If you’re going to write a novel set in Hollywood then you’re going to be have to be pretty clued up on its ins and out. Fortunately for us then, A L Gaylin has a vast knowledge of the area and what secrets it holds; some of which she reveals in her latest novel What Remains of Me (Arrow). Here the author talks to Chris High about the novel, her writing background and the importance of independent bookshops.
Are you from a writing background, what was your favourite book growing up and why?
My parents were both published authors, as were a lot of people in my family – but of text books. Fiction writers weren’t quite as common. I had a lot of favorite books growing up, but probably the one that most made me want to write fiction myself was The Outsiders, by SE Hinton. I fell in love with those characters (especially Darry. I know, he might not have been the most popular, but I adored him.) And when I found out SE Hinton was only 16 years old when she wrote the book, that sealed it for me!
You started out as a reporter for a celebrity tabloid. How did you get the job and what insight did it provide with regards to the rich and famous and how they live?
I’ve always been interested in pop culture. I’d graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theater (emphasis on playwriting) and, knowing I was going to move back to Los Angeles, where I grew up, I thought it would be great to get a day job in the movie business working in script development. Unfortunately, there was an extended writers’ strike going on at the time, so I moved on to the next option, which was entertainment journalism. I started freelancing for a few newspapers doing theater reviews and arts pieces, and got a few assignments from trades like Shoot and the Hollywood Reporter. I also worked briefly in publicity. When I saw that Star was advertising for reporters, I thought, “Hey, that sounds like fun. Why not?” So I applied for a job there and got it. And yes, it was a real eye-opener as to how the other half lives. A lot of the job involved infiltrating that world – whether it was posing as an extra on movie sets, crashing weddings, staking out celebrity homes or going out to fancy clubs and restaurants and chatting up the staff and regulars. The job really steeped me in that atmosphere and fueled my fascination with Hollywood.
Kelly is very lonely kid who, it can be said, gets in with the “wrong” crowd. How did her character develop?
I’ve always been interested in characters who don’t quite fit in, and as far as the plot of this book goes, it’s essential. As the book starts, Kelly is really alone in the world. She lives with a remote, rather cold mother and is still mourning the loss of her beloved fraternal twin sister, who had grown apart from Kelly even before her death. As she meets and becomes involved with this group of fast, rich kids, she finds a type of “family,” which is what she continues to look for throughout her life – and it’s what motivates her to do almost everything she does. So to make a long story short (too late!) what I wanted to create was a character for whom finding somewhere to belong is everything, but also elusive.
How did John McFadden come about?
He’s the opposite of Kelly in most every way – an insider, Hollywood royalty, respected director, dashingly handsome, a seemingly great father and family man. I wanted to create a character who she would be drawn to as a type of ideal. But if you scratch the glittering surface, he’s very different than he seems. In a way, John McFadden is metaphor for Hollywood itself, and Kelly’s feelings toward him mirror her feelings toward the town.
The novel is written within two main times frames, 1980 and 2010. Why did you decided on this approach and was it difficult to hold the plot lines together so that they join at the end? It is almost as though 2 stories have been written in tandem?
I couldn’t imagine telling the story any other way. Since it’s about these two murders, and how they feed into each other, the most suspenseful way to tell the story, I thought, was to go back and forth between them. I actually did write it in order, though I found myself going back and adding scenes from 1980 when I would get to a point in the 2010 story where those scenes would make the present action more compelling. I was afraid I’d have a lot of problems with it structurally, but when I got to the end, I found out that it wound up working out pretty well. I did extensive revisions after the first draft, but that was mostly character stuff. The structure I’d come up with for the first draft remained basically the same.
Was the hit TV show, Making of a Murderer, an incentive to write What Remains of Me given the effects it has with regards to that particular case and the scrutiny on the justice system as a result?
I was a huge fan of that show, but I actually had finished the book by the time it came out! What did inspire me were some of my favorite true crime books – particularly The Executioner’s Song, which has as much to do with the way a public perceives a crime as it does with the crime itself.
In your acknowledgement you site The Golden Notebook in Woodstock. How are independent bookshops like this faring in the United States and how important are they to aspiring authors?
I love independent bookstores – The Golden Notebook of course, but so many others: BookPeople in Austin, Texas, Murder by the Book in Houston, The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, Vroman’s in Pasadena, California, Oblong books in Rhinebeck, NY and Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont to name just a few. I feel like, after the initial rise of online marketers, these independent bookstores are enjoying success in the US once again because they fill a specific niche. There’s just something about speaking to a knowledgeable, enthusiastic bookseller that can’t be replicated online. I mean, I appreciate the convenience of online sellers. But if I want to buy a book for my mom’s birthday, a conversation with the right bookseller is going to get me a lot further than some site that keeps showing me listings for epoxy because I accidentally clicked on it once.
Why have you decided to write this novel under the name of A.L. GAYLIN rather than Alison as with the Brenna Spector novels etc.?
My new UK publisher decided that, in order to differentiate my standalones from the Brenna Spector series, they would publish those books under my first two initials. I think in the states, some people thought What Remains of Me was the fourth Brenna book, so this is another way to set it apart. My middle name is Lori, so it’s still me!
If there was one author living or dead you could interview, who would it be and why?
What a great question! Interviewing someone is so different than inviting them to a dinner party… Provided nothing was off the record, I think I’d like to interview Truman Capote because he could tell me so much about craft, we could discuss how much of In Cold Blood was fictionalized and also, I’d get to ask him all about all the fascinating people he hung out with.
I’m currently finishing up another standalone called If I Die Tonight. It takes place in a fictional town in the Hudson Valley, and it’s about a hit-and-run that becomes national news — all the lives it affects and destroys.