Anyone who’s attempted to write an oral history knows they aren’t easy. Stitching together the threads of dozens — if not hundreds — of hours of interviews with multiple people into a cohesive narrative can drive anyone bonkers. So the fact that Taylor Jenkins Reid decided to use this format for her latest novel, Daisy Jones & the Six, which centers on a fictional 1970s rock band, may seem like a masochistic endeavor.
“I wanted you to feel immersed in it, and not like you were reading fiction, but like you were there. For me, the best way to do that was to mimic what I would argue is the best medium for stories about rock, which is a rock documentary,” Reid explains. “I wanted it to feel like an episode of Behind the Music, as if you were hearing it from the people directly. That there was no filter. The conclusion I came to was that it had to be an oral history.”
The urge to revisit the swirl of sex, drugs and Seventies rock & roll has been intense in recent years, but that doesn’t mean it always connects. (Remember HBO’s failed Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese-produced series Vinyl?) Reid, however, has focused her story on a talented woman, a free-spirited singer-songwriter who refuses to be secondary to a man’s story. The most frustrating part about reading 300 pages about a fictional band, however, is that you don’t have a chance to immerse yourself in the music. But that will soon change. Reese Witherspoon optioned the TV rights before publication, and Amazon has ordered a 13-episode run of the adaptation of the book, with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Fault In Our Stars) penning the scripts. Plus, there’s a team crafting the original music for the show.
“I really want to hear the songs!” Reid says. “I’m not a musician. I hear something in my head, but it’s not anything that anyone could make into a song. So the idea that people are going to create this album is incredibly exciting to me. I was meeting with one of the guys at Amazon, and we were talking about the music, and he was saying he was very daunted by the task of having to create the song ‘Aurora.’ He was like, ‘You have made it out to be the greatest album of the 1970s!’ And now he has to go figure out a way to make it. I’m just glad it’s not my problem. ”
Hear an exclusive excerpt from the audiobook, featuring Jennifer Beals, Benjamin Bratt, Pablo Schreiber and Judy Greer.
Your previous books have featured very strong female characters, but what was the inspiration for Daisy? Do you just love Stevie Nicks and wanted to create your own version?
If you really, really boil it down, maybe that is just the truth of it… Really what it was is that I finished the book that I wrote before this one, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and I thought when I was done with that book, that it meant that I had to be done writing about famous women.
But I felt drawn to the idea of artistic collaborators, people who are blurring the line between what is real life and what is art. This idea that — and it happens a lot with music — that you have a man and woman singing together, and it becomes sort of unclear, certainly to the audience: Is this a performance or is this real?
And obviously the more real it is, for us, the more intriguing it is to listen to, which is why Rumours is so good, and why it has stuck with us in our culture for such a long time. But I also feel that way about the band Civil Wars. I loved them, and when they broke up, I wanted to know why. I was really intrigued by that story of these two people that create this incredible, intimate art together that sounds so romantic but they’re not romantically involved. And then they just break up out of nowhere… I spent a lot of time googling that back in the day, trying to get to some sort of answer about what happened.
So it really just all comes back to my fascination with people that are collaborating together — that may or may not have feelings for each other. So that’s where the germ of this woman Daisy Jones, and this man that she collaborates with, Billy Dunne, came to take a life in my head.
And it was a perfect cosmic coincidence that A Star Is Born is coming out in a year which…
I can’t even… First of all, when that trailer came out, I was like, “Why am I even writing about music? This is all anyone ever needs.” And then, seeing that movie, I was about halfway in, and I looked at my husband and I was like, “This feels exactly like Daisy Jones.” But that movie takes a very sharp turn in one direction, and I will say, Daisy Jones takes a very different look at female art, and how important it is for women to have their own voice.
I loved A Star is Born, I loved it, I saw it twice in the theater, and I am still listening to the soundtrack. And I like rooting for it, for them, but I also am really excited about the fact that this is a much different story about women in music.
Definitely, so let’s talk about those characters: Daisy is both broken but also very powerful and beautiful. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to create that sort of complicated character.
I think the biggest thing for me is that, especially when you’re writing about fake famous people, I think the most important thing you can do is make them feel human. And human beings just don’t make any sense. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve come to realize in making characters. People are very contradictory, and it’s quite hard to predict what any given person is going to say or do at any given time, because we really don’t make sense.
So I wanted Daisy to feel like this larger-than-life person, who is so beautiful and so glamorous, it seems like she has everything. Yet, you know that if you met her one-on-one, you would immediately feel her vulnerability and her humanity — so it had to be both. She had to be larger than life, and she had to feel very, very small.
And I think being a rock star, versus being an actress, you occupy a different space in our culture. A lot of our rock goddesses are very messy people. You know, Courtney Love, that is a messy person; Stevie Nicks, there’s messiness there. And I wanted Daisy to feel that way.
In one of the early moments in the narrative, Daisy considers herself a songwriter and she’s told, “No, you’re not.” That’s a really bittersweet moment. Tell me about this idea: somebody who’s so confident and yet is wrong.
Well I think that is the piece that, for me, she made sense to me. She clicked in my brain: I wanted her to feel confident, and I wanted her the confidence to say, “You should listen to what I have to say.” But it can’t be as easy as, you know, she’s this perfect artist and no one sees her and one day they will see her and she will be validated… That’s a nice story, but it’s just a little bit simple.
And I think the most honest thing is, Daisy was born with a lot of money, and beauty, and a great voice, so what is she working for? Does she have any idea how to work for anything? And when I thought honestly and sincerely about, Would she be a good songwriter, right off the bat? I thought no, because she doesn’t know how to work for anything. She doesn’t know how to try.
How do you try to sing and fail and then keep going, and push yourself to be better? That’s something that she had to learn. A lot of people learn it much earlier in their life, but everything was handed to Daisy. So when I pieced together that she was going to feel very confident about something, but when she looked at herself in the mirror, had to admit she actually had a lot of area to grow, that’s when she became a person to me.
In a lot of ways, that message felt like it would resonate with a millennial or younger generation because isn’t that what often people criticize about younger millennials — this idea of, “I just showed up, so I should get an award,” or, “I deserve this.”
It’s funny; it’s about flash versus substance, which is part of the reason why I think writing about fame is so interesting now. Yes, I’m writing about famous people who are, supposedly elevated on this pedestal, but also, everyone lives their life like they’re famous now. We have Instagram and Twitter: We’re portraying a certain brand to people; we curate a certain way that our life is supposed to look.
People have been doing that for a really long time in our culture, it’s just that, normally, it was when they had a high level of attention on them because they were famous for some reason or another. So I think that there is, very much, a connection between Daisy and young women and men today, of having to understand the difference between something that looks good versus something that is good.
One of the things that I’m fascinated me is that you decided to do something so hard — to write a novel as an oral history. I know how difficult it is to do it when you’ve actually done all the interviews, to then piece it together. How in the hell did you plot and structure this book this way, and why did you do that to yourself?
[Laughs] Yeah, that is a very good question. The reason why I did it is because, when I thought of books about music, it’s incredibly difficult to describe music. I think that the relationship between reading about something and then wanting to hear it is so strong. And if it were a biography, if these were real people, you could go to your computer and listen to whatever song came out the Seventies, and that would be part of your experience. You can’t do that with a fictional book, because I made it all up. So I wanted it to feel as real as possible. I wanted you to feel immersed in it, and not like you were reading fiction, but like you were there. For me, the best way to do that was to mimic what I would argue is the best medium for stories about rock — which is a rock documentary.
Did you give yourself a documentary diet?
It’s funny, the one that really informs this book was the three-hour History of the Eagles. I think it is so fascinating the way that our culture talks about women as gossipy or catty. I mean, obviously there’s precedent for it — I’m not saying women aren’t capable of that, women are capable of everything — but it’s a stereotype in our culture that I have found to be not particularly true.
When you watch the History of the Eagles, it is so much of these dudes just bitching about each other behind their backs, and I loved it. I was like, “This is so juicy and gossipy,” and the frustration that they all have with each other. That’s the tension of a band, but it was missing from a lot of the portrayals that I had seen of bands. The tension was there, but not necessarily, like, the pettiness. The “this happened 30 years ago, and I’m still pissed about it” kind of a vibe… And I loved that.
I also went back and watched a lot of Behind the Music. I watched Fleetwood Mac, I also watched a Behind the Music that is just about 1977. It’s talking about the context of all of these different bands, and how 1977 was such a big year for rock. That was a really big one for me, too, because I had to start thinking about not only who is Daisy Jones & the Six to the audience, but also what is the space that they occupied in music at that time?
Another thing that you seemed to set up, however, is the classic Yoko Effect — the idea that a woman comes in and disrupts the perfection of this male rock band. Was that inspired by a Linda or a Yoko kind of moment?
I mean, I’m definitely, completely opposed to the idea that woman can come in and ruin a man’s band. I reject the notion completely. I think it was recently that Paul McCartney said, “No, it had nothing to do with Yoko Ono.” You know, you can’t mess up a band that doesn’t have a lot of problems.
So that wasn’t on the forefront of my mind, to reject that notion, but to say, “There are strong women surrounding this band and in this band. This stands on their own merits.” But when I finished the book, and I looked at what I had written, I was very proud to see that — between Daisy and Billy’s wife Camila, and Karen the keyboardist and even Simone, Daisy’s best friend — these are very strong women, who are all different types of women, who are not revolving, or secondary to, this story about a band of mostly men.
One of my favorite moments is when you have Karen admit that she felt like she had to suppress her sexuality, or her sexiness, so that she could get ahead and that she is both impressed and repelled by Daisy…
I guess I’m consumed by this idea that there’s one way for women to get along. You know, there isn’t. When you’re in a man’s world — the way that they were — you can get along by being Karen, and by saying, “You know what, I’m going to appear as genderless as possible, so that my gender is not an issue.” Or you can be like Daisy and say, “I’m going to be exactly who I want to be, and my presentation of my body will be what I want it to be, and if you have an issue with it, it’s your problem.” I think a lot of times we fall into this binary idea of like there’s one way to do this, and there’s not. Every way is the right way. The system is rigged, so any solution you have to that system is good by me.