'Starstruck' and an Interview with Rachel Shukert!
You might know writer Rachel Shukert from her autobiographical essay collection, Have You No Shame?:And Other Regrettable Stories. Or you might know her from her memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. Or you could also know her from her hilarious Smash recaps on Vulture. As of March 12th, you can also know her as a YA author. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Starstruck and I completely fell in love with it. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, glamour, drama or just good writing, chances are you’ll love it, too.
Starstruck follows 3 girls trying to make it in Hollywood in the late 1930s. Margaret Frobisher is just a regular girl in Pasadena until she’s discovered by an agent, turned into Margo, and thrust into the Hollywood life. Gabby Preston is desperate to be a star, and she’ll do anything (and take any pills) necessary to make it happen. Amanda Farraday is a sexy and glamorous actress who’s running from her dicey past. As all three girls attempt to catch their big breaks, Hollywood is consumed with the mystery surrounding its biggest star, Diana Chesterfield. Where is she? And does Margo’s leading man (and huge crush) Dane Forrest know more than he’s letting on?
In a lot of ways, Starstruck reminded me of Valley of the Dolls, but without a scene where Neely O’Hara strolls down the street while saying, “Boobies, boobies, boobies! Nothin’ but boobies!” (that’s actually a line from the film version of Valley of the Dolls, but whatever. It’s still my favorite scene from anything ever and I can’t pass up an opportunity to mention it).
Starstruck is an insanely compelling read, and not just because it’s fun and exciting and glamorous (although it is all of those things). I’m not a huge old Hollywood buff, but Rachel Shukert includes so many details about the culture and time period that it’s impossible not to get sucked in. Not only are there mentions of real-life films, actresses and directors, but there are historical details, too. For example, you can tell who the real jerks in the book are because they don’t think that Hitler guy sounds so bad.
We can only hope Starstruck is the next YA series to be made into a movie, because if there’s one thing all the current vampire/post-apocalyptic/zombie movies and television shows are missing, it’s glamour. Yes, Edward Cullen is sparkly, but that’s not exactly the same thing.
Rachel Shukert was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the book. She dishes about what she was like in high school, what inspired the book, how she did research and she even shares some writing advice with HelloGiggles readers!
A lot of HelloGiggles readers are in high school, so could you tell us what you were like back then? Were you anything like Margaret/Margo?
Actually, I was! I was completely obsessed with old movies (although they weren’t old movies to Margo!) and just like Margo, my bedroom walls were completely papered in pictures of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Cary Grant-this was in the olden days and you couldn’t just download things, so I had to be resourceful. I’d check out biographies of all these old stars from the library and make Xerox copies of all the pictures and hang them up everywhere. And I loved vintage clothes, and glamour–I was always showing up at high school in lots of red lipstick and big sunglasses and pearls and ’50’s cocktail dresses and things.
But other things too. When I was about the age Margo is in the book, I was very, very serious about being an actress, and very ambitious. When I went away to acting school and realized that what I really wanted to be was a movie star in the 1930’s, and not in fact an actress in the 2000’s, that dream–healthily, I think–sort of morphed into something else. But that yearning that Margo has, that deep need to want to be part of something bigger, to explore outside the confines of her proscribed world, to color outside the lines–that is something that really came from me. Honestly, there’s different parts of me in all three of the girls–in ways, they are all a little bit autobiographical.
You’ve already conquered several other genres of writing (memoir, plays, amazing Smash recaps), so what prompted the move into YA?
You know, I have always really wanted to write fiction. Novels were always something I had in my head. And with Starstruck, it wasn’t so much something I thought about in terms of genre as that I had this idea that I really, really thought would make a great YA series. I remember thinking about the old studio system, and how it was sort of this monolithic thing where everyone was supposed to know their place, and were sort of looked after/controlled by these paternalistic executives, and structurally, it seemed so much like high school. So YA felt like a natural fit that way; also, because in this era, the actresses were so young. They don’t seem it, but then you watch one of those movies and you’re shocked to realize that, say, Judy Garland or Lana Turner or whoever made it when she was only, like, nineteen. They were just girls, navigating this incredibly adult, incredibly glamorous, but incredibly dark world. And I liked the idea of these girls kind of defining themselves as women and artists, when Hollywood was also kind of building itself and finding its way. The characters and their world are going through the same growing pains.
How was the process of writing a YA novel different from writing nonfiction?
I always say that writing a memoir is sort of like assembling a sculpture out of found objects: you have all the pieces already, and the art of it is turning them into something that tells a bigger story, that is greater than the sum of its parts. With fiction, there’s nothing! You have to make it up totally, what things look like, what people’s voices sound like, what they might be wearing–all these tiny details, and you’ve got nothing factual to fall back on. It’s just a much bigger, more absorbing imaginative exercise, and that can be really scary and really freeing at the same time. With my first two books, the story was pretty much as it happened–I would take a little creative license, but not much. But with Starstruck, I had to really remind myself that if some plot point or scene wasn’t working, I could just change it! Because it didn’t exist anywhere in my head. It’s something that sounds so obvious, but really requires this kind of brain shift.
The other thing I’ve found, which I also really wasn’t prepared for, is how protective I’ve become of my characters. When you’re writing non-fiction about yourself, you are your character, and a lot of people’s criticisms can feel like they’re directed at you personally–not, “I didn’t like that character” but “I don’t like Rachel.” And that can hurt your feelings at first, but then you get over it, because you can’t please everyone, you know? But with these characters…I feel like they’re my children. I don’t want anyone to hurt them. Like, you can say whatever you want about me, but don’t you dare insult my babies! I’m getting so maternal!
I loved all the historical details in Starstruck. Did you have to do a lot of research to make sure everything was historically accurate?
Well, I knew a lot about the big things, like the way Hollywood was run, and the historical context and things like that. What I wound up really having to research was all these funny little things, like: hmmm, if Margo was buying a hamburger, how much would it cost? Where would Amanda shop for a dress? What song would Gabby be listening to on the radio in this month in 1938? And you can’t research those in advance, you just have to track them down as they come up. Because you don’t always know you need to know them until you do! I remember literally stopping work for about three days until I could figure out exactly how someone would take the train from Hollywood to New York City, which stations it would stop at, how long it would take. And I got really obsessive about getting things right, because I wanted the world to feel lived in, but not ostentatious. Not like, look at all this stuff I researched, but something that would make you feel like you were really there and you didn’t even think twice about it. Kind of like that Japanese ideal of making the architecture of a building so beautiful that it disappears.
As far as research goes, what were really really helpful were novels with the same setting that were written contemporaneously to the period. Like “What Makes Sammy Run?” by Budd Schulberg–that book was a godsend. Because they’re just there. They go to the right restaurants and they live on the right streets…it’s just totally accurate, because it was written in 1941 and that’s just how things were. And that’s how I wanted my book to feel too.
What were your inspirations for Starstruck? Were there any specific movies or actresses you had in mind?
I did want to play with a lot of the kind of archetypal stories of Hollywood–you know, Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain, Judy Garland and the pills. Gabby is the clearest–she’s really based on Judy Garland; the other girls are a little more of a combination of things.It’s good to have an inspiration, but you don’t want to get too married to it, you know? Because then you might as well be writing a biography. Margo has a little bit of Lana Turner, a little Katharine Hepburn, a little Gene Tierney, I think. Amanda is more of a sexpot, so she’s a little bit Rita Hayworth, a little bit Joan Crawford (or at least, a little bit of a lot of the rumors about Joan Crawford.) But they all took on a life of their own in the end.
What advice do you have for HelloGiggles readers who want to be writers?
To write! It’s really the only advice there is. The more you do it, the less precious you get about it, and the easier it is to do it day in and day out. And as long as you’re doing the work, you’ve got something to go from. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always throw the whole thing away, but once it’s out, it’s out, and you’ll get better and better. All your great ideas aren’t doing any good stuck inside your head. You’ve got to get them out and let them breathe.
And don’t be afraid. Never be afraid. You can get through anything in life or writing if you let yourself be brave. But don’t take it too seriously either. If you write and it’s no good, nobody is going to die. You’ll just have gotten the bad stuff out to make room for the great stuff! Because the great stuff is in there. Everyone has an amazing story to tell. You just have to let yourself tell it.
Seriously, guys, how amazing is Rachel Shukert? Be sure to buy Starstruck on Tuesday, March 12th, and follow her on Twitter @RachelShukert. And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.
Photo of Rachel Shukert via Rachel Shukert