Inspired by the girl detective stories from her childhood, Ashli St. Armant recently released her debut audiobook Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons on Audible.
Viva is a California teen girl visiting her grandmother, Gram, on her summer break in New Orleans. Thinking Gram is a bore, Viva embarks an adventure to solve the mystery of another family’s inheritance she reads about in a newspaper article. The only clue the article mentions is the Miss Mary Mack nursery rhyme, which takes her throughout the vibrant city of New Orleans stringing together the clues she’s discovering on her own.
Ashli, an Orange County, California native, based the story in New Orleans, a place where she said her mother’s side of the family goes back seven generations.
“Just like Viva, I didn’t grow up there. New Orleans felt like this really mysterious, mystical place. It felt like a really good place for a mystery also because New Orleans is kinda mysterious already,” Ashli told she lit. “That’s how I felt about it as a kid. But like Viva’s grandmother, [to] my family that’s from New Orleans and live there, it wasn’t a mysterious place. It felt like a small town in the South. So going there I often felt frustrated because I was like, ‘C’mon, this is a really cool place to explore,’ but they didn’t see it that way.”
She spoke to she lit about the inspirations behind the story and its characters and the music.
she lit: How did Nancy Drew and other girl detectives inspire you to create Viva Durant?
Ashli St. Armant: I grew up with a lot of girls-in-a-series like The Babysitters Club especially and Nancy Drew as well. I wanted to create a series for young girls like the way I had series like that. I wanted the main character to be a young black girl because I hadn’t really seen that when I was a child. I can’t necessarily speak to say there’s not any of that around today, but I certainly didn’t know any when I was a kid. So I wanted to create a world that felt familiar but also had an element of mystery and build a new world from there.
she lit: How did you come up with the concept to tie the mystery around the Miss Mary Mack nursery rhyme and New Orleans history?
Ashli St. Armant: There aren’t any particular ties from that poem to New Orleans and also there’s no known suggestions that poem, or the song, is related to some kind of hidden treasure. That was something I came up with on my own.
However, my other job is I perform as a children’s music artist, so I’m constantly doing deep dives for music that was created by children or by children and how do we create it for the stage and how do we create it for performances. I have four albums out; the first three are mostly original content. My fourth album is called Swing Set. All the songs from that album are not original songs of my own, but they were all created by African Americans over time. They’re almost all created by nonmusicians, so songs created on playgrounds, worker songs, and things like that, and I really wanted to highlight where these songs come from.
Some of these songs are a part of our common vernacular, especially for children, but we don’t realize a lot come from black experiences. Songs like “Coming Around the Mountain”—that song comes from a Negro spiritual. I really nerd out to stuff like that. So Miss Mary Mack is one of the songs on the album, but that song is a playground song. By nature, it was deemed so long ago, made by children, made by black children and girls, that makes a recipe for not knowing where those songs come from because nobody is recording that stuff by people of color, by girls, by children, etc.
But what we think the song is about a child who had an experience going to a funeral. The idea of this black dress with buttons in the back and front gives the impression it might’ve been funeral clothing, so it might’ve been this child’s idea of reflecting on that experience and bringing that back to the playground. That clearly happens to a lot of children’s music.
So anyway I also find it interesting that there’s this mystery around children’s music where we don’t really know—not necessarily children’s music but songs created by children over time, children’s folk music—we don’t really know where these songs come from or what they mean, so that lends itself to mystery, too. So I reinvented what I thought we can say what the song can be about but really we’re not sure. Then it might be around hidden treasure!
I wanted the main character to be a young black girl because I hadn’t really seen that when I was a child. I can’t necessarily speak to say there’s not any of that around today, but I certainly didn’t know any when I was a kid.
she lit: Did you do any of the music in the book?
Ashli St. Armant: Yes and no. This has been an interesting project for me because this is my first full-length writing project. I’ve been writing since I was twelve, starting with poetry then songwriting and short plays. This is my first novel and it’s on a platform like Audible where adding music is tied into that.
I do have a band and I have a wonderful producer that I work with here in California. His name is Chris Schlarb from Big Ego Studios. I worked closely with him to create music for this piece, so you’ll hear some of our original work throughout the piece, but we found that it requires a lot more music than we originally anticipated.
Luckily for us Audible has this wonderful library for music that we were able to pull from. You could never listen to all of this thing; it’s thousands of hours of music. But we hired another sound engineer to work with us. Between the three of us, we were able to find the music that we felt fit this piece. I wanted to have music that not only reflected New Orleans, a jazz style, but I also wanted it to reflect what was happening in a scene whether it was serious, creepy, or funny. I wanted the music to reflect that too but also say it in a jazz style. That’s how we pulled the music together.
she lit: What was it like the first time hearing Bahni Turpin narrate your story?
Ashli St. Armant: I teared up. I loved it. I feel like she really reflected Viva in a really poignant way I wasn’t expecting. But moving backwards a little bit, I originally wanted to narrate this book, but for several reasons it was presented to me to bring on a professional narrator, which isn’t in my wheelhouse yet. It was like handing over my baby. I don’t know if I want to do this.
But then they gave me a shortlist of people that they were suggesting, and I was currently listening to a book narrated by Bahni Turpin. It’s called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I was so moved by that piece and how well she did that. It’s a really deep novel and she did so well. She had to do the voice of a slave owner, a runaway slave, and then girl, then man, and I thought she was so remarkable in that piece.
I never really thought about the job of a narrator until I heard that story. And when her name came up on the list, I was It has to be her. There is this lightness and playfulness in her voice that I just don’t carry. At the end of the day, when I finally heard her voicing the character of Viva and the grandmother, I thought, Omigosh, she’s great. I was happy. It was painful at first, then I bought it. I got to meet her in person, and she was special and lovely, so that worked out well.
I wanted to have music that not only reflected New Orleans, a jazz style, but I also wanted it to reflect what was happening in a scene whether it was serious, creepy, or funny.
she lit: Was Gram based on your grandmother or a variety of people?
Ashli St. Armant: No. Gram is based on some other folks in my life. My godmother—we’re not blood-related, but she’s a family friend—I call her Grandma VJ. She’s still alive. She’s 104. She’s not from New Orleans; she’s from Texas. Her personality is like Gram’s. She’s stern and more structured, but she doesn’t see herself like that or she doesn’t see it as a bad thing.
I think as she’s got older and got past 100—actually when she hit 90 then 100—I had thought, Wow, she’s really a treasure. And it’s something to be learned about how to live that long and how to live that long fruitfully because the fact she still makes her own carrot cake, she makes Christmas cookies. She’s still cooking herself. She plants her own vegetables. She will remember things back from the 1940s and that kind of thing.
When I was a kid, I thought she was so boring. She won’t let me eat McDonald’s. But now I’m in my thirties and thinking long-term, I’m like, Wow, I really have this treasure of a person in my life and I really need to learn something from her. I really want to glean on what she did to live this long, to be so wise. I think that’s what I wanted to reflect in Gram.
I really wanted to show that idea of while we undervalue our older people, sometimes they’re caring for us and imparting this wisdom onto us that we don’t even realize. That’s where that came from. My grandmother passed on, but she was wonderful, but she wasn’t like that at all. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’d let you do anything you want. It’s the combination between my Grandma VJ’s personality paired with my experiences visiting my Grandmother Edna in New Orleans.
Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons is available now on Audible.