Written Soundscapes: Dialogue and Music in Katrina Jackson’s Layover

Photo by @plqml on Unsplash

This week’s close reading is from Katrina Jackson’s Layover, a masterfully plotted and written novella that I highly recommend to all romance readers. Here’s the cover and blurb:

Layover by [Jackson, Katrina]

Lena Ward is an unhappy travel blogger with a less than 24 hour layover in her hometown. She spends the day with Tony Dembélé, a podcaster she’s been flirting with for a few months online. In their brief time together Lena confronts some hard truths about her life and her past and the two test the waters of their connection.

This is a short story with a sweet and satisfying happy for now ending.

Buy link here. CW for a storyline dealing with grief; this part of the plot is not discussed in this post.

The scene I’ll be looking at occurs about 1/3 of the way into this novella. Lena and Tony have flirted a bit online, but this is their first in-person meeting. There’s a bit of hesitancy on both their parts. Tony has driven all over town to buy Lena’s favorite expensive pressed juice, which he’s now ready to casually pretend he had on hand in his fridge. Lena has shown up with her best friend Aiyanna, who wants to meet and vet the stranger who invited Lena to his apartment to record a podcast. The bit I’m going to analyze occurs after the initial small talk between Lena and Tony, as they’re just about to start recording. I want to look at how the two passages play with sound and visuals; what can be caught on tape, and what can’t; and the formal overlaps between written words and music.

Her smile widened when they made eye contact and then both of their gazes fell. He took a sip of water and she took a sip of her juice. 

He cleared his throat. “Ok so I sent you the interview questions. Did you want to make any changes or anything you want me to avoid?” 

Lena’s smile faltered for a second but then she shook her head and smiled wider, “Nope. Let’s do this.” 

“You…” Tony hesitated. “Are you sure?”

 “I’m sure.” 

He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t know her well enough to know what lay behind that brief hesitation. 

He nodded and decided in that moment that he would edit this interview himself just in case. 

He dropped his eyes to his intro script, cleared his throat, and began to speak. 

◆ ◆ ◆ 

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

Katrina Jackson, Layover. 2018.

This scene is the first time the novella uses the podcast transcript format, and it’s doing some interesting work. To begin with, it establishes a different kind of intimacy between Tony and Lena. The reader gets to know them through bare dialogue, without intervening narration. The podcast format also evokes one of the main motifs of the novella: music. Lena makes playlists for the places she visits (the first line of the novella is “Every city has a playlist”) and listens to music constantly to set or reflect a certain mood. Podcasting lives in an intermediate space between written fiction and music: like fiction, podcasting often has dialogue and narrative storytelling; like music, it relies on a listening audience and often similar platforms like smartphones and streaming apps. The way this novella presents the podcast transcript really highlights the way it borrows from music, and sets up Lena and Tony’s relationship as a kind of artistic collaboration.

To see how this works, I think it’s important to contrast the podcast transcript with the preceding prose. The lines leading up to the switch in form use sound and silence as narrative descriptors, setting them up for use as musical beats in the subsequent podcast transcript. Let’s start at the beginning:

Her smile widened when they made eye contact and then both of their gazes fell. He took a sip of water and she took a sip of her juice. 

He cleared his throat. “Ok so I sent you the interview questions. Did you want to make any changes or anything you want me to avoid?” 

Lena’s smile faltered for a second but then she shook her head and smiled wider, “Nope. Let’s do this.” 

“You…” Tony hesitated. “Are you sure?”

 “I’m sure.” 

He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t know her well enough to know what lay behind that brief hesitation. 

He nodded and decided in that moment that he would edit this interview himself just in case. 

He dropped his eyes to his intro script, cleared his throat, and began to speak. 

The 3rd person narration includes three types of audible interaction that will all reappear in the podcast transcript: throat clearing, hesitation/pausing, and spoken dialogue. Beyond that, however, it consists exclusively of things that either cannot be caught by a recording, or are typically edited out: smiles widening and faltering, eye contact, nods, drinking, head shaking. This preparatory passage reminds readers of things that fill silences, things that the podcast transcript won’t be able to capture. And as we’ll see, the podcast transcript charges its silences with a lot of work and a great deal of meaning. Let’s look a bit closer:

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

On my first pass of trying to analyze this passage, I thought of it as an encounter between Tony and Lena that didn’t adopt the POV of either of the two characters. No narrator, no POV, right? However, on closer examination I actually think it’s a subtle continuation of Tony’s POV from the previous passage. We can assume Tony created this transcript after the interview, based on his assertion that he’d be taking over the sole editing responsibilities. His narrative hand is especially clear in how he transcribes the non-verbal communication, i.e. the bits of description between brackets. Given how people talk, it’s likely Lena pauses more often than is noted in the transcript. The pauses marked in brackets are either the longest pauses, or (I think more likely) the ones that communicated something to Tony.  These bracketed words tell us how Tony is reading Lena, how attuned to her he is, how his awareness of her is developing. A bit like deep 3rd-person POV might.

So what do Tony’s inserted brackets tell us? The first way to read them is on the level of meaning: they indicate that certain moments are funny for a reason, or that there might be a deeper story behind a pause. In general, Lena laughs self-deprecatingly, after she talks about starting blogging accidentally, and looking back on the “retro” methods she used to use to take pictures. In a pattern that remains the case throughout, Tony laughs (and later pauses or is silent) reactively: laughing mostly only right after Lena has laughed, or pausing after she has. 

Lena’s pauses are more complicated. In the intro passage we’ve seen Lena hesitate when Tony asks her if there are questions she wants him to avoid, suggesting that there are certain topics that are hard for her to talk about. And in fact, we see her pausing around the two things she’s struggling with at the moment: her burnout from working on her travel blog, and as-yet undefined family issues. The placement of the [pause]s around things that Tony later learns are meaningful to Lena (struggling with work and missing family) show his awareness of emotions she hasn’t yet put into words.

I do think though that there’s a second, even more compelling way to look at these bracketed moments: they turn the passage into a piece of writing that has rhythm the same way music does. To begin with, the bracketed words set a particular cadence to the dialogue. While I won’t subject you to the actual number crunching I did of the whole passage beyond this excerpt, in general you get a quick burst of bracketed words in a row, followed by longer stretches of dialogue. It creates two rhythms for Lena and Tony’s conversation: short and staccato, and longer and more lyrical – like slower and faster rhythm in music. You can see a microcosm of that pacing in the section of the scene here:

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

The other use of the bracketed sounds is how they operate in relation to each other, extracted from the dialogue. Taken alone, they’re a bit like the tone or key of a piece of music, setting the mood of what we’re listening to and letting us follow its shifts.  Again, I took my analysis from the entire scene, which echoes what you see in the passage I shared. If you look at just the dialogue tags, you see how they set a shifting mood:

[Laughs]

[Pause, Lena clears throat]
[Pause]

[Laughs]
[Laughs]

[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]

[Laughs]
[Laughs]
[Laughs]
[Laughs]

[Silence]
[Pause pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]

[Breath hitch]

[Muffled whisper]

[Sob]

Aside from the initial [laughs], no single bracketed word occurs in isolation until the end: each pause is always accompanied by at least one other, each laugh is the same. They alternate, like music might in tone, between minor and major, pauses and laughs. The piece also has an overall movement to it: the sections grow in length until the end where a series of three separate sounds reach a “crescendo” at the emotional high point of their discussion. 

Ultimately, while this passage represents a podcast, I also think we can see it as a kind of musical collaboration between Lena and Tony: she’s providing most of the lyrics and the rhythm, and he, through a kind of musical-literary deep POV, is “producing” it, deciding which of her pauses and silences are brought to the fore. Layover is a novella that’s about music, and that frequently references music, but it also finds really interesting ways to create music out of words. This passage is, all at once, a scene in a novella, a transcript of a podcast, sheet music for a song made out of words, and a great bit of characterization for how two creatives try out different ways of relating to each other.  

6 thoughts on “Written Soundscapes: Dialogue and Music in Katrina Jackson’s Layover

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