Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

September 2, 2012

Stars who read

I hear too many people say, “I don’t read,” as if it’s something to be proud of.

John Waters said, “We need to make books cool again.”  Here are nine stars who did their part.

Reading is cool.

Reading is glamorous.

Reading is swashbuckling.

Reading is smart.

Reading is manly.

Reading is sexy.

Reading is genius.

Reading is fun.




March 19, 2012

When Nonfiction is Fiction

As I’m researching Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack— especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

February 14, 2012

On Valentine’s Day

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 9:28 am

As I sit at my desk on Valentine’s Day, researching and reading about 1940’s Hollywood– today’s subject: Clark Gable– I can’t help getting a little misty-eyed thinking about one of my favorite couples, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Other than Gone with the Wind, I’ve never thought much of Gable, even though his Hollywood star power was unmatchable during the ’30s and ’40s (he was called the King, after all). Never disliked him but never particularly liked him either (as wonderful as he was as Rhett Butler). But his wife, Carole Lombard, is my favorite actress. In all the mountains of Hollywood research I’m delving through, in all the stories and rumor and truth, in all the many accounts from this person and that person, in all the variations on who was who or what was what or the way things were, one thing is consistent– no one ever had a bad word to say about Carole Lombard. In fact, everyone who knew her absolutely loved her. Clark Gable perhaps most of all.

In January 1942, Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash, returning home from a war bond tour. It took the search party twelve hours to reach the wreckage, high on a snow-covered mountainside west of Las Vegas. Throughout the night, Gable waited at the foot of the mountain for word. Everyone aboard had been killed instantly. Carole Lombard was 33 years old.

In August of that year, a grieving Gable enlisted in the Air Force, and became the only soldier allowed to redesign his dog tag: adding to the chain a heart-shaped gold locket, made from a clip belonging to his wife that was found near the crash site. Inside the locket was a picture of Lombard and the remnant of one of her earrings, also found on the mountainside.

So on this most romantic of all days, my work stacked up around me, I’d like to pay tribute to Gable and Lombard with a lovely little video from youtube:

February 1, 2012

Behind the Book — My Editing Journal

If I were keeping a journal right now, the entries would look something like this:

Monday, January 30, 2012–

I manage to make myself go to Physique 57 today, the only thing I know that’s harder than editing a book. I figure what better way to clear my mind and get ready for the day ahead? For those of you unfamiliar with Physique 57, it’s pretty much the hardest, most challenging, most effective workout in the world. There comes a point, half way through class, when I think: I cannot do this anymore. I am either going to die right here on this floor or somehow crawl out and die in the hallway. But as Kyle, my teacher says, “You can do anything for ten seconds.”

This is something I need to remember right now as I am up to my neck in copy edits. And it does help to get me through what turns out to be a day of unusually high email demands– too many non-editing-related-yet-still-work-related matters to deal with. And it helps me get through the edits. Each day I set a goal for the work and today’s is to get through 120 pages. By getting through, I mean reading all the notes made by both the copy editor and my editor and then addressing every note that appears on that allotted 120 pages. And by addressing I mean answering, cutting, rewriting, or, in some cases, returning changed text back to what I originally wrote (sometimes copy editors are so proper and thorough that they can make a character’s voice– especially one as informal as Velva Jean’s– sound overly articulate). In the midst of it all, my editor and I engage in some back and forth regarding certain sections of the story. And more emails pop up that need answering.

My work day ends sometime around 8:00 pm, and then Louis and I watch History is Made at Night, starring a swoon-inducing Charles Boyer and the lovely Jean Arthur, because, when I’m not at my desk or working out, I am watching romantic movies that will help me stay in the mindset (and heartset) of Velva Jean’s romance in Becoming Clementine.

I fall asleep reading a biography of Charles Boyer, which is my way of keeping one foot in the world of 1940’s Hollywood so I don’t get too far away from the book (Velva Jean’s Hollywood adventure) that I’ll be going back to researching and outlining next week, once the copy edited manuscript is returned to my editor.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012–

I don’t get to exercise today, although I pretend I think I’m going to. Instead I work on the next 120 pages of notes until I get an email from my editor wondering if I can condense eight of the existing forty-some chapters into one or two so that the story can move along faster. I practice yoga breathing, which is the closest I get to a workout, and then I tell myself: You can do anything for ten seconds.

I write my editor back, telling her why I don’t think this will work (and it’s not that I’m against cutting– I’ve already cut huge sections/chapters/scenes out of this book), but promising her I will cut and trim like a mad woman in that particular section.

Then I somehow manage to make it through not 120 pages but the entire rest of the book, which leaves me exhausted and incapable of even basic conversation or thought, but feeling somewhat triumphant as well. This means I can spend all day Wednesday looking at those eight chapters that have my editor so worried.

The work day ends at 8:30 pm, and we watch Brief Encounter, which unfortunately does not star Charles Boyer, but is good just the same. I fall asleep under a stack of research books for Velva Jean in Hollywood– a biography of Clark Gable, the story of MGM’s publicity man, Eddie Mannix, and Lana Turner’s self-indulgent autobiography, which I am determined to get through even though she seems most interested in talking about her jewels.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012–
I wake up bleary-eyed and groggy, which I equate to having a kind of book editing hangover. I send the eight chapters in question to my mother, explaining my editor’s concerns, and then I force myself into the car and make myself drive to Beverly Hills to go to Physique 57. Half way through class I think, “This is ten times harder than editing a book, which is already the hardest thing I know of on this earth,” which makes me think, with renewed vigor, that I can go home and Do This Thing. (There is a reason I’ve thanked Physique 57 in the acknowledgments of my book.)

Back at my desk, I see with great relief that the email world is much quieter today. Nothing pressing, nothing that needs addressing. I dive into the eight problem chapters and spend most of the day stripping things away, rewriting, and reorganizing scenes. I discuss what I’ve done with my mother, and then I reread the newly edited pages before moving on to reread other parts of the manuscript.

Everything is in place so that tomorrow I can start reading the book aloud from beginning to end. In my experience, this is the very best way to weed out anything that doesn’t need to be there.

I am still at my desk, but I’m thinking of stopping early today– perhaps by 7:00 pm so we can walk to Trader Joe’s and find something good for dinner and then come back home and watch my favorite romantic movie of all time, Chaplin’s City Lights. Which, unfortunately, also does not star Charles Boyer.

(But I am considering thanking him in my acknowledgments.)

December 30, 2011

Behind the Book — In Search of Hollywood History

Since Christmas I’ve been immersed in a nice big stack of brand new Velva Jean research books, including one about the MGM backlot, the most famous backlot in history. Everything from The Wizard of Oz to Ben-Hur to Singin’ in the Rain was shot there, and it’s estimated that twenty percent of movies made in the twentieth century were made at and by MGM. During MGM’s heyday, they shot and released something like 52 films a year. MGM also featured the biggest roster of the biggest stars, which prompted their slogan: More stars than there are in heaven.

If Velva Jean’s going to Hollywood, I need to figure out which of the studios she might become affiliated with. So in the spirit of research, I headed to Sony Studios, formerly MGM, to take the tour. The lot, like much of Los Angeles itself, has a ragbag history. Unlike Warner Bros in Burbank–which is and always has been Warner Bros since the studio moved to the Valley in 1928 from their original location on Poverty Row– what is now Sony Studios began in 1915 as the Triangle Film Corporation.

In 1924, it became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but by the late 1940s, MGM was unraveling, and in 1969 a millionaire named Kirk Kerkorkian bought the studio and began to take it apart, acre by acre, lot by lot, historic film prop by historic film prop. Ted Turner bought it in the 1980s, Lorimar purchased it in 1986, and Sony Pictures took it over in 1993. Of the original 185 acres, only 45 remain.

For a holiday week, there were a number of folks on the tour. The lot was quiet because production is shut down till January. I’ve spent a good amount of time on various studio lots through my early (brief) acting career, my days at ABC Television, Mom’s work with James Earl Jones, and, most recently, my collaboration with Charlie Sheen and his company at Warner Bros when WB optioned and developed The Aqua Net Diaries as a TV show. Of all the studios, I know Warner Bros. best, but there’s something intriguing (perhaps it’s all that history) about the place formerly known as MGM.

The tour focused a lot (A LOT) on their two resident big-name game shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Because I’m more of a golden age of Hollywood kind of girl, and because I’ve never been a watcher of TV game shows, it took every ounce of self control for me not to go running off on my own to the part of the lot that I love best– the beautiful old art deco-y part where Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly rehearsed their dancing, where Clark Gable kept an apartment while shooting, where Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner went to school. The tour guide talked on and on about Jeopardy and Spiderman and Ghostbusters and The Green Hornet, until I thought I would lose my mind.

But at the very end of the tour, we found ourselves passing by the stage where Esther Williams filmed all her swimming scenes, where Judy Garland sang her way down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, where Joan Crawford shared her bungalow (aka dressing room) with the studio school. Only then did I get out my camera and start shooting (and no, I didn’t run off on my own after all).

It was over far too soon– I would have liked to linger, to sit, to explore the buildings on the inside, to walk on that floor where Gene Kelly danced, to go in search of Myrna Loy’s dressing room, to sit at one of those schoolhouse desks or gaze into Joan Crawford’s mirror.

One of the men on the tour kept cracking jokes. Loudly. Everyone lined up to pose with Adam Sandler’s golf cart. People talked over the tour guide and chomped on gum and texted like crazy. But I took what I could– soaked in what I could soak in– and did what I always do in research situations like this: just looked around and imagined my character there. Where would she have walked? Who would she have met? How would this place have looked back in 1946 or 1947 or 1948 when she might have been there?

And for one minute, just for a flash, I was back there myself. And I could see it the way it once was. And it was magic.