Today I am excited to introduce our Cynsations readers to Maureen Charles and Ashley Walker who recently collaborated on a nonfiction project for older readers. Their book Music Mavens from Chicago Review Press comes out this fall as part of their Women of Power series. Ashley and Maureen are enthusiastic and diligent writers for young people, I know because I am fortunate enough to be in a writing group with them. I can’t wait for you to learn about their process, especially their collaboration, which can be tricky waters for writers to navigate.
Your most upcoming nonfiction title for young adult readers, Music Mavens is about women in the music industry. Tell us about what drew you to your subject.
Ashley: Gladly! I’m a music lover and amateur musician, so I was thrilled to receive an invitation to write this book for the Chicago Review Press Women of Power (WOP) series. WOP profiles “15 diverse, modern women who are changing the world in their field while empowering others to follow their dreams.”
Before I started knocking on industry doors, I reached out to a collaborator—a fellow author with a music background that complemented mine. I proposed the idea to the talented writer Maureen Charles in December 2020, just after her virtual Birthday on Broadway party. And with music (Janis Joplin) still playing in our heads, she agreed to partner with me.
By combining our experience (and hustling to schedule interviews), we could represent many genres and industry roles, including composing and songwriting, performing and conducting, as well as audio engineering, producing, and even rock photography.
Maureen: When Ashley asked if I wanted to submit a book proposal with her for the WOP series, I was all in. We attended VCFA together and I greatly admire her both as a writer and a human being.
In addition, the subject matter gave me the opportunity to create something meaningful in the wake of my husband Jon’s untimely death in December 2016. Jon was an arranger, composer, and orchestrator for television and films, and I learned a lot about music during the 24 wonderful years we shared. Now, every word Ashley and I wrote together feels like a love letter to Jon – especially the chapters about film composer Nami Melumad and Broadway Sinfonietta Founder and orchestrator Macy Schmidt.
What is your favorite part about writing nonfiction?
Ashley: I was pleased to discover that many of the tools in my fiction-writing toolbox (plotting, pacing, etc.) are handy in biography writing. Throughout this project, I loved exploring a pivotal moment in an artist’s life, plotting a narrative around it, and revealing character through carefully chosen dialogue.
I wrote the chapter “Standing in Power” as a tribute to the late Joanne Shenandoah, drawing on my June 2021 interview with her in which she talked to me about a turning point in her career.
While gazing out an office window one day in 1990, Joanne spotted a massive oak tree being taken down. “It just uprooted me,” she said. Joanne had been supporting herself and a young daughter through work as a computer consultant in Washington, DC for over a decade, but in that moment, she realized that just as the tree had been torn from its place in the ground, she, too, had been uprooted from her homeland. Joanne had to return to the Oneida Iroquois Territory in upstate New York.
And she had to return to music.
Maureen: What Ashley said echoes my experience. And I especially enjoy the research. For me, the challenge of writing biography for young people is all about finding my subject’s desire line, uncovering questions I can’t wait to ask them, and connecting with the emotional heart of their journey.
We were fortunate to have contemporary subjects, each of whom agreed to be interviewed. There were surprises in every interview, even with Broadway musical star Janet Dacal (In the Heights), who was my friend prior to taking on this project. And I fell in love with all our subjects. Getting to know these extraordinary women has been a treat.
What’s the most challenging part?
Maureen: The biggest challenge was having a non-negotiable word count; it was also a gift because it kept the storytelling on track. True to form, I significantly over-wrote all my first drafts.
The most difficult was the chapter on Grammy winning violinist and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter, who has had such a long and fascinating career. I had tons of material, and that first draft came in at double my word count.
With Regina’s – and every other chapter – once Ashley and I were both happy with the storytelling, I would cut, cut, cut. Again and again, I asked myself: What is central to this story? What is interesting but unnecessary? And the biggie: How can I write leaner without losing emotional resonance?
Ashley: Yes, the word count! The artists featured in the book shared generously, offering personal highs/lows and professional dos/don’ts for aspiring musicians. Sometimes the interviews came with laughter, sometimes tears, but always deep authenticity. And there was always, always a long transcript to distill down to story essentials.
My first interviewee, Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, spoke with me for hours about traditional music—about preserving and propelling it into the twenty-first century. I wanted to share so many of the wise words in the 60-page transcript of our conversation, but I only had 12 pages to tell her story.
To select material for Vân-Ánh’s bio, I had to keep reminding myself about my reader. What do teens need to understand about traditional music? What will help them appreciate its vital role in contemporary conversations? And what will inspire them?
How did you choose which subjects to pursue for this project?
Maureen: Choosing subjects was akin to casting a reality TV show. We were tasked with writing about 15 extraordinary women from around the globe, not just the US, where we reside. We wanted to represent as many industry roles and music genres as possible and to represent a cross-section of age, culture, ability, race, and LGBTQIA+ identities.
It was like a puzzle. We came up with an initial list. Going forward, as we got yeses and noes from potential subjects, we explored other artists in that genre and discussed new ideas. We did a lot of internet research and asked friends for introductions. Jazz legend John Clayton introduced me to Regina Carter; my friend, Nicolle Hamilton, introduced me to brilliant singer-songwriter Kate Schutt; and Susan Helfter, a professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music, introduced me to two-time World Champion Beatboxer Kaila Mullady.
Ashley: Maureen and I wanted to cover a wide range of topics, and we needed a central aesthetic to tie the stories together. So, we looked for artists who had turned their passion into platforms and who used their positions to lift up others.
Through this lens, we saw many ways to do good while doing what you love, as rock photographer Katarina Benzova would say. Fantastic fact about Kat: While touring with bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Kat visits animal shelters to donate photography because dogs and cats with better online photos have a better chance of getting adopted.
There’s a lot of love in every Music Mavens chapter. Kaoly Asano uses taiko drumming as both an art and healing practice. Sylvia Massy supports aspiring music producers. Lia Mice designs accessible instruments. Valérie Sainte-Agathe conducts the San Francisco Girls Chorus. In an enormous and competitive industry like music, it felt important to celebrate generosity.
What advice would you give to writers looking to tackle nonfiction projects?
Ashley: My advice is to reach out to experts and subjects for biographies. This project taught me that people talk to people who listen.
As a novice interviewer, I challenged myself to ask easy questions before an interview (and to find answers to those questions in existing media) so that I could host a next-level discussion during my precious meeting time. Artists appreciated that, and I hope readers will too. Music Mavens contains a lot of exclusive material, including childhood stories and early music experiences.
Maureen: My advice: You’re going to be working on this book for months, maybe years, so pick a subject you are passionate about. Then, learn way, way more about your subject than you will write.
We listened to albums and podcasts; watched countless YouTube videos and films; read reviews, articles, and magazine interviews; and knew a ton before we ever spoke with our subjects. I even watched Latin Grammy winning audio engineer, producer, and songwriter Maria Elisa Ayerbe’s online audio engineering tutorial. While I understood very little of the technical content, I got to experience firsthand with what passion and attention to detail Maria Elisa teaches the subject she loves. She’s a master!
If you are new to writing biography, I highly recommend Donna Janell Bowman’s 6-week intensive on writing picture book biographies. Both Ashley and I took her course, and even though this book is YA, 90% of what we learned from Donna was applicable.
When researching nonfiction projects, what are the most important things for a writer to remember?
Maureen and Ashley: In nonfiction, it’s critical to think about how you’ll get your story straight. We put our heads together to make a short list of the ways we did that.
- Check facts and feelings. We were lucky that all our subjects agreed to an interview and to review their written story. The latter was our attempt to invite subjects to share in story ownership. To that end, we asked artists to comment on any place where the text was factually incorrect or made them uncomfortable or hadn’t entirely captured their emotional experience. In addition, they updated quotes and even corrected facts we’d collected elsewhere. (That’s right—they spotted details incorrectly printed in other media.)
- Get authenticity readers. We wrote stories about women with different backgrounds and lived experiences than our own, so having those readers was critical.
- Record interviews. We recorded audio on two devices (Zoom and a phone backup), which allowed us to focus on our subjects. We then used Otter.ai to generate an interview transcript.
Did you consult with subject matter experts? If so, at what point in the process did you contact them?
Maureen: Yes. We contacted experts on specific music genres, music history, and unusual instruments as we went along. In addition, once we had a whole manuscript, Susan Helfter read it for music-related errors or omissions.
A Holocaust expert from the Simon Wiesenthal Center helped me with a paragraph about Nami Melumad’s great grandfather who died in a concentration camp. And I consulted an astrophysicist from Cal Tech on the definition of a “nova” for the chapter on Grammy-winning producing and songwriting duo Nova Wav, who work in hip-hop, R&B, and pop music.
To fill in holes in our musical knowledge, we often turned to kidlit. Two of my favorite resources for writing Nova Wav’s chapter were picture books—Nikki Giovanni’s Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat, illustrated by Damian Ward (Sourcebooks, 2008) and The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop by Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison (Little Bee Books, 2019).
I also listened to several audiobook memoirs by musicians who do not appear in our book including Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, Yo-Yo Ma, Linda Ronstadt, and James Taylor. Their memoirs helped me to formulate interview questions for my subjects and opened my ears to the highs and lows of a life in music.
Ashley: To ensure that our subjects span the globe, I asked musician friends, including the director of the World Music Department at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, for suggestions of artists early in the project. And as I wrote, I queried experts, including my Berklee College of Music student/son, with questions big and small. How does a sampler work? Can you tune a taiko drum? Tell me more about the microgenre hyperpop…
Can you talk about the collaboration process with our readers? What are some of your takeaway lessons?
Ashley: Collaboration has so many benefits. Co-authors can enjoy twice the research resources, double the word polish, and a constant back-and-forth of exciting ideas.
But, of course, it isn’t without risk, so Mo and I took steps to protect our friendship and the project. The most important of these was our weekly Zoom check-in. We used that time to agree on content, divide up labor, and timetable tasks. Scheduling was tricky because of the number of calendars involved. And during weeks when internal deadlines slipped because one of us couldn’t get an interview, our co-author check-ins were vital for re-planning and restoring confidence.
Along with fabulous storytelling and industry insights, Mo brought humor, optimism, and patience to these meetings. My key takeaway: Work with someone you trust with your heart and your words.
Maureen: The collaboration process was a joy. We were advised to put a collaboration agreement in place up front, and that added to our ease with the process. We swapped our chapters multiple times and gave each other permission to go for it in our critiques. Neither of us wanted to be coddled. I personally went with about 97% of what Ashley suggested. She’s brilliant, and my work is so much stronger for her well-reasoned, insightful feedback. We also let each other know what we loved about the other’s work. Of course, that was easy for me, as there was so much to love about Ashley’s storytelling and her exquisitely crafted sentences.
We also stole liberally from each other. If Ashley hit on an approach I thought was gold, I replicated it, and vice versa.
My number one takeaway: Write with someone you love and respect.
Maureen Charles holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has worked as a writer, editor, and writing coach for 14+ years. She sings, plays guitar and ukulele, and was married for 24 years to Emmy-winning arranger, orchestrator, and composer of television and film music Jon Charles. You can find her at www.maureencharles.com.
Ashley Walker is an author, educator, and amateur musician. She holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence, and she recently graduated from the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she was a three-time award winner. For more information, visit Ashley’s website.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.