April 20, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Janyce Stefan-Cole's debut novel Hollywood Boulevard is a literary Hollywood noir gem, skillfully told and peopled with unforgettable characters.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A little bit quirky, a little bit noir...an intriguing crime novel with a pitch-perfect narration that sucks you right into the peculiar business that makes Hollywood what it is—and the equally peculiar business of finding one's muse."
I began writing Hollywood Boulevard while living in a hotel in the Hollywood Hills. My husband was at work on an indie film he co-wrote and co-produced. This time I agreed to uproot myself from our Brooklyn home to follow him out west. I was worried. I hadn't written any fiction in a while and here I was about to be a stranger in a weird land, without an agenda. A situation like that can wreak havoc on your identity. What was I, movie groupie, wonder-wife, or a chronic tourist? A writer friend pointed out hotels are the best places to write—it's true, you don't have to make the bed—or pay the bill in this case—and I got to like hotel life and I found my lack of identity useful: I could be anything, I could hear and see anything. The idea of an actress—an art form where the artist assumes another identity to express her/his self—began to take hold. I began to hear a character as I walked the Hollywood streets (I'm a New Yorker, so yeah, I walked). It seems a spate of loneliness in a new setting can trigger a whole book—or act as a catalyst for what might have been brewing anyhow. I arrived in L.A. empty and left full with a character and a novel.
I don't listen to music while I write. Writing is listening and the rhythm of the words gets messed up if music is playing. In fact, I prefer total silence while I write. But music is always in my head and I will retreat into it once my writing day is over. Music—from the obvious to the sublime—can play like a narrative to what's going on in my life. Songs just volunteer to play in my mind. I was in Hollywood and quite naturally the song "Celluloid Heroes" got into my brain. Ray Davies introduced the song in a Kinks concert with, "I lived in Hollywood two weeks; this is "Celluloid Heroes"." I mention the song in the book. I had to paraphrase though because I didn't get the rights to the lyrics. The song is genius. My character walked Hollywood Boulevard a lot. She's an actress, Ardennes Thrush, who quit at the top of her game. When she was working she never walked the Walk of Fame, but she's back in Hollywood and more than a little lost. As the Kinks song says, "…everybody's a dreamer, everybody's a star; you can see them all as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard." Like the song also suggests there is an unreality to the actor's work, a built in instability. So my book is Ardennes's journey to herself and maybe back to her broken dream.
"Fame," Irene Cara
Pop music is manipulative melodrama; catchy songs that can circle for a long time, like a plane in a holding pattern, inside your head. I'm not immune, though I generally avoid the genre. I never saw Fame the TV show. I think it's about ghetto kids with talent and drive. "I'm gonna live forever, Baby remember my name..." At one point Ardennes, in flashback, tells her mother she's not going to college, she's going to strike out and make it as an actress. She's young, she's all the places she's gonna' get to or die trying. She's going to the top. Only a kid can throw themselves into ambition like that with such blind, untutored faith. So "Fame" played in my head and did its work on my character.
"Stairway to Heaven," Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin
This moody song haunted me years ago though I never really paid attention to the lyrics. Something about a lady, an ethereal figure in a setting where, "Everything still turns to gold." I thought in "Stairway" the lady's not happy, some deep ache, and she wants a stairway to somewhere better, but the price may be high. Anyhow, is everything turning to gold necessarily a good thing? Ardennes gets her fame, her career, but not without a price, and not without getting dirty. Then she quits. "…There's still time to change the road you're on…" The song sets the tone of disappointment and maybe the promise of something else.
"Till I Gain Control Again," Rodney Crowell
I like the version song by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. I researched personality disorders for my character Ardennes. Something is wrong inside. I don't state a specific ailment but she's gone from being someone shy—for the business of acting—to someone on the outside who becomes a watcher, even a voyeur, and who can't find her way back in. She's adrift. This song is typical Country introspective blues with that brush up against self-pity, just saving itself from wallowing. "…Like a sailor…like a lighthouse that must stand alone…on the road some turns where I will spin…who will hold me till I gain control again?" Unlike pop love songs, Country takes you into mini short stories. I can't take a whole lot of them either. But I can take pretty much anything Willie Nelson throws out there. The man has been strung out and he loves the expression of song. Emmylou Harris is up there too with honesty.
"Someone to Watch Over Me," Ira and George Gershwin
One of my all time favorite Gershwin songs and I mention it in the book. Amy Winehouse does a deep, raw version; Ella Fitzgerald may have been the first to sing it. Sarah Vaughn brings a sultry innocence to her version. "Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb…?" Ardennes requests her cabaret-singer friend Dottie perform it at a club. She's newly divorced from the guy she really wanted. It looks like it wasn't possible to have the fame and the man. She falls into the arms of Fits, another actor, older and established, but it's only a temporary holding on. Like holding on often is.
"Lodi," John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival
How can you not include a Credence song? This one is for the character of Eddie Tompkins, an actor wannabe. He is never gonna' make it. "Just about a year ago, I set out on the road, seeking my fame and fortune, looking for a pot of gold, things got bad and things got worse, I guess you know the tune, oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again." It's just a really good bad luck song. We've all had our Lodi's. You can end up performing for a room full of drunks, like in Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Eddie ends up selling shoes in a discount joint on Sunset Boulevard, and he briefly stalks Ardennes; maybe she can help, get him a leg up. This begins the change in the book where Ardennes's troubles leave the existential and move into real world trouble.
"Celluloid Heroes," Ray Davies, the Kinks
By now Ardennes is living the song… "Success walks hand in hand with failure along the Hollywood Boulevard…" It's a cautionary tale. "I wish my life was non-stop Hollywood movies show...celluloid heroes never feel any pain…" Be careful what you wish for. The journey is the thing.
"The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," from the 1934 movie Moulin Rouge, Harry Warren and Al Dubin
I like Marianne Faithfull's smoky, husky version. I found the song researching something else and had to add it to my character's repertoire. She never said her dream was broken. The song has the line, "…the joy you find here [on the Boulevard] you must borrow…" For Ardennes the journey was somehow missed; she arrived without knowing what arriving meant, or who she was. Hollywood will do that—the power brokers take over, offer the moon; take all they can. Ambition is a force, not an end. The power brokers will use what you have, the product inside your talent. Ardennes Thrush is a famous actress, but who is Ardennes?
"The Crack of Doom," Tiger Lillies
I couldn't resist the humorous cynicism, but also the truth of the song. Go back to "Fame": you may live forever through a work of art but you won't be there to enjoy, or even know it. Great and small, success and failure, winner or loser the crack of doom swallows each and everyone. As the noir tone of the book deepens, and Ardennes finds herself caught in a dangerous web, an LAPD detective comes on board and the still-life mode of Ardennes's wandering pulses with blood and desire. But is it too late? Is the crack of doom yawning?
"A Case of You," Joni Mitchell
I like K.D. Lang's version on her CD, "Hymns of the 49th Parallel". She brings a big, rich sound to this novella of a song. This one is for the character Sylvia Vernon, the ex-Vegas stripper, whose personal failure and grief shakes up Ardennes. The old stripper—"…fearful of the devil, but drawn to those ones that ain't…" never got over the lackluster young actress who died on her watch, her reluctant lover who suffered her own ruined dreams. Ardennes is forced to pause, and it looks like she may not get a second chance.
"Innocent When You Dream," Tom Waits
This song, Waits' raspy, rascally song of love and loss, dreams and betrayals just came up naturally. Innocent when you dream but not when you awaken? Dreams must be lived, realized while awake, and real time corrupts dreams. Or is that what life does? Life can't be lived in a dream because the journey is the truth, dreaming only a device. Ardennes has to figure that out, and the men in her life can't protect her or run her, they can help her or they can disappoint her. But you still have to have a dream. How perfectly Waits get it, "I gave my love a locket and then I broke her heart."
"Max," Paolo Conte
Here is the English translation from the Italian: Max was just Max, more tranquil than ever in his lucidity. Stop it, Max -your ease -don't simplify it, Max. Max doesn't explain it. Get me down, Max. I see a secret. It's coming towards us, Max. I saw Paolo Conti perform this onstage, an eleven minute version of this hypnotic, snake-charmer of a song. Fantastic. The song is for Ardennes's second husband, the worldly director, Andre Lucerne, who wants her back in front of the camera, his camera. What will he do to make that happen?
"Over the Rainbow," Harold Arlen & E. Y. Harburg
The perfect ending song; Judy Garland of course personifies it, but I love Sarah Vaughan's version, so hopeful but knowing. Regrets, yes, but, "… if happy little bluebirds fly a way above the chimney tops, why oh why can't I?" At first, no it's too late, too impossible, even bluebirds fall to the earth sooner or later. Yes, but still possible to find the rainbow and to embrace the rainbow—not the pot of gold—but the beauty, the breathtaking silliness of the metaphor, of a faint and fragile arc of color in the sky. The symbol means whatever you want it to mean and you can imagine being over the rainbow and you can bring that soaring imagining to life. This is a hopeful note to end on.
Janyce Stefan-Cole and Hollywood Boulevard links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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