Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo (translated in Dutch as Bidden voor Bowie and in German as Lieber Gott und Otis Redding) is a rock‘n’roll fairytale, set on a rural Welsh farm that is also a recording studio. The narrator, Halo, tells the story of her life in a place where music and magic lurk in every corner; it is also the place where a young foundling boy grows up to become a rock star, as big as Dylan and as mysterious as Bowie.
Booktunes: First things first: your novel and main character were named after lyrics in T-Rex’s song ‘Get It On.’ This tells us how your story-world is anchored in music culture, how the character Halo is a product of it. What made you decide upon this name and not others?
Tiffany Murray: She was originally called ‘Anne’ because I was working with the model of Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: the girl who waits. This is what I love to do when I write; I embed certain favourite books in the text, and Diamond Star Halo is some sort of recasting of Persuasion, Wuthering Heights, and to a degree Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
Of course it’s ultimately, finally, its own thing. Anne became ‘Diamond Star Halo’ or ‘Halo’ for short, simply because it made sense. I think her mother, Dolly, would call her something kooky like that. Oh, and Halo ‘learnt to walk to ‘Get it On’.’
BT: There’s a lot of attention for the autobiographical aspects of Diamond Star Halo, because you were raised in an environment quite similar to that of the novel. How comfortable are you with this emphasis?
TM: I think there is an acceptance that once you publish a book, then publishers need ‘a hook’ – something to push out there. I’m a writer, and this is my second novel. But yes, I lived at Rockfield, the recording studios in Wales for a little of my childhood and Rockfarm is based on that place: geographically and sensually – the mud, the smell, the weather – but that is where ‘autobiography’ begins and ends.
I tend to grasp on to place first for my novels, this is what inspires me. In Happy Accidents, my first novel, I re-imagined my grandparents’ farmhouse. For Diamond Star Halo, I re-imagined Rockfield. I didn’t go back to either of these places. I kept it firmly in the realm of re-imagining/imagining.
BT: Your use of rock mythology also plays with reality and imagination. The family prayers for deceased music heroes, the horses Ziggy and Stardust, Nana Lew’s framed pictures of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, your creation of the band Tequila and its offspring Fred Connor: together they invoke a dream-world of stardom, worship, and sanctity. Would you say your novel pays homage to this imaginary aspect of music culture, or is it rather a rock ‘n roll fairytale in its own right?
TM: I think I wanted to layer these things into the text in order to make them everyday. Pictures of Johnny Cash and Elvis hang from Nana Lew’s walls just as in my mother-in-law’s house there are pictures of Saints. These icons are a fabric of our lives, so I wanted to ‘normalise’ them by, for example, naming horses after them.
Having said that, yes, there is this other-worldly aspect to them, because they are icons, larger-than-life, and therefore dreamlike. I suppose they are the stuff of dreams. I like the fact that Diamond Star Halo has been called a rock’n’ roll fairytale. After all, I am playing with a child’s imagination, how she sees the world. I am also playing with Welsh mythology, magic, and therefore the magical real does come to the page.
I used to work for the Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite in New York, and he opened up this spirit world up to me. I dipped my toe into Santeria (if you can dip your toe into such a religion!). I traveled around the Caribbean investigating Candomblé, Santeria, these spirit-religions. But there’s a lot of this in Wales, too, in the Welsh capel for sure. Nana Lew shows us this, she splashes rum on the floor for her dead brothers. She’s the one who has séances and deals in magic.
BT: There is quite a contrast between the setting of your novel (rural Wales) and the American mythology of country rock. The band Tequila and Jenny Connor bring this other world into Halo’s own - how important is it to you?
TM: I love the contrast of the reality of mud and the hard everyday life of the farm, with what Tequila bring. It’s nice to see their presence as an invading ‘other mythology’. It allows Jenny Connor (the singer) to simply tell stories of this other place, to sing songs about prairies and horses, too. Of course that world and this rural Welsh world are so similar. It’s just a different way of seeing it. Nana Lew is a storyteller, and Jenny is a storyteller, so really they do the same thing.
BT: Horses often play a symbolic role, for example in the story of Dolly’s horse Crazy Love who will not stay buried. The also link the Welsh farm to Americana folklore and its many horse-themed songs, right?
TM: On one hand the horse a feral, crazy spirit. I think of Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ and to me it’s the essence of punk rock. But then, on the other hand, I think of wild America, Native American culture, and those songs that are more lyrical, laconic stories. Therefore the figure of the horse is old and new.
Also, there are the actual horses, the real beasts. I grew up with them, and at the ‘real’ Rockfield the horses were stabled in the yard where the studio stood. They had to cope with all that electric guitar, too!
BT: Your star Fred Connor in fact has a myspace page - another traversal of fiction/reality boundaries. Would you tell us the story of how this came about?
TM: I wrote the songs in the novel, but my father, Fritz Fryer, wrote the music, and he recorded it. He was a musician in the 1960’s (a band called The Four Pennies), and a producer in the 70’s.
Fritz died just before the novel’s launch and I couldn’t quite cope with hearing his voice, so I asked a friend to record a few of the songs. These are his interpretations of the songs, they aren’t definitive, and they are the ones on myspace. What it’s now become is a drop-in, where readers of the book are welcome to post their versions of the songs. I’m encouraging you all!
One day I’ll put Fritz’s tracks up there, but not quite yet.
BT: Halo’s brother Vince brings yet another music subculture to the table: that of gay icons (Edith Piaf, Dusty Springfield) and gender play (Bowie, Boy George). Was it a deliberate choice to include this side of music culture?
TM: It just came naturally from the character, Vince. It also came from me. This was my era; the early 80s and Bowie and George. Gender blurring was so much fun back then. I was weaned on Bowie, so yes this is hugely important. I’ve always wanted an older brother like Vince. Therefore, I made one up!
BT: Diamond Star Halo is clearly marketed as a music novel: the Dutch edition boasts recommendations from musicians rather than literary critics. Do people who aren’t particularly interested in music respond to your novel much?
TM: Yes, I do get a big response from readers who aren’t particularly interested in music, perhaps because although the novel is set on a recording studio, that doesn’t necessarily make it a ‘music novel’. It’s really a family saga in the vein of John Irving, Alice Hoffman. It’s also a coming-of-age story. Yet the fact that musicians have responded to it so well is amazing. It’s such a compliment. It means that in some respects I have got it right. I see the book as a love letter to the music that made me.
BT: One of those recommendations is by Dutch musician Spinvis, who compares your novel to a well-written song that has all the right ingredients. You yourself have mentioned elsewhere that David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ and Gram Parsons’ ‘She’ are some of the best short stories you’ve ever heard. Do you think there is such a thing as distinctly ‘musical’ writing?
TM: What a fantastic recommendation that is. Thank you Spinvis!
For me, prose has to sound right. I remember Primary School and being played Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ again, and again. I think that sound got through. I read my drafts out loud for the rhythm, the sound. So the obvious answer is musicality in prose is simply getting the sound, the rhythm right, as any poet or songwriter would.
Diamond Star Halo does pay particular attention to this though. It is intentionally lush. Happy Accidents isn’t like this because the narrator is a different person. I wanted Halo’s voice to be ‘musical’, layered, and as the Welsh say, ‘lush’.
But obviously, musicality can express itself in far more complex ways in prose; see for instance Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
BT: Could you name other authors who deal with musical influences in a way that you feel close to, or admire?
TM: I love the work of the American author Sherman Alexie, and I remember reading Reservation Blues when I first moved to Brooklyn. It’s the story of Coyote Springs, a band from the Spokane Indian Reservation. It starts with Robert Johnson turning up on the Rez looking for a character called Big Mom. What’s not to love?
BT: Are there any songs or artists that you now regret not having incorporated in Diamond Star Halo?
TM: There isn’t regret, because I had to stick to certain time frames, but while I was writing the novel I listened to Band of Horses and The Raconteurs a hell of a lot. Jack White certainly lives in Fred, along with Heathcliff [BT: of Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights], and Band of Horses certainly live in Tequila. In fact it made the editing process rather enjoyable.
BT: You have been sweet enough to compile a playlist extraordinaire of the music that accompanied your writing, but didn’t necessarily end up in the novel: Booktunes 12 Writer's Notes by Tiffany Murray. Thank you for this special treat, and for explaining so much about your work!