57. Are We Finally Ready to Listen to Women’s Sides of Stories? With Laura Warrell

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In Laura Warrell’s debut novel Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, a cast of women seek love, redemption, and belonging in a story grounded in the world of jazz and centered on a womanizing musician’s venturesome life. Laura joins Claire to discuss what elements from her own life informed this book, why so many people seem to be drawn to philandering men, and why it was important for her to showcase the women’s voices in this story. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is the November pick for The Lemonada Book Club Powered by Penguin Random House.

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Laura Warrell, Claire Bidwell-Smith

Laura Warrell  00:00

I think that one of the things that’s really exciting about hearing from the diversity of voices, again, culturally, gender, identity age, is that we we’ve come to accept so many things is kind of true, right? This is the way things are. And I think, you know, when you look at a story like this, right, men who are players, the idea as well as boys will be boys and but I do think that doesn’t excuse rotten behavior. Right. And I don’t think we necessarily have to accept that narrative. And so I think when women continue to continue telling their side of our romantic stories, their side of our political stories, whatever our sides or plural sides are, then there’s more understanding of how we relate to each other.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  01:03

Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell-Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. Pop culture is filled with romantic stories told by or about men. They often contain parables and tropes about how masculinity should be performed and upheld. We see this in films about men’s sexual conquests or in the boys will be boys stories about young men coming up in the world. My guest today, Laura Warrell is a writer whose subverting those limited narrative patterns. As you’ve just heard her say when stories about love and eroticism are only told from one perspective or with the same narratives. We as a society miss out on much needed insights and perspectives that can teach us about ourselves and how we love. Laura joins me today to talk about her debut novel called sweet, soft plenty rhythm. The novel is a reimagining of the stories we hear about musicians and their romantic adventures. Instead of a novel solely about sex, drama and heartbreak, Laura highlights the lives of the women involved with a jazz musician named Circus. The novel teases out the nuances around the women’s Love, Grief and passion. They deal with the confusion and fallout of messy relationships. Serkis has to reconcile fraught relations with the women in his life, including his daughter. I think many of us will connect with a story about the complex relationships we have with the men in our lives. It’s a fascinating novel, and one you’ll be especially drawn to if you want to be immersed in a story grounded in the world of jazz. Laura is with me today to talk about what her motivations were for the characters. What prompted her to write the novel and what this project says about her life. By the way, sweet, soft plenty rhythm is the November pick for the Lemonada Book club. Powered by Penguin Random House. It’s a first of its kind podcast, book club, uniting lovers of storytelling across books and podcasts. Join us at LemonadaBookClub.com. You’ll find the link in the show notes. Here’s my conversation with Laura.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  03:10

Hi, Laura, thank you.

Laura Warrell  03:11

Hi. Thank you.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  03:13

Thanks so much for making time for this. So I start every episode of this podcast asking my guests How are you doing today? But how are you really doing?

Laura Warrell  03:20

You want to real? Really, really good. Everything has been very, very smooth. And I’ve enjoyed this tour immensely.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  03:29

Well, I can’t wait to talk to you about your new book. sweet, soft, plenty rhythm. I have it sitting right in front of me. It’s amazing. Congratulations. There’s so many places to start. But I I’ve put out three books in my life. And I’m working on more books right now. And it’s a really unique process of writing a book, putting it out in the world going on book tour, you know, having conversations like this, how’s it going so far?

Laura Warrell  03:56

It’s going amazingly, I mean, it’s been fairly seamless, which was kind of unexpected. I felt like there would probably be some practical glitches and so far, not many or not any at all. The reception to this book has been so warm. I’ve been blown away by the places it’s showing up. As far as media coverage goes, and just reviews are really getting what it is I was trying to do. And then people are coming from every epoch of my life to come forward and say they’re happy and they’re excited for me. So it’s been even better than I could have imagined. So I’m thrilled.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  04:37

Oh, congratulations. That’s amazing.

Laura Warrell  04:39

Thank you. Thank you.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  04:41

Can you describe the book for listeners who are not yet familiar?

Laura Warrell  04:45

Certainly. So this book is about the women in a womanizing jazz musicians life so his name is circus Palmer. He’s a trumpet player. He likes women and he’s not particularly committal. In the first chapter he finds out or is told by Maggie who is his sort of most beloved bedmate that she’s pregnant. So rather than showing up to that responsibility, he leads and through the course of the novel, connects and reconnects with past lovers, new lovers, but he also has a daughter, who is 14 years old. And she’s sort of struggling to figure out who she is, especially when she’s got this guy, as her father. And she has a mother who, you know, circuses, ex-wife, pia, who is still carrying a torch. So the book follows. Circus as he comes in and out of these women’s lives, each chapter is told from a different woman’s perspective. So you kind of have two questions at the book answers. The first is, will circus meet this responsibility? Or blow it? And will the women have the guts, the courage, whatever it takes to either liberate themselves, separate themselves from this relationship where they’re not getting what they want? Or shift the dynamics? So that’s basically where you’re going to go if you follow these characters.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  06:14

They are amazing characters to follow. Where did this book come from for you?

Laura Warrell  06:20

So coincidentally, I was living in Boston at the time where I am presently sitting. And I was having a relationship with a musician. And like a lot of writers, I was both inhabiting that relationship as a human being, but also as a writer. And so like a lot of writers, I was curious, right? Why am I doing this? This is a pretty sexy, charismatic guy, but I’m not getting what I want, I will not be getting what I want out of this relationship. So what am I still doing here? What is it that so compelling about, you know, creative people? What is it that so engaging about these kinds of relationships? I know pretty much everybody on the planet has been involved with somebody who’s not giving them what they seek in return. So why do we do it? So that’s really where it came from. And at first thought I would just kind of write a short story exploring it. Circus Palmer, the jazz musician came immediately. And then there was another character, she actually shows up later in the novel, but she was the first to show up when I was putting it together. And I just went from there. I thought, you know what, I really want to show this whole world of this guy, right? All of the women, and I want to turn the tables, I don’t want it to be about him. I want it to be about the women. Because very often when we see these kinds of stories about men who are playboys, right, they can’t help themselves. It’s always about them. And the women are just serving their story. But I want the story to be the women’s.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  07:53

How was it to write, was it fun, was a cathartic?

Laura Warrell  07:57

It really fun. By the end of writing it I was I was done with my own musician, for sure. But I just felt really close to the characters that I created. I mean, we all do as writers, but there was just something to me that was really important about sharing their stories, about, like I said, kind of turning the camera on women, I feel like this doesn’t happen enough. Especially when we’re talking to you or either when we are talking about women in relationship, we don’t often see the complexity, the nuance the dimension. And so it was a lot of fun to write. It was fun coming up with characters, it was fun kind of walking through my own life and seeing women in situations and saying, Hey, that’s the kind of woman this guy would like, I’m going to create a character around her. They’re really diverse, culturally, you’ve got his daughter who’s 14, you’ve got a woman who’s 50 and everywhere in between, you have women who have a variety of sort of professional positions. So I think every woman especially who reads this will find somebody to root for and potentially even root for circus Palmer in a way.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  09:13

There were so many pieces that I loved in so much crossover. My mom’s first husband was a jazz musician. And she like dropped out of art school and moved to New York City and they fell in love. And the best part of that story that I always remember is that when they first got to New York, they slept on Cecil Taylor’s couch in the village.

Laura Warrell  09:32

Oh my God, that is so romantic and wonderful and all of the best ways.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  09:36

But he broke our heart, as jazz musicians tend to do. And she always had that kind of wistful anger and sadness around that and there’s so much kind of passion and sadness that shows up in your book that kind of reminded me of my mom’s stories about this guy.

Laura Warrell  09:53

Yes. It’s interesting because it took me about three years to write but over the course of have five years I kept coming back to it and needing to step away because of other things that were happening in my life. But every single time I talked about it, especially with a woman, they all said, Oh my God, I need to read this, either. They themselves had been in similar situations or knew someone who was whether it was a sexy musician, particularly a jazz musician, or just any kind of guy, right, who’s not easy to pin down. So I’m not surprised. But that still sounds like quite an adventure your mom got to enjoy.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  10:33

Yeah, I ended up in a jazz club in New York City. My freshman year of college, I was living in Vermont for college, and I went down to the city with some friends and we went to a jazz club, and Cecil Taylor was there with that guy, and I got to see him and tell my mom, she actually died a couple months later. So it was like this kind of cool moment I got to share with her right before she died.

Laura Warrell  10:52

Well, if you have a third Cecil Taylor up moment in your life, there’s some deep meaning to it. That’s gotta be I mean, he keeps coming back in your life that’s interesting.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  11:22

One of the things that I just really loved about this, too, was that you inhabited the male character, like what was that like for you to step into his world and his shoes? Did it change the way that you reviewed some of the relationships that you’ve been in, or the ways that you think about women who get into these kinds of relationships  with these Playboy kind of guys?

Laura Warrell  11:46

You know, it’s funny, because Circus, the male character was actually easiest for me. And part of it is, and one of the things I’ve said in other interviews is that I get it right, I get devoting yourself to your craft above pretty much all else I get, how challenging it must be, if you’re an attractive person, and people are offering themselves to you fairly regularly, it must be hard to say no, all the time. But I also think that just kind of my own character, I’m not a judgmental person, I understand that life is complicated and challenging, and hard. And so when I deal with people in my own life, I’m not one to criticize or decide when I hear about things that they do that might be considered unsavory by other people, that I don’t know, that I look down upon them. And so it was really important to me when I created circus to not only understand him myself, but care about him, right? I often compare it to actors, right? actors who play horrible people and say, We’ve got to find the redeeming qualities. And you know, as I said, in general, you know, unless people are doing absolutely terrible, horrific things, I get where they’re coming from, and so I get where Serkis is coming from. I am charmed by him. I understand because I invented it right? What his background is that makes him maybe insecure or immature or afraid of anything that nails him down. So it became easy, in part because I feel a lot of compassion. I’m drawn to him myself. And I understand him. But I also feel like he was fun. I mean, once I got his voice, once I saw him and knew the way he moved, he was really easy to write, I just I knew him. He was like, my creation is my child, whatever you want to call it. And I care, even when he messes up, and I get him, I understand him.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  13:59

I think that’s why he’s such an incredible complex, just fully dynamic character in this book. So I went on a deep dive around some of your other like writing and articles. I read an article in the LA Times about you, but then that led me to a Huffington Post article that you wrote about how you gave up on dating. But all of it reminded me of some times that I had I lived in Los Angeles for a long time, too. And I got divorced there. My first husband, and I was dating for a period of years, all these men in their 40s and it was so fun, LA men in their 40s but you know, you chose to open the book with Circus, you know, he’s 40 What do you tell me about men in their 40s? And when like, what you kind of have learned and what you were seeing and why you why you chose for Circus to be 40.

Laura Warrell  14:53

I love that you said men in LA in their 40, they’re like, Oh, I’m 40, so I need to date somebody 22. But, you know, I think that the reason I chose 40 is it’s the age I think for most people, that becomes scary, daunting, you know, if you haven’t succeeded or built a life in the way you think you should have, by the time you’re 40. That’s where I think for a lot of people fear sets in, right? Am I going to do or accomplish or build what it is that I want to do? What is my life about? What have I already built? Why even want this? And so it feels like a an incredibly pivotal age. I mean, every one of those decades, right, 3040 50 It always feels huge. But I feel like I mean, I just passed the 50 mark. And fortunately, I’m having some nice, it’s going pretty well, so far. But I remember 40 and people I know who are approaching 40. Yeah, you feel like time is running out, you feel like the window is closing. And especially I think if you’re an artist, and you have any intention of having, you know, catch capturing the public eye 40 fields, even for a man, even for a musician, it feels like maybe your time has passed. And so I didn’t want to just create a character who was a jerk who wanted to play around, I wanted to create some sense of urgency in his life, right? That’s makes better fiction. And also, you know, add some dimension to him. Right, if, like I said, if he’s just a jerk who wants to play around, that’s not as interesting. But if he’s somebody who really has goals, who really is not meeting the expectations he had for his own life, that adds something to him, hopefully makes him more compelling. And 40 is sort of, as I say, in the beginning of a book of the book, it’s that age where things begin things end, and it can be a little terrifying.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  17:03

Yeah, or a lot. But yeah,I think there’s some really interesting stuff around that, that you’re saying and 40. And a lot of the men that I was meeting, and even myself and my friends who were dating as well, around that time, I’m remarried now. But I did notice that urgency, you know, that feeling that we were all trying to kind of either meet these expectations we’d had for that time in our lives, or make up for something or find this perfect thing that we had not yet found, I read a great quote that you put in your Huffington Post article about a guy who said something about this would be easier if you were less pretty and Dumber. At it reminded me of a guy I dated briefly. And we got, you know, good six months into this relationship. And then he turned to me one day, and he was just like, you know, this would be perfect if you didn’t have kids. And he had his own kids. I and but that was the kind of thing that I was seeing a lot in that age, of this. It has to be perfect. And I have to figure out all these things that are going to make this thing work. But still Just like everything falling apart anyway, all the time.

Laura Warrell  18:11

Is that what you were finding in LA or sort of generally?

Claire Bidwell-Smith  18:14

I was only really looking in LA.

Laura Warrell  18:19

You know, LA is particularly challenging on so many different levels. And I think you’re right, I think, part of 40 maybe there’s the expectation that people are settling more. I think what happens a lot too are people think, well, you know, this time I want to get it right. If they’ve done it in the past, I am also divorced or I mean, you’re married, I am divorced. But um, yeah, I mean, I think that there’s like, I have to get it right. Which means you know, kids or no kids, or how old those kids are or what you look like or what your personality where you are in your life instead of just, hey, I like you. I feel a connection. Let’s see what this is.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  18:57

Tell me about the character in the book of Coco. She’s Circus’ teen daughter, how did she kind of help you explore his story?

Laura Warrell  19:07

I think that one of the pieces that I found interesting about exploring the people in this guy’s life was what the repercussions are. Right? I mean, obviously, that’s, that’s a big piece of it. And so I thought it would be more interesting to give him a child, right? That he’s neglecting, I think, in some ways he’s not a great dad, right? Because he’s not around much and it’s never been around much. There’s something childlike about him, right? Because he’s sort of an immature guy, which in some ways might make him a good dad in some ways, if he were made himself more available. So I thought it would add, you know, more layers to his character to examine. Okay, well, what’s he like with other people? Okay, these are the women that he’s interested in. What’s he like with a female child? Right. And then more importantly, what is it like for a girl to grow up and be at that very formative, precious age, right? 14-15, when you’re starting to have all of these feelings and hormones, you’re trying to figure out who you are in the world, separating yourself from who you’ve learned to be. And you’ve got a womanizer. Right? neglectful guy, yet still a really charismatic guy, as your father. So I wanted to explore her. And one of the things that’s come to me since I’ve been talking about the book, is, I think it’s kind of interesting, because I feel and I’m not a psychologist, but it feels like, because that age is so formative, Coco as his daughter, having all of these adventures in the book, I really push her into pretty risky, emotionally, and even sometimes physical situations that are pretty risky for her to challenge her right? To evolve, and to me, it’s sort of like, will she become one of those women who 20 years from now is having a relationship with a guy like circus and not getting what she wants, or is this the moment when she says, you know what, I get it, I’m not doing that. And she has healthy relationships.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  21:16

It gives all of them so much more depth than her own as well. And just that urgency and yeah, it’s amazing. Did you have to kind of inhabit your former teen years to call her up?

Laura Warrell  21:51

There was a moment I don’t remember exactly when it was where I kind of thought, oh, no, I think maybe I’m Coco. And, you know, I obviously am a little bit of all of these characters, including circus, but Coco. I mean, there’s really nothing in the book that happens at all, and especially with Coco, that has anything to do with my life. I mean, there are little ditty bits from my own life, or the lives of people that I know, that I put in there, but really not much at all. But I think this idea of, you know, being a pretty already strong willed girl and having I mean, I was boy crazy when I was that age, and boys didn’t like me. And so there were lots of things, and I don’t have a relationship with my father. And so there is that dynamic within me. And so I think, like I said, there was a moment where I thought, okay, so maybe this is a little bit me, but I had to separate myself. So that I didn’t protect Coco from the requirements of fiction, right, which are, run your characters up a tree, that’s what one of my mentors said, and just keep torturing them. So that, you know, it makes better fiction. And so, yeah, it was there was a lot to draw on. It was easier to write her than I thought it would be. I never tried to write a kid before. But like I said, I got to know her. I used my sort of tricks to get to know my characters and loved her. She’s probably my favorite. I feel, you know, I really feel like she’s my child.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  23:34

And tell me about writing music. Writing about jazz in this book. How was that for you? Have you always been a jazz lover?

Laura Warrell  23:40

Yeah, so I am a music lover. I am not a musician. I mean, I played a little bit when I was a child, but I’m not a musician. And so I did a lot of research about jazz, especially because as I was filling out surfaces character, I wanted to, you know, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to generalize about anyone but it helps to build character, right. So I did a lot of research on sort of the great jazz musicians Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, etc, right. Learning about their backgrounds and childhoods and their what pulled them toward jazz. I also read a lot about their lives, right, where they played, how they played, I wanted to know what it felt like for them to come up with melodies for their songs, what it felt like to have the trumpet in their hands. I also did, I listened to a lot of music I kind of started from not the beginning, but you know, some of the dawn of jazz sort of in in the United States and kind of went from there and moved forward to more contemporary jazz and revisited musicians that I knew but really, I wanted to put it into a context. There’s no way for me to know it as well as circus does, but I wanted to, to get as much as I could. And that really got me closer to him and made it easier to write him. But I also trying to write treaty sentences crafted sentences, lyricism and poetry is, is part of what I, what my muse, you know, as a writer brings to me. And so I like to try to, I didn’t want to just like, oh, we played his horn, and it was loud, right, I wanted to really give it some, I wanted the readers to hear it, I wanted the readers to experience it. You’ve got to know why these women are into this guy. It’s not just that he’s good looking. And he’s charismatic part leads the music and so I wanted readers to hear it on the page.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  25:50

How was it to finish the book? Did you grieve, you know your characters? Or do you miss them?

Laura Warrell  25:56

You know, it’s funny, I’m trying to find a way to say this without sounding like a weird, artsy person. I feel like they’re still with me. I feel like, I’m kind of doing this for them, you know, or with them? Like, I’m imagining them sort of being excited that, that their stories are being told. So it doesn’t feel over to me. Yeah, I mean, I feel like I know where all of them are. 20 years later, 30 years later, I didn’t necessarily feel grief. But I did feel like oh, I’m saying goodbye. We’re not going to be hanging out as much anymore, you know, and it’s a bummer, because I really, even you know, some of the characters who just have a chapter, I really did a lot of work to figure out who they were. It’s weird. I didn’t think this would happen. But I’m like, strangely, sometimes I have to remind myself, these are not real people. But, you know.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  27:00

It’s lovely. I’ve only ever written nonfiction. But I read a memoir about my parents who both died. And it did feel that way. I was like, Okay, now they’re out in the world. And I’m doing this for them. And they’re kind of still with me in that sense. And they’re with all these other people, too, which is really cool.

Laura Warrell  27:15

It’s like a weird way. I think, especially with fiction where I don’t know, it. concretizes, right, if I can say that the stories, whether it’s fiction, or nonfiction, and I think with fictional characters, it really makes them come to life. They’re not just living in your head anymore. You know, whoever decides to read the book knows them, too. So it’s fun.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  27:37

Yeah. That’s a very cool experience. So back to this idea of the kind of urgency and expectations around 40. you published your first book at 50. Tell me about that. How does that feel?

Laura Warrell  27:49

It feels amazing. And one of the reasons it feels amazing, I had a friend who I guess maybe when I was 49-50, I don’t remember if I had turned 50 euros about to turn 50. And he had just turned 42. And it’s like, man, 42. And he was really bummed. And I was like, you have no, 42? I mean, I’m now I’m one of those people. It’s like, oh, you’re just a kid, you don’t even know, I wish you could have those years back. But the reality is that it is scary to age on so many different levels. And one of the reasons like I said is because you feel like, am I going to have the life I want or am I going to reach my goals. And so I feel really excited. And I also feel kind of relieved that I did it. So I turned 50 which is feels older, right? It feels like okay, I’m a middle aged woman. But what’s not scary is I feel like I achieved my goal. That’s the greatest gift turning 50 Instead of going oh, no, what was me. What’s gonna happen next? Is this the beginning of the end? I’m feeling like, well, here we go. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the rest of my career.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  29:04

That’s amazing. I think that’s so exciting for so many people too, especially aspiring writers.

Laura Warrell  29:09

Yes. Yeah. And I hope it gives people hope, right? I know a lot of people who feel like well, I’m 40. I’m 45 and 50. I’m 60. But no, it’s especially with writing books. You just have to write them. You don’t have to be you know; you just write the books. You don’t have to be in the public eye in the way I think other artists too.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  29:32

What do you most hope readers take away from this book?

Laura Warrell  29:35

I think that one of the things that’s really exciting about hearing from the diversity of voices, again, culturally, gender, identity age, is that we we’ve come to accept so many things is kind of true, right? This is the way things are. And I think very often that happens because we’ve been told stories by a small, you know, section of our culture. And I think, you know, when you look at a story like this, right, men who are players, the idea as well as boys will be boys, and there’s not much we can do. And it’s not natural for men to, you know, be with one woman. And I’m not necessarily arguing with that last point, I wonder if that’s true for all genders. But I do think that doesn’t excuse rotten behavior, right. And I don’t think we necessarily have to accept that narrative. And so I think when women continue to continue telling their side of our romantic stories, their side of our political stories, whatever our sides or plural sides are, then there’s more understanding of how we relate to each other. So if we just accept, right that this is the way that men are, and we have to modify our own expectations around that, then we’re going to continue to have clunky, unhealthy relationships, and women are going to continue to be unhappy or anybody involved in relationships like this. So I feel like hopefully, there’s more understanding. And so I hope that this is what people take away from my book and books like it.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  31:17

I love that, I love that so much. Thank you, Laura, for giving voice to more of these things and more of these kinds of ways of being women, all the different ways that we are women.

Laura Warrell  31:28

Thank you so much. Thank you for reading and supporting the book.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  31:38

There’s so much humanity and compassion involved in crafting each character, especially circus. And that’s evident in the way we get these nuanced portraits of how they wrestle with love, grief, remorse, and other emotions. I also found it really compelling to think about how the women in the novels such as Coco, were processing all the emotional ruptures and shifting positions as the novel unraveled. I found myself rooting for them to liberate themselves or confront circus, or just find new meaning in life. I’m so appreciative of this novel and grateful that Laura shared it with the world. And you can find out more about sweet soft plenty rhythm and the Lemonada Book club. Powered by Penguin Random House at lemonadabookclub.com. That’s it for today. Make sure you subscribe to the show so that you never miss an episode because there are three episodes every week. And for even more great new day content, subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Have a great weekend and see you Monday.

CREDITS  32:37

NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our VP of weekly content is Steve Nelson. And our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, and me, Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the Well Being Trust, The Jed Foundation and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me at clairebidwellsmith.com. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts.  Thanks for listening. See you next week.

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