The prodigiously talented Cynthia Weil already has a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for writing, with her husband Barry Mann, some of the biggest hits of the 20th century – “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” for the Animals,” “On Broadway” for the Drifters, “Walking in the Rain” for the Ronettes, and the Righteous Brothers’ hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Now she’s written her first YA novel, I’m Glad I Did (Soho Teen, Jan.) and she’s enjoying seeing her emergence as a songwriter – and Carole King’s best friend – come back to life in the Broadway musical Beautiful. Bookshelf caught up with her in a telephone interview from her home in California.
You have a lot going on for someone who could very legitimately say, ‘It’s time for me to lie by the pool.’ What made you decide to write a YA novel?
Well, this isn’t my first book. I did write a book before this one. In fact, the way this book came about was that my agent sent it to Soho Teen not realizing that they only publish mysteries.
I still love that book. It’s about three sperm donor kids who find out they have the same father but can’t stand each other. They go on road trip to find the dad. Dan [Ehrenhaft] said, ‘I can’t publish this, but I love your writing. Would you consider writing a mystery with a teenage protagonist set in the Brill Building? I promise I will help you.’
I’m not surprised you have a novel (or two) in you but I am surprised, with your resume, that nobody has convinced you to write a memoir. Are you working on one?
My husband was working on a memoir, but then he decided not to go through with it. I’m really a very private person. I know that Carole [King] wrote a memoir and she’s very private, too, but the other factor is, I can’t remember anything. My husband says he and I have stayed together so long [Cynthia and Barry married in 1961] because whatever he can’t remember, I can, and the things I can’t remember, he can come up with.
Okay, no memoir, but parts of I’m Glad I Did hew close to your own biography, right?
Which parts did you think that about?
Well, I think the roles were reversed, but your main character, JJ, a composer, falls for the handsome lyricist she meets when she begins her songwriting career. Isn’t this how you and Barry met?
That’s true, and it’s the reverse from the book. I’m words and Barry is music. And my upbringing was similarly to JJ’s. I grew up in Manhattan, although my parents were not lawyers, like JJ’s are. But my mother’s ambition for me was to marry a doctor, be a housewife, and throw beautiful dinner parties. Luckily, she had a quirky younger sister who was the rebel of the family. She had been a Rockette and later became a literary agent, so I followed her path into having a career.
Did you attend the Dalton School like JJ did?
No, I went to Walden, which is no longer open. It was at 88th and Central Park West. But like JJ, I skipped a grade and graduated young.
Did you study music in college?
No, I did take piano lessons as a girl, but I wasn’t a natural at it and it wasn’t something that I loved. I majored in theater at Sarah Lawrence, back when it was an all-girls’ school. I thought I would become a director because I’m very bossy.
You’re not really bossy, are you?
Oh, yes I am.
So where did the songwriting talent come from?
Hmm. I guess I was born with it. I always loved listening to lyrics. I loved theater because I thought the lyrics were important, whereas it didn’t seem they were so important in pop music. When Barry first heard my stuff, he thought the kind of lyrics I was writing had a place in pop music. He gave me artists to listen to and once we moved to Aldon [Music, then located at 1650 Broadway], you learned just by being there. There were songwriters in every office, you could hear music being played through the walls, and so you just kind of absorbed it into your system.
So you went into the songwriting business without having actually studied music or writing?
Well, there was a plan to become a writer. Before Sarah Lawrence I went to the University of Michigan for one year, intending to major in journalism. But when I got there they told me I wouldn’t be able to take any journalism courses until my junior year and instead I was taking all these required courses I had absolutely no interest in. I didn’t do my due diligence. It was a nightmare. I already considered myself a writer by then. In grade school, my teachers always told me, ‘You should be a writer.’
Were you a diary keeper as a child?
I was until my mother read mine. I got in huge trouble, and I never wrote in a diary again.
Ouch. The mother in I’m Glad I Did is a pretty tough character, too.
Well, she’d have to be. There were not many women lawyers in those days and if she did exist she’d have been one of only a few at Columbia Law School and she’d have been there at the same time as Bella Abzug.
Ah, another tough cookie! Do you think you will continue the story? Will we find out what happens to JJ and her romantic interest Luke next?
I think it would be easy to develop new ideas for JJ and Luke. It was the sixties and there were so many huge issues being dealt with. And being a mixed-race couple, they will face a lot of challenges.
One of those issues which you address in the book and which may surprise contemporary readers, is just how poorly African-American performers were treated. Did you witness a lot of this first-hand?
I have seen it but most of what I know I know through other people’s experiences, things people told me. I didn’t realize how bad it was until later, how many of the great singers, women especially, suffered tremendously.
What was your favorite part of this new writing challenge? Did you find it hard to write something so much longer than a pop song?
It was hard work, but I enjoy hard work. I’m a worker bee and [editor] Dan was so helpful. Whenever I got stuck I had someone to call. I still have two unpublished manuscripts – the sperm donor story and a quirky fantasy about Cinderella and the prince, who discover they can’t stand each other, and it really wasn’t a good idea to get married based on how they felt after a few dances. I’d love to find a home for those, and neither is a mystery.
Maybe an editor reading this story will be interested! Have you gotten any feedback from teens who have read the novel yet? What will they make of the chaste romance, the turbulent sixties, the strict parents?
I haven’t had any teens in my own circle read it yet but let me tell you about who I see in the audience at Beautiful.
How many times have you seen it?
Four times. There are a lot of young people there. It’s amazing. I see teenage girls with their moms, and their grandmothers, the women who grew up listening to Tapestry [Carole King’s record-breaking first solo album] and who want to share Carole’s story with their daughters and grandmothers. It moves me to tears. So I definitely think there’s an audience out there.
I’m Glad I Did. Cynthia Weil, Soho Teen, $18.99 ISBN 978-1-61695-356-0