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The music industry and the dark side of fame

Fernie writer Shelby Knudsen's new novel 'One Night Only' informed by experience
Kootenay author Shelby Knudsen is releasing her second published novel, a noirish psychological thriller set in the music industry.

What would you give up to chase a dream? And what is the cost of finding it?

Shelby Knudsen’s second novel draws deeply on her experience as a professional musician, and follows in the dark footsteps of her first book, “Mountain Girl.”

The Fernie writer’s “One Night Only” is a noir, psychological thriller, following Sky Black, a desperate musician on the edge of fame, from Nelson, B.C. Despite the fact that music is the only thing in her life that brings her joy, Sky is set to play her last show at Vancouver’s Imperial Theatre.

“She’s been having some personal issues, and has decided to quit,” the author said of her character. “She’s been grinding it out. She’s just about to play her last show there, and in the audience that night is a label guy, clinging to the last shreds of his career. He sees her, and says, this girl’s got it. And suddenly, her retirement takes a 180.”

The question Knudsen asks, and which Sky Black faces, is how much would you give up to chase your dream? “When music is your absolute passion, when nothing in life is as colourful as when you’re on stage, what are you willing to give up to chase that?”

But what are the costs of not pursuing your dream? Music has given Sky Black an escape from a troubled past, but her choice to not retire leads her down a new rabbit hole, into the paranoid world of fame, where nothing is as it seems — even your sense of self.

Music and the music industry is a key throughline of “One Night Only,” informed by Knudsen’s own perspective, her years of songwriting and performing, much of that with the trio Wild Honey. Every chapter of “One Night Only” is a song title, and Knudsen has included at novel’s end a playlist of 52 songs.

“A lot of the musicians I’ve met along the way have inspired it,” Knudsen said. “And as much as music brings light into my life, it’s got a dark underbelly.”

The Kootenays are also an influence on the novel, and indeed on Knudsen’s writing.

“The main character is originally from Nelson,” she said. “I grew up in Cranbrook, but spent a lot of time out at Kootenay Lake. I find that area very inspiring. We have a little place on Kootenay Lake where I go to write songs and books.”

When Knudsen wrote the first draft of the “One Night Only” out at Kootenay Lake, at the very beginning of Covid, the main character was male. Knudsen was seeking to distance the character from herself and the events of the unfolding pandemic in real time. But after consultation with her agent, she rewrote the character as female.

“When I did switch it, and walked through the whole novel again as a female on stage, and her feeling everything this poor character goes through, the vulnerability … it really changed how the fans reacted to her, how the agent treated her, what he said to her — all that changed. It shocked me, even.”

“One Night Only” is actually the third novel Knudsen has written. “Mountain Girl,” published in 2016, set in the Kootenays, is a tense, driving story of a kidnapping, disappearance, and Stockholm syndrome.

Knudsen wrote a second novel after “Mountain Girl.” “The Devil Tree” takes place on the US-Mexico border.

“It’s very dark, and I did a lot of research before I wrote it,” she said. “It got picked up by an American publisher — but they folded when Covid hit. So it got shelved. And then this one came up to write.”

With that writing experience in her pocket, Knudsen’s process has evolved as well.

“With ‘Mountain Girl,’ I always had the fear of ‘am I going to finish this,’ because it goes on for so long,” Knudsen said. “With two books already under my belt, with [‘One Night Only’] I could see the endpoint. I know the journey I was going to take, and how I was going to get there.

“When I started ‘Mountain Girl,’ I found that the characters led me through the story. The characters surprised me with their actions. With ‘One Night Only’ it was so clear what the story would be.”

Knudsen’s publishers offered suggestions of changes they would like to see, secondary characters brought out more, and such.

“Because I was so clear in my head, I didn’t want anyone else to mess with it. In the end I really clung to what I wanted it to be, for better or for worse. I ended up decided to publish it through East Shore Books, which is a publishing company I started, so I could do it the way I wanted to do it. I really wanted it to be my story.”

Knudsen and her bandmates in Wild Honey — Jessica Niedermayer and Laura Cain — take a similar approach to their music. “[Our second album is] very much our songs and how we wanted to do them,” Knudsen said. “In the end we were so happy with how it came out. It had that real organic sound that we have. I wanted the book to have that same — there’s a lot of realness in it that I’ve seen.”

Knudsen is officially releasing her book at the Arts Station in Fernie on July 11. A book launch will be held at Otter Books in Nelson on August 8, and Huckleberry Books in Cranbrook at a date still to be determined in August.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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