Compose the first drafts of his novel “The Big Door Prize”, MO Walsh wanted the prose to sing. He just didn’t know which song.
The story themes deserved melodic flexibility; Walsh needed to carry his tune over an accompaniment of major chords and lovely grace notes – and sometimes bend it into a minor key for moments marked by genuine heartache and doubt.
Eventually, Walsh heard his goals echoed in the catalog of a loyal musical companion. An American master of history song, the late John Prine struck serious chords at the right time and a comedic, winking tone when the music called for it, Walsh noted.
And Prine’s love for people in his folk tunes, he said, was boundless.
“The more I thought about it, the more I was like, ‘God, I’m trying to write a 300-page John Prine song,'” Walsh said. the same feeling that a John Prine song gives me.”
‘The Big Door Prize’ has serenaded Columbia audiences since being selected as this year’s prize Daniel Boone Regional Library A Reading. Months of page-turning and preparation by the library and its community partners, crescendo in a September full of various programs designed in response to the book, including a visit from Walsh later this month.
Questions and answers
“The Big Door Prize” lands in the fictional town of Deerfield, Louisiana. In the days leading up to its bicentennial celebration, Deerfield’s present is tilted by a mysterious machine.
Appearing in the town grocery store, the DNAMIX promises to reveal a person’s true potential based on a rapid DNA sample. What might look like science fiction never conforms to the genre because science isn’t the point, Walsh said.
“It’s a high-level book, but I don’t want it to feel that way,” he said.
Instead, the book traces – with its huge heart and sharp mind – the bonds that make up a community, how big issues cast a shadow over small towns, and the ever-present question of what we owe them. to each other.
The book begins with a series of questions – after a Prine epigraph, of course.
“How can you know that your whole life will change on a day when the sun rises at the time appointed by science or God or what have you and the morning birds continue their usual bouncing for worms?” writes Walsh. “How do you know?”
Then the questions become more personal: “And why do you think there is another life for you, maybe already another possibility inside of you, when the walk you take every dawn is so beautiful and so sure?”
These queries allow Walsh to get straight to the point — avoiding bulky exposure on the What and How? ‘Or’ What of DNAMIX – and cut to the heart of the story. Intentionally using the language of ‘you’ and ‘we’ even before reaching the city limits of Deerfield, Walsh engages readers through an intimacy that no fantasy scene could ever hope to achieve.
“Of course you watch these people come to these forks in the road. … But I hope the idea is, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ “, did he declare.
Sweat the little things
After asking important but caring questions, Walsh presents characters as rich as literature allows and as real as most small towns.
Among them are Douglas and Cherilyn Hubbard, the central couple of the novel. Douglas’ DNAMIX reading suggests he’s already living his best life, while Cherilyn learns she might be destined for more.
Then there’s high schooler Jacob, still grieving the loss of his brother – and bewildered over the intentions of his late brother’s girlfriend, who could draw him into a relationship. Or something more dangerous.
People like these are the reason Walsh creates.
“Character is always what drives me to write – it’s trying to do these people justice,” he said.
Walsh taps into life, observes and then assigns endearing traits to the personalities we’re meant to love.
“The little details of the characters – that’s all the joy of reading,” he said.
The affection for Douglas grows as one reads the nicknames he invented to become a jazz trombone: “Dizzy Douglas, Herbie Hubbard and Thelonious Doug”. Hearty laughter follows the strange strings of obscenities uttered by Principal Pat, the administrator of the Catholic school where Douglas teaches.
“There was flim-flams and gob nobs and mysterious curses like deekin hawks scattered throughout any conversation you might have with her, at any time of the day, in virtually any setting,” Walsh wrote.
Pat’s parts of speech are inspired by Walsh’s stepfather, who applies an “inventive lexicon – he just uses words that don’t exist at all. They’re just his,” he said. .
Father Pete, the town priest, is indebted to a minister who once visited Walsh’s church. His guest homily described being married before entering the priesthood. Those words set Walsh’s imagination in motion, creating a truly sympathetic figure who deflects stereotypes – a widowed priest whose routine drinking never becomes a bad habit.
Pete also provides a terrific film for Douglas, their relationship perhaps best achieved by singing a duet section of the Mass in one scene.
Walsh has few agendas as a writer, but is interested in overturning literary stereotypes about Southern men, he said. Writing a friendship like Douglas and Pete’s, a friendship with “real emotional ground,” appealed to him.
Once a novelist has written believable characters, the big ideas in a book tend to take care of themselves, Walsh said. This includes omniscient machines and matters of fate, but also how we share our guilt — Catholic or otherwise — and how two people learn to hold a marriage together, he said.
And watching over all the people of Deerfield and the twists and turns of the plot is Walsh’s patron saint. At the final count, “The Big Door Prize” contains around 40 references to John Prine – including his title, a lyric from “In Spite of Ourselves” — all cataloged in an appendix.
Prine’s contributions will still be due to a One Read event on September 16with live performances of his songs and a discussion of what made him such an enduring presence.
And despite the questions facing the people of Deerfield, Walsh doesn’t think the book is as much about reshaping your life as it is about realizing who and what you already have.
“Every time I hear people reading the book and seeing it, not necessarily as a dream-chasing book, but a book that reminds people of who they might be OK with – I like that,” he said. he declares.
Walsh will speak at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium on Tuesday, September 27. Find the complete calendar of One Read events on https://oneread.dbrl.org/.
Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.