To some, Sarah Pinsker is a writer of science fiction stories. To others, she’s a singer / songwriter, most recently with the band The Stalking Horses. So it probably won’t surprise anyone that her first novel, A Song For A New Day (paperback, Kindle) is a musical dystopian sci-fi story. In the following email interview, Pinsker talks about how her life as a musician, and as a person, inspired this story, what she listened to while writing it, and what other music books she read in preparation to writing hers.
Photo Credit: Karen Osborne
To start, what is A Song For A New Day about?
It’s about music and human connection and making art in troubled times, I guess? Um, Luce Cannon is a musician who was just on the cusp of making it big when events transpired to turn everything she had known into a Before. In the new After, congregation laws have been enacted, supposedly for the protection of the people, and she has to find new ways to get her music out there. Rosemary Laws grew up entirely in the After, working for an online megacorporation that makes sure nobody ever has to leave the safety of their home. Then she gets a job that sends her out into the world — into Luce’s world, specifically.
Where did you get the idea for A Song For A New Day? Or, more specifically, what venue were you playing music in when you came up with it?
Ha! I’d like to say I was, but I honestly can’t remember. The easy answer is that the idea for A Song For A New Day came from a story called “Our Lady Of The Open Road” that I wrote a few years ago. The story is self-contained, but I found myself wanting to tell a different part of the character’s story.
Where did that story come from? There’s a shrine on I-95 called Our Lady Of The Highway, which a whole lot of people have written songs about, and I think that was the seed. And then I think part of it is drawn from my own fears, watching small venues close and seeing my friends struggle to find ways to make their living. We can find any song online, but artists get paid fractions of pennies.
And I guess I was thinking about how often future-set novels leave out art. That doesn’t seem particularly realistic to me: people have an amazing capacity to make art, even in the darkest times. We sing, we draw, we tell stories, we laugh at bad joes. Humans are amazing.
It sounds like A Song For A New Day is a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
To be honest, I hadn’t labeled it a dystopia. I was completely surprised when I saw that label put on it. But it is one, of course it is, I just hadn’t framed it that way in my mind. I guess it’s hard to see that you’re in one when you’re living one, and writing one from a close character perspective is kind of like living it? I tried to make it so there were good and bad things that came out of the new order, since these things are rarely black and white. A hopeful dystopia? Is that a thing?
There’s hopepunk, but I think that’s different. Anyway, did you ever think this story would work with an actor or a spoken word poet instead of a singer?
I never tried it with something else. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing what a story wants to be, over the years. Some really do want to be songs or monologues or short stories or novels. It could still change forms, but this was what I needed to do in order to tell it.
A Song For A New Day is your first novel, but you’ve written a ton of short stories. Did you set out to write a novel and this is what you came up with, or did you just start writing this story and realize at some point that it needed to be longer than a short story or novella?
As I said, I had a novelette called “Our Lady Of The Open Road” that came out a few years ago, which featured the same musician, Luce Cannon. That story takes place at a different time, and I think it stands alone, but when I started thinking about trying to write a novel, it occurred to me that I still had more to say about that character and that world. Some characters are easier to write than others, and she’s someone whose voice I can slip into very easily. I had no doubt when I started writing it that I had a novel-sized story to tell about these characters.
It also sounds like there’s some social relevance to A Song For A New Day. Was that the thought going in, or, again, did you just start out writing a story and the socially-conscious aspects naturally developed?
For me it’s really hard to write a near future story that isn’t socially relevant or socially conscious. What’s the point? The whole point of near future fiction is to take our world a step or two further. Then, as an author, you get to decide which things to draw attention to. You get to normalize things you think should be normalized, and decide which problems have gotten worse and which have been solved. Every decision you make about who is there on the page is a decision of presence or absence on a larger level too. So yes, I want my worlds to reflect my world, and I want them to answer some questions and exaggerate others.
I drafted this in 2015 and 2016, and positing that the government told people to stay home for their own safety. Given what’s going on right now, our collective trauma, I could totally see them doing that. Then the question becomes what we’re going to do about it.
And I tried to look at what would be made worse and what would be improved by what comes next. If schools went online, and the necessary tech was subsidized, it might help kids in underperforming schools, for example. If you also mean relating to queer characters, that’s just who they are. And we queer musicians tend to know each other and support each other, so it just feels realistic to fill my novel with people who’d want to hang out.
Are there any writers who were a big influence on A Song For A New Day but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, interesting. I’m not sure if I can say that there were authors that had influence on this and not on other works, since I tend to find that they all go into the soup. But I guess there were a lot of things I read specifically to get in the zone for this: memoirs by people like Kim Gordon [Girl In A Band] and Lisa Robinson [There Goes Gravity: A Life In Rock And Roll] and Carrie Brownstein [Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl].
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of them have a particularly big influence on A Song For A New Day?
Music, more than anything else. I don’t think I was consciously influenced by any movies or shows or games, but I’m sure that everything goes into the stew.
So what music did you listen to the most while writing A Song For A New Day?
I listen to almost no music at all when I’m actually physically writing. Too distracting — music takes too much of my brain. I do listen to music before I start drafting for the day, if that counts?
For this book, it was lots of rock and folk and punk women: X-Ray Spex, The Selecter, Alabama Shakes, Thalia Zedek, Bikini Kill, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, Indigo Girls, disappear fear, the Distillers…
So what kind of music does Luce play in A Song For A New Day and why did you think this was best for the story?
I’m not answering that one! Part of the fun for me is describing the music in ways that people fill in their own blanks on what the bands sound like.
Interesting. Now, while some dystopian sci-fi stories are self-contained, others are parts of larger sagas. What is A Song For A New Day?
It’s a stand-alone novel, but there are a handful of stories also set in that future, about side characters, and I wouldn’t be opposed to writing other stories about side characters. I’m a big fan of stand-alone novels. I brought these main characters to the point I wanted to bring them to. I kind of feel like it’s not fair to them to put them through more.
As we discussed earlier, you’ve written some short stories. Some of them were collected recently in a book called Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea. What genres do the stories in that collection belong to?
All the stories probably fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction, but there’s near and far future science fiction, contemporary and mythic fantasy, weird fiction, time travel, SF mysteries, superheroes…
Are there any stories in Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into The Sea that you think people who like A Song For A New Day would enjoy as well?
The obvious one would be “Our Lady Of The Open Road,” which concerns one of the novel’s characters, but if you like the novel for the music, there are other music stories in the book. “Wind Will Rove” is one of my favorites, about music on a generation ship.
Earlier I asked if A Song For A New Day had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting A Song For A New Day into a movie, show, or game?
I’ve heard people say stories make good movies and novels make good TV series. Though if it’s adapted I suppose I’ll have to show you all what the band sounds like…
If A Song For A New Day was to be made into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Luce and the other main characters?
I’m terrible at the casting game, but I look forward to seeing who other people suggest!
Finally, if someone enjoys A Song For A New Day, what music-adjacent sci-fi novel would you suggest they read next?
My favorite music-adjacent SF novel is Elizabeth Hand’s fantasy oral history, Wylding Hall, which is creepy but also really good with band dynamics. Other dystopian novels I’ve read with interest include [Emily St. John Mandel’s] Station Eleven, [Margaret Atwood’s] The Handmaid’s Tale, [Suzanne Collins’] Hunger Games, [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road…I tend to gravitate toward the ones like Station Eleven that temper the bleakness and recognize that people need art.