A month ago, I announced details of my upcoming novel about silent screen actress, Alla Nazimova, called Chasing Salomé (due out in August 2019. You can see the details here: http://bit.ly/salomereveal) and then passed the manuscript onto my advance readers.
As a writer, you can only read your work so many times before your eyes start to cross and you find yourself questioning every choice you’ve made. After that, it’s a short path to day-drinking. So before I submit it to my editor, I want/need to put it in front of fresh eyeballs to ensure that everything makes as much sense as I think it does; that character motivations are as clear as I believe them to be; and that the story arc is as coherent as I hope it is. I give my advance reader team a month to read the book and then sit back and cross my fingers (which makes pouring a stiff gin-and-tonic challenging but not altogether impossible.)
I explained to them that this new book was not another Garden of Allah novel. Yes, it is set in Hollywood. Yes, some of the scenes unfold at the Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Yes, it’s a behind-the-scenes story of Hollywood film-making. And yes, there are celebrity cameos. But this is not a fast-paced, giddy roller coaster ride with twists and turns and cliff-hangers.
Nobody’s going to fall off a human billboard, like Gwendolyn did in The Garden on Sunset. Nobody’s going to climb the back wall of Paramount to see a rough cut of Citizen Kane, like Kathryn did in Citizen Hollywood. And nobody’s going to talk their way onto the set of Quo Vadis, the way Marcus did in Twisted Boulevard. This new book is a deeper dive, real-life story of how Alla Nazimova felt as she stuck to her vision in a field of creative endeavor that was growing into a more mature—read: increasingly male-dominated—industry.
I felt that Alla Nazimova’s attempts to produce her own movies was a story worth telling. Her struggle was the struggle of nearly every artist, and certainly nearly every filmmaker: juggling the flaming torches of “art” and “commerce.” In Alla’s case, it was finding the delicate balance between “show” and “business” because you can’t have one without the other.
So I sent my manuscript out to my advance readers secure in the knowledge that they knew where I was coming from. A couple of weeks later, the first two readers came back with a disconcerting opinion that could be summed up with one word: meh. I swallowed heavily, trying not to sweat, and asked, “Could you expand on that?”
They worded their answers differently but the gist was the same: It’s fine, I guess, but it’s not a Garden of Allah novel. Which I took to mean: I’d prefer you keep writing Garden of Allah novels, or novels like them.
But the thing is, I’ve already written a fast-paced, giddy roller coaster type of novel. In fact, I’ve written a whole series of them.
As much as I loved writing them, I felt that once I’d told a 9-novel, 32-year, nearly-one-million-word series, it was time to shift gears. Some writers can and do tell much the same story over and over. Agatha Christie, James Patterson, Barbara Cartland, and Jackie Collins come to mind—and they’ve done awfully well, haven’t they?
It’s not like I’m looking to jump genres into Werewolf Romance or Sci-Fi Space Opera Based On Nordic Mythology. Telling stories about life in Hollywood during its golden years is all I want to do, so I was hoping that Chasing Salomé was a way I could bridge fans of the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah books away from what I had been doing and toward new but related directions.
And then I got meh. Twice.
I tried not to panic. Or worry. Or be disappointed. Or throw my hands up in despair. But it’s hard not to when you’ve spent the best part of a year researching, plotting, writing, and rewriting a 100,000-word novel that tells a story that you’ve been wanting to write for years. And when you finally do, you’re greeted with an indifferent shoulder shrug.
Fortunately, Advance Reader #3 revived my spirits when she reported that it was “a lovely story that left me wanting more.” Then #4 chimed in with, “I enjoyed it very much! What a pleasure to go back to that time and learn more about the Great Nazimova.” And then #5 texted me to say that he was still reading it but he was “loving Salomé.”
Having spent the best part of ten years writing about three characters living during a roller coaster of an era, I realized that I was now on a roller coaster of my own. Will my readers enjoy Chasing Salomé? Would they prefer I stick to the sorts of books that they expect from me? Or should I write the books I want to write? When readers only know you for a certain type of book, do they want you to keep producing that same thing? Or have I just written the literary equivalent of New Coke?
This mental game of ping-pong quickly escalated to a bigger question: Why did I start writing in the first place?
Ironically, the answer I landed on was probably the same one that Alla landed on nearly a hundred years ago when she decided to go into film production herself. Whether it’s film, books, sculpture, music, or painting, you ultimately must create the art that you’re moved to create. Your job is to film the film, sing the song, paint the painting, tell the story. Then comes the time when you turn your efforts over to the world at large and hope/trust that it will speak to people who want to listen to the stories you want to tell.
As it happens, the most interesting books on Hollywood that I’ve read recently are by the same author:
“The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and
Legend of Louis B. Mayer” by Scott Eyman
I’ve read a number of books about the mogul an who ran MGM for decades but this one paints the most realistic picture of a very complex man.
The story of the talkies didn’t just just spontaneously start The Jazz Singer in 1927. This book lays out exactly what happened and when and who were the movers and shakers.
“Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s
First Writer-Director” by Tom Sturges
and Nick Smedley
Due out September 15th, 2019
With a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich, this look at the final years of the popular Hollywood director has been written by his son, Tom Sturges, who told me that the illustration on the cover is a self-portrait drawn by Preston Sturges while he was at The Players, his nightclub on the Sunset Strip. And speaking of The Players…
Here’s a few of my favorites of the vintage photographs of Los Angeles and Hollywood that I’ve posted recently on my photo blog.
Color shot of the Chateau Marmont and
The Players on the Sunset Strip, 1955
Vista looking west from the Hotel Hollywood,
Dairy Queen opening day, corner of Moorpark St
and Bakman Ave, Studio City, 1957
Looking south down Vine Street past the
Hollywood Blvd corner, at night, 1958
Also by Martin Turnbull
the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels:
Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits
Connect with Martin Turnbull: