Why a Novel About Hollywood?
My second book, Little Known Facts, is a novel about a family in Hollywood with a successful actor at its center. My primary interests as I wrote the book were the complex relationships between parent and child, brother and sister. Little Known Facts is not meant to be read as a cautionary tale about the price of fame and its effects on a successful actor and those closest to him. Nonetheless, as I wrote the book, I attempted to be clear-eyed and unsentimental about the probable drawbacks experienced by someone with the kind of fame Renn Ivins, the novel’s focal character, has achieved.
The idea for the book arrived at some point in 2010, and I’m not sure what triggered it. One day I was thinking, What would it be like to be the son of Harrison Ford? Or Paul Newman? Or George Clooney? I think it would probably be pretty difficult because almost any potential friends or lovers the son meets, whether they realize it or not, would want to get as close, if not closer, to the father as the son.
Plot is important in this novel, as it is in most novels, literary or genre fiction, but Little Known Facts is above all a character-driven story, that is, literary fiction, as all of the fiction that I’ve written since I started writing seriously twenty-two years ago probably is. I am most interested in voice and character, and each of the major characters narrates one or two chapters in this novel.
As my editor at Bloomsbury, Nancy Miller, said when we first spoke about the book in September 2011, after Lisa Bankoff (my very hardworking agent), sent it to her, the novel asks the question: If you could have anything in the world, what would you choose?
Above all, this is the quandary the novel poses for most of its characters. I chose to consider this question by anchoring the Ivins family firmly in the middle of DreamFactoryLand, USA – here is a family with everything – all of the material goods and more intangible gifts that we are told by our media that we should pursue and seize, no matter what the personal costs.
Beauty and good health? Yes.
As I wrote, I wondered: Why is it that the people who have these things are often so miserable? Why do a considerable number of famous people often appear in the tabloids, ones that gleefully trumpet their latest bad decision? And why do they seem so often to trust and/or fall in love with the wrong people?
These are the questions that I considered as I wrote Little Known Facts. Being a lifelong fan of film, and having followed the career trajectories of many actors and actresses since my childhood, I realized after I wrote “Relations” in the fall of 2010 and continued to think about Will and what happens to him that I had found my ideal subjects: family, fame, and film.
In September of 2010, I started writing the first chapter, “Relations,” which has since been published in The Southern Review, as has the second chapter, “Flattering Light.” I didn’t, at the time, think of “Relations” as a chapter, only as a stand-alone story, but in mid-March of 2011, I realized that I was still interested in Renn Ivins, his son Will, his daughter Anna, and in Elise Connor, Renn’s very young girlfriend and also a rising actress, along with his ex-wife Lucy (whom the critic Donna Seaman has called, aptly, the novel’s moral center). Lucy is the first of Ivins’ two ex-wives and the mother of Will and Anna. In mid-March, I sketched ideas for several more chapters in a notebook I keep for that purpose and sat down to write them in a burst of energy, desire, and suspense, completing the ten chapters that followed “Relations” in about four months, from April to July 2011.
I had a loose outline of the decisions that I wanted my characters to make, for good or for ill, whom I wanted them to long for and end up with (or not). As I progressed from one chapter to the next, I plotted some of the novel’s major events and let others arrive and reveal themselves. Lastly, I approached each chapter similarly to how I do a short story – each had to have a clear narrative arc and a sense of forward motion in order to maintain a feeling of urgency, though not all chapters, especially the last several, can stand on their own.