Speaking about the experiences that inspired her debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (Simon & Schuster, Apr. 2021), Dawnie Walton tells me, “I was a Black girl into rock music at a college prep school when it seemed all the bands were Black men. Black women were below the radar. I was developing my identity and it was difficult not to see myself reflected.”
That changed when Walton went to Florida A&M University, the historically Black college in Tallahassee, where, she says, “suddenly I wasn’t alone and was devouring all music.” She adds that Miles Davis’s autobiography—“his voice, his cadence”—was an influence for her novel about Opal, described in the opening pages of the book as “the ebony-skinned provocateur, the fashion rebel, the singer/screecher/Afro-punk ancestor, the unapologetically Black Feminist,” and British singer-songwriter Nev Charles.
The two team up, but in the early 1970s, as they’re on the cusp of success, Opal’s protest over a rival band’s Confederate flag at a concert leads to violence and repercussions. In 2015, when she’s been off the scene for decades and is considering a reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton, who has a complicated past with Opal, decides to edit an oral history of the duo.
The book is a propulsive read with “themes of racial justice and the music business that’s relevant today,” says Walton’s agent, PJ Mark of Janklow & Nesbit. “I fell hard for Opal, and Dawnie’s ability to juggle multiple voices and make them all distinguishable is seamless.”
Walton came north after college with a journalism degree and worked in media, starting at the Washington Post. She was deputy managing editor at Essence in New York City in 2015 when she was accepted to the residency program at the MacDowell Colony and quit her job. “I was ‘good’ for so long,” she says. “I was almost 40; I had my cushion.” Though she admits to having an “oh shit” moment before making the move.
At MacDowell, Walton says, “I was knocked off my feet in the best possible way.” She wrote 100 pages of Opal during her six-week stay.
Next was the Iowa Writers Workshop. Walton says her thesis advisor, Ayana Mathis, “was so helpful in specific ways.” She took a break from Opal at one point and wrote stories but promised herself that she’d have a complete draft when she graduated.
In spring 2018, Walton graduated with a manuscript and moved back to New York. One of her classmates was De’Shawn Charles Winslow, a client of Mark who put the two in touch. Mark read the manuscript that May, and though Walton was meeting with other agents, she was receptive to his ideas.
“He was actually one of the agents I hadn’t met,” Walton says. “But he reached out to me and we had a good meeting. He understood what I wanted the book to be. And PJ used to be in a punk band.” Walton signed with Janklow & Nesbit in August 2018.
Meanwhile, Dawn Davis at 37 Ink had heard about Opal “in the ether,” she says. “I had news of this student with a great novel.” She emailed Mathis, who told her she would love Walton. Davis reached out on Instagram, and Walton had Mark send the manuscript.
“I loved every page of Opal,” Davis says. “And there were all these moments: Dawnie is born on my exact birthday; there’s a song in the book that I loved [“To Sir with Love”]; Merry Clayton performs the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter”; there’s a Thanksgiving scene where the mother makes sweet potato pie. My mother makes the best sweet potato pie! I felt like the book was speaking to me personally and I had to be the custodian. Opal is so daring, a special Black character. She takes the hits and doesn’t look back.”
Davis adds that “Dawnie was that Black kid in a Southern town who was into music. She wrote a character that she had never seen in literature. It was so refreshing; took my breath away, so daring and interesting. And the characters are so real that people are googling them.”
Walton tells me, “Dawn was the dream.” But Opal went out on wide submission and Walton took meetings. “I was grateful,” she says, “that the last one was with Dawn.”
Davis brought her mother and her mother’s sweet potato pie to the meeting. “We had so much in common,” Walton recalls. “There was so much passion and excitement.”
Walton says she was in Savannah with her fiancé looking for wedding venues when she got the message about the 37 Ink deal. Davis bought North American rights for “great money,” according to Mark. The contract was signed in February 2019, and Opal sold in the U.K. at auction to Quercus.
Davis has since left 37 Ink for Bon Appétit, but she says she saw the book through galleys.
S&S editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci calls Walton “an electrifying writer” adding, “To play a small role in shepherding one of Dawn Davis’s books across the finish line is truly an honor. Given the in-house buzz—Opal was one of five books chosen for the Simon Selects tour—I’d already read Opal and couldn’t put it down.”
The stars aligned for Walton. The wedding reception in Savannah was canceled because of Covid, but, she tells me, “we did get married”. She holds up her hand to show me the ring via FaceTime. And that sweet potato pie of Davis’s mother? Walton’s praise is unequivocal: “It was as good as Dawn said it was.”