January 2, 2023
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jerry McGill's novel The Color of Family is an compelling and innovatively told family drama.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"McGill’s prose is theatrical, packing every paragraph with action. The Color of Family crosses vast expanses of time and space, with secrets and twists unraveling at breakneck speed; it’s deeply engrossing. The family’s voices are alive and expressive through diary entries, interviews, rich dialogue, and detailed accounts of their familial relationships and social circles. The Payne family is unforgettable, and the humanity McGill observes through them is a gift."
The family drama has always fascinated me. Which is funny because I myself did not come from a big family. I grew up with a single mother and a sister. Very briefly two uncles made appearances and a grandmother on my mother’s side was someone we saw about once a month on weekends. That was it. Everything I know about family drama I got from TV, film, and literature. Soap operas were big for me in the early stages of my life. As I recovered from my shooting I spent endless hours in front of a television, afraid to go outside. Afraid that as a young boy in a wheelchair I looked like a freak to society. This fear and shame didn’t stay with me for long…actually, as I write that sentence I realize that isn’t true. It has never truly gone away. But I have grown. I have adapted. I have made healthy choices that have allowed my perspective to shift in meaningful and constructive ways. Writing/creating has been instrumental in that growth process.
I started out wanting to be an actor. When I was around sixteen I began taking weekly acting classes with a theatre company located in midtown Manhattan. A helpful technique I learned from a very eloquent and thoughtful acting teacher of mine was to give my character a bio. Ask yourself – what is this character’s history? What was his first thought when he woke up? What did he have for breakfast that morning? What is his favorite song? Why is it that? What type of emotions does it evoke? Years later, when I started to take writing a lot more seriously I applied this technique to creating the major characters in my stories. It became an essential tool for me.
The Color of Family has numerous characters, primarily members of the Payne Family. In the first draft, every character had their own short story that highlighted a certain period of their life. As I wrote each of these chapters I had a song in mind that fit that character for any number of different reasons; some obvious, some less so. Not all of these stories survived the final manuscript, but they live on in my heart like they were my own child. Here is my list of songs that helped me move through this novel. Thank the Heavens for music. I could not create without it.
The Very Thought of You by Nat King Cole
For me, every project begins and ends with Nat King Cole. No other artist is able to stir as much emotion in me as does this singer and his syrupy voice. When Harold and Camille, the parents in the novel, are children, I envisioned them each growing up in a household where NKC played regularly on the record player. I don’t actually believe in Heaven, but if I’m wrong and there is such a place, I imagine NKC is playing constantly there.
Cheek to Cheek by Ella Fitzgerald
Roxanne is the oldest Payne sibling and the one the rest might consider a bit of a prude. She grew up extremely well educated and I always saw her as one who did not suffer fools gladly as they say. Ella was essential listening for her as she pursued her medical degree.
Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones
Margeaux was the sibling who probably more than any other rebelled against the ideals of patriarchy and capitalism that eventually led to the great wealth that was appreciated by the Payne family. The true “artiste” in the family she would have been absolutely happy to run off with Mick Jagger and tour with the Stones all over the world. Responsibility be damned. That is a silly idea created by suits.
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black by Nina Simone
Kassandra is the true rebel of the family. The one who really would have been much better served having been alive during the turbulent sixties when protests and political activism “really mattered and achieved something.” She would have idolized Nina Simone. Been her lover if she could.
Juicy by Notorious B.I.G.
James was highly influenced by the worlds of rap and hip hop ever since he heard the Sugarhill Gang in his early years. Being an East Coaster Biggie Smalls would have been the artist he most looked up to and he would have hidden his tears of sadness (real men don’t cry in public) upon learning of the rapper’s untimely death.
When Doves Cry by Prince
Anybody who knows me on a meaningful level can tell you that Prince is my all-time favorite artist. In a way, I try to emulate Prince in my writing in that Prince strived to never make the same album twice, always changing his style up and fuck what his audience might want to hear next. I would like people to say I never wrote the same novel twice. Devon and Alexa, the twins, share so much in common, and their mutual adoration of Prince would have been one of two dozen things that bound them together and fed their affection and loyalty for one another.
Hey Paula by Ray Hildebrand
For reasons that I cannot go into in great depth this song pulls at my heartstrings in a multitude of ways. THE TLDR version – when I was a teenager taking acting lessons I began performing with that theatre company and we would do musical numbers as well. Two of my fellow performers sang this as a duet often (the female singer was one I had a fondness for) and they were so charming as they crooned this on stage that it left an indelible impression on me. This song features prominently in a scene that introduces the reader to Michel and Dahlia, the two illegitimate offspring of Harold Payne and a woman he met in Paris.
No Ordinary Love by Sade
Although there aren’t many sex scenes in this novel, sex is definitely a lingering presence, wafting in an out of many of the chapters like a soft plume of incense. In my mind there are a tiny handful of musicians whose music is always playing in my mind whenever writing a sex scene. This Sade is one of them.
Love is Blindness by Cassandra Wilson
I heard this song once in a coffee shop in Glendale, California, and knew I had to buy the album as soon as I got home. This was long before the internet, long before anyone could ever imagine a Spotify existing. I raced out to a Tower Records as soon as I could. I remember I was actually shocked to learn that hers was a cover of a U2 song. As much as I appreciate that band I could not fathom anyone else singing this song but her. There are a few characters in this novel who live with the never ceasing discomfort of heartbreak and longing. Everything about this song captures those feelings.
Wasted Time by Meshell Ndegeocello
Everything that I said about the previous song goes double for this hauntingly lovely work that evokes the deep pain and bitterness that stems from loving someone who wound up hurting you so deeply, the wound will likely never heal. Like an amputated limb that pain will affect the way you move through the world and color so many decisions, many of them bad ones. Poor choices is a theme that runs through this novel like blood.
That Sunday, That Summer by Nat King Cole
Because as I stated earlier, for me all creative endeavors begin and end with Nat King Cole. This song is featured prominently in one chapter that focuses on two unlikely lovers. The song begs the question “If I had to choose just one day to live within my heart”, a sentiment that hovers like a dark butterfly over a few of the characters in this novel.
Jerry McGill is a writer and artist. He is the author of Bed Stuy: A Love Story and the memoir Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me. After receiving a BA in English literature from Fordham University in the Bronx and a master’s degree in education from Pacific University in Oregon, Jerry went on to teach high school and travel the world mentoring disabled children. He lives in Portland, Oregon.