by Annette van de Kamp
Quite often, when I’m supposed to review a book, there’s a temptation to sort of skim it. I’m a busy woman, and no one would notice. I usually end up reading the whole thing anyway, but I only have my own neuroses to blame for that.
With Rachel Shukert’s new novel, Starstruck (Random House, 2013), skimming wasn’t really an option. For starters, I received the book from the author’s mother (thanks, Aveva!). Second, I’ve read Shukert’s previous books, Have You no Shame, and Everything is Going to be Great. I couldn’t wait to read her latest. Especially since this technically qualified as Real Work (but only barely).
Starstruck is set in 1930s Hollywood, during the Golden Age, when the studios ruled supreme. Reading it is a little like watching an old Andy Hardy movie; it’s comfortable, entertaining, and it’s easy to forget that the stars were deeply unhappy in their private lives. Judy Garland singing In Between sweeps you off your feet, but you’re unable to forget about those pills they made her swallow.
Shukert’s main characters are three very different girls. Child star Gabby is both experienced and amazingly immature; she has the stage mom from hell and a career that’s going nowhere fast. Margaret transitions from a sheltered high school girl to a silver screen diva in the space of a year. Finally, the gorgeous Amanda is trying to make it while battling some very serious demons from the past. Shukert is masterful in describing the ugly underbelly of Hollywood, and yet she leaves the glamour completely intact. She knows: no matter how harsh the truth, the audience will always come back for more. Anyone who’s ever stood in front of the bathroom mirror, muttering an Oscar-type ‘thank you’ speech, will love this book.
How much fun did you have writing this book? Honestly? I think about as much fun as you can possibly have. As I’m sure you know, writing can often be the opposite of fun, so I’m not going to pretend the whole thing was a barrel of laughs. It’s a big undertaking to write a novel, and at times I felt scared and frustrated, which I think is the basic reaction to the blank page for pretty much everyone. But writing this novel was such an exercise in wish-fulfillment for me, and the world of it is one I’d always fantasized about getting to experience, that more than anything I’ve ever written I really couldn’t wait to dive in at the beginning of every writing day. It was just such a treat to be with these characters, living their lives with them, and through them.
When can I read the next one? Book #2 in the series (it’s a trilogy) is called Love Me, and it will be out in February of 2014. Also, I’m planning to do a little prequel novella that will be downloadable in the fall, about events in a few of the characters lives before Starstruck unfolds. So that should hold people!
Why did you decide to switch to this type of fiction? I never thought about it in terms of making a conscious switch. In my experience, ideas kind of find you, they sort of swim into your head one day and root themselves there until you have no choice but to write them–it’s not an entirely conscious process, and you often don’t understand why, say, that one stuck around and this one didn’t until much, much later. So that’s kind of what happened with this. I had always wanted to write fiction, and it felt like it was time.
As much as I loved writing my autobiographical work, there comes a time where you sort of run out of stories about yourself, and also, where you stop wanting to subject your life and the people in it to that kind of scrutiny, from yourself and from your audience. I wanted to just live for a while, without having to construct a narrative about it, you know? But as for writing for a teen audience with this, it really came down to the fact that I’ve always loved stories about this period of Hollywood, and when you look back on that time, what’s always been so striking to me is how incredibly young the actresses were. Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow were 18 when they made their first films at MGM, and Lana Turner was 17. And they weren’t playing teenage roles, either, they were made out to be these sophisticated femme fatales, and they were just kids. That was so interesting to me. I wanted to explore that, the idea of being really still a girl and having to navigate this incredibly adult world.
Why does the character of Amanda seem so much older than Margo and Gabby? Amanda is a couple of years older than they are, but she’s also been through so much more. Margo was raised in this incredibly sheltered, upper class, finishing-school environment; she’s been purposely kept in the dark about how the world works. Gabby may be a show biz veteran at 16, but that’s also kept her young–it’s always been about her career, she’s always pretty much had to do whatever her mother or director or the studio told her to.
She’s seen a lot, but maturity-wise, she’s still like a little kid–like a lot of child stars, I think. But Amanda’s story is totally different. She grew up very poor, her mother died when she was young, her stepfather was abusive. She ran away from home and she’s been on her own since she was 13, basically doing whatever she had to do to get by. And that changes you. She knows how things work, and she doesn’t have a lot of illusions about what people are like, or what they’re capable of doing. But the thing I love about her, is that even with everything she’s been through, she still has dreams, she still believes in love. She’s still a hopeful character who truly believes things can change for the better.
On page 139, you write: “Except this is my own movie, Margaret thought. She could barely wait to see how it would turn out.” How do you hope the reader will read that sentiment? I think everyone has that feeling, don’t they? That you’re the star of your own movie? Margaret certainly does, especially since she’s watched so many of them. I wanted to show here that she’s aware that she’s embarking on this adventure, but at the same time, she isn’t totally in control of it. It’s like she’s watching it as a viewer, but it’s also happening to her.
Any special reason why studio boss Leo Karp has a chip on his shoulder about Gone with the Wind? What does it say about him? Gone with the Wind was THE buzzed about production at this time in Hollywood. It had been this huge bestseller, but none of the major studios wanted to take a chance on something so big and expensive except for David O. Selznick, who produced it independently (at least, he tried to.) And everyone thought he was crazy, and they were sort of hoping to be proven right, so that they would feel like they did the right thing, passing on it. And of course, it turned out to be the biggest hit in Hollywood history so far. But also, Leo Karp is very much inspired by L.B. Mayer, who was the head of MGM and also David O. Selznick’s father-in-law, so it’s a little in-joke for myself there too.