Stardom is a complex and taxing experience, compounded by paparazzi scrums and constant media attention. In Song Bird, Mavis Mills – who has taken the stage name of Nikki – must battle the challenges of fame while caring for her son and family, and searching for love while surrounded by the misleading and manipulative personalities of the music industry. ANGUS DALTON asks novelist CHRISTINE M KNIGHT about the experiences that allowed her to write convincingly about her character’s whirlwind rise to fame.
‘Did you know,’ Christine M Knight asks, ‘that in the original stories of The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man was once a character made of flesh and bone?’ I admit that, despite being coerced into watching the movie multiple times in my childhood that I did not. She explains that in the book series by L Frank Baum, on which the classic movie was based, a woodsman named Nick Chopper has his axe cursed by the Wicked Witch of the East. The bewitched axe turned on him each time he swung it, severing his limbs in quick succession, which he replaced with prosthetic appendages forged from tin. All his flesh and organs were eventually hacked away – including his heart – to be replaced with cold, hard metal.
‘In order to survive and succeed and prosper as the woodsman,’ Christine says, ‘he became a manufactured man, a tin man. In the process of pursuing his career, he lost his heart.’
Christine explains that in her novels she explores the Faustian choices that many people make in their lives that cause them to go astray. Faust is an infamous character in German folklore, popularized by Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in 1592, who makes a pact with the devil; he offers up his soul to Satan in return for limitless pleasure and knowledge. Faustus and the ‘Faustian choice’ are now synonymous with a decision made by a person who forgoes personal morality and integrity in order to achieve a certain ambition or success, just like the Tin Man.
It’s this kind of choice that songstress Mavis Mills struggles with in Christine’s novel Life Song, and it’s recently released sequel, Song Bird. In Life Song, Mavis is torn by a tug-of-war choice between succumbing to the consequences of bad choices she’s made in her life – abusive relationships, insecurity, drug abuse and the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood – or stepping above the challenges and rising to success and fame by pursuing her talent as a musician, a path that is plagued with pitfalls. Mavis was an immensely talented teenager, brimming with promise, but, heartbreakingly, she lost her way.
‘It’s never ceased to amaze me that the brighter and more talented the girl, the more likely it is that she will tend to be insecure,’ Christine says.
‘Teenage girls don’t know about the women’s movement – they want a partner. They want someone to belong to, and they want the status that comes from having a boyfriend and from being popular. So I gave these qualities to Mavis: she’s bright, talented, came from struggling but supportive parents, but she hides her light and downplays her talents.’
Song Bird picks up two years after Life Song, and Mavis has now well and truly found her path (or ‘the golden road’, as Christine describes it). She’s a gold recording artist, well on her way to hitting platinum off the back of a world tour that has reached success that would be unfathomable to her younger, insecure self.
‘To me she was very much like Sleeping Beauty. She had a sleeping talent. But she’s not awakened by a prince.’ Christine says that she’s not interested in those kind of stories; men can be an important part of a woman’s life, but in her stories, they are pointedly not the central aspect of a woman’s existence. ‘Instead of the kiss of a prince that brings her to life, it’s the kiss of life, the kiss of talent, the kiss of music.’
The most glaring demarcation between the Mavis we meet at the beginning of Life Song and the Mavis in Song Bird is her decision to be referred to exclusively – save for a small group of immediate family – by her stage name, Nikki.
The names of the characters in Christine’s books hold significant symbolism and meaning. The reason behind Christine’s particularity with names is explained through the backstory of the mysterious ‘M’ initial that stands between her first and last names. Christine’s father wanted to pay homage to his mother, Anne, by endowing Christine with the middle name of Mari-Anne. Fortunately, her father had a hearing problem, and didn’t realise his mother’s name was actually Agnes, a name that Christine isn’t particularly fond of.
‘I’ve always wondered if I would be different if I was named Christine Mary-Agnes. There’s an awful lot of research about how names shape the way we perceive and think about ourselves.’
Mavis’s decision to relinquish her original name, which is a reference to a European songbird, and be known as Nikki is therefore a monumental step in her growth, and a major theme in Song Bird is the continuing duel between her old and new selves.
‘Mavis represents to her the person she no longer wants to be – the woman with poor judgement, the woman who stuffed up her life, the woman who got trapped and abused, the woman whose heart was broken. Her life changed when she became Nikki Mills.’
The two names the character is known by also distinguish between her personal self, still referred to as Mavis by her close family, and her public persona, lead singer of the Nikki Mills Band and a freshly discovered celebrity with a rapidly rising media profile.
Christine herself had a taste of a musician’s largely nocturnal gigging lifestyle when she was younger and played keyboard for a rock band. She sang in the band too, but admits that she was only tuneful in a very specific range – the other band members used to wait until their audience was appropriately intoxicated before surreptitiously allowing her microphone to be plugged in.
‘I would love to be able to sing,’ she sighs, raising her arms theatrically, her eyes closed. ‘I would love to be a female version of Andrea Bocelli. I would love to be able to soar …’ She returns abruptly from her brief flight of fancy. ‘So I gave the voice that I wanted to Nikki.’
The passion of playing live music translates to the page in the descriptions of the live performances expertly delivered by the Nikki Mills Band, as do Christine’s darker experiences. The lead guitarist of her band was tragically lost to a drug overdose, so she knows that the pursuit of success in the music industry is not the idyllic and romanticised lifestyle often portrayed. She’s watched many movies and TV shows about music and dance, including reality programs such as The Voice and The X-Factor. With a little help from an auto-tuned microphone and a carefully fabricated backstory tailored to be as tear-jerking as possible, new stars can be produced overnight on these shows, albeit ones that burn out quickly. ‘They all make it seem so easy and don’t really give an honest look into what trying to break it and make it in the music industry is really like. They’re all about short-cutting the journey.’
Christine believes that many talented people are reshaped into clones, and that everything that makes them uniquely wonderful gets cut away. It’s that Faustian choice, the dilemma of the Tin Man – how much of themselves are they willing to give away before they make it?
Christine views Nikki’s story as a more accurate, Aussie-battleresque portrayal of the fight for creative success, as someone who never had the artificial leverage of a reality TV show or affluent parents. Nikki is resolute in the face of the paparazzi. She unyieldingly stands up for herself, her family, and her son, Dan, who is particularly vulnerable to the invasive effects of his mother’s fame. Another subtle reference to The Wizard of Oz acts as a metaphor for Nikki’s determination to stay grounded and true to herself. Whenever she is overseas or away from her family and in performance mode, she wears red shoes. It’s a nod to the magical ruby shoes sported by Dorothy that eventually whisk her back to the safety of Kansas. Whenever Nikki has the red shoes on, she knows her way home, back to her coastal town of Keimera, back to who she truly is, safe from being eroded by egotism or whisked away by the whirlwind of media. She refuses to sell her soul. She refuses to become the Tin Man. But can she really survive the tribulations of stardom, motherhood and love with her heart intact?
Song Bird by Christine M Knight is published by Highlight Publishing, rrp$24.99. Order it online or from your local bookshop. You can follow Christine M Knight at christinemknight.com.au.