I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, but when I found out my friend Rachel Shukert was penning a trilogy of novels about young Hollywood starlets in the 1930s, I knew it was right up my alley. Known for her two hilarious memoirs, Have You No Shame and Everything Is Going to Be Great, as well as the fantastic recaps of the ill-fated Smash on Vulture, Shukert brings an astounding voice to her writing, one that is both irreverently raucous and sweetly endearing. Starstruck, Shukert’s first foray into fiction, embodies all of her traits, and it’s a fantastic look at the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Focusing on a trio of young women (Margo Sterling, Amanda Farraday, and Gabby Preston), Starstruck brings alive those now-mythical years of movie-making with a campy behind-the-scenes look at the stars that caught the attention of the average American as well as the studio heads who capitalized on them. Think of it as Valley of the Dolls starring Shirley Temple—it mixes the seediness of showbiz drama with the melodiousness chase of stardom.
This week, Rachel Shukert and I corresponded via email to talk about her obsession with old Hollywood, her ideal audience, and how the nature of celebrity has changed over the last century.
What about this time period inspired you to write about it?
Well, look, since I was a startlingly small child, I’ve been moderately to massively obsessed with old movies and the idea of Golden Age Hollywood, the stars, all of that stuff–the glamor of it, the secrets, and the incredible confluence of insanely talented people working in Hollywood at the time. I love stories about show biz back when it was show biz, you know, and people lived out these huge larger than life stories, and all this seamy stuff happened behind the scenes. It was something I always wanted to be a part of.
But in a more general sense, I think the ’30s are my favorite era. You can kind of see most of the 20th century as series of reactions to various disasters. The frivolity and the decadence of the ’20s was a direct reaction to World War I and the Spanish flu and all this death and destruction; it was like, honey badgers no longer gave a shit. And then you can also look at the kind of proscribed suburbanism and conformity of the ’50s and early ’60s as this direct response to the horrors of World War II, where the world looked straight into the heart of darkness and responded by regressing into this weird, repressed, idealized kind of childhood where nothing bad could ever happen again as long as you had the right vacuum cleaner and Mother didn’t work and everybody forgot that sexual intercourse of any sort existed (or at least never acknowledged so verbally.) But in the ’30s, everyone was dealing with the Depression, and just didn’t have the time for self-delusion, so everything was very self-consciously sophisticated and witty and cynical and hard-boiled. There was a frankness in the culture that appeals to me. Unless, of course, you were one of the increasing number of people seeking refuge in one of the ascendant ‘isms’—you know, like fascism. Which is also one of my favorite things about this period, as you know, and as I’ve written about. I never get tired of Nazi stuff. Hollywood and Hitler were my two favorite things to read about/think about when I was a kid. They remain so to this day. I don’t think the fact that they were both ascendant at the same time is exactly incidental to my interest in either.
Who were some of the real-life starlets you used as inspiration for your cast of characters?
Well, the obvious one is Judy Garland, who is almost entirely the basis for Gabby Preston, and who is my favorite actress of all time. Margo Sterling has a little bit of Lana Turner in her, particularly in the way she is discovered [at Schwab’s Pharmacy in Hollywood], but she also has some of that classic society girl thing, like a Gene Tierney or a Dina Merrill. Amanda Farraday is a little bit Rita Hayworth, a little Hedy Lamarr, mixed with a lot of shadowy rumors that there were about a lot of stars at this time, that they had these kind of scandalous pasts the studios would try to cover up. But except for Gabby, none of them are really based on any one person, it’s sort of lots of little bits of things. And no matter how you try to base a character on someone, they take on a life of their own, and that life is almost always reflective of you in some way. So they’re all loosely based on the real-life starlet Rachel Shukert.
I know you started acting in Omaha as a girl—did any of those experiences make their way into the novel? Did you base any of your characters on your young adult self?
Ha, see above! I mean, yes, of course they did. Not in a hugely literal way, but that feeling of desperately wanting more, of being sure you’re destined for great things, that has a lot to do with me as a young (or younger!) adult. And Margo’s fantasy life, the way she is constantly referencing these movies in her head, and how they inform her behavior, that has a lot to do with me as well. And obviously, I know the feeling of auditioning, of that incredible anxiety that I think actors—especially younger actors—have that they’re falling behind, that it’s not happening for them, that it’s never going to happen, that everybody else has what they want (and should rightfully be theirs): that’s all very personal. But for me, the most painful realization in my acting was getting out of drama school and realizing that I had zero interest in being an actual actress in New York in the 2000s, that all I had ever really wanted was to be a movie star in Hollywood in the 1930s. So the book was therapeutic in that way.
Starstruck is the first part of a series—how far have you written, and can you give us any details for where these characters are headed?
I’ve finished the second book, and am working on the third now. I don’t know how much I can tell you without totally giving away the ending of Starstruck, but I will say, the overarching theme of the whole series is really about finding yourself as an artist. So all of the characters are going to go through a kind of a period of refining, of figuring out that what they’re good at isn’t necessarily what they thought they wanted—and that goes for love as well. Margo has had this dizzying rise—now what? Can she sustain it? And more importantly, does she want to? Gabby is going to push more boundaries, trying to prove to everyone that she’s a grown-up, and we’ll see how that conflicts with her talent and potential. Amanda is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward with some dignity, but it’s not working that well. I’ll tell you this, it’s all very juicy. We’ve only peeled back the first few layers of the onion–there are still a lot of secrets to be revealed. There’s more sex, more drugs, more jazz. Things are about to get very "Hollywood Babylon" up in this shit. Minus the Black Dahlia murders and speculation about lesbian incest between the Gish sisters. You know what I mean.
What was it like to write a novel, since your first two books were memoirs? Was it a challenge to write for a younger audience?
Honestly, the biggest thing was having to continually remind myself that I could make stuff up. That sounds stupid, but when you’re writing a memoir, the challenge is that all the pieces are there, and it’s your job to figure out the most pleasing, most effective way to arrange them. If something doesn’t fit, you can leave it out, but you can’t change it, you know? And with this, sometimes I would get to a point in the story where I’d be like, this isn’t working, and I would actually have to say out loud: "Fine, so make them do something else!" The other thing, which I didn’t expect, is how protective I would become of these characters, in a way that I never was about myself when I was the main character. It’s weird, it’s very maternal, sort of helicopter-mom like. Are they getting enough attention? Do people love them enough? DON’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT MY BABIES! If someone doesn’t like the book—and this, thankfully, hasn’t really happened much—I am furious on their behalf, not mine. It’s insane.
As for a young audience, I mean yes. There are many fewer dick jokes in this book than there have been in my past works. There are, however, a lot more super-queeny Joan Crawford jokes, which I know are VERY relevant to this generation. Let’s just be honest: I wrote this book for members of the drama club and middle-aged gay men. Fin.
Back to the Old Hollywood setting of Starstruck: do you see a lot of similarities in the way stars were manufactured in the past as they are now?
I think it’s totally different, actually, which is part of what I like about the old studio system. You would go into this sparkle-factory, and come out an entirely different person—new name, new look, whatever they needed you to be, that’s what they’d make you. There’s this inherent unreality to that culture, with these larger-than-life stars, that feels so foreign now to what the fame-industrial complex has become. Now, it’s all about "authenticity." We want stars to be "just like us." They have to be relatable, and if they’re not, they have to be punished. In a certain way (and a very tacky way) I actually think reality stars have become more like what old Hollywood stars were—these personalities that people gossip about, who are basically actors playing some bigger, more dramatic version of themselves. The whole Bravolebrity concept, where we obsess about these characters like they’re real, their relationships with each other–that has really replaced the daytime soap world, which I think was the closest corollary to the old Hollywood star system. But each iteration becomes somehow less than—it’s like Xeroxing a Xerox. You go from real stars to soap opera characters to like, Kyle Richards, and it’s all because of our obsession with the "real," which I think is really a kind of cultural sickness. We’ve become so unimaginative.
If you were to cast actors to play these roles in a movie version of Starstruck, who would you pick?
Oooh, my favorite question!!! Who would you pick?
Clever, lady! I could see a Taylor Swift-type (begrudgingly) as Margo, and part of me wanted to imagine Kirsten Dunst as Amanda Farraday (and a little bit with Diana Chesterfield). I could totally see Chloe Grace-Moretz as Gabby, too.
I LOVE Chloe Grace Moretz for Gabby! She’s adorable and just very slightly evil, which is perfect. Can she sing? I demand to know if she can sing. I also like the idea of Kirsten Dunst as Diana Chesterfield, because she needs to be a bit older, and a little bit like, I’ve seen it, oh the things that I have seen. That’s perfect. For Margo, you know, you want this kind of lovely ingénue who can have a little bit of an edge and not be boring. I think Elle Fanning looks really right, but she’s still a few years too young. But by the time anyone makes this, she’ll be perfect. Or Saoirse Ronan, who has a kind of gawkiness that I like, and always seems smart. For Amanda, you need someone who is tough, but also vulnerable, sort of hard and soft at the same time. I like Emilia Clarke, Mother of Dragons. She’d be good, if she dyed her hair red. Or Juno Temple, who actually has red hair already! Budget saver!