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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Author Laura Warrell ’95 explores jazz and loss of love with ‘Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm’

On April 2, author and Emerson alumni class of ‘95 Laura Warrell visited Emerson College for a Q&A and public reading of her debut novel, “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.”
Emerson College

On April 2, author and Emerson alumni Laura Warrell ‘95 visited Emerson College for a Q&A with WLP faculty member Jabari Asim and public reading of her debut novel, “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.” The conversation was part of the Writing, Literature & Publishing department’s Reading Series, which brings writers into conversation with Emerson students and the overall Boston community. 

The 2022 novel follows jazz performer Circus Palmer who sets off a chain of events by leaving his girlfriend, Maggie, when things become too tangible for him in their relationship. The work features a stunning cast of female voices connected by Circus, from women he met only once to the resonant and relatable voices of his ex-wife and teenage daughter. Through Warrell’s work, they step into the light and take their solos in a kind of story that is often only concerned with the male perspective. 

Ahead of her reading, Warrell described how her time at Emerson, where she got an interdisciplinary degree in creative writing, humanities, and journalism, was valuable to her as an author. 

Her education “filled in [her] awareness about the world … and sharpened [her] skills and voice,” she said 

“Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” is set in Boston, and when asked about the representation of the city in the book, Warrell discussed how she was impacted by her place as a writer. She chose Boston not only because she once lived and wrote there, but “for its proximity to New York” and how vital that proximity is to artists, she said. 

“I also wanted to play with that dynamic for Circus because he’s a musician and wanted more success in his life but didn’t go for it,” she said. “The fact that [New York] is right there and didn’t go for it contributes to the dynamic. In general, he doesn’t really go for what he wants and needs … he doesn’t do that because of fear. Putting what he wants in his arm’s reach and him not going for it, that says something.”

She believes that someone choosing where they live says something about them, and she wanted to emulate that within her characters by making Boston be part of what they want as artists or as people and be in line with their specific goals. 

Warrell described the level of detail she goes into when creating her characters, even if all the information never makes it onto the page. Her choice of opening the novel in Miami instead of Boston came from a deep understanding of the choices her characters, in particular Circus, would make to go there and later leave Maggie behind once he discovers she is pregnant. 

One of the major topics the novel explores is the world of music. Warrell is not a musician but she is “always happy to hear” when people resonate with the way she wrote music in her novel. She knew from overall experience what research she needed to do, and “really filtered her research through jazz” as Circus is a jazz musician specifically. 

“When I taught at Berklee [College of Music], I learned so much from my students. I’m a writer, I’m living my life, and I’m also observing. I had a student who was a pianist, who would play on an invisible piano on his desk … so I took that. I would also just ask my students,” Warrell said. 

Warrell spoke on the myriad of female experiences that the novel delves into and said that the different women came to her in several ways. 

“One of them was based on something that happened to me … there’s a woman who in the book goes to a funeral to see someone from her past. And that happened to me. I was thinking that ‘this is great’ … but now I have to dig into who would do this, what’s going on in your life that you would want to do this,” Warrell said. 

“Like [with] Peach,” Warrell added, discussing another secondary character from the novel, “she’s a type that you often see in books and movies and shows about men who are womanizers. No one takes her seriously, and I wanted to retrieve that woman from those narratives that are so flat and demeaning, and I wanted to give her dimension.”

A lot of it is just building, Warrel added. For example, Maggie was based on drummers. She watched them in interviews to see what they were like.

“Then you start adding your own dimension to that foundation,” Warrell said. 

“There’s probably a part of me in all of them, including in Circus,” she said. “Circus was the easier character for me to write, which is weird.” 

Later, during the event, Warrell read snippets of her novel, specifically from the perspectives of Circus, Maggie, and Circus’s daughter, Koko. Her excerpts demonstrated the breadth of her expertise in giving these characters each a distinct voice and way of viewing the world. Maggie’s perspective particularly resonated with me, especially in how she described how Maggie saw a dirty hand print on the outside of a window. 

“But there was a handprint in the dirt, high up in the corner of the window where the light of the moon seemed to blister against the palm of the open hand. Maggie wondered who had left the print there and how whoever it was had had the opportunity to reach these windows on one of the hotel’s top floors but had not chosen to clean them.” 

Listening to Warrell speak, I was struck by her honesty and transparency about her journey to publication over 25 years. She had a distinct and palpable love for what she discussed, and it was clear how much she enjoyed connecting with the people who attended the event. 

As a creative writer, I was inspired by her evident passion for storytelling and eagerness to encourage and help others. “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” is a testament to Warrell’s understanding of the female condition and her empathy for the women she writes about in full color and sound on the page. 

About the author: “Laura Warrell is the author of Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Lit Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Huffington Post, and other publications. Laura graduated from the Creative Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has attended residencies at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Los Angeles.”

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About the Contributor
Danielle Bartholet
Danielle Bartholet, Assistant Living Arts Editor
Danielle Bartholet has been passionate about writing as long as she can remember, writing on her high school newspaper and then for the Berkeley Beacon since 2023. She is currently a freshman at Emerson as a WLP major and a marketing communications minor. She is from Houston, TX, and enjoys reading and writing, as well theatre.

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