Novelist Céline Keating knows a bit about the potency of music—from her 15 years playing guitar, her experience as a music critic and, not too long ago, what she describes as a “music train,” traveling across Canada with fanatic groupies and the bands they loved.“The bands weren’t huge,” she recalled last week, “but it was so interesting to observe the dynamics between them and their fans.”
It was these memories she kept in mind while writing the first draft of what would become her second novel, “Play For Me,” released on Tuesday by She Writes Press. She finished it quickly—in just four months, to be exact—only then allowing herself to revise, a process that took years, she said, between her homes on the Upper West Side and Montauk.
Not originally an East Ender, the author grew up in a working-class, strictly Catholic, politically liberal family of Irish and French-Canadian descent. Her world was that of “brick and concrete,” as she calls it—otherwise known as Bellerose, Queens. A young girl craving nature, she would sneak onto the wooded grounds of the Hillside State Hospital, where she would read, observe and daydream. When her father died when she was 10 years old, writing morphed into escapism. By age 11, she had penned her first novel.
Though it never reached a publishing house, her 2013 authorial debut, “Layla,” did. The title character’s tale begins during the 1960s anti-Vietnam movement, her parents active participants, and continues through 2005. By then, her mother has died, leaving behind an envelope of puzzling letters and instructions for a cross-country journey.
“‘Layla’ came out of my fascination with my own life in the late ’60s and early ’70s—a profound time in my life that was very transformative,” Ms. Keating said. “I think I always had that book in the back of my mind.”
Over the course of the novel, Layla discovers clues to the father she never knew, truths about her mother and realizations about herself. “It’s about how her values develop, how one develops a world view and the legacy that activism in the ’60s has on one’s children,” Ms. Keating explained, “and how it affected parent-child relationships.”
While “Layla” could be considered a mystery of sorts, “Play For Me” is more transparent—at least on the surface. It follows Lily Moore, who risks her marriage and comfortable life on the Upper West Side to join musicians on tour and make a film about them, igniting her long-buried capacity for passion, authenticity and creativity.
According to Ms. Keating, the book is about “the power of music in our lives … an exploration of fan-dom. I was drawn to the question of how people become so passionate about musicians, and I think it’s because of how potent music can be.”
Initially, the idea for the book was sparked by a conversation with Ms. Keating’s sister, who was worried about how empty her home would feel once her twin daughters left home for college. She had put her family and career first, and had forgotten, in a way, about her own passions. On the other hand, Ms. Keating had just picked up classical guitar.
“So, the novel is a bit about second chances, too,” she said.
Already at work on her next book—which is set on the East End—Ms. Keating is also collaborating with fellow writer Ed Johann, who runs the Montauk Writers Group, on an anthology of poetry, prose and fiction submitted by writers inspired by Montauk. She has contributed herself, as she considers the East End her writing studio.
Her process includes a walk on the beach—she likes how the movement jogs her creative juices, she said—followed by a cup of coffee before getting to work.
“We just knew, even way back then, we wanted to be at the beach,” she said of herself and her husband, Mark Levy, whose first date was nearly 30 years ago at Hither Hills State Park. “My husband is now retired and I write, and we just feel so lucky.”
Céline Keating will read from her new book, “Play For Me,” on Sunday, May 3, at 11 a.m. at Harbor Books in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit celinekeating.com.