When a music lover reads a book about music, they want to be able to feel the bass in their bones, hear the trumpet wail in all its tinny glory and absorb the hot vibes pulsing off sax, all to a sassy and brassy vocalist. Add in time-tripping and you have an idea of the wild, note-bending ride of “Athena’s Piano” by Allen Johnson. Not only does the author know how to spin a yarn that spans eras, he can set the atmosphere with an eagle eye for detail and killer descriptions that instantly paint a visceral setting. This is the story of attraction and exploitation, business and pleasure, and most of all, a love letter to jazz. Athena, Tony and Zalo shoot off the pages with searing dialogue and authenticity. Most highly recommended.
What inspired this book?
My first two novels—The Awakening and Spike, Benny, and Boone—were for the most part literary novels. When I started thinking about a third novel, I decided to try my hand at writing a bestseller. I’ve always been intrigued with three popular novel genres: romance, thriller, and magical realism. So that’s what I went for and had a ball doing it.
How long did it take to write?
It took me six months to write the first draft. I would work two to four hours every morning, first thing right after my daily exercises of, alternately, cycling and weightlifting. I have to admit, during those days my mind was constantly spinning on the plotline. Sometimes after lunch, I’d rush back to my computer and enter a new idea before it escaped me. I was consumed.
The editing took a couple of years. It’s said you should write hot and edit cool. That’s so true. The editing takes time to find the right word, delete the irrelevant, and make certain the paragraphs roll trippingly off the tongue.
Why did you incorporate the idea of time travel?
I’ve always enjoyed the fish-out-of-water stories. How would a modern-day physician deal with a world without penicillin or X-rays? How would a 20th-century woman respond to 21st-century language and fashions? I delight in watching the characters struggle and ultimately adapt to the differences.
Did you listen to music while you were writing?
No, I never listen to music when writing. That would be impossible for me. As a musician, I’m attuned to musical language. Consequently, I would not be able to pen a single sentence. Instead, I’d be saying, “Ah, that was a nice arpeggio,” or “What a perfect transition to a new key.” No, I’m a single-task guy.
How did you balance giving the flavor of the era of the 1920s without over-writing the jargon of the day?
I heavily researched language during the 1920s. And in many cases, I pulled from that knowledge. For example, on the first page, the club owner described Athena as “a looker.” An editor preferred the word “hot.” But “hot” was not used in the 1920s. So, I persuaded the editor to stick with the common 1920’s term “looker.”
I did use some 1920s jargon to give my novel the flavor of the time but was careful not to overdo it. I did not want the book to sound like a comic-book version of the era.
How did the issues of race today inform or affect your story?
The black women I know, especially black matriarchs, are powerful and independent. They don’t need or want a white knight to ride over the hills to rescue them. I wanted to make sure my black heroine was strong enough to make it on her own while still enjoying the luxury and synergy of a racially-mixed relationship.
Is this a cautionary tale (in part) about not romanticizing the past— even when it’s accompanied to the music of the greats like Gershwin and Porter?
I did not think of Athena’s Piano as a cautionary story. If anything, I do romanticize the past, including the melodic compositions from the catalog of American jazz standards. I love the music of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, which, for my money, is ideal for romancing. If there is any caution, it is this: We are not so different. We love who we love, regardless of race, education, experience, and time.
What kind of research did you do into the music and society of this time?
A lot. Regarding music, I made certain all the music mentioned was published on or before 1924 and that the lyrics were in the public domain. I also revisited jazz recordings from the 1920s, especially the music of Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Bix Beiderbecke.
Regarding 1920s society, I researched race relations, street vendors, harbor activities, apartment configurations, police precincts and uniforms, Samuel Battle (the first New York City police officer), player pianos, handguns, architecture, parks, and even weather fronts. All of that was fun for me; I can easily get lost in the backstories of history.
How close did the story come to your original concept?
Pretty close. However, there were changes. A lengthy opening chapter that highlighted Tony Marco’s skills in self-defense was ultimately cut, mainly because it delayed the reader’s entry into the love story. On the other hand, I originally thought of Buddy as a minor character. But he was so lovable his part became increasingly important. He was always in my ear, begging to be part of the story.
What did you enjoy most about the process?
I came to love the characters, to really care about my hero and heroine. I wanted them to grow and be deeply concerned about their ethical decisions. And, curiously, I came to care about the antagonist, Craven. I felt sorry for him—a man who had lost his way.
What else do you want readers to know about “Athena’s Piano”?
I don’t know if I’ll ever release the characters from my head, nor do I want to. They are part of me now, and I’m part of them. I wish we could all gather at a jazz club, say the Village Vanguard, listen to some great music, and then linger until closing time to talk about our hopes, dreams, and lessons for keeping love alive.
For more information click this link on Amazon. “Athena’s Piano” is published by Boroughs Publishing Group.
Photo courtesy of Allen Johnson.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke