Emma Brodie has worked in book publishing for a decade, most recently as an executive editor at Little Brown’s Voracious imprint. Her debut novel, Songs in Ursa Major, is a transporting love story of a gifted, young singer-songwriter who must find her own voice.
Here, she speaks with her editor, Jenny Jackson. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenny Jackson: So very briefly, I’ll introduce the book by saying that Songs in Ursa Major is a love story, and it’s about two musicians, Jane Quinn and Jesse Reid. They fall in love, and they go on tour together. It’s all set in 1969, and then in through the early ’70s. And I know from talking to you that you were inspired to write this based on the real-life romantic relationship between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Was there one spark for you? What made you say yes?
Emma Brodie: Basically, yeah. I think there was one moment. I love the song “You Can Close Your Eyes” by James Taylor, which is one of his workhorse songs. Any time he’s done a television appearance or an encore or a collaboration in the past fifty years, he’s sung this song… there’s this really famous recording of him and Carly Simon singing it together on their Martha’s Vineyard compound from the late ’70s. It’s like two years prior to their separation. I assumed he’d written it about her. And then I realized while reading Carly Simon’s autobiography, researching this book, that, in fact, he had written it several years prior, and it had been for Joni Mitchell.
That kind of blew my mind because it was a song that I’ve known and cherished my whole life. And I thought I knew what it was about, and then I didn’t. That surprise was so disorienting because I think some of our guidepost songs can be that way for us, and we have them fixated in our brain in a certain way. It’s sort of like finding out your parent had a life before you were born, you know? You have these fixed points in your mind, and then when one of them moves, it creates space for creativity, and that was definitely the moment.
Songs in Ursa Major
By Emma Brodie
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JJ: One of the really interesting things you write about in this book is the various struggles that Jane has with her record company and trying to be a true artist as a woman. How do you think it was for both Joni Mitchell and for your character, Jane? And how is that different from how it is now for pop stars?
EB: I think in a lot of ways, nothing’s changed. And I think in a lot of ways, everything has, because now, we have so much more access to stars in a way that we never did before, but they also have much more control of their own narratives.
Jesse, in my book, this is taking it away from the feminist question a little bit, but he is an addict, and there’s no way today that a star of that magnitude would be able to hide that because he’d be on social media, and he’d be under constant, updated, daily scrutiny. I think it was a much slower news cycle. A regular person wouldn’t have had to see their exes or hear from them if they didn’t want to because everything was done over the phone. There was no voicemail. Everything was done over physical letters. So the kinds of endorphin rushes and dopamine hits and withdrawals that we all go through now, looking after our loves on social media, that was something that only celebrities at that stage would have had to deal with. I think that’s something that now is quite regular, but at the time, it wasn’t.
And the same way that that has become more prevalent, but at the time unique, so was any kind of coverage in that way. I think for people like Joni Mitchell, having one piece that nailed her as this very promiscuous, for lack of a better word, woman was devastating the same way it is now for Taylor Swift to have constant barrage in that. I don’t know at all how either of these women feel, but my supposition is that as a celebrity, you’re constantly taking on more than what a regular person would have to deal with. And the version of that back then still would have stung the same way because no one would have gotten it. It would have been completely beyond what anyone else would have had to deal with.
JJ: When you decided to write this book and set it in 1969 and then the early ’70s, there’s a very obvious reason you did it. Was the reason you decided to set it in that time because of the music, or were you interested also in writing a historical novel?
EB: I did not set out to write a historical novel. I had started it out as a completely different plot. I knew about Jane’s family. I wanted to write about this matriarchal clan on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. That was the first piece.
Originally, it was going to be sort of a cross between like Dolores O’Riordan, and then maybe also with some Kate Bush aspects. I had a whole other thing in my head, but to research this, I started looking back at other women’s careers and reading these biographies. Then the more I researched the mother, the more I started to realize that she was the most interesting person in the story, and that it would be so much better if I just covered her real life as opposed to writing about it in retrospect. So it was sort of this executive decision to go back to where the action was. At that point, I had become attached to these folk songs, and it’s the music that I love, so I figured, OK, we’ll go with this time period that suits it.
And then there were these added benefits that came along with it… the way we publish books now is akin to how they produced music 50 years ago. It’s just a slower cycle. So I had a leg up in terms of being able to read into these corporate moves and the way the producers would have behaved because I kind of assumed it would be similar to book publishing, and I was able to use that as a springboard for that part of the research.
JJ: You have embarked on sort of a different kind of writing lately because Songs in Ursa Major is being made into a film, and you’ve been adapting the screenplay. What’s that been like?
EB: It is a fascinating process; I’ve got to tell you. Screenwriting is the exact opposite of novel writing. You are showing everything you once had to tell and telling everything you once had to show. And it really is a play. It’s just been fascinating.
I really wanted to keep the spirit of the book intact, and in order to do that, I found myself having to rethink entire sequences to make sure that the actual emotional result was the same as it had been in the book, because if you show the same number of scenes, or do the same number of microscenes, or have a character that doesn’t say much . . . it was a huge learning curve.
But it was really exciting. And it’s so exciting to imagine the possibility of real people stepping in and playing these parts. That’s motivation in and of itself, to learn and level up. So it was an amazing process.
“Wallflower” is an original song featured in the novel—watch the music video below! Written by author Emma Brodie and her sibling, Ben Brodie.