken advantage of, undercut, and vilified… Brodie’s writing—about music, family, and grief—elevates the novel. An enjoyable debut that will appeal to fans of this iconic era.”

“Moving from New York to Los Angeles to Greece to the Grammys… Brodie’s debut is a furious page turner, meditating on the glittering beast of fame.”

“In this spirited and fearless debut, Emma Brodie gets right to the heart of the matter: what—and who—will we sacrifice for art? Who has power over the stories we tell? What secrets will we keep for the people who love us? Like a perfect summer song, Songs in Ursa Major breathes new life into a familiar tune and will work its way into your heart and not let go.”
 —Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times bestselling author of The Nest and Good Company

“Emma Brodie is a gifted storyteller, taking us from exhilaration to heartbreak and back again, all the while tackling issues of sexism in the music industry, the stigma of mental illness, and the way artistry can cost us fame and vice versa. I loved this book.”
—Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek

Songs in Ursa Major reads like sexy, confessional liner notes to the age of the singer-songwriter. Emma Brodie sieves through history to give us a behind-the-scenes, behind-closed-doors view of an aspiring singer’s tumultuous rise to fame. But if Jane Quinn and Jesse Reid will be familiar to fans of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, they are also intimate and sparklingly original. A drenching, delicious and impressive debut.”
—Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife and When the Stars Go Dark

“I’ve never read a book that so uniquely captures the experience of creativity and the shimmering coolness of being in a recording studio as music history is made.  Emma Brodie perfectly channels the languorous romance of the time and the beautiful struggle of an artistic soul trying to break free.  So many of the passages throughout Songs in Ursa Major are such pure poetry, I got chills as I read them.  I could drink a case of this book, and I’d still be on my feet.”
—Kevin Kwan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians

Songs in Ursa Major takes us on a propulsive journey: the rocky rise to stardom of a young singer songwriter who is as talented as she is beautiful, as vulnerable as she is ambitious, and as complicated as she is charismatic. Sexy, atmospheric, and entertaining — this novel is pure joy on the page.”
—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Emma Brodie, author of SONGS IN URSA MAJOR:

How did SONGS IN URSA MAJOR start, for you?
I was reading Carly Simon’s autobiography, and at one point, she mentions meeting James Taylor backstage at a concert with Joni Mitchell…his then girlfriend. This totally blew my mind—I could not believe that James and Joni had dated. Both of them have always been a part of my pantheon—how could I not know this? The reason is because there is very little left over from their one-year relationship that hasn’t been eclipsed by JT’s subsequent decade-long super-marriage to Carly: a handful of photographs from the Newport Folk Fest, Laurel Canyon, and A&M Records; an audio track from a live concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1970; and the two seminal 1971 albums they collaborated on and largely inspired for each other: Blue and Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon. The more I listened to these albums, the more I began to ask “what if…”, until I found myself in the middle of a completely made up story of my own.
One inspiration was Joni Mitchell’s iconic album “Blue”, as well as her relationship early in her career with James Taylor. How did these impact the book?
One of the big themes of Ursa Major is secrets hidden in plain sight, a theme I took directly from Blue. When it was first released in 1971, Timothy Crouse wrote that Blue’s fourth track “Little Green” “was dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding.” However, if you listen to “Little Green” knowing that it’s about Joni giving up her daughter for adoption (this was revealed in the late 80s), it couldn’t be more explicit. The song “Blue” was written about JT’s heroin addiction during their relationship; this is also something that JT talks about openly, and yet most people don’t connect him with substance abuse. These all came to bear on Ursa Major—in terms of Jesse’s struggles with addiction, and Jane’s struggle with her mother, and the manner in which these struggles are revealed. I also took a lot of scene-by-scene inspiration from Blue. Roger is inspired by “Carey,” and the Christmas scene is inspired by “River.”
You interlace lyrics from Jane Quinn’s songs throughout the books – lyrics you penned for her, of course. What was writing those like for you?
I loved writing the lyrics for this book. When I wrote the first draft, I just used placeholder text around Jane’s repertoire—I’d literally say “lyric x” or “SONG Y.” Between my first and second draft, I rested the manuscript for 8 weeks; but before I put the book away, I went back and made an inventory of all the songs I’d need for each performer. Whenever I’d get the urge to go look at the manuscript, I’d take a crack at one of the songs instead. By this point, I knew what each one would need to accomplish for the story’s sake and had a vague idea of real songs they should mirror. I wrote a lot of the lyrics at 5 am, in the blue early morning—the Breakers’s song “Indigo” is actually about that. 
Jane struggles to stay true to her artistic vision while being swept up in Jesse’s fame. What made you want to investigate the tension between two artists’ careers—one trying to establish herself with someone more established, while navigating a romantic relationship?
I’m fascinated by the contrast between the legend of American stardom—talented kid pulls herself up by her bootstraps—vs. the machine of American stardom—nepotism and capitalism. Jesse is attracted to Jane’s raw talent; Jane is attracted to Jesse’s star power. But Jane learns fast that the standards are different for her and Jesse; Jesse is going to get a million chances as a moneyed male member of societies’ elite class. Jane comes from nowhere, and is disposable in the eyes of the label, who only value her in terms of what she means for Jesse. And a lot of the tension in the book and in their relationship comes from something women experience every day; men encouraging women to act in ways that will backfire for them because they’re not men.
You have collaborated with your brother, the musician Benjamin Brodie, to put music to the lyrics you wrote for Jane’s album and then recorded a few. What was it like to bring these songs to life?
It was so fun! While I was working on Ursa Major, Ben was just emerging from a multi-year period working on his EDM opera (!) Lazer Eyes (!), and was taking refuge in acoustic music. He was hungry for lyrics, and I was writing these songs that I knew were destined to become donors for my book—so he’d tell me what mood he was in, and I would send him whatever I had that fit best, and he’d send me a full song a few hours later. It was really thrilling to see that the lyrics “worked”—like sculpting a vase and seeing that it can actually hold water. He wrote about ten of the songs, all on guitar, except Ursa Major, which is on piano.
Bayleen Island is a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard – why did you want to set much of the novel there?
Because it’s my favorite place! I moved around a lot growing up, and the Vineyard was the one constant presence no matter where we landed. Not to mention, James Taylor and Carly Simon met there as kids and are still very much a part of Island lore (their club The Hot Tin Roof inspired Silo). The Vineyard has always been an integrated community and highly progressive—it’s a safe space. I wanted Jane to be from somewhere other—even though she’s American, she is literally coming to America for the first time when she comes to New York to record, and likewise is stepping out of the idealized, matriarchal bubble of her family and into the larger arena of patriarchal society for the first time. The island also represents Jane’s genuine talent—she’s born onto the Island just like she’s born with her abilities. And as much as others like Jesse and Morgan try to buy their way in, they can never have the same connection Jane has to the land and to her music.  
One of the more galvanizing scenes in the book is when Jane thwarts a very influential player in the industry in his attempt to sideline her and her vision; Jane emerges victorious and powerful in the moment, but it shadows her for much of her career. What did you want to show about her character, and about the challenges female artists often face (especially during the late ’60s/early ’70s)?
Anyone can be a hero for a day, especially when they don’t really understand what they’re up against; and newcomers with this attitude are quickly shown the door, which is exactly what happens to Jane. Real change (and heroism) comes from people who understand what they’re dealing with—whether it’s difficult personalities, a stacked deck, or infinitesimal odds—and find the guts to defy the dominant powers anyway, over and over again. Jane has guts; but part of what makes her a hero is that she engages in that longer arc and ultimately finds that same grit within herself, even after she’s made to understand the stakes. 
In the book you write that “record titles are notoriously tricky, but Jane was set on this one. Songs in Ursa Major.” What inspired the celestial title for both the book and the record?
I was actually trying to figure out the name of Jane’s band when I came up with the title; I was drawing random cards out of Kim Krans’s “Animal Spirit Guidebook” deck, seeing if that might jog any ideas, and I wound up drawing the bear card three times, despite copious shuffling. Then it suddenly hit me what an apt metaphor all of the myths around “Ursa Major” are for heroin addiction—a grumpy bear, a spoon. The two constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor also mirror each other the way a codependent reflects an addict or narcissist. I knew then that this was going to have to be my “Blue.” 
There have been a handful of novels published recently that delve into a female musician’s experience during this time period. Why do you think it’s of interest to writers and readers today?
It’s often easier to deal with current issues from a distance—whether this means setting a story in space or in the past. From 2017-2020, we had an appalling misogynist in the White House, overtly championing and employing antics so villainous one would have to literally go back in time to find an analogous situation. The late 1960s/early 1970s was an era of confusion and uncertainty, and the power of the female creators of that time literally insisting their voices be heard goes beyond the popularity of a song. These stories give us the means of honoring the truth of what women are still doing every day on an emotional level in an overt format; the time difference also makes it easier to examine. Tell the truth but tell it slant, Emily Dickenson once said.
You’ve been adapting a screenplay for SONGS IN URSA MAJOR – how has that been different from writing the book? Were there surprising challenges in that process?
Totally. Screenwriting is like an inversion of novel writing; you are showing everything you once had to tell, and telling everything you once had to show. I had no idea how many micro scenes I use until I began trying to adapt the book; or how verbally conservative Jane is, despite being intensely feeling and expressive. Ultimately, what I learned—thanks to my amazingly patient and generous producers—is that novel writing and screenwriting are like creating portraits in different mediums. You can’t use the same techniques to create a sculpture as you would a painting; and the more you embrace their differences, the truer you will be to the spirit of the story.

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