Harriet Evans explains what inspired her to write her latest story, Not Without You.
Writing books is a weird job to have. Explaining how your mind works and how you write books is also weird. I suppose the strangest bit is the beginning. I don’t force myself to think about what book I’m going to write next. I wait till an idea pops into my head and sometimes I don’t even realise it’s there till it sort of springs out, more fully formed, and I find I keep thinking about it. Not Without You began as an idea for writing a glossy tale about a British film star and her bonkbuster-y Hollywood world, but I don’t have it in me to write a Judith Krantz, Valley of the Dolls-style airport novel, much as I’d like to! And I kept hearing this other voice of another character, one from the past, in the back of my head, and eventually I had to listen to that voice too.
I knew this other character should be called Eve, and that she’d be a huge film star at the end of the Golden Age of movies in Hollywood. I was a massively geeky teenager and that has many advantages, not least that you learn lots of weird things. I knew Eve so well, even now I can picture her perfectly clearly. I knew that something tragic would happen to her, she’d go missing and be almost forgotten about for years and years, until the modern-day actress who lives in her house in 2012 starts to track her down. What I loved was as I wrote more of the novel the two characters of Eve Noel and Sophie Leigh (the modern-day star) became more and more real to me.
My favourite actress growing up was Vivien Leigh, born 100 years ago on 5th November 1913 and she was my inspiration for the character of Eve. I love old films, especially Hollywood in the 30s to the 50s. My obsession started (as things so often do) between the pages of a book. When I was fourteen I devoured Gone With the Wind and I thought it was literally the best book ever. I’d never really read a big juicy blockbuster in that style before that has a world so utterly different from everything you know and I became obsessed with the film, too. But we didn’t have a video player *gets out small violin* and so I didn’t see it for ages. In the meantime I read all about the film, its tortuous production history at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and stared obsessively at what small pictures there were in books my parents owned about cinema instead. I read biographies of Vivien Leigh, Margaret Mitchell, George Cukor (first director, sacked for being too empathetic to the actresses and not being manly enough for Clark Gable) and Victor Fleming (second director, bit of a chauvinist pig but got it made, having just finished working on Wizard of Oz, so you have to give him some respect for that, even if he sounds pretty awful).
GWTW started for me a love of old films that endures to this day. I used to watch random Myrna Loy comedies on TV during half-term, or stay up scaring myself witless if there was a late-night Hitchcock movie on. This was when there were only four channels, and when it wasn’t unusual to show, say, Notorious at 11.20 on a Saturday night. My parents loved films, my dad especially and it’s through him I got most of my information about it, too. Plus the one connection to a proper old movie star that I actually have.
In the 70s, my dad was a paperback editor at Coronet. He was lucky enough (and clever enough!) to publish David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, which sold over a million copies, as did the follow-up, the more Hollywood-orientated Bring on the Empty Horses. I loved those books. I absolutely gobbled them up. I couldn’t believe that my dad had a) met David Niven b) David Niven actually knew his name. I’d sat on his lap when I was two or three and didn’t even know it! He’d been to our house! (Along with Delia Smith, but that’s another story). When I was nine months old, Dad had had a terrible car accident that left him in a coma and later, using a wheelchair (which he still does). David Niven recorded tapes of himself in Geneva that he posted to my dad to cheer him up. ‘Hello old boy… Hope you’re doing a little better. Well, I’m sitting here overlooking the mountains, and I must say…’
He was a lovely man, someone who wrote thank-you notes, had friends he’d known all his life, a sense of right and wrong, someone with an interior life that wasn’t all about him. A proper old movie star, not someone who has an aftershave range and a DUI conviction. What I loved best about Bring on the Empty Horses in particular is this sense in Hollywood in the 30s to the 50s that the stars of that era were very much just making it up as they went along. It was a slick, hugely successful business that had exploded out of nowhere but the movie stars seem much nicer, more realistic, more intelligent, less self-obsessed, somehow. Their private lives were more private. They went to each other’s houses for dinner, they went fishing together, they volunteered for World War II. They looked out for each other as they were being manipulated by the studio system into having their teeth ripped out or their hair electrolysised or being forced to give up love-children. And when they came out on display they were goddesses and gods, idols whom mere mortals couldn’t believe they were lucky enough to witness.
I wanted to write a book about the end of that age, and contrast it with fame today, from the point of view of two different women. I did some ghostwriting a couple of years ago for someone famous and the (very brief) brush with an A-list world was mesmerising. How the system now is in a way, I think, even more perverted and sexist than it was then, even in the age of rags like Confidential which weekly published the most salacious and vicious stories about closeted men, battered wives, cheats – all big stars where there were big bucks to be made from tearing away the veil and revealing the truth. These days reality is so distorted and public and private are so mixed up it’s impossible to understand what’s real and what’s not in a star’s life.
That really fascinated me. It must be incredibly difficult for women at the top to even stay sane. How fame is something totally different now, so that talented TV and film actresses like, say, Claire Danes, aren’t newsworthy compared to Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, and whether they want to be, and how they are made to use their femaleness to publicize their work. And everything is a bizarre mixture of hyper-real (you have your own Twitter account, you Instagram photos of yourself naked in the mirror) and totally fake (your agent stages ‘paparazzi’ shots of you in Whole Foods, you give interviews saying you love burgers and chips all the while making yourself sick or taking appetite suppressants to stay so thin it’s unhealthy) against this background of really nasty, naked aggression (when you get out of a car you have photographers squatting on the ground trying to take photos of your vagina. I mean – WTF?)
And the other thing I wanted to write about was the question of ‘being a good girl’, both then and now. Women who don’t play by the rules are slapped down in Hollywood like nowhere else these days. Newspapers, magazines (mostly consumed by women but owned by men) constantly take women down for getting uppity. The more you look the more you remember actresses who were big stars and then just… disappeared. Take any actress who starred in a massive film and compare their career to the career of their male co-star today. Debra Winger’s the classic example: she starred in Terms of Endearment and An Officer and A Gentleman. Jack Nicholson (20 years older than her) and Richard Gere are both still headline stars in films today. Where are the interesting, fleshed-out parts for her? Where’s Debra? Where’s Andie MacDowell? Penelope Ann Miller? Molly Ringwald? Karen Black? Debra Winger, Meg Ryan, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Rebecca DeMornay, Elisabeth Shue, Linda Hamilton… it goes on and on.
The other thing that interested me is how many of the actresses listed above are referred to as mad or crazy. The shrug that says … so that’s why she doesn’t work any more. Whereas someone like Christian Bale whom everyone acknowledges is … tricky at best, mental at worst is hailed as a total genius. For what? Playing a psycho and putting on a rubberised batman costume, when it comes down to it. It really started to bother me, and I wanted my heroine to become increasingly aware of this and to start to rail against it and take control of her own life, which is so much harder than it’d appear to be in th at world.
I adored writing Not Without You. My boyfriend and I went to California for research. I was pregnant, and it was the best holiday ever. We did a roadtrip and went to Big Sur and Vegas and cycled along the beach at Santa Monica and that’s where I felt Cora, my daughter, kick for the first time. I loved the idea of California and how the freedom of spirit that infected those early Hollywood stars is still so present there too. Ultimately the book can be summed up for me in an Eve Arnold photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that I had by my desk while I was writing. They’re in a pub and he’s ranting on about something with a fag in his hand. She’s really emoting to someone (it’s during the filming of Becket and she did love a literary chat) and by her side is … a packet of Walls sausages, just on the table there, they’re taking them back to their hotel to be cooked for supper. It’s so real and alive and natural. Just the idea now that you’d get Jessica Biel or Reese Witherspoon in a crappy old man’s pub with an overflowing ashtray chatting about Becket with a packet of Wall’s sausages next to her is just … never going to happen.
Now I’m editing my next book, and I love thinking back to doing Not Without You. Despite all the research I did was amazing how much of the information actually ended up coming from my own memories of the films I loved as a young girl and the books I read about them. Just one of the many ways in which being a geeky teenager was helpful for the job I have now. Geeky girls out there – it’s OK. Carry on being weird. It’ll stand you in better stead than flicky blonde hair when you’re older. In the meantime, if you get the chance to read the book, I really hope you enjoy it. Please please let me know what you think!
If you don’t learn from history… You’re destined to repeat. it Not without you, she’d said. And I’d let her down… Hollywood, 1961: when beautiful, much-loved movie star Eve Noel vanishes at the height of her fame, no one knows where, much less why. Fifty years later, another young British actress, Sophie Leigh, lives in Eve’s house high in the Hollywood Hills. Eve Noel was her inspiration and Sophie, disenchanted with her life in LA, finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the mystery of her idol’s disappearance. And the more she finds out, the more she realises Eve’s life is linked with her own. As Eve’s tragic past and the present start to collide, Sophie needs to unravel the truth to save them both – but is she already too late? Becoming increasingly entangled in Eve’s world, Sophie must decide whose life she is really living .
Harriet Evans used to work in publishing before writing her own novels, including A Hopeless Romantic, The Love of her Life and Love Always. She lives in London with her boyfriend and daughter.