This post was sponsored by Knopf Doubleday. All opinions are my own.
I’ve been in a reading rut for quite some time and even my usual YA adventures aren’t helping. But when I started reading Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell, I was instantly reminded why I love to read. This is a story that will capture your attention with the first page. It’s not a romance, but it is a story about love and all the forms it can take. At the center of this book is Circus Palmer, a messy jazz man/bad boy, and all the women he loves and who love him — lovers, partners, family, etc. There are moments I absolutely hated Circus Palmer, but that made the story even more compelling to me. The women in his life tell their stories in their own voices as well, so you get this gorgeous tapestry of love and heartbreak. Now, I’m a sucker for a multi-POV novel, so I loved this, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Each character is flawed but trying, and that’s all any of us can ask for in one another.
Warrell is a debut author but she’s been a creative writing teacher for many years. Her scholarship of the craft is deeply apparent in this novel and her journey is testament to the fact that we can’t let go of our passion because when the right book hits, it really HITS. And don’t just take my word for it. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm was longlisted for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, it was a finalist for the 2023 Pen/Faulkner Award, it was a Good Morning, America pic, a favorite book of the year by Oprah Daily and Kirkus, and received tons of rave reviews from the New York Times to Lit Hub and beyond.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura as part of this coverage and hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
An Interview with Laura Warrell, author of Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm
Renee Powers: Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is your first novel but you’re a seasoned writer. Tell us about your journey to becoming a novelist.
Laura Warrell: I finished writing my first novel my senior year of college and, ridiculous as it sounds, I tried to find an agent. I was twenty-five and this was the first in a long series of rejections. Over the next couple of decades, I wrote four more books, ending with Sweet, Soft, and tried to find agents for each of those books to no avail. The good news: I kept getting encouragement from top-tier agents. The not so good news: I never got a yes until my fourth book, a sort of silly fictionalized account of my time galivanting around Europe as a divorcée. After the book didn’t sell to a publisher, I started an MFA and told my mentors, ‘Help me get better at this. Be ruthless!’ I started Sweet, Soft the last year of the program. After two years and fifty agent queries, I finally got an agent and eventually a book deal.
RP: How did Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm come to be? What inspired the book?
LW: It’ll shock no one to learn I’ve dated my share of noncommittal types, including musicians. In Boston, I was dating this sexy, charismatic singer and, wow, was he slippery. Like many authors, I write to understand myself and my world, so I wrote a story loosely based on this relationship. Around the same time, I was reading a book by a male author about a womanizer – the book centered the man – and I thought, ‘this story is as old as literature, but we rarely hear from the women involved.’ I wanted to tell the women’s stories. I believe a lot of the imbalances, and even injustices, women suffer come from a lack of awareness about our inner lives and experiences. So much of relating is understood from the perspective of male need and desire. I wanted to turn the tables.
RP: This is the story of the women Circus Palmer loves and those who love him. Which women did you find most interesting to write? Most challenging?
LW: I love everyone in this book, including Circus! The greatest challenge I had in writing was making the women themselves, and their compulsion toward Circus, unique. On an individual basis, I’d say Maggie was hardest to write. Anyone who writes knows plot revolves around conflict, which means characters need to be conflicted, even if only during the period a story takes place. But I wanted Maggie to be strong, sure of herself, and in need of no one. She’s pregnant with Circus’s child and while this is a new set of circumstances for her, it’s not triggering deeper issues. Putting an untroubled yet compelling character on the page was a challenge, and I hope I succeeded. I know a lot of people out there are on Team Maggie.
RP: Music is almost a crutch for Circus, especially when it comes to his relationship with women. Did your love of music inspire this jazz man?
LW: Interesting! I’d agree – music is a crutch for Circus, and an excuse, and an escape hatch when relationships get too intimate. But music is also his greatest love. This is something I understand fully because I feel the same about writing; for artists, our work can be as meaningful as love. So yes, my appreciation for music, and art in general, inspired Circus as a character. I also appreciate the complexity of jazz, the intensity of focus it requires to master. If Circus was just a run-of-the-mill playboy, I wouldn’t find him interesting and I imagine readers wouldn’t either. But if he’s a man with talent and drive, well, now we have a compelling character.
RP: We love messy and complicated characters here at Feminist Book Club and you write them brilliantly. Were there any moments in the book where you held back on messy moments or were you excited to watch them make bad decisions and find their way out?
LW: We have so much in common, Feminist Book Club – I love messy, complicated characters, too! We’re all messy, and to me, the joy of art and literature is seeing those complications reflected back in a way that validates our life experiences and makes us feel less alone.
All this to say, I didn’t hold back. I occasionally had tears in my eyes watching the consequences of bad decisions play out, but I also knew enduring them could help liberate these characters. At times, I did tread carefully: scenes with hints of violence or behavior society often deems “inappropriate” in women, I wanted to make sure respected both the characters and readers.
RP: Were there any scenes or characters that felt particularly challenging to write?
LW: Koko, Circus’s daughter, posed some challenges. First, she’s a teenager and I was in my forties while writing her, so I had to try to understand the mindset of a modern-day teen. How do they communicate? What are they into? What do they keep hidden from the adults around them that I’d have to know about in order to experience the world as Koko would? Second, I realized fairly early on that I relate to Koko. I didn’t know my father so I understand what a lack of paternal presence feels like. I also know what it’s like to be a girl who doesn’t quite fit in, particularly a mixed-race kid in a predominantly white setting.
RP: The book is now in paperback, so it’s been out in the world for a while now. What has surprised you most about the feedback so far?
LW: It’s been a blast hearing readers’ reactions to these women. Two teams have definitely emerged for fan favorites: Team Maggie and Team Koko. But the other women are definitely ruffling feathers and winning hearts: there’s Peach, the sexy bartender Circus picks up in a bar then quickly discards; Josephine, the lovestruck woman whose calls he ignores; and Pia, Circus’s ex-wife who still carries a torch. Pia divides readers because she makes some scandalous decisions. And it’s been fun hearing folks’ reactions to Circus: some women want to date him and others want to ring his neck
RP: I loved your piece in the LA Times about the character of Sydney from the show The Bear. She feels like she would fit right into your book. What role do you think she would play in Circus’ life?
LW: Thank you! I love Sydney because she’s strong-willed and doesn’t take any, er, stuff from the male protagonist yet the show seems to love her for it. What fun to imagine her as a character in Sweet, Soft. I imagine Circus would admire Sydney; despite his slippery behavior, he likes women with strength and edge. But I think Sydney would see him coming from a mile away and would never be taken in by his charms, which would only make him want her more.
RP: What books are you reading right now?
LW: I’m reading and loving Rasheed Newson’s My Government Means to Kill Me about a young, gay Black man in New York in the ‘80s. Newson’s prose comes so alive on the page. Funny, sexy, powerful, politically engaging – this might be one of my favorite books of the last couple years.
Also on my bedside table: Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. I like to keep a book going from one of the literary masters as inspiration.
Next up: Jamila Minnicks’s Moonrise Over New Jessup. I’ve heard great things!
Thank you to Laura Warrell for taking the time to chat with me about this book. Thank you to Knopf Doubleday for sending a complimentary copy and sponsoring this post.