Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Elizabeth Church talks about the golden era of Las Vegas, showgirls and her stunning new novel ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS

I first met Elizabeth Church at a book festival (This is why writers adore book festivals. We get to meet the authors we love.) In our case, we instantly bonded, and I love Elizabeth so much, I keep trying to convince her to move next door. 

She's the author of THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE was touted by the New York Times for its "elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood." Her new novel, ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, about Las Vegas in its heyday, show girls, and the connections we make--and break--is even more glorious. Plus, it has feathers and sequins.

Big hugs and love to you, Elizabeth, for being here.

Your novel The Atomic Weight of Love won so many awards and was a mega-seller. Was it at all nerve-wracking to set forth on a new novel? Or easier because of your huge success?

I actually began writing All the Beautiful Girls even before I had an agent or sold The Atomic Weight of Love to a publisher.  What was nerve-wracking with this second novel was showing the manuscript of All the Beautiful Girls to my first reader, my agent.  I was fearful that she’d have to figure out some diplomatic way of telling me that I was a one-hit wonder, and that I should find some other way to pay my living expenses.  Since I’ve often sworn that I’d rather clean toilets for a living than return to practicing law, failure was not a happy prospect.

What instantly drew me into your fabulous novel was the story world, so alive with the glitter of Vegas, and the glittering personalities like Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones. That must have been really fun to research!  So tell us about the research—what surprised you? What derailed your plot and sent it in another direction?

Research was a blast!  I loved learning about the costumes, sixties fashion (including eye makeup especially), the stage sets, and of course those celebrity personalities.  I read a number of books, but I also discovered some treasure-troves of images (showgirl photos, costumes, actual menus from Vegas venues), online.  I will say that I ended up with a lot of bizarre pop-up ads, based on my internet searches.  Predictably, there were ads for Vegas airfares and hotels, but I also received ads for G-strings, club wear, and yes – feather outlets. 

I didn’t plan to write about what was going on outside of Vegas (Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement), but as time wore on, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between that city of make-believe and the rest of the world, how strenuously many must have worked to keep hippies and protestors away from the Strip.  I think that was the part of writing this novel that surprised me most – the insight I gained about growing tumult in American culture versus commercialism and peoples’ need to escape to places like Vegas.

I’m curious about why you set it in the Golden Age, rather than now. How have things changed?

I wrote about the time when I would have wanted to be in Vegas, versus now.  I actually was in Vegas in 1966, but I was a child – and so all I could do was walk the sidewalks, look up at the vast neon displays, and wonder what lay behind the doors and curtains.  I see classic Vegas as the best time for that city in the desert.  To me, it was a time of dignity and true class, and of acts that relied solely upon talent – not plastic showmanship – to entertain.  Today’s Vegas, with its fake tidbits from Paris or Italy, its push to be a “family” vacation destination – it all rings untrue to me, and it seems a pallid, watered-down version of what once was.  But, this is all from a woman who loves a good bar – dark ambience, cigarette smoke, highballs and Manhattans, cocktail dresses, men with ties, and even clip-on earrings.  Maybe my age is showing….

I don't want to give anything away, but what I thought was going to happen with her and the Aviator never did—and I actually found that tremendously satisfying. What were you thinking about when you created the Aviator?

I originally intended that the Aviator be present only for a few pages, as the man who killed Lily’s family.  But the Aviator refused to go.  He became – quickly and initially without my permission – an overarching figure.  And so, I let him stay – and as I wrote, his role became clear.  Truthfully, I’m more than a little in love with the Aviator, with what he comes to represent, the genuine, abiding, unshakable love he has for Lily.  In the end, he became a way for me to achieve many goals, among which was to pay homage to a man I dearly loved in “real” life.

So much of All the Beautiful Girls is about power and having control over our lives, despite former trauma. Even the word “Girls” in the title indicates that, and there is that haunting half photo of Ruby on the cover. I know how often covers and titles change, so can you talk about the process for us?

I had two original titles for the book.  My working title was “The Tender Places,” which was then replaced by “Map of Venus.”  I think “All the Beautiful Girls” says more than my original titles, though, because it speaks to the beauty in ALL of us, and in particular to the beauty we all have despite our wounds.  In terms of the cover, I absolutely adore this cover – it shows not only the limelight, the diamonds, and the glamor of what I try to depict in the novel, but also is enormously feminine.  I also quite relish the vivid blue color.  There is another version of the cover created by my publisher in the United Kingdom.  I love that cover, too – which shows a crowd of showgirls gathered backstage and features the perfect sixties font (I call it the “Jacqueline Susann font”).  Both cover images capture not only the beauty of female dancers, but also the accentuation of that beauty through stage makeup and all those elegant feathers.

I loved the line about having a future, except it doesn’t look like what you thought it might. Can you talk about this please?

I have to say that this is one of my favorite aspects of life:  the unpredictability, the humbling that occurs when I’m proven wholly wrong in my predictions and expectations about what my life will be. 

In my writing, I like to strip away all of my characters’ expectations, their best-made plans.  I set out to strip them of comfort and happy endings, because that is how I think life works.  What is interesting, to me, is how a person reacts to pain, to heartache – how she chooses to be in the wake of loss and disappointment.  I respect resiliency, and I think we’re all capable of it, if we require more of ourselves.  Besides, isn’t life our greatest creative project?  What matters is what we create for ourselves, each and every day, despite every hurdle that we might encounter. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Grief, family dynamics.  The often vastly different experiences of siblings within the same family, with the same parents.  Whether siblings can ever come to terms with their different upbringings, their competitions and jealousies, and whether ultimately there can be acceptance of each individual for who she is.  These are some of the themes I’m working on in my third novel.

I was fascinated by the palmistry. How did you learn so much about it? Do you read palms? Did you have yours read?
In college, I became fascinated by palm reading and tarot cards.  Rather ghoulishly, the scientist in me wanted to see the palms of recently deceased persons so that I could check their lifelines, learn whether those lines were accurate in their prediction of life expectancy.  I studied books on palmistry (and had to refresh my memory for purposes of writing Lily/Ruby’s story), and I had a few friends who knew some palmistry (one friend had an aunt who claimed to be psychic).  I’ve found that if word gets out at a party, I will have a line of people asking that I read their palms.  Do I believe in it?  Yes – but only in that it is yet another system by which we can try to understand our lives, the choices we’ve made. 
I once had my palm “professionally” read.  I was told that I had a very sparkly aura, that I was highly psychic, and that I would be reading palms within two years of that reading.  I think I prefer writing fiction – although some might argue that the two are not that far apart.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You’ve not asked me about something I know you understand, Caroline – and that is the mind-boggling thrill of learning that what I’ve created in the solitude of my home, what’s arisen in my mind when I walk or swim, has somehow resonated with a reader.  How breathtaking it is to discover that what I’ve written has touched another life, that my characters’ struggles have found a place in the thoughts of another.  I cannot imagine a greater miracle – or any more striking evidence of the power of the written word.

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