Mary Rand Hess is the author, with Kwame Alexander, of the young adult novel Solo. Her other books include Swing and the forthcoming The One and Only Wolfgang. She lives in California.
Q: How did you and Kwame Alexander come up with the idea for your novel Solo?
A: I literally graduated from the crib to rock music when my brother introduced me to KISS at just three years old. Rock and roll has always colored my life with inspiration and creativity. So, when I began piecing together a story about rock music and Africa some years ago, I had no idea where the journey with this plot and these characters would take me.
Fast forward a few good years later, and I meet Kwame Alexander in our writing group. We have similar sensibilities, and share a great love of music and poetry, and in particular—writing novels in verse.
Kwame had long been thinking about writing a story that takes place in Africa, so it got me thinking. And one day, I took that thinking and decided to be brave with it and asked him the big question: Do you want to write this book about rock music and Africa together?
Of course, I was sure he would think I was crazy (and maybe he did), but he said YES! It rocked my literary world, and changed my life.
One enormous thing that was missing from my experience as a human being and as a writer was leaving my comfort zone. I had never traveled outside of the United States and Canada, and certainly not Tanzania or Kenya (places I had only dreamed about for years).
And Kwame, who has traveled to several countries, knew the importance of writing from a place of experience.
One place that stood out—because it’s such a large part of Kwame’s heart since he’s been there many times—is Ghana. It became obvious that in order for this book to work, in order for these characters to have an authentic experience and journey (just as I needed to grow and learn), the place needed to be steeped in truth...and Ghana was the place.
Ghana quickly became as central to the story as any of the characters; it became a character in its own right. And as Kwame and I wrote Solo, he shared with me everything he could about this beautiful country (pictures, music, art, descriptions, poetry, videos, stories, anecdotes...the people). I started having vivid dreams about Ghana, as if I had been traveling there too.
It wasn’t until after we finished the book (just 10 days before Solo’s release) that I actually had the extraordinary opportunity to go there with Kwame and friends.
It was the first time I had left North America (and my husband and kids for more than a couple of days). It was the first time I stepped foot in Konko in real time and in real life, even though I had lived there through our story and in my dreams for a few years.
The word that describes the experience for me is “powerful,” both in the blessing of writing the book with Kwame and having the life-changing chance of meeting Ghana and her amazing people.
Q: How did you choose the particular music you focused on in the book?
A: No matter where we travel on this earth, there is music and it connects us all. Music helps us to tell our stories, our truths. And music is the heart of this story and Blade’s world. It certainly helped Blade connect to his roots.
Kwame and I took turns selecting songs that we loved listening to growing up, and ones that we still love today. We chose lyrics we felt could symbolically move Blade and his family’s story forward. There are also a few of Blade’s original songs in the story that were composed and performed by our friend, Randy Preston (just listen to the audio book).
Kwame also had this great idea to include tracks from the fictional book Blade buys, titled Track by Track: The Greatest Songs You Must Hear Before You Die. I was so excited when Kwame had the eureka moment of wanting to include a song book within the book, as it was such an innovative way to include poems about our favorite musicians and their epic songs that somehow spoke to Blade and his life.
When we landed in Ghana and stepped foot on Ghanaian soil, the first thing I heard was the magnificent sound of drumming. It was the grandest, warmest welcome song ever! For the novel, we made sure to include the sound of those drums and shekeres, along with the singing and the guitars. Music is certainly part of the community experience in Ghana.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel?
A: We did a great deal of research on the back stories behind each song referenced in Solo. Also, because I had not been to Ghana until just days before publication, Kwame was my primary source for discovering this country, along with lots of studying, reading, listening, and watching everything I could discover.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a few picture books and verse novels, as well as a screenplay or two. I am never without ideas and stories! Kwame is busy running his imprint Versify, which is about to release its first lineup of stellar books!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We are thrilled that Solo is being recognized as an honor book for the Children’s Africana Book Award. We were blessed to write about a place and its people who are filled with art, creativity, entrepreneurship, love, hope, gratitude, and community. It was a life-changing story for me, both on a personal and professional level. I will always be grateful to Ghana.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Solo is a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards.