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

January 4, 2012

Behind the Book — The Ghost and Velva Jean

I’ve written my books in various settings. The Ice Master was completed at a duplex just off busy Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, CA. Ada Blackjack was composed in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I began Velva Jean Learns to Drive while living in a 100-year-old bungalow in Atlanta’s inner city Grant Park. I finished that novel and wrote The Aqua Net Diaries in a groovy modern home in a quiet neighborhood on the Atlanta outskirts. I wrote Velva Jean Learns to Fly in a storybook-style townhouse in the Little Armenia section of Hollywood, helicopters whirring and sirens blaring day and night outside my door.

Last January my boyfriend and I moved into a gorgeous historic Art Deco apartment building in the heart of L.A. Built in 1930, it was rumored that Fred Astaire once danced here. There were also rumors about a Russian prince who disappeared (and possibly died here) after swindling someone out of her money. My office is large and light and bright, and it was a terrific place to write the third Velva Jean book (the spying one). But it will be the perfect place to write the fourth one, in which she goes to Hollywood. Especially because it’s haunted.

Just a week or so after we moved in, my boyfriend and I went for a walk. We’d only gotten as far as the elevator, just down the hall, when we remembered something in the apartment. When we went back–only a minute after we’d left– our key suddenly wouldn’t work in the lock. We’d left our phones inside the apartment, and so we went downstairs to knock on our manager’s door (he lives in the building), but there was no answer. We were finally able to locate him, but his key wouldn’t work either. It took a locksmith to get us back inside.

One week later, on a Friday night, we were at the movies. When we came out, I turned on my cell and discovered a voicemail from our manager who said our fire alarm was going off. He wasn’t on the property but one of our neighbors had called him and said it had been going off for hours. When we got home, we found our place filled with steam from the living room radiator valve– which we had turned off upon moving in since there was no radiator attached to it.

Other things happened here and there– waking up to find a large cat bed relocated several feet across a desk, having cleared two piles of books and a lamp without upsetting them; a door shutting more than once in the middle of the night when my boyfriend and all three cats and I were sleeping. But my boyfriend is a skeptic and, to my knowledge, I’ve never in my life had even a brush with a ghost, so we kept waving it away.

Until this morning, when we happened across a story from a former tenant of the building– namely that the building is haunted by a pipe-smoking, cigar-smoking ghost who likes to lock doors and move objects and play with the faucets in the kitchen and the bathroom.

Today I decided to look into the history of our building. After all, I’m in full on research mode as I surround myself with every single bit of Los Angeles history from 1945 till 1950 or so. Who’s to say I can’t weave in a story or two from the place I live in? Especially if it’s haunted?

Nothing gets my adrenaline going like being on the trail of an intriguing story. First I scoured Google. Then I emailed our manager and the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, and then I moved onto the LA Times archives and newspaperarchives.com. Between them I was able to find just a handful of articles: “Russian Prince Missing From Home Here,” and “Russian Prince Case Unfolds Strange Tale.” From there I moved over to the LAPD website.

Immediately, my imagination was off to the race tracks. This is one of the very best aspects about the research phase: all this possibility and brainstorming and free writing, letting your mind go where it wants to go without censorship. I’ve been happily, contentedly, excitedly scribbling notes and ideas all day.

I’ve never (that I know of) written a book with a ghost hovering over my shoulder, but I did love The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney is one of my very favorite actresses), and Mrs. Muir wrote her book with the aid of a very colorful spectral captain. In fact, she most likely wouldn’t or couldn’t have written the book without him.

I’ll save the details of my findings for Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, but I was able to confirm the rumors we’d been hearing, and, in addition, learn a few more facts– involving a Baroness, a large sum of money, suicide notes, and the mysterious disappearance of a certain Russian prince, who apparently used more than one alias and had a taste for pipes and cigars.

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.