Article published on April 19, 2015.
Fourteen-year-old Audrey Martin, with her Poindexter glasses and her head humming the 3/4 meter of gospel music, knows she’ll never get out of Kentucky—but when her fingers touch the piano keys, the whole church trembles. Her best friend, Caroline, daydreams about Hollywood stardom, but both girls feel destined to languish in a slow-moving stopover town in Montgomery County.
That is, until chance intervenes and a booking agent offers Audrey a ticket to join the booming jazz scene in Harlem—an offer she can’t resist, not even for Caroline. And in New York City the music never stops. Audrey flirts with love and takes the stage at the Apollo, with its fast-dancing crowds and blinding lights. But fortunes can turn fast in the city—young talent means tough competition, and for Audrey failure is always one step away. Meanwhile, Caroline sinks into the quiet anguish of a Black woman in a backwards country, where her ambitions and desires only slip further out of reach.
Jacinda Townsend’s remarkable first novel is a coming-of-age story made at once gripping and poignant by the wild energy of the Jazz Era and the stark realities of segregation. Marrying musical prose with lyric vernacular, Saint Monkey delivers a stirring portrait of American storytelling and marks the appearance of an auspicious new voice in literary fiction.
We asked Jacinda to tell us about where she writes…
The very first day of my graduate program in creative writing, we got the fabulous advice to write every day, preferably at the same time, and in the same place. The creative process, we were told, would be much facilitated by the cultivation of writing as a habit: siring characters and hearing dialogue would be much easier if we had taken variables of time and space out of the equation. As a graduate student, and then as a fellow in West Africa and the Midwestern United States, I took that advice to heart. I reserved my most beautiful room for writing. I hung paintings. Strung Christmas lights. Grew my collection of acid jazz. I wrote my first stories in these beautiful spaces, including the story that would become the title chapter of my debut novel, Saint Monkey. While writing Saint Monkey, I forsook the acid jazz for the bebop, swing and doowop that became the fifties backdrop to my novel. And then came my children. And I stopped writing at home. Now, I find myself writing in lots of places – in a café where one child is being tutored at another table, at the ice rink while a different child is having lessons, in my university office in the time between teaching and collecting both children from school. But perhaps my favorite place to work, when I finally get a huge block of writing time, is my apartment complex’s summer kitchen, which faces a swimming pool. There, I am able to find quiet – or at least the relatively controlled noise of music through headphones. And it was there, in this beautiful, light, airy space, where I enjoy both the bounty of people-watching in summer and the desolation of solitude in winter, that I found the plot for my latest novel, which is set partially in Morocco and partially here in Indiana. In watching the pool maintenance company finish its annual winterization, I gathered enough familiarity with the process that my characters’ pool became a significant part of the novel’s scenery. Once upon a time there was a writer whose home was her workplace. She was forced out. And discovered a world.
About the author
Jacinda Townsend studied at Harvard University and Duke University Law School before receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and teaches creative writing at Indiana University. Saint Monkey is her first novel.
Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend, published by W.W. Norton on 14th April, 2015 at £9.99
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