Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Melanie Benjamin talks about The Girls in the Picture, the friendship of American Sweetheart Mary Pickford and screenwriter Francis Marion, Hollywood's heyday, female power, and so much, much more



"Benjamin, known for her living, breathing portraits of famous figures, takes on The Golden Age of Hollywood, and the friendship between icons Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. As riveting as the latest blockbuster, this is a star-studded story of female friendships, creative sparks about to ignite, and the power of women. Dazzling."

Yep, that's my blurb for Melanie Benjamin's astonishing The Girls in the Picture. It isn't just a deliciously juice read about the friendship between screenwriter Frances Marion and star Mary Pickford. It's a book about female empowerment--and that makes it truly an important read. 

The one story I always tell about Melanie is that when I was reading in Chicago, during a blizzard, she drove me back to my bed and breakfast, only to find that my key didn't work. AND SHE STAYED UNTIL I WAS ABLE TO ROUSE THE OWNER AND GET INSIDE. It's little things like that that make her who she is, which is wonderful. 

Melanie's other mega-selling novels include Alice I Have Been, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age; The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about Truman Capote and his society swans; and The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. 

Thanks for being here, Melanie!


What made you choose these figures as your next project? And how does this feel personal to you?

I am a huge movie nut, and obsessed with old Hollywood, particularly those very early years.  There was just a vibe about it - the creation of a new art form - that attracts me.  So I've read a lot of books about this era.  And throughout many of those books, this close friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion is mentioned, especially in a book by Cari Beauchamp called "Without Lying Down."  I always thought this could be the basis of a great novel, this empowering female friendship of two collaborators working in this wild and crazy atmosphere, and finally, the time seemed right.  More right than I could have known; since the book was done, there have been so many explosive bombshells about the way men in Hollywood treat women, and these bombshells echo many of the things that Frances, Mary and their friends first encountered in that early Hollywood. 


How was writing this book different than your others?

Every book is different!  I find that so exciting; that every novel is a different experience, has  different highs and lows in the process. I've learned to embrace that rather than fear it.


I bet the research was lots of fun. What surprised you?

So much of this story I knew already, so there weren't a lot of surprises, to be honest.  I do think that the scope of Fred Thomson's fame is not well known today, and it was a bit of a surprise. (Fred Thomson was Frances's beloved husband.)  I loved staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; it was where some of the very first Academy Award dinners were held, and Mary Pickford was an original investor. It was fun to taste a bit of that old Hollywood glamor.



You’re so well-known now, that I have to ask, do you still have the same primal terror most writers have when they start a project? Or do you feel secure now? Or are you one of the writers who never feels insecure! (And if so, how do I get to be that way?)

I have an odd ability to be one hundred percent confident while I'm writing, and then to be one hundred percent ruthless and pragmatic about the business once the novel is done.  If that means ditching it and starting over with something new, fine - I can do that.  I have done it, even since I've become better known.  That never shakes my confidence in my ability, weirdly; I'm able to say, "Well, that didn't work!  Let me try something else!" without being devastated or having my confidence shaken.  What I don't always have confidence in is the business part that I can't control.  I know that you can write your best book ever but circumstances - timing, whatever's going on in the world, other books out at the same time - can conspire to make it so people don't read that book.  And that's the part that still can make me queasy.


Can you talk a bit about what changes these women made on Hollywood and how they might have led to changes today? 

Mary Pickford was the first actor to have her own production company.  She was the first female head of a major movie studio.  She was the first actor to command a million dollars a year, more than any actor (save Charlie Chaplin, who briefly out earned her.)  Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and then Best Screenplay.  Those are amazing firsts, and they blazed the trail - only to have it grow cold.  I think the bigger story here is how these pioneering women's accomplishments did not lead to changes; things grew worse for women in Hollywood after them, as it became a bigger business.  We're just starting to regain the influence that Frances Marion and Mary Pickford had, in their heyday. Which is why this book is so timely now, when the issue of Women in Hollywood is such a hot button.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I'm watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" on Amazon and loving it!  It's what I watch while I treadmill.  



What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 

You always ask great questions!  I could have expounded a bit about how it was, as a writer, to explore another writer in my novel.  And it was fun! I was able to give Frances a few of my own quirks--including that weird self-confidence I mentioned above. 

A school shooting. A paralyzed boy. A fractured community. One of the best books of the year (trust me because this is true.) Stefan Merrill Block talks about OLIVER LOVING.











First there is the praise: "A miracle of a book," Newsday. Then there is the book itself. I am not kidding around when I say I live for books like Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving. Gorgeously written, it's also deeply profound. About the aftermath of a school shooting, it changes lives for both its nuanced characters--and for readers. 

Thank you for answering my questions and being here, Stefan. I think I'd read your grocery list (well, as long as it didn't have lard on it, or mayonnaise.)


 And here is the bio: Born in 1982, Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first two novels are THE STORY OF FORGETTING and THE STORM AT THE DOOR, which won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers' League of Texas, and was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre, and The Center for Fiction.



I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel?

I love that you chose the word “haunting.” I don’t think that I believe in actual ghosts, but beneath everything I’ve written is a similar haunted feeling of unfinished business from the past, a lost person or lost people who still feel profoundly present in some way.  In the case of Oliver Loving, the haunting was tied up with my hometown of Plano, Texas. Plano was a boomtown for much of my childhood – for a few years it was the fastest growing city in America—but beneath all that sudden prosperity there was also some profound darkness. In the 1980s, the media dubbed Plano “The Suicide Capital of America,” after eight kids ended their own lives. When I was a teenager, another crisis rocked Plano: within a year and a half, eighteen kids from my town died from heroin overdoses and several more from suicide. It became a fairly big story in the news; reporters from all over the country showed up to try to answer the same question that those of us in Plano could not: why this town? Why did so many children of a prosperous, upper-middle-class community fall victim to such terrible despair?  All of this is now nearly twenty years in the past, but for those of us who were present for that time, the scars remain, as well as the essential unanswered questions.

Around the time I turned thirty, I came back to Texas for a long stay. I’d been living in New York since I graduated, and my homecoming felt surreal in many ways. Like anyone stepping into their high school bedroom, it seemed to me like some prior, teenage version of myself was still living down there in Texas. But in my visits to Plano, I also found myself thinking often of all those children who died, who will forever remain trapped as teenagers. The impossible conversation that I felt myself having with those lost children and also with a prior version of myself: that was the particular haunting that I wanted to explore in this novel.

You call your character’s last name “Loving,” and the town in which the tragedy unfolds is “bliss.”  What made you choose these ironic names?

Both those names, Loving and Bliss, have a big place in Texas history. The cattleman Oliver Loving is a kind of folk hero in Texas, and Fort Bliss is a major army base in far West Texas, not so distant from the fictional town of Bliss I invented. To my ears, both those names are steeped in Texan lore, and that was a big part of why I chose them. As a reader, I’m always attracted to novels where an essentially realist story has dashes of fable or myth, something mysterious and larger than human drama at work. Given all the unanswerable questions about what happened to Oliver --and the long, unknowable way he has spent the last decade-- Oliver has become “a boy and also a legend” to the people of his hometown, and I wanted to choose names that also carried a kind of mythic echo.  But you are right that those names are also ironic, considering all the tragedy that has befallen both Oliver and his town. In many ways, this is a book about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I liked the way the names “Bliss” and “Loving” reinforced that theme, suggesting a huge contrast between the hope implied by those words and the reality of the present-day situations. 

So much of this gorgeous novel is about family, and how our minds work—or do not work, and how we reach one another. I just loved it. Can you talk about this please?  And about how this differs from your earlier masterwork, the mystery of forgetting?

Almost all of my stories have an impenetrable or unknowable space at their hearts. In the case of The Story of Forgetting, it was the aphasiac mind of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s; in The Storm at the Door, it was a grandparent who died years before I was born; in Oliver Loving, it’s a persistent vegetative state. In all three cases, the novels are largely about the stories that families create to make sense of those places where our ability to understand breaks down.  There are a lot of reasons why this dilemma appeals to me, but I know that one of my major motives has to do with my own feelings about the purpose of fiction. As literary fiction continues to wane from the public conversation, it feels important to me that we writers try to make a case for the necessity of invented stories. I’m always interested in thinking about what fiction can do that no other art form can, and the greatest power of fiction, to my mind, is its unique ability to enter the interior experience of minds other than your own. And that is a major reason that I’m attracted to these minds that exist in a space beyond our knowing: it is perhaps only through an imaginative literary act that you can throw some light into those dark and unseeable places.

How were you changed in writing this novel?

Caroline, as you have now written nine novels, I’d be curious to know: do you feel, with each book, that you are reinventing yourself? Zadie Smith once wrote, “fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move,” and that rings very true for me. To keep moving forward, it feels essential that I revise both my idea of myself as a writer and the sorts of books I’d like to write. In the case of Oliver Loving, that revision felt more radical than ever. Though my first two novels touch on my own personal dilemmas, I also wrote both (as an actor might say) “in character,” transforming my voice to fit the story at hand. With Oliver Loving, I had a new goal: I deliberately wanted to sound like myself. I wanted the narrator’s voice on the page to be closer to my voice in real life. I took the advice I tell my students: I imagined that I was telling this story to a close friend, with whom I could be as sad or funny or ironic as I am in my life outside of writing.  I don’t exactly believe in the old modernist ideal that every writer must “find” his or her truest voice – I think that every writer potentially possesses many different voices and tones in which he or she could write-- but I do feel that in the process of writing this novel, I found a way to be fluent in something closer to my actual self.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

After three novels that took place close to home in one way or another, I’m very excited to write about a time and place far removed from my own. I’m working on a novel set in Vienna in the 1930s, which was a fascinating, harrowing period in the city’s history. One can’t help but see –in the rise of fascism and the demolition of that city’s intellectual culture—dark parallels with our own moment. The story I’m working on is about an inordinately gifted but badly misunderstood child and his family’s fight for survival in a society where difference would not be tolerated. In part, I know that my curiosity in that topic is a response to what is going on in our country right now, but I can also see that my motives are more personal than that. My wife and I just had our first kid, and I find myself wanting to explore another parent’s story as a way to prepare myself for the joys and anxieties of raising a child.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

One last topic that I would like to talk about quickly is the presence of gun violence in this novel. Even now, it somewhat surprises me that a mass shooting is there, right at the center of my book.  Of course, these shootings have become a national epidemic and an urgent crisis, but I think that my need to explore it in my book came from my own childhood. Every time I see the news of another mass shooting, especially one in which young people are killed, I think about all those kids who died in my own hometown when I was a teenager, the grief that I know will stretch for decades and transform a community forever. There is a tremendous sadness in the thought that this long story of aftermath usually goes untold, as the public attention turns to the next tragedy. In putting a shooting at the heart of my novel, I wanted to explore that longer, more inward story of how sudden, drastic loss transforms families and communities, a story that has only just begun when the media have already moved on.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deborah Reed talks about how writing can be hell, the coast of Oregon, and her extraordinary new novel The Days When Birds Come Back.






Deborah Reed
is a marvel. It's always exciting when an arc pops in the mail for me to read and blurb, and I devoured The Days When Birds Come Back, so of course, I wanted Deborah on my blog. She's also the author Olivay, Things We Set on Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me. She has also authored two popular thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun.  I'm thrilled to have her here. And now, some of the raves the book is already racking up:
 
"A character-driven narrative that focuses on the grief her two protagonists suffer. It's a sad tale in which grief almost becomes overwhelming but in which the reader is saved by Reed's lyrical and elegant prose and a sense of redemption at the end."The Oregonian

"Reed is skilled at unraveling their stories gradually, and is particularly adept at both drawing parallels between June and Jameson and depicting how the two help each other through their pain....An emotionally satisfying novel about the lingering effects of trauma and how people deal with guilt." —Publishers Weekly

I always think there is a why now moment, a haunting of the writer, that produces a book. What was yours? 

For me it was a major life change that led to living on the coast of Oregon, a place of immense beauty and fierce destruction, or impending destruction, as it were, living in a tsunami zone on top of the Cascadia subduction zone. It was all of this, as well as a casual conversation between a new
neighbor and me.
I was recently divorced, my kids grown, and I found myself living alone for the first time since my teens. Incredibly secluded and with open stretches of time, my past bubbled up to fill the void—the people, places, and things that had shaped my life, some good, some too terrible to speak of, but all influential, and I began to understand how I’d arrived at this moment in time of total isolation, penetrated by grief.
One day my neighbor mentioned that the house I was living in had been fully renovated by an extraordinary man of particular talent and integrity, a man with whom she'd become friends. In an instant I felt a story in my bones. Hard to explain how that works, like a spell coming on, the senses spark and tingle and the work simply begins. I didn't ask any more details; I just sat down and started writing a story about the true north of home and the struggle of rebuilding one's life in the midst of loss and tragedy. 

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way? (I always feel that I am starting from scratch, that I have learned nothing…) 

To be honest, it was hell. I experienced one of the worst health crises of my life right in the middle of the work. I spent nearly a year feeling incapacitated most days by migraines of all kinds and vertigo and nausea, and yet I would drag myself to the computer and try to squeeze in at least an hour if I could. It felt like exorcising demons--the pain and disorientation constantly needing to be cast out. At one point I was literally trying to manage a way to write while the left side of my vision disappeared in the middle of working. All the words on the screen suddenly read diagonally through my right eye, and only in fragments was I able to decipher a word here and there. And yet, I was telling myself that perhaps if I turned my head sideways and closed that left eye I could see clearly enough to get some writing done. I could not, of course, and recalling it now I don’t have any idea how I got through.
However, I did find a strength I didn't know I had, and managed to unearth things that had been haunting me for most of my life. I figured out a way to let them go, and a catharsis took over and the illness disappeared. But the middle. The middle was horrific. The experience as a whole resulted in this book.
From the perspective of a writer, I know exactly what you mean about starting from scratch. This is my sixth novel and every time I feel once again as if I am lost at sea. I feel foolish and fake and baffled as to why anyone would trust me to do this again. And yet, here we are. I suspect this is a healthy dose of humility keeping things in check. I hope so. I no longer fight against it, whatever it is.
I wish this was not so, but loss always transforms us—as it does your characters. But there is always a choice. We can choose to be brave and transform, or we can succumb to the pain. Do you think there is a dividing line between the people who can and the people who cannot? And why? 

I think this is quite true, how very often we do have a choice to transform and must consciously make a decision to break through to the other side. But there is also the option of taking refuge in one’s pain, because the idea of shedding it for the unknown can, over time, become more terrifying than to live each day with the pain one has gotten used to. I also believe there are people who are convinced that they actually have transformed, and they wear this transformation like a badge, which feels an awful lot to those around them like the lady protesting too much. In the case of my novel, Sarah Anne appears to be the one who understands how to move on and transform her life into something more stable, more so than June or Jameson seem able to, but there is a large part of her who is hiding behind her foster child, doing all the right things for a child who needs her, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. She is blind to what it is doing to her marriage, to what it is doing to the very foundation of her life. June and Jameson come across as more flawed than Sarah Anne, but to me, they are more honest and even honorable to their loss by allowing the darkness to run its course, until they can find a way to reach the other side. I think many people make the mistake of not processing the worst kind of pain, and try instead to outrun it. You can’t outrun grief. Those seven stages are the real deal, and more powerful than any of us would like to believe.

I cried at the ending, and without giving anything away, I wanted to ask—did you always know this was the ending, or did it take you by surprise? 

I'm glad to hear you were so moved. Thank you. No, I didn't know the ending until about a month before I finished it. And, as with every ending I've ever written, I knew it was right and final only after I wrote it down. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming upon an ending in the same way the reader comes upon it. You write to see what will happen, and finally you turn to the last page, and there it is. You sit for a moment after that last word, thinking about these people you’ve come to know and love, wishing them well, and then you say goodbye in the same way the reader closes the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, the state of the world we’re living in. My grown children’s futures, and if those futures will allow them to have children of their own. I am in a state of constant concern about healthcare, women’s rights, peace and goodwill toward other nations. I am finding it increasingly more difficult to write when everything feels petty by comparison to nuclear war and a totalitarian regime. Are you sorry you asked this question?


What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are you dealing with your obsession? The answer: Aside from phone calls and signatures directed toward making a change? Winging it, much like I did when I had to write but couldn’t see or sit up straight. Keeping a close awareness of the natural beauty all around me at the coast. Reading. Acknowledging the love of my family and friends. Continuing to search for hope.