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

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?

January 3, 2012

Behind the Book — You Are What You Write

“To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for.” — Lee Strasberg

People who aren’t writers often assume that you’re only writing when you’re sitting in front of your computer. But, as many writers will tell you, as soon as you start a new project you become immersed, which means you’re writing all the time.

When he isn’t working for IBM (or revising and redesigning my websites), my boyfriend bakes bread. As I watch him in the process I realize how much it has in common with my own writing process. When he’s preparing to bake something he often creates what’s called a starter, which is, essentially, the glue that ties together the bread’s unique flavor and texture. This starter needs to be fed and watered, just like a pet or a person, and each day until it’s time to bake he cultivates it and nurtures it and does everything short of talking to it in order to help it grow. Sometimes the starter fails, and the whole thing has to be tossed out. It’s a very delicate process.

With the holidays, I haven’t spent a lot of time at my desk, but I have been working on the starter for the fourth book in the Velva Jean series. Just before Christmas, I returned the edited manuscript for the third Velva Jean to my editor. That book will come back to me again because there’s still work to be done before its release on August 30. But I also need to write book four, due to my editor by September 15.

Book four is still being researched and formulated and outlined– basically the hunting and gathering stage. This starter phase, in some ways, is the most crucial phase because the idea for the book needs to be able to grow and ferment and take shape. Because it’s not yet formed and solid, the idea is susceptible to neglect, among other things. To grow the starter, I am gradually–happily– immersing myself in 1940’s Hollywood, the time and setting of the story.

When Dustin Hoffman was filming Marathon Man, one of the scenes involved his character staying awake for three nights. Reportedly, Hoffman didn’t sleep for three nights in real life so that the scene would seem more realistic. When he arrived on the set after night three, his co-star, Laurence Olivier, asked him why he looked so haggard. When Hoffman told him what he’d done and why, Olivier said, “Try acting, dear boy…it’s much easier.”

It was Russia’s Constantin Stanislavski who first created the idea of method acting, and actor/director/teacher Lee Strasberg who made it popular in America. The idea behind method acting is simple: you invoke inspiration in order to give the truest performance.

One of two Ming Heavens dogs outside Grauman's Chinese

A friend of mine calls me a method writer. At some point, no matter what I’m writing– a harrowing tale about an early Arctic expedition or a harrowing tale about my 1980’s high school adventures, the story of a young girl’s coming of age in Depression-era Appalachia or the story of a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot in World War II– I start living (to some degree) in that other era, that other world, so much so that it can be jarring to leave the house. When I was writing my first book, The Ice Master, I became so lost in the time period– 1913– and the setting– the polar Arctic– that I actually wrote a check at my grocery store and signed the date “November 12, 1913.” (Even though it was March of 2000.) The deeper you immerse yourself, the harder it is to transition out of it. When I was writing Velva Jean Learns to Fly, my boyfriend and I would walk to Trader Joe’s and it would take me the entire trip there and back before I’d completed the re-entry process.

You become a kind of strange, frightened mole-like creature, creeping out of the world you’re creating to do the everyday errands that have to be done to keep life going, shrinking from the all the noise and too-bright fluorescent lighting and the traffic– so much traffic!– dreaming of the moment you step back inside your office, safe again in the quieter, more idyllic world of another time, another place. Chitchat becomes almost impossible. When I wrote the third Velva Jean, I lived and breathed 1944 occupied France, and all its wartime horrors. Going to dinner with friends could be exhausting because, while everyone else was talking about the movies they’d seen or politics or the latest current events, I sat brooding over the battle for Caen or the decimation at Oradour-sur-Glane like I had just returned from the front lines.

This is how I’m currently method writing: As I drive around Los Angeles, on my way to the hair salon or the gym or the grocery, I listen to big band music from the 40’s. I change my route home so that I can pass by some of the few remaining old Hollywood landmarks, ones that I’ll be writing about and that Velva Jean will be visiting. I keep the television tuned to Turner Classic Movies, and when my boyfriend and I watch a movie at home, we watch ones starring Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney.

I always have a stack of books by my bedside, but the present stack is a revolving pile of Hollywood history books, from movie star biographies and autobiographies to histories of studios, the star system, and Los Angeles itself. I’m reading these and keeping them close by not only for research but to keep my mind in that particular place and time. I’ve done this for each and every book, and it not only serves as inspiration, but as protection. Too many things in this world can keep you from sitting at your desk and writing, but by building yourself a kind of portable, specially programmed time machine, you can hopefully create and develop a flow.

Yesterday I drove by the Hollywood YWCA, formerly the Studio Club, where female Hollywood hopefuls roomed and boarded while trying to catch their big break. As I paused on the street outside I didn’t see the girl texting in her car or the homeless man on the corner. I could see instead Marilyn Monroe at the window and Donna Reed at the front door. Passing by nearby Sunset Gower Studios, it was suddenly Columbia Pictures again, home of Rita Hayworth, and I could imagine what it felt like to be twenty-two and walking on that lot for the first time.

As I drove down Hollywood Boulevard, the sun shining through the sun roof, the palm trees swaying, Martha Tilton crooning away on the stereo, for one brief instant the tourists and the motorcycles and the police sirens and the twenty-first century chaos faded away and I had a flash of being Velva Jean. I drove down the block, wearing my red lipstick, the sun beating down on my hair, my arms, and felt full of possibility.

As soon as I got home, I sat down at my desk and wrote up all the ideas I’d had on that short trip. Meanwhile, my boyfriend turned his starter into a wonderful loaf of bread, which we then ate while watching episode three of Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, followed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in Love Crazy. This was bliss: laptop nearby, ready to take notes, happy and safe once again in my own imagined world, having fun while still feeling productive as the ideas continued to gather, the outline of the story filling in more and more, beginning to take shape.

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.