It took more than two decades, four unpublished manuscripts, and scores of rejection letters before Laura Warrell brought her first book into the world—the acclaimed novel Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, which was published by Pantheon Books last year and recently issued in a paperback edition.
A lecturer in the English department at CSUDH since 2017, Warrell discussed the challenges she’s faced as a writer, her approach to the craft, and the inspiration for her debut novel during an evening of conversation on Oct. 4 at the Marvin Laser Recital Hall.
The event, co-hosted by the departments of English and Women’s Studies, was introduced by Debra Best, professor of English, and featured a short reading by Warrell followed by a discussion moderated by Jenn Brandt, associate professor and program coordinator for Women’s Studies.
Nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the novel depicts the life of Circus Palmer, a philandering jazz trumpeter on the rise, and the women who fall into and out of his orbit. But this is not just another book about a womanizing male protagonist.
“I wanted these women to have a voice. They have issues and pain and trauma and joys and desires that are drawing them into this relationship and keeping them in this relationship, and I wanted to give voice to that. I also wanted to look at what else was happening in these women’s lives because they have concerns outside of him,” said Warrell.
Jazz also plays an important role in the book, she said. “Mastering jazz takes a kind of focus and discipline and intensity that I think is compelling. So, that’s why I decided that [Circus] would be a jazz musician.”
Warrell found that the ways in which the women in Circus’ life tell their stories also mirrors a jazz composition. “You’ve got the melody playing, and each character comes forward and plays their own version of it. I didn’t intend any of that originally, but it came together in a way that hopefully underscores the themes and reflects the story.”
Warrell’s success did not come easy or quickly. She advised students in the audience who might be considering a career in creative writing that they’ll need patience and tenacity. “If you really want to write, and you really love the craft, and you’ve got things to say and stories to tell, you’re going to come up against some things. This is a really hard business.”
The issue of race can also create additional burdens for writers when it comes to finding an agent or publisher, she said. “If you are from a marginalized community, you will be asked about being Black or transgender. That becomes a lens through which your work is going to be seen, and you’re going to be expected to answer to it.”
Warrell, who returns to campus in the Spring 2024 term to resume teaching creative writing, is currently at work on her next novel. It’s a story about the fallout of an affair. Like Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, it prioritizes women’s perspectives.
“I’m very interested in our lives as women, and I feel like very often the stories that the culture tells us about women are often kind of silly and don’t go very deep. I think our stories are complex and important.”