June Sawyers is an author and editor of more than 20 books, including her latest 2022 release Bob Dylan’s New York. This is a revised version of the 2011 first edition from another publisher since there has been so much new material worth noting about Dylan. Sawyers frequently writes about music and the arts, and she is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune.
Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Sawyers resides in Chicago. She has written numerous books on music topics including the Celtic music that speaks to her roots, and always remains an influence in her life and her art, to the works of Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, and, of course, Bob Dylan.
June Sawyers has always been an admirer of Dylan’s work and finds relatability in his storytelling and style. She has captured the way New York itself helped to shape an American icon, and she explores the people and places that became part of Dylan’s life-changing journey.
June spoke more about her recent release, her career as an author, and her artistic influences throughout the years.
Congratulations on your latest book, a revised edition of Bob Dylan’s New York! Can you tell us more about it and where the inspiration came from to write this story in particular?
JS: Well, I’ve been an admirer of Bob Dylan’s work—his lyricism, his storytelling—for years. The first edition was published by an indie house in Berkeley as part of their MusicPlace series. Given Dylan’s strong association with New York and Greenwich Village in particular, it made sense for me to see if the publishers might be interested in including him in the series. They did. This is a revised and updated edition since a lot has happened since the original book was first published a decade or so ago, including Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Then he surprised everyone and released his latest record, Rough and Rowdy Ways, during the height of the pandemic. He is unpredictable.
You also have taught courses on Bob Dylan and the American song tradition. What draws you to Dylan, and what do you think people can learn from him?
JS: I suppose what draws me to his music the most is his love for traditional balladry, especially the traditional ballads of Scotland and England. Being originally from Scotland myself that specific connection made me see Dylan in a way that, perhaps, other people might not have thought about. But then he went further by creating his own canon of songs that defy categorization but that have also stood the test of time.
What would you say is the key message or theme in Bob Dylan’s New York?
JS: Be true to yourself. That’s what Dylan has been doing for decades. It seems to have served him in good stead. The irony is, of course, Dylan has always been a shape-shifter. Who is Bob Dylan? Who is Robert Zimmerman, the Midwestern boy who went to New York and became one of the most famous and acclaimed musicians of our era? Nobody really knows but part of the fun of writing this book was finding out his many sides. He is many.
For those who are unfamiliar with your books, what would you say is most important to know about your work?
JS: I have eclectic interests. My books reflect those interests. But my chief interests are Scotland and music (Dylan, Springsteen, Beatles, Celtic music).
When did you know that you wanted to be an author? And what drew you specifically to music themes?
JS: I always loved newspapers, so I suppose reading newspapers on a daily basis helped feed my habit, which lead me to start writing for several local newspapers. Basically, one thing led to another: a history column in the Chicago Tribune led to my first book contract, which led to other book contracts.
I’ve also loved music—especially popular music. I took a few music lessons—guitar, tin whistle—but realized, much to my chagrin, that I didn’t have a talent for playing an instrument. Fortunately, I was able to turn my interest into writing about music.
You have written or edited more than 20 books. Does it ever get easier? Is every release different or surprising in some way?
JS: No, sorry to say, it never gets easier. Every book is different in its own way, with various shades of difficulty. Lately, though, I find I much prefer writing shorter books!
How has your writing style evolved over time? Has your writing changed as your experiences and the world around you have changed?
JS: I would like to say that my writing has improved but I’ll leave that to other people to decide. I basically write about what interests me.
What is your process? Do you have a set writing schedule each day?
JS: I don’t have a set writing schedule since I do many things, not just writing.
How do you define success as a writer?
JS: To write about what interests you.
Are there any authors, songwriters, or other creatives who have influenced you in a significant way?
JS: There are many writers who have influenced me or at least have had an impact on how I go about writing. Most of them are travel writers, music writers, and essayists. They include Gretel Ehrlich, Sara Wheeler, Rebecca Solnit, Elijah Wald, and Daniel Wolff. I am especially fond of music memoirs such as Patti Smith’s M Train and Dana Jennings’ Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music. Then again, I love memoirs in general: I just finished reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, which came out a few years ago.
I also enjoy reading short story writers, especially James Joyce (Dubliners), Alistair Macleod, Alice Munro, and William Trevor. As far as contemporary fiction writers are concerned, I admire the novels of Douglas Stuart, especially his just-released second novel, Young Mungo.
What do you think is the hardest thing about writing? What is the easiest?
JS: The hardest thing for me is getting started: a blank page or blank screen can be terrifying. It often can lead to a writer’s greatest enemy: procrastination.
The easiest part is coming up with ideas since I love making lists. I also feel a sense of relief and satisfaction after finishing whatever I’ve been working on. I like having done something.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
JS: Be persistent. Don’t give up. Do it because you have to do it.
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