Interview with Amy Mason Doan, Author of Lady Sunshine

by Heather Caliendo
Featured Image for Amy Mason Dolan interview

Amy Mason Doan is the author of Lady Sunshine, which publishes on June 29.

Amy Mason Doan is the bestselling author of The Summer List and Summer Hours. As a writer for publications including The Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired and Forbes, Amy has interviewed everyone from beer-brewing monks to nanotechnologists. Amy has an M.A. in Journalism from Stanford University and a B.A. in English from U.C. Berkeley. Amy lives in Portland, Oregon. She grew up in California, but as a girl she visited the Oregon Shakespeare Fest with her grandparents every year, and she now considers both states home. 

Here’s the synopsis for Lady Sunshine:

For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods… until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.

Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.

Let’s get to know Amy as she talks writing inspirations, favorite musicians, her TBR list and more!

What inspired you to write Lady Sunshine?

A song. When I was in my 20s, living in San Francisco, I played the song “California Stars” by the band Wilco incessantly. It’s a gorgeous, dreamy tune that perfectly captured my mood at the time (I’d just gone through a bad breakup!) Then I found out that the song had an extremely unusual story behind it. The music is modern, by Wilco, but the words were written by Woody Guthrie. He had left a treasure trove of unrecorded lyrics behind when he died, and his daughter teamed up with her favorite singers and produced the tribute album Mermaid Avenue.

I got obsessed with the idea of a dead singer’s lyrics coming to life again…and holding secrets. 

That became the seed of Lady Sunshine. In my version, Jackie’s visiting the sprawling beach compound she’s just inherited from her estranged family, and she reluctantly hosts a group of musicians who are recording a tribute album to her late, legendary uncle. She wants to honor her family’s wishes by letting them use the recording studio on the property. We see that this is incredibly painful for her—but we don’t know why. As the summer of ‘99 progresses, she’s drawn into the musicians’ world and lowers her inhibitions. It’s like the movie Laurel Canyon in that way. She can’t ignore the parallels with the summer of 1979, when she stayed there at 17 and was so happy she thought she’d never leave. And then she realizes, to her shock, that her uncle’s lyrics hold clues about what really happened during that long-ago summer. 

Can you talk about why 1970s California served as an ideal setting? 

1979 has always felt like a beautiful, pivotal year to me. An “on the cusp” year. There were certainly shadows – the gas crisis, hostage crises, SkyLab falling – but it was also a golden time right before MTV, Reagan, and the Me-First, workaholic 80s. I was a very young girl at the time and have fond memories of my freedom. No cell phone. An outdoor life. Roller skating and biking around my neighborhood in California with my friends until dusk. I wanted to create a sepia-toned, outdoor, totally free 1979 summer for Jackie and her cousin Willa. 

Do you approach content differently when writing about two different eras in one book? 

Yes, absolutely. The characters dictate some of that. Jackie in 1999, at 37, is more mature and guarded than she was at 17 when she plunged herself into life at The Sandcastle and her intense friendship with Willa. So her inner voice sounds different. The world is different. I want those time periods to play off of each other so they each feel real and we see the contrasts when we pivot back and forth, so we really sense time passing and, most important, so that readers are desperate to know what happened in the past.  

Were any of the musicians, artists, etc. inspired by real-life people? 

Yes. Graham Kingston, Jackie’s uncle, has glimmers of flawed-but-brilliant artists like David Crosby, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. Willa’s soulfulness and gentle spirit was inspired by Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, though she’s got more of a fragile, ethereal sound and personality. Bree Lang was inspired by Queen Latifah.  

What are some of your favorite musicians? 

Like Jackie, I adore 70s singers like Debbie Harry, Donna Summer, and like Willa, folkier artists — Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Judy Collins. I went to the 1999 Lilith Fair show that’s part of Lady Sunshine’s plot, so all of the great 90s female singer-songwriters mentioned in those scenes are favorites. Sarah McLachlan, Indigo Girls, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, Natalie Merchant… My more modern obsession is Sharon Van Etten, who has one of the most haunting voices I’ve ever heard. I’ve seen her live twice. I love Wilco (obviously!). I’m so excited that live shows are starting up again, and now that I look back on writing Lady Sunshine in 2020, I realize how much of my longing for live music I channeled into the book. I have tickets to see Counting Crows and Death Cab for Cutie with my family this summer and can’t wait. 

What do you hope are some of the key takeaways from the novel? 

Hmmm… Jackie says about sea glass that “something ugly can become beautiful after a long, long time.” Meaning — we can heal if we’re brave enough. There’s joy in reconnecting with our girlhood selves, and in revisiting our intense girlhood friendships and passions. And art can bring us closer, and endure despite the odds.

What are you currently reading and what’s on your TBR (to be read) list? 

I’m on page 53 of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle and already completely drawn in by both timelines. Tears of Amber by Sofia Segovia is wonderful— a sprawling family epic. Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers is a fabulous coming-of-age read. And I have a huge stack of tbrs on my nightstand—Sarah McCraw Crow’s The Wrong Kind of Woman, Jane Healey’s The Secret Stealers, and Peeps by Erin Gordon. 

Click here to order Lady Sunshine.

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