On Writing a Hollywood Novel: Finding Yourself Tap Dancing on a Minefield You Weren’t Aware Was There, Or When Fun Fiction Meets an Uglier Reality

Something has been troubling me recently, and as the New Year is approaching I decided to clear my mind.

Little did I know that when I thinly disguised two (secondary) characters in my first novel that the people the characters were partially based on would be drummed out of the industry this year. Here’s my disclaimer. I didn’t know the extent of their real life depravity and predatory behavior, or I would have written something much darker than the satiric noir novel I came up with.

I was as surprised as anyone that the intimidating sexual moves an actor employed as a teenager would continue through adulthood, and that those moves would be used on the same underage adolescents as his initial attractions.

Nor was I aware that the producer who stripped down to his boxers while waiting for his limo after a transcontinental flight was an abusive exhibitionist, a person over 50 women have come forward to name as their attacker, who tried to silence his victims and went so far as to hire ex-spies to cover his tracks.

Now that I do know, I considered pulling the book (you can do that if you self-publish, and how I came to self-publish is a story for another day) but then I realized, it was about a young woman who navigates Hollywood with dignity, assisted by people with honor, who also happen to love the film industry. There are such people here, women and men, and that’s the very reason sexual abusers in entertainment are facing their day of reckoning.

Recently, when I was worrying one of my editors with the question of whether I should write this post he reminded me that “the novel is fiction and transforms reality into something else, something good.” He added (and I’m paraphrasing) that I should include this interview to illustrate the spirit in which the book was written. Here we go, and thanks for bearing with me.

The interview that follows was conducted by George Kaplan and first published in 2014.

***

As You all know – and if you don’t, where’ve ya been?! – Ms Lester’s magnum opus, It’s In His Kiss was recently published/launched as an ebook and to mark that event she has been kind enough to agree to me grilling her like a T-bone – or if you’re vegetarian a cheese sandwich! (Um, and if you’re a vegan you can substitute an, uh, kumquat? Mmm, grilled kumquat it’s delicious… So I’m told…)

Hello, Vickie, and well done on your voyage into the world of self-publishing! What you have accomplished already this year is pretty astonishing, and I hate to be obvious but It’s In His Kiss is a fantastically entertaining, gleefully witty, and sometimes surprisingly touching novel.


Let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start): You’ve lived in California, near the Dream Factory for most of your life. Hollywood is in your blood, so to speak. You’ve been in and around the industry for over three decades, is that right?

Aren’t you delicious! Are you implying I’m merely thirty-five? Well, I’m going with it, yes. That is right, except the implication about my age. I am north of 50.


In writing IIHK did you make a conscious attempt to weave people, places, events you had experience with or had heard of into the novel in a fictionalized manner or did it happen naturally as part of the process?

Usually my stories begin with an image presenting itself in my mind. I tap a description of that image (or series of images) into my computer. The first image I had in relation to It’s in His Kiss was more of a memory. I was thinking about being ten or eleven and flying out to California from New York. It was a time when planes were spacious and even contained sitting rooms, or lounges. I remember the pilot announcing we were cruising above the Rocky Mountains and I recall walking through the plane to the sitting room in the back and planting myself on an orange and brown upholstered bench (very Mad Men) by the window and looking at something like my big brother’s topographical map (only 3D) spread below. It was very impressive.

So, the first impulse in the book came from memory, and a distinct place. As for the events, they were governed by the plot, but a few incidents are based on fact…hold on…a lot of the incidents were based on fact. The more I think of it I wasn’t conscious of overtly basing any of the characters on anyone I knew; it was only when I finished writing the novel that I realized there was a close resemblance; Bob Brown, the heroine’s father was a lot like my dad. In the end, maybe we all do write what we know, twisted and embellished, but what we know…


There’s a certain illicit thrill in trying to determine which elements are wholly fictional and which inspired by real people and situations. I get the feeling you had a lot of fun blending fiction and reality and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the more outlandish aspects were true! Did you have a lot of fun with it?

I had a blast writing the book. I think I’ve mentioned this before but, I love writing. I must get some kind of serotonin jolt from it—for me it’s a pleasure. As I was writing I can’t deny I knew some of the fun in reading it would be trying to figure out who I was talking about… As for outlandish behavior? Well, we all know it’s not confined to Hollywood, but those are the stories I was familiar with. The closeted leading men, the multiple facelifts, the lavender marriages, why, I could write a book 😉 .

 
I must admit to laughing a great deal throughout, you did a wonderful job but what makes your work all the more effective is that even the most comedic moments have a reality to them no matter how absurd while the more serious side to the book is never compromised. Was the balance of humor and emotion hard to achieve?

I was concerned about that because I tend to be a little flippant in real life. I didn’t want that to translate to the page. I’m glad you found it balanced. 

30 Aug 1955, Rome, Italy — To Write United Press Column. Rome: Gloria Swanson, motion picture actress and world traveller, will write a twice-weekly column for United Press on people she meets, places she sees and her observations of the international scene. She is shown here at work in her Rome residence on her first column for release August 31st in which she says “something dreadful” has happened to the American male. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

What was your particular process when writing and – later – revising IIHK? As you wrote the novel did some parts come easier than others? And were any aspects heavily revised?

Now you’re making me work! Let’s see, I finished the first draft of the book a little over two years ago. The biggest initial change was the character count. In the first draft there was no uncle for our heroine, or half-sister. As for hard or easy, writing for me is a very fluid state, I just go wherever the characters lead, in that regard it just flowed. In terms of process I write straight through until the first draft is finished. I let it sit for about a week without reading it and try to pick it up with a fresh eye. I make a ton of revisions and then I ask readers to give me feedback, and by readers I mean my husband and next door neighbor. With this book my agents gave me a set of notes for revisions, and after it went to the publisher (ex-publisher: click here for explanation) I worked with the gentleman you introduced me to, Robert Winter, for line by line scrutiny. He paid particular attention to maintaining narrative tone, clarity, and gave me extensive notes on enhancing and defining the text.


There are more than a few memorable characters in Kiss, do you have any favorites? Were some particularly fun to write?

Joe Merlin, the crass, corpulent, producer was really fun to write. And then there were characters I kinda loved. Like the heroine’s father (I wonder why?) and the smart-talking barista in the coffee shop across from “Eminence Towers” and the Church of Clientology.


The dialogue for Cole Starkey and Bob Brown is, in particular, often hilarious. Was it easy to get into the rhythm of writing for those two at times reprehensible but ultimately likeable Hollywood dinosaurs?

I had Bob Brown’s distinctive patois down pat, right? Because I was listening to someone similar since the beginning of time—well—my time, at any rate. Cole was easy as well, I drew on voices from when I was a kid and living in London, but that was long ago. His dialogue got updated and refined by the Mr. Winter (your countryman) who I was referring to earlier.


Well, I do know Mr Winter and though he is not the world’s greatest extrovert, I fear your praise will cause his head to swell and make him insufferable! (Winter, if you read this: Sorry, but what are friends for!)

Looking back at the whole process of writing the novel, what were the easiest and what the most difficult elements?

You’re going to laugh, George, but I didn’t find writing the novel in any way difficult. Now if you want to talk about writing the weblog, that has its difficult moments. Breaking it down I’d say writing a novel is spinning a yarn, telling a tale, crafting a story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. A weblog is a continuum. (By the way, I hope you appreciate, you who are from the UK, that I am not using the more Americanized term: blog.) Back to the difficulties in writing a weblog—it’s more of a running commentary—sometimes it resonates with readers, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s much more temporal.

Hey, no blushing, but now can you talk a little about writing sex?!

Ah. Sex. There was a lot less in the novel in the first draft, and then I started getting feedback. My next door neighbor said, “Write the sex! You just glossed over it!” My first thought was, why write it? Everyone knows what sex is like. And then it dawned on me that sex is different for everyone. And how a character experiences sex, or perceives of sex, says a lot about them. 

Hey, how a person perceives sex says a lot about them? Is there anything wrong with dressing in a bunny suit? Uhhh, never mind…! Of all the various tools at your disposal when writing, which do you feel you are most skilled at using? Plotting? Characterization? Dialogue?

Dialogue! Followed by characterization. My personal Max Perkins***, also known as Robert Winter, said something I liked about the characters. He said they had a pungent realism. That’s aces for an author to hear, coming from an editor. I hope the plotting made sense, it seems to derive from what the character’s are doing.

[*** William Maxwell Evarts “Max” Perkins September 20, 1884 – June 17, 1947, was the editor for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald…via Maxwell Perkins – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.]

What do you find to be the major difference between writing screenplays and novels? Which habits have you needed to wean yourself off?

The good thing I got from writing screenplays was a sense of pacing, in a movie you never want to lose the audience’s attention, I was conscious of that while I was writing the novel. The other benefit from screenplays is knowing how and when to use dialogue. The major difference between novel and screenplay is written description. In a script it’s brief, just the barest information. I had to wean myself off of that. I had to describe the world of the novel much more clearly.

Before we wrap up, could you give me an insight into what Vickie Lester reads, watches, and, listens to? Which writers and what kind of novels or books hold the most appeal for you? As with most writers I assume that reading means a great deal to you, what sparked your interest? Did your time in London expand your horizons? What music makes you put your dancin’ shoes on? Are you a Sixties, Seventies, Eighties girl? Or all of the above? Did your parents and siblings have any effect on your tastes?

Even though the blog (and trying to figure out how to promote the book) takes up most of my time now, I do still read as much as I can. It’s a habit formed in childhood that’s hard to break. What sparked my interest in reading? It must have been my older siblings. They taught to read when I was four, since then I’ve been roaming the library stacks—and I think Jeff Bezos owes his early success to me. Books that appeal to me have emotional validity, a captivating voice; and a precise view into history, a place, or a personal dynamic… Which is my way of wiggling out of giving you specifics. Okay. I can see you scowling. I’ll tell you why I read, which I think is more important than who I read, I read to see the world differently.

London was a great for me. It taught me that everyone thinks their home is the center of the universe. But more than that, I think I caught a sense of continuity there, of history, that I hadn’t experienced in the United States.

Music? I dance barefoot and I listen to everything!

Everything? Even Pat Boone, Justin Bieber, and polkas?! Details, Vickie, details! The world wants to know!

Well, I did do something similar to a polka in a ballet class recital of Coppélia. To my knowledge, I’ve never heard Bieber sing, and did you know Pat Boone played a very funny parody of his squeaky-clean image in a movie called “Goodbye, Charlie,” starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis? Okay. I’m done dodging your question: I listen to classical (blaring, so I feel like I’m in Carnegie Hall), film scores, R&B, Alt. Rock, Classic Rock, Punk, Hip hop, House, Nat King Cole and other vocalists who send shivers down my spine, that kind of thing!


Before you worked in the industry which movies that you saw in your childhood and teenage years had the most impact on you? The Mister is, I know, a great guy and a great help but is he allowed to talk shop in the house?!

Oh baby! We talk a lot of shop around here. Which is probably why I didn’t write a novel set in Nebraska (no disrespect to Willa Cather). Movies, I’ve seen so many and from such an early age I can’t really separate them as a distinct influences, it’s more like they’re a part of my vocabulary. Does that make sense?


Having read your book that makes perfect sense. Now, It’s In His Kiss has only just been loosed on the world but I have to ask this, do you have ideas for another novel in the future and will it have a similar setting and subject or will it be different? Having done it once do you now have a clear idea of what you want to do and what your strengths are?

Before I started the weblog I was halfway through writing another novel. And guess what! I’m still halfway through… The novel is set in the center of my universe, Hollywood, and now that you mention it there are one or two overlapping characters… (By the way, do you know ellipses or, … , drive editors INSANE?)

They…hate…ell…ip…ses… Golly!

Golly Jeepers! I have a yearning to get back to writing the new novel, but I know I have to devote my time now to selling It’s in His Kiss. Strengths? I can tell you right now “patience” is not one. Wait, you meant in terms of writing. That I do know. I listen to my characters, and the very, very wise words of Billy Wilder, “The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”

In my opinion, you have more than succeeded in fulfilling that objective. And I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m blowing smoke! I think I can speak for many others in saying I wish you the best of success with It’s in His Kiss and I’m excited to see what you do in future. Thank You for agreeing to this interrogation, I’ve really enjoyed it!

Thank you, and so have I, George!

 

3 comments

  1. i say forge ahead with it, your intentions and story were all meant for good – we don’t always know the full story behind the story until someone comes out with it

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