Every week, host Adam Sockel interviews a popular member of the literary world about their passions beyond what they're known for. These longform, relaxed conversations show listeners a new side of some of their favorite content creators as well as provide insight into the things that inspire their work.
Anissa Gray was raised in a world of music, specifically gospel music. It's inspired her latest novel, Life and other love songs. In this discussion, we get into how the music of her childhood home shaped her work and her life at large. We get into the music of her adult life and returning to gospel later in her life.
You are listening to Passions and Prologues, a literary podcast. For each week, I interview an author about a thing they love and how it inspires their work.
I'm your host, Adam Sockel, and today's episode is with bestselling author, Anissa Gray. She has a new book out titled Life and Other Love Songs. You may also, know her from her previous book, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.
It is a striking novel (they're both striking novels) and I really think you will be moved. It is at times harsh and haunting, but it is so complex and it weaves in these delicate conversations about family, and music, and fear, and pride and so much more.
And one of those things in particular music is what we discuss on today's episode.
Anissa grew up in a house that was teaming to the brim with gospel music, and it is really interesting to hear how that love of spiritual music inspired her life for a long time. And then her work and how she's brought it back into her latest story.
It is a beautiful conversation and a beautiful book. I think you're absolutely going to love it if you haven't checked it out already.
Before we get to that discussion though, I want to give you a book recommendation, and I'm doing a themed one today. About two, maybe three years ago at this point, a book came out called Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett.
Mikel is the lead singer of one of my favorite bands of all time, The Airborne Toxic Event. And they had an album that came out around that same time with the same name, Hollywood Park.
The novel is about his upbringing and his family's basically suffering with addiction and how that became a family affair. In the story itself, he spends basically the entire book talking about his upbringing from the time he was born all the way through just about adulthood.
His story is unique in the sense that he started his life as part of Synanon, which was originally a drug rehabilitation program and developed into a notoriously violent cult. He and his brother and his mom escape, and his dad gets out of prison, and there's just a lot of intricacies that occur in his life.
And the story itself is written sort of as magical realism meets non-fiction. It is so moving, it is so stunning. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook of Hollywood Park because Mikel plays a lot of the music from the album throughout the audiobook.
It's a beautiful and heartbreaking story, and I think it pairs really, really well with today's conversation with Anissa Gray about Life and Other Love Songs. So, I think you should definitely check both of those out.
If you ever want to get a hold of me, you can always find me at [email protected]. There, I take all of your emails about the things you are passionate about. Be happy to give you some book recommendations anytime you like.
And I give a random bookshop.org gift card to anyone who reaches out. I pick one random one every single month to anyone who sends me the things they're passionate about. And I'll send somebody that at the end of May here.
Also, one last thing, if you're looking for book recommendations, I did a bonus episode over the weekend with my buddy, Mallory O'Meara.
She has a brand new book out titled Girls Make Movies. It's a non-fiction, choose your own adventure story all about how movies get made. It's perfect for young girls, especially ages like 9 to 16. But really anybody can check it out.
I am so excited, my copies will be arriving in just a day or so.
But again, we did about a dozen book recommendations there, so feel free to check that out in your feed if you haven't already.
And then lastly, if you ever want to find me on social media, I am on TikTok and Instagram @passionsandprologues. Okay, a lot of housekeeping there, but I wanted to make sure you didn't miss the weekend episode because it is chock full of book recommendations.
And speaking of books you need to check out, I am so excited for you to listen to this conversation with Anissa Gray, author of Life and Other Love Songs on Passions and Prologues.
Okay, Anissa, what is something that you are super passionate about that we're going to be discussing today?
I'd say music. I love it.
Yeah. And for people who have read or will be reading by the time this comes out, Life and Other Love Songs, that will become imminently obvious as how it is kind of integral into the plot of the book itself.
But I guess let's start at the beginning. Like when you were growing up, what was the types of music and things that were being played in your house?
Growing up, I listened almost exclusively to gospel music. I was raised in — my father was a preacher, my mother was a homemaker. And I grew up in an evangelical family, so actually secular music was a sin.
So, I grew up just loving gospel music, but occasionally at a friend's house I would hear … this is probably the ‘70s. I might hear some of the Bee Gees or some other group. And that sort of perked something up in my ear and it gave me an interest in something beyond gospel music.
But gospel music is foundation for me. It's like almost in my DNA.
So, how would you say that growing up with, you said your father being a preacher and this music being all around you, before you started hearing, like you said, kind of secular music, do you think it had an effect on the way when you were a kid that you like would either think about the world or stories or anything like that?
Beyond just being ever present and omnipresent, do you think it had an effect on like the way that you interacted with your life?
At the time, I would say no. But now, fast forward decades later and some years of getting away from gospel music just because of personal life experience. I came out as gay, and gay was very incompatible with the church. So, I spent a lot of time where I was completely cut off from the church and music. I didn't want to listen to it at all.
Fast forward a few years and I lost my dad. And he loved music, gospel music. Through him, gospel music was the soul of our family.
And with that loss, I found myself making my way back to that music that was still foundational for me. And discovering like this new found love and this new appreciation for the texture of it.
And so, I listened to gospel music now, with the ear of an adult, but the heart of a child. It puts me in touch with my childhood in ways almost nothing else can because so much of my childhood was bound up in church. And there was a lot of beauty to it.
Some of my happiest years were spent in church, at church events, church functions with that music always playing in the background.
So, I had found myself making this journey back to this music that was so foundational for me that I had loved for some time. And it's been a beautiful experience and it's been recent.
Can you touch a little bit more on the texture of gospel music? That's such an interesting way of describing it. For my listeners, I would love to hear you sort of expound on that a little bit.
Yeah. So, when I became distant from the church I grew up in, I went in a completely different direction. I became an Episcopalian, and Episcopalians are very stay and quiet. There's the organ and that's about it. And the songs are quieter and it's a different vibe.
Gospel music is the organ, it's the piano, it's the drums, it's the quality of voice. It's also, so much of it comes from a place of hymn, but also, hope. And there's a whole narrative in there.
And this isn’t to take away from other hymns, but it's storytelling in a way that resonates with me. It's the history of a people all tied together through common board. And for me, that's what makes it extra creme.
Yeah, I love that. You mentioned kind of rediscovering this music after you lost your father. And you don’t have to go in super deep. I didn't intend to make this like a introspection, I promise, but like what was that experience like for you rediscovering that music?
I know what you mean about like reminding you of your youth because I do feel like, to a lesser extent for me, that the music of my parents, I still listen to it now. And I think as I'm getting older, I have an even bigger appreciation for the music that I was raised on. And it does bring back that like nostalgic feeling for me.
But for you, given that this music was like you said, so … it wasn’t just like for me, like it would be music on a long car ride. For you, it was so integral and so much of your life. So, what was sort of rediscovering that music like as an adult? How did that feel and how did you process that?
Well, I mean, for me, it's sometimes tears in my eyes. It’s sometimes deeply emotional because in a lot of ways, I feel connected with my family because for me growing up, church was not just church. Church was family time. It was when we were all there together, we were all singing the same songs. We were all on one accord, as they say.
And oftentimes just gets the rush of those memories and it's warm. And it's just the great way of being in touch with my father in the ways that I wasn't in touch with him in the later years of his life.
So, I guess the first question is, did you sort of rediscover this love of this music of your childhood when you were writing your first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls? Was this something that you rediscovered during that time? Or was it before … I guess, to just like to put it more simply, like how has this re-discovery of music affected the way that you tell stories?
I discovered it while writing Life and Other Love Songs. I rediscovered it because that was the period in which my father died. So, I was writing a book about disappearing fathers.
And what what's really interesting is when I set down … religious themes are quite prominent in Care and Feeding. I mean, it's like they live in my head. I can't help it, I’m a preacher’s kid.
So, when I sat down to write Life and Other Love Songs, felt like, “You know what, no church. Nothing church related. Nobody's going to church. Nobody's sighting the scripture.”
And so, that pushing away of it became a plot point in the book, why doesn't this guy go to church? And it became central to his story. And then there are a couple of scriptures that flowed out of it. So, it found its way anyway.
And so, I'm writing this, I lose my dad, I'm thinking about music. And it was during this process, this grieving process, this writing process, this excavation of a family's history process, that I really started to listen again to gospel music.
And I love the idea. So many authors I've talked to over the years have said like anytime … I used to ask a question like, “Well, do you see yourself in these characters that you've written?” And every single one would be like, “Yeah, of course I do. I'm the one who wrote them.” I've stopped asking that type of question.
But I love the idea that you were so specifically being like, “There's no church in this, we're not going to write about it.” And it's like so ingrained in you that it's like actually the no church part is a plot point now. It's in heaven.
“Yeah. I can't get it away from me.” I know every novel and every project for a writer is different, but how did the writing of the two novels feel differently to you from a process standpoint?
Look, Care and Feeding, I did not generally know what I was doing. I was a very new novelist. And I'd written a novel before that was not the greatest. And so, I set out to write that novel.
It was much more closely tied to my pursing story. There's a character in there who’s in recovery from an eating disorder. So, in a lot of ways, I had full control, I felt, of the narrative and of the details of some of these stories having lived some of those moments myself.
So, in some ways, it was easy. From that perspective, it was more difficult because I was still in the process of learning the craft. And so, I wrote in a very inefficient way, but I got it done. So, that was that process.
With this novel, I think I felt a little bit of pressure going into the second book after the success of Care and Feeding. And so, I had some of that weighing on me. I had a better sense about how to write a novel that was helpful, but there were a lot of outside forces.
There was the pandemic, there was the loss of my father, and there was this sort of emotional turmoil that came from that. So, all of that led into writing this novel. Had those things not happened, I don't know what the experience would've been like.
I can only say that for this novel, it was a very difficult novel for me to write. And I was blessed to have the enduring support and cheerleading from both my editor and my agent to sort of see me through.
Actually, I want to ask a little bit about process for that from a standpoint of, like you said, when you wrote your first novel …
I have a manuscript that I'm currently queering, so I know what you would mean about like not really feeling like you know what you're doing. For people who have never tried this process, like when you're writing that first novel without an agent or an editor, it's like a Jackson Pollock idea. You're just throwing stuff at and you're like, “I hope this turns into something beautiful.”
So, with having an agent and an editor, and like you said, obviously the added pressure of like people know who you are and like the first book deservedly so got so much praise and adoration.
Like the process when you're writing that first novel, it's just you and a computer, you and a notebook, if that's how you choose to write, how involved were your editor and your agent, like throughout the process of maybe initially drafting the second novel?
Was it a lot of back and forth with them, or did you kind of hand them a full manuscript first and you were like, “Alright, what do you guys think of this?”
There was a lot of back and forth and discussing the idea. And in fact, I'm glad you brought up sort of writing on your own, that first novel. There's a sense of freedom in that and it's beautiful. You can just make your mistakes, clean them up, and just really learn the process all on your own with nothing else there.
With this novel, the process was different. I had wonderful feedback from my editor. By that time, we had built the relationship, which is crucial because it's really intimate work. You have someone who's saying maybe do it like … there's trust there, we had built trust. Same with my agent. So, that was helpful.
But the process was different because there were ongoing conversations throughout the writing. So, for instance, I had written a full draft of this book in a linear way. This happens, this happens, this happens, this happens.
And my editor read it and was like, “Oh no, maybe there's some restructuring to be done.” And I was incredibly resistant.
But because of that trust between us, because I know she cares about this work as much as I do, cares about me as a person, I was like, “Okay, I'm going to try it.”
And she was 100% right. She was 100% right. The book would not be what it is without that one suggestion challenging me to do something that I'd never done before.
Given that gospel music is, like you said, such an integral part of your life and something you're so passionate about, and the music plays such a heavy aspect in this book, which we'll get into in just a minute.
I'm curious, did you find yourself listening to gospel music while you were writing, or before you were writing to kind of get in that mindset? Or was it sort of like wholly separated?
I listened to all kinds of music during the writing. So, the book takes place from the early 1960s to the ‘90s. So, I was actually listening to a ton of Motown music, classic rock, The Who, The Pretenders. It ran in the full gamut as well as gospel music.
That's awesome. You are so in like … I'm 37, so this might sound weird to say, like you're in my like zone. But I mentioned like that is the music of like my parents, like my father grew up listening to Motown. So, like he passed the Motown genes onto me, but also, that like classic rock.
So, as soon as you said that and like having read the book, I'm like, “Yeah, I can definitely get those vibes.” That makes me so happy. I love that so much.
And I have to imagine for people, like I said, who might not have like tried the process of writing a story, it really is incredible to me because I did the same thing when I was writing my manuscript. Like how the music you're listening to can really set the tone for how you are writing various scenes. Like I am blown away how accurate that is.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's essentially a soundtrack. And my publishers put together an actual soundtrack for the book, which I thought was the coolest.
And so, you can see, not all, some of the songs that were really important playing throughout the scenes of the book. I mean, I gave thought to every single song that shows up in the book, every song is there for a reason.
I love that so much. So, we've been kind of dancing around the new novel, but for my listeners we're recording this the week before the novel comes out. This episode will come out right around when the book does.
But for my listeners, can you give them a bit of an introduction to Life and Other Love Songs from like a plot standpoint, and characters, and all that good stuff?
Yeah. So, Life and Other Love Songs is a story about what happens to a family after a husband and father goes missing. The husband and father, Oz, is by most accounts, a pretty normal guy. He goes missing on his 37th birthday, fails to show up for the birthday party his family has for him at home.
He leaves behind a wife, Deborah, who is an aspiring singer. She's dealing with the frustrations of not having made it and become a star. And she's living as a suburban housewife, which is so far outside of what she had planned for herself that it's sad.
He also, leaves behind his teenage daughter, Trinity, who he adored. So, as you can imagine, with the disappearance of this magnitude, it completely upends the family.
And as Deborah and Trinity go across time and they learn more about Oz, and they come to see what happened to him and why, it is even that much more destabilizing.
I'm going to ask what might be an obvious question, but now, hearing you talk about your first book and obviously your experiences leading up to writing this book, is writing these stories that are at least fairly closely personal to you.
Like does it feel cathartic for you? Or is it hard in the moment to kind of write these stories that are, if not directly related to your life, very like close to the things that help make up your background? Like does it feel good writing these things or is it challenging for you?
The first book felt good because it was more closely tied to my life. And I get, even at the time I started writing the book more clearly point to the fact that I know this, this is a part of my life, this reflective of a part of my life, and this is catharsis.
This book was less though, because it's less overtly tied to some of the specifics of my life. There are certainly key elements.
So, for instance, the family, they make their way up the economic ladder to the middle class. They end up moving to an all-white neighborhood. Their daughter, Trinity, grows up there, the only black kid. I identify closely with that. That's in many ways, my story. So, I identify with what Trinity went through.
But on a broader scale, this is a different story from my life. So, what was wonderful for me was to also, have a wonderful time creating these stories of these characters who are so different from me, who have had experiences nowhere near what I've had, but to have enough empathy to create them and bring them to the page.
To a lesser extent, I feel like I know what you mean. I started to write a manuscript a long time ago that was like very closely related to my life, and then I sort of abandoned it.
And when I wrote the one that I'm querying, it's very much like yes, there's attributes of me in some of these characters, but it is so differently.
And like it is honestly easier sometimes to write those stories that are further away from your life because you don't feel like that niggling in the back of your mind where you're like, “Oh, someone's going to read this and they're going to know it's them.” Or like these little like …
Also, it's very like having that excitement of being like, “I'm creating this world, or I'm creating this thing wholly out of nothing.” It does. So, it feels like a magic trick sometimes. I think I know what you mean.
Yeah, it's wonderful. I think that for me, is a lot of people will ask me what I enjoy about writing. There are a number of things, but I think the biggest thing is when you see a scene … I don't write to outline. I sort of write intuitively and kind of let the character lead.
Now, when you see a scene or a moment that you didn't plan for, that utterly surprises you, starting to materialize on the page. Certainly you're writing it, but it's not what you have in mind and it's almost a miraculous thing. And that is so special.
There is nothing more exciting than writing a scene and going back and reading it and being like, “Did I write … are those my words?”
“Did somebody sneak in here while I was taking a nap over there on my nap couch?”
Yeah. Well, this feels like you're getting away with something. I know. Yeah, oh, I love that so much.
I will say one of the reasons I'm drawn to your work, and especially the second book, is I have a very close knit and large family and like so I do love stories about family. Even the ones that are … like anytime a book is described as like a family saga by someone in like a blurb, I'm like, “Okay, I know I'm going to read that.”
For you, when you're reading stories, do you find yourself drawn towards stories like this? Or do you like to kind of get out of your own world entirely and read things that are completely disconnected from your own work?
Yeah. I mean, I love family stories of all types. I mean, Star Wars is a family story. It is a dad, it is a son, it is a daughter. It is through playing out across galaxies and worlds with lightsabers, but at its heart, it's a family story. So, I love family stories in all of their complexity.
So, I have one more question for you. I always ask every author who comes on to provide a recommendation of any kind. It can be a book, it does not have to be. I know people ask authors for book recommendations all the time. I've had people give recommendations for a protein powder, or going for a walk, or to watch a specific TV show.
So, what's just one thing that you think more people should know about that you really enjoy? I know that's a very broad question.
Yeah, that's super broad, kind of. I should think of a TV show that I did really like loved recently. Oh, I really enjoyed watching Tetris. I mean, the movie on Apple. I don't know if anybody has seen it. I had no idea about that story. I love learning something new that just kind of blows my mind.
So, I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but I was listening to a podcast yesterday and they were talking about it and they said the same thing. They're like, “It is shockingly great, and like the story behind Tetris is pretty mind blowing. That's the …
I was like, “How is this story of this gang so complex and so riveting?” I would recommend Tetris. It just, never would've guessed.
I love that so much. And I will say, for everyone listening in, you'll have heard me talk about it in the intro, but Life and Other Love Stories is the type of book that's going to like tear you apart and put you back together. I loved every single page of this.
Anissa, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you so, so much for having me. It's been fun, for sure.
Passions and Prologues is proud to be an Evergreen Podcast and was created by Adam Sockel. It was produced by Adam Sockel and Sean Rule-Hoffman.
And if you are interested in this podcast and any other Evergreen Podcast, you can go to evergreenpodcasts.com to discover all the different stories we have to tell.