Monday, June 20, 2016
Hollywood glamour, family secrets, and an obsession with celebrity: New York Times besstselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about her extraordinary new novel, JUNE
I can't think of a better way to spend a gorgeous NYC spring day than walking through Central Park and talking with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Not only is she smart, funny, and a terrifically talented writer, but she's also the kind of person who really listens, gives expert advice, and best of all--she's about to have a baby! (I admit it, I love babies and kids.)
She's the author of The Effects of Light, (soon to be a film), Set Me Free, The New York Times Bestseller, Bittersweet, and now, June, which is already racking up the raves. Take a look:
PopSugar picks June as one of The 31 Books You MUST Put In Your Beachbag This Summer!
Library Journal writes, “The past is not all glossy nostalgia; Beverly-Whittemore illuminates the conflicts roiling under a smooth, socially acceptable surface… Fans of Hollywood, then and now, will find this dramatic story line appealing.”
Shelf Awareness calls June “an enthralling story of Hollywood glamour, first love and shifting loyalties”
Publishers Weekly says June “explores the changing possibilities for women, the evolution of the Hollywood fame machine, and love’s potential for genuine human transformation.”
Booklist says June is “an appealing story of romance and suspense with a focus on love and legacy.”
Kirkus calls June “A lightly gothic tale of hearts broken and mended in small-town America.”
I'm so thrilled to have Miranda here. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I love the whole idea of old Hollywood glamour and I bet the research was a hoot. How did you research this? What surprised you about the research (or better yet, disturbed you?)
I’ve long been obsessed with celebrity. Maybe as a little girl I wanted to be rich and famous (one of my first memories is oohhhing and ahhhing over Princess Diana’s wedding on a newsreel, projected on a bed sheet in the backyard of the British Embassy in Dakar, Senegal), but I quickly realized how unpleasant so many aspects of that life are, and the whole idea of being watched all the time still terrifies me.
Then, after my first novel came out, I was a co-producer on a short adaptation of that book to film, and had my first experience on a real Hollywood set. It was enchanting to watch the well-oiled machine that filmmaking is (especially as a writer who spends most of my time as a maker completely by myself) —everyone has their specific job, and when all those jobs are fitted together, the whole thing works. I realized I wanted to write not just about celebrity, but about a film set, and I thought there was no better witness to such a place than a child who gets to be a part of it.
In June, there are two generations of celebrities—in the modern day, two sisters, one an A-lister a la Jennifer Aniston, and the other a character based on Carrie Fisher; at the beginning of the book, you discover they’re the daughters of the movie star who is the celebrity in the book’s 1955, a matinee idol named Jack Montgomery. Having a family of movie stars across sixty years gave me the opportunity play with the difference between being a celebrity now and then; my perception being that you could get away with a lot more then than you can now (but you also had a lot less power then, especially if you were female).
The truth is, I went into writing this book without knowing much at all about the Hollywood system in the fifties, which meant I bought a lot of books on Amazon, which acted as life rafts when I found myself terrified if I was allowed to write about something of which I knew so little. A good friend of mine who works for TCM suggested that I might want to look at the legendary film Raintree County as inspiration for the film Jack comes to town to make, which was enormously helpful, and from which I borrowed so many ideas, including that prior to my book’s opening, the crew has already filmed a month of interiors on an LA soundstage; they’ve come to this small Ohio town to film the exteriors. But I’ll confess that I’ve never seen Raintree County; I really wanted to let the film in my book stand on its own, without being hampered by too much research, which I definitely see as a danger, because I get obsessed with what actually happened and that can often mean I hamper my own imagination.
June is so expertly plotted, almost like nesting Russian dolls, with one secret uncovering another. So, from a purely practical standpoint, how did you do this? I know you use story structure (Trubyites!) but can you also tell me what else you did?
Thanks so much! Much like my last novel, Bittersweet, June has a really twisting plot, full of surprises, which is my favorite kind of book to read. Like you, I’m a huge fan of using Truby’s Anatomy of Story to outline a book, which takes a lot of time upfront but usually means that when it comes to it, I write the actual book relatively quickly (I wrote most of June in a five month period last spring). I think writing quickly from an outline has a lot to do with plotting in that page-turny way, because I find one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is keeping the whole book in my head at any given time, and writing quickly at least keeps the ideas fresh in my mind.
Once I wrote the book, I took a month-long break from it (while my editor read it) before diving back into the book for a six-week revision in which a LOT changed, including that June had been originally written entirely in first person (it’s now in third). Again, I think doing this revision quickly (six weeks of twelve hour days), although hellish at the time, was the only way I could hold onto all the strands of secrets spinning through the book. I was so lucky to be taken so well care of by my family during that time, who fed and cheered me, and entertained my kid.
It’s funny to realize that as soon as we make story out of anything—every fact—it becomes fictionalized, both because of memory and because how he look at things changes as we change. In June, there are so many secrets and so many memories, that I wanted to know: do you think we can ever really know the real truth about anyone and anything? How close do you think we can get?
That was another starting point for this book. I wanted to write about legacy—from both a cultural and familial viewpoint, because I thought there was a nice parallel to draw between the stories we tell ourselves about our celebrities and the stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors. Both groups of people are revered in mythic ways, almost godlike in our telling of them. But of course they are/were just people, like us, making all sorts of mistakes, lusting, striving, stumbling along the way. I wanted this book to uncover what really happened/s when that layer of time or celebrity is peeled back, and we’re left with the people at the heart of that matter. That’s when life gets interesting, and I believe that almost everyone in my book comes to understand that at the end.
The past impacts the present—from 1955 to 2015. Was writing one time period more fun than another for you? Why or why not?
This is the first time I’ve attempted an historical novel, and I was really scared to do it. But I had some tricks up my sleeve, which I thought of as short cuts, because the two different time periods in this book seemed much more incidental than the plot, if that makes sense. First of all, the small Ohio town where this book is set is based on the real town where my grandmother grew up, and that town has not changed much since the 1800’s, so once I knew that town well, I knew I could write about it at any time period, really. Then I sat down with my parents and a few other friends who’d been children in 1955 and asked them to just brainstorm brands of food, and what their mothers wore, and what they did on Saturday afternoons, and a huge amount of that knowledge went into this book. Finally, although the book is called June, and in the past era, there is a very important character named June, I always knew that the true main character of that storyline is a scrappy tomboy named Lindie, and she was always very accessible to me. I felt safe with her, and I knew that her presence meant I didn’t need to be as scared of writing about 1955 as I might otherwise have been.
I suppose that makes it sounds as though the 1955 section is my favorite, but the truth is I had a total blast writing the present-day section as well. The two modern actresses in that time-period, especially the irreverent Elda (the one based on Carrie Fisher), were so much fun to write. And Cassie, whose the main character in the present day, is so lost at the beginning of the book; it was really fun to help her find home again.
Both June and Lindie are incredible characters, which makes me want to know how did you go about creating them?
As I said above, Lindie just kind of came to me fully formed. She was always queer, stuck in this small town in the fifties in which queerness as a notion didn’t even exist; I realized that her journey would include coming to terms with this fundamental truth about herself, even embracing it, at a time when that would have been very hard to do. Her love for June sometimes puzzled me, because June is a bit of a prickly pear; she’s not the person I’d be in love with. But June’s character is consistent throughout—she’s the person who doesn’t leave a small town, but decides to stay there, to embrace that life—and it was really fun to illustrate this fundamental aspect of her character both through Lindie’s eyes, when June is only 18, and then through June’s granddaughter Cassie’s eyes, after June has died as an old woman. I suppose there are aspects of my maternal grandmother in June, who was a big believer in privacy, which is something not many of us value anymore. For both Cassie and Lindie, this part of June is hard to decipher, even, at times, to like, but it is fundamental to who she is, and informs every big decision she makes in the book (especially the surprising ones).
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I will confess that I just got completely obsessed with organizing my seven year old’s lego collection, much of which he inherited from a teenager next door. I did all this crazy research online about which kind of drawer system is the best for loose lego pieces, and settled upon the Akro-Mils kind, and proceeded to spend three very obsessive days sorting pieces by size (not color) into tiny little drawers. Yes, I know he will quickly dismantle this, but dammit, my book’s about to come out and I’m six months pregnant, so a little procrastination/nesting never hurt anyone, right? Right???
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh Caroline, you always ask the best questions, and I’m always happy to answer them! What I want to ask you is when you will meet me for teatime again, only this time, let’s skip Alice’s Tea Cup and go somewhere where they will let you have coffee.