Writing About Hollywood (OR NOT)
As a subject and a setting for a writer, Hollywood offers a lot of gnarly challenges and a few hidden advantages. It's well-trodden ground, for one thing. The greats have pawed over it pretty thoroughly: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Didion, Waugh, Chandler, James M. Cain, Robert Stone. So rookies are beat before they write word one. (I've heard this called the Mona Lisa Quandary, meaning that if you can't paint the Mona Lisa you feel convinced that you have to quit painting.)
Another drawback is that Hollywood has already written itself. It's pure meta. The medium has been the message for a long time now. How to compete with an entity (and Hollywood is not a locale so much as a state of mind, or perhaps a state of mindlessness) that pumps out so much stuff, spins off so much verbiage, is jawed about on every talk show and in every beauty parlor in the land? It's like writing about the air.
My own brush with the place began back in the early 1990s. A publisher wanted me to do a book on movie landmarks in Los Angeles, everything from famous locations, star homes and studios to theme parks and historical sites. The difficulty was, I lived on the East Coast. I knew L.A. only vaguely. But this would be my first book, and I desperately wanted to nail down that credit. It was an absurd, foolhardy idea, writing about a place I had visited not more than a half dozen times. I took the gig.
I fell in love with the city. Since I was there as a freelancer, I could avoid rush hour and choose my time on the freeways. That’s everyone’s first entry into L.A., the freeways. It's a town defined by motion. I liked Los Angeles for the same reason I liked New York City. There's no place like it.
One great aspect of Hollywood makes it easier, not harder, to write about. Research resources are everywhere. All that press agent blather and media reporter prose, well, it’s been piling up for almost a century now. I spent a lot of time at the Margaret Herrick library on La Cienega, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences keeps its archives. If you want to ground yourself in a place, a good first move is to check out its history.
Los Angeles became home. I moved into a bungalow in the Hollywood Hills that was formerly owned by Simone Simon, the French-born star of Cat People and The Devil and Daniel Webster.
I wrote a lot of screenplays and even got one produced, Dirty, a corrupt-cop crime thriller starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. I got deep enough into the Business ("Don't call it the Business!" Nicholas Cage's screenwriter character wails in Adaptation) to realize that the process of making movies could be a cruel and shallow money trench, disheartening at best, downright wrist-slashing depressing at worst.
I spent my free time, which as an unemployed screenwriter I had a lot of, collecting agent jokes. You're in an elevator with a gun in your pocket that has only two bullets in it. Suddenly the doors open and Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler and a Hollywood agent get in. Q: What do you do? A: Shoot the agent twice.
For my first crime novel, Thirteen Hollywood Apes, I wanted to write about Los Angeles and the film industry, but sought to approach the subject slant-wise, not on-the-nose. My lead character, Detective Layla Remington, doesn't have anything to do with filmmaking. She comes from a cop family. Her father is big on noir classics like Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, but as a lifelong L.A. resident Layla herself looks at Hollywood with a somewhat weary, somewhat wary eye. She's seen too much to be star struck.
I placed Layla not in Los Angeles proper but in Malibu. The celebrated beach town is not Hollywood, not exactly. It serves more like an adjunct or an annex. You can't toss a rock along Zuma Beach or in the Malibu canyons without hitting someone with some connection to the movies. At the same time, Malibu was just far enough out of the studio swirl to allow for a sense of perspective. They don't usually make films there. It's where they go after they've made them.
Write what you know, my betters have always instructed me, so I used a lot of my L.A. experience in 13HA. My experience years ago renting Simone Simon's former home got transformed into this passage in the book:
Pia Liebstein lived in a mini-mansion that was originally owned by Simone Simon, the kittenish Thirties film star, lead actress in the movie 1942's horror classic Cat People. In Los Angeles, owning a place with an old Hollywood pedigree bestowed some added cachet. Not that Liebstein needed the boost. But at dinner parties she liked regaling friends with Simone Simon's practice of making golden keys to the house for her numerous lovers. Then Pia would casually toss one of the antique keys onto the table, to the oohs and aahs of her guests.
These few sentences underscore another plus about using Hollywood as a setting or subject for a novel: it's just so much damned fun. Golden keys for a starlet's lovers? Movie folks are outsized, eccentric, definitely not run of the mill. And when they do turn out to be run of the mill—say, when you hear platinum blonde actress Jean Harlow wanted nothing so much as to be a cooking, cleaning, kid-raising housewife—even that fact becomes interesting.
The initial crime in my novel, the triggering incident, to use screenplay terminology, is the mass murder of thirteen chimpanzees. The victims had all retired from show business careers and taken up residence in a animal sanctuary. Eventually, of course, I get around to a few human murders, too. But again, talking about show chimps was another way to talk Hollywood using a tangential, slightly off-kilter viewpoint.
So, Layla Remington, a non-Hollywood cop with cinephile father. Malibu, a place where actors sometimes live and where stars sometimes retire. Both elements duck back from the immediate, overwhelming glare of moviemaking. If there's a 500-pound gorilla in the room—or, you know, thirteen Hollywood apes—maybe it's better to step out onto the porch and describe the scene from there.
About the book:
ISBN: 9780553395051 (ebook)
ASIN: B00LDQOZW4 (Kindle edition)
Publication Date: December 16, 2014
In a savvy, stylish thriller debut perfect for anyone who loves the crime novels of Michael Connelly or Nevada Barr, Gil Reavill unravels a chilling tale of murder and mayhem among humans and their closest evolutionary relatives—a primate family that may just be too close for comfort.As a wildfire rages outside the Odalon Animal Sanctuary in the rugged Santa Monica foothills, the retired Hollywood movie chimpanzees housed there are shot and left for dead. When Malibu detective Layla Remington reaches the grisly scene the next morning, she’s deeply disturbed—and even more confused. The victims are not human, so the attack cannot be classified as homicide. Yet someone clearly wanted these animals dead, and executed them with ruthless efficiency. Miraculously, there is one survivor: a juvenile male named Angle.But as Layla reaches the veterinarian’s office where Angle is recovering, a man with rock-star good looks and a laid-back Southern California attitude swoops in and removes him. And just like that, an unusual case turns truly bizarre. Soon reports surface of ferocious attacks against Odalon employees . . . with Angle as the prime suspect. As a wave of senseless violence reaches its apex, Layla chases a mystery man and his chimp—but everything comes back to that terrible night at the sanctuary.
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