Taking a Novel Approach : A Grieving Judy Collins Finds Writing a Book Helps the Healing Process
Throughout her career, singer-songwriter Judy Collins has touched lives with both her passionate social activism and the pure soprano that distinguished such hits as “Both Sides Now,” “Amazing Grace” and “Send in the Clowns.”
Recently, however, her art, which has expanded to include writing fiction, helped with her own emotional mending following the 1992 suicide of her 33-year-old son, Clark Taylor.
“Artists deal with their pain and suffering all the time; it’s not just when a particular situation happens,” offered Collins recently in a phone interview from Denver, where she was joining in the celebration of her mother’s 80th birthday. “I think that’s how we heal, and that’s something people know because they hear and see things [in you], and then they understand.”
Although she stopped working on her first novel for a time after her son’s death, she ultimately returned to it. “Shameless,” a rock ‘n’ roll-themed romantic suspense thriller that took eight years to finish, was published last summer by Pocket Books. It is scheduled to be released in paperback in July.
Her novel is unlike her 1987 autobiography, “Trust Your Heart” (Houghton Mifflin), which documented, among other things, her own suicide attempt at age 14, plus her battles with polio, bulimia and alcoholism.
“Shameless” is pure fantasy, says its author, a romance novel that’s filled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s written in the first person; the story’s narrator and heroine, Catherine Saint, is a New York-based photo-journalist who contributes to such magazines as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
The book follows Saint’s zealous interest in the progress of a young rock band and abounds in her explicitly described sexual escapades and fantasies.
Collins, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, isn’t worried about whether the steamy subject matter surprises or offends her fans.
“If they’re upset, I think that’s really too bad,” said the singer, who appears Saturday with keyboardist Russell Walden at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. “It’s so wonderful to be a really sensual character. It’s an important part of a woman’s life. . . . Perhaps if people think of me as St. Judy, that’s something they should get over.”
Released simultaneously with the book was a new Collins album, not coincidentally titled “Shameless.”
“The book’s about the music business,” she said, “so I created this group called the Newborns, and ‘Shameless’ is a song they sing. . . . All of the different characters had songs, so it was almost as if it were a musical in my mind.
“But I didn’t think about writing an album until my publisher said, ‘Do you think you could write an album called ‘Shameless’ and we could market them together?’
“I thought it was an interesting idea, and I felt I could probably include other people’s songs. But gradually, it just felt right to write my own, and that was a big creative step, one that lead to an exciting adventure. The creativity of writing prose feeds into the songwriting very well for me.”
Long an interpreter and arranger of other composers’ work, Collins wrote 11 of the 13 songs on “Shameless,” except for the traditional “Kerry Dancers” and “Bard of My Heart.”
Collins was inspired to a life of music by her blind father, Chuck Collins, a singer, composer and radio personality. A classically trained pianist, she made her public debut at 13 playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with the Denver Symphony.
She attended the University of Colorado and was drawn to the traditional folk music and the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
She became a force in the ‘60s folk-rock scene and was one of the first to record the songs of the then-unknown Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.
Collins, now 56 and living in Manhattan with designer Lewis Nelson, whom she called her “life person” of 18 years, has also recently ventured into television and film.
She had a minor acting role in Ivan Reitman’s comedy “Junior,” starring Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and had a recurring role of a blind folklorist in the network TV series “Christy.”
Finding time and energy apparently isn’t a problem for Collins.
“For me, it’s now a creative, multifaceted career that includes involvement in social causes, writing, acting, singing and performing about 75 concerts a year, so that’s very challenging,” said Collins. “Evidently, I like to work, and I believe juggling must be a part of my karma.”
For her, music is the art form that endures. Still idealistic, Collins believes firmly in the power of music to affect society in a positive way. But can it really have any long-lasting impact for social change?
“Of course it can,” she said. “I don’t know how, but people are changed by art. Period. Not just politically, either, but in all kinds of ways. And it’s necessary. It’s as fundamental as air and water.”
Judy Collins performs Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. Sold out; some standby tickets will be available starting at 6 p.m. $25-$35. (714) 854-4646.