An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.
Adira: Ms. Walton, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev! Congratulations on your debut novel! The Final Revival of Opal & Nev was a rollercoaster of a read, and I loved every second of it. Can you tell me how you went about coming up with this idea and researching to create such an intricate novel?
Dawnie Walton: I’ve always been interested in interrogating my teenage obsession with alternative and indie rock. Seeing the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk and understanding that there was an audience of other Black fans who might be interested in those explorations too was a crucial first step to even dreaming about a book like this. But it would take another 10 years, and another documentary, for the spark of Opal & Nev to really ignite. Watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, I was mesmerized by concert footage of Talking Heads and their two Black women background singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I had this image of one of them at center stage with David Byrne — not at as his backup, but as his equal partner. That image wouldn’t let me go, and was the start of the characters I developed.
A: For me, Opal & Nev were so well-written, I honestly felt like they were real music artists that I was just discovering while reading your novel. This made me curious about your influence for each character and the acts that they come in contact with as they were becoming stars.
I noticed that your Instagram page is curated with Black musicians. But were there any musical artists in particular who you drew on when creating Opal and Nev’s characters or the other musical acts in your novel?
DW: Yes! Each character is an amalgamation of real artists whose music and public images I’ve found interesting in different ways. There were three core inspirations I looked to while developing Opal’s style and substance — Grace Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Betty Davis — but there are bits of other bold, envelope-pushing Black women in there too (Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone, for instance). For Nev, I was thinking more about career trajectories and the concept of the chameleonic rock star, especially those men who’ve had success across a long span of time and changing musical directions. There’s the Brits like David Bowie, Elton John, and Rod Stewart, but also hints of Bob Dylan.
A: In my mind, I initially went to Grace Jones as a stand-in for Opal when you described her character as being “dark-skinned” and having a flamboyant style. My choice also has to do with the fact that Opal was initially meant to be a sort of “muse” for Nev like Grace Jones was for various artists throughout her time in the spotlight.
Yet, Opal immediately turns into a main attraction, and when her talent starts to rival Nev’s, she switches from an accessory to an adversary in the end. This is also something that we see happen to Sunny, the story’s editor, in her workplace. This made me think of a line in the article, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat” by Erika Stallings, where Stallings says, “when Black women resist their status as pets, they find themselves transforming into a threat.”
While I know Stallings is talking about corporate America, was the choice in making Opal a muse for Nev meant to reflect the way Black female artists are pigeonholed into walking a fine line between being pets or caricatures of themselves versus taking on full autonomy as artists?
DW: I wanted to broach the power dynamics between the two characters. Opal initially joins Nev as a “featured singer” — the album is still his, and the songs are all from his perspective. Opal is looking for any way into the business that she can get, but, as she tells Sunny in hindsight, she was uncomfortable with that status as muse. She felt an expectation from Nev that she would inspire and sharpen his work, and yet she had her own dreams and her own work to do. So once Opal breaks out following the pivotal concert that launches them to the spotlight, that power dynamic between them suddenly shifts, and Nev finds it difficult to cope with that. His resentment is a piece of the fallout that dooms a true partnership between them.
A: As clear as I could picture Opal in my mind, I found that I couldn’t pinpoint Nev so easily. This felt symbolic to me since Nev’s character waffles between being this loveable character into morphing into someone less loveable as he gains fame.
While his character isn’t as detestable as one of the Bond Brothers, a Southern rock band in the novel, or even as verbally off-putting as Howie Kelly, the record owner Opal and Nev are signed to, Nev makes several very specific choices that call his allyship into question. Where the music industry pigeonholes Opal, Nev is giving free rein to experiment with his craft. Are we as readers meant to come away with a specific feeling or understanding from this dynamic and Nev as a character?
DW: This gets at the chameleonic quality in Nev that I mentioned earlier — the ways in which he is afforded unlimited chances and opportunities to be whatever kind of artist strikes his fancy, in a way that Opal is not. That aspect is not actively Nev’s fault; it’s simply his privilege, and the way that people like him benefit from systemic white supremacy while others like Opal are thwarted. Where things get more dicey is…well, we’re getting into spoiler territory now, LOL. So what I’ll say is that Nev’s relationship to his own privilege, especially in those moments when his ambition drives him, becomes quite eyebrow raising.
A: You touch on the theme of community in The Final Revival of Opal & Nev multiple times where Opal is concerned. From the fans, who christen themselves as “The Mercurials,” to her sister, Pearl, and best friend turned stylist, Virgil, Opal is constantly surrounded by her tribe on her journey through stardom. Yet, it seems that Nev suffers a far different fate.
Was there a specific definition for “community” that you kept in mind as you wrote each characters’ storyline, and if so, how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote each main characters’ ascent to stardom?
DW: I was very intentional in giving Opal family, both birth (Pearl) and chosen (Virgil, Miss Ernestine, Jimmy, even Sunny, to a certain degree). That community is key in supporting her, yes, but also holding her to account when she needs it. She carries that community with her wherever she goes, and as such she’s able to think more broadly, more communally, about who she is becoming, how she steps into the world, and how she uses her platform. That community mindset, in my experience, is part of that “Black abundance” Kiese Layman writes about in Heavy. So while both characters are unique, yes — different, quirky, whatever you want to call it — I would make the distinction that Nev is actually an individualist. Now, take the definition of that to an extreme, and you can imagine how their paths clash and diverge.
A: Even though Opal & Nev are the main focus of your novel, Sunny, the editor, plays a big part in my love for your book. Her passion for her craft and desire to get to the truth behind the night her father, Jimmy, was murdered was so well-written, I got chills reading her parts. How did you manage to create such a clear voice for her character and the other characters in your novel?
DW: Sunny was easy for me to channel because she’s an extension of my own conflicts, curiosities, and cultural critiques. Writing her Editor’s Notes at times felt like putting on my old journalist’s hat — being open to (but also squinting hard at) the characters and their stories, analyzing them from every angle. At other times, especially toward the end when the professional distance Sunny tries to keep begins to falter, she became a vessel for my experiences as a music fan. Through her, I write about how it feels in your body to hear live music, or how your heart might break when someone you’ve idolized disappoints you.
As for the other characters, I just tried to lock into the quirks of their voices. I thought about each one down to the curse words they would or would not say. Strangely enough, that was very helpful in differentiating them.
A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. Even though there is a traumatic event that takes place in Opal and Nev’s story that’s a main element in your book, the story itself doesn’t necessarily revert to being about trauma. How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without becoming overwhelming by horrific events you’re writing about?
DW: Black life is not 100 percent trauma or 100 percent joy, and I wanted all the Black lives in this novel to feel very real in terms of that balance. But here’s the other thing, and it’s quite simple: I loved Opal. Mess and all. And because I Ioved her I rooted for her, and I wanted my intended audience — other Black women who could perhaps see aspects of themselves in her — to root for her too, to have hope for her, to see her living out more than pain. So I gave her laughter, some luxury, and moments of leisure; I had her landing some punches of her own. There’s a chapter in the book where I send Opal on vacation to Paris for rest and perspective following a volatile tour, and I worried that I would be criticized for going on a tangent from the core plot — but for me, that chapter’s not a tangent at all. I had drawn a character who valued herself, and so self-love and care were part of her story. I worried about young Opal as if she were my responsibility, my charge.
A: Since The Final Revival of Opal & Nev revolves around music, do you have any songs or artists that you’ve been listening to or watching during Quarantine?
DW: My fascination with 1970s music continues, and the research around this particular book had me digging into the catalogs and deep cuts of Black women whose hits I already knew (like Grace Jones, Tina Turner, and Poly Styrene). And every now and then a hidden figure will pop up and I’ll get obsessed. Tina Bell, the frontwoman of the Seattle proto-grunge band Bam Bam, is relatively new to me, and so are many of the artists the scholar Maureen Mahon writes about in her book Black Diamond Queens.
A: Can you give us a sneak peek into what’s next in your writing? Will there be a film or television adaption for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev or possibly even a sequel?! 🙏🏿❤️🤞🏿
DW: A screen adaptation would be an absolute dream. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it! At the moment I’m not planning to write an Opal & Nev sequel, although I’m playing around with an idea loosely inspired by a section of the novel (about Sunny’s coming-of-age) that got cut. I still love that section, it just didn’t belong in O&N. I hope it might be something entirely new.
A: Can you offer any tools or advice for people who want to write multi-faceted stories, like yours, to help them hone their craft?
DW: The first thing I always say is that you have to be obsessed with the story you’re telling. That mix of passion and extreme curiosity will bring you back to the page again and again, even when it gets very hard, and will keep the process feeling like play. Second, if your story has multiple characters, approach each — even the ones who are questionable — with some degree of empathy. Understand the factors that led to their identities, and you’ll find a way to crack their stories wide open.
A: Ms. Walton, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me! Your novel is definitely one of my top reads of the year. I can’t wait to read what you’re working on next!
DW: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions!
Dawnie Walton was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2018) and holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M University (1997). Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly magazines, she has received fellowships in fiction writing from MacDowell and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is her first novel. Visit her website at https://www.dawniewalton.com.