Thursday, April 18, 2019

Laura Kalpakian Interview - The Great Pretender

Photo Credit: © Jolene Hanson

Laura Kalpakian has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, the Anahid Award for an American writer of Armenian descent, the PEN West Award, and the Stand International Short Fiction Competition. She has had residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. She is the author of multiple novels and over a hundred stories published in collections, anthologies, literary journals and magazines in the U.S. and the U.K. A native of California, Laura lives in the Pacific Northwest.


What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
Diet and exercise, regular hours, ha ha ha. Coffee and alcohol, of course.

Can you tell us when you started THE GREAT PRETENDERS, how that came about?
I had published a novel in the UK called Three Strange Angels set in Britain in the 1950's with a minor character, a Hollywood brat who became an agent. I began to think about all the perils that would have surrounded her during the Blacklist Era. As I began reading, I saw that time, 1947–1960, as a unique historical crossroads: the blacklist, the beginning of the civil rights movement, and the advent of television. I created characters who responded dramatically to all these challenges. I grew up in Southern California so I well remember the light, the atmosphere, and of course, the beach. I also infused the novel with my own love of movies and music.

What do you hope for people to be thinking after they read your novel?
“Oh! What happens next? I wish this book would go on and on! I love these characters and I want to follow their complex lives.”

What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
The most fun: the sparkling 1955 premiere party for Banner Headline. I love writing crowd scenes, and so I got to revel in the glamour. I also used the party to convey in a dramatic fashion how deep were the inroads that television had made on the entertainment business. (Much like the way that streaming has upended theatre-going in the last few years.)

The most difficult: where Roxanne and Terrence meet, that ride from the San Fernando Valley to the city. Their dialogue had to crackle with sexual tension, racial tension, driving tension (he speeds on curves) to say nothing of their oddly linked pasts. I wrote that drive ten thousand times,

What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Strong verbs. Crisp nouns. Few pronouns. No “it.”

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Roxanne and Terrence?
In researching a place for Roxanne’s childhood home I read that Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire were neighbors on Summit Drive. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them for neighbors! So that’s where I put her home.

In researching Terrence’s past I was dazzled to read about Jefferson High School in South Central LA. Dr. Samuel Browne’s music program there turned out more great jazz musicians than any other school in the history of the world. Terrence might have been a student with one of the founders of The Platters, the group that made “The Great Pretender” a 1954 hit. The theatre at that high school is named after Dr. Browne.

What book would you recommend for others to read?
Anyone who wants to understand the Blacklist Era—how and why it started, who was ruined, how deep were the incursions into personal liberties, and how long-lasting the effect on the film industry—should start with Victor Navasky’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, Naming Names.

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?
Depends on where you look. I advise against the vegetable drawer.

What was your favorite sitcom growing up?
The Simpsons, that was our favorite sitcom when my kids were growing up.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
In the 4th grade I told my teacher I was going to write books, and asked if he would please draw the pictures. He said yes. I told my mother I was going to write books and would she please type them for me. She said yes. It was a long, jagged, roundabout road from there.

Can you define love in your own way?
I like Terrence’s line in The Great Pretenders: “Loving someone, it’s like you dance along this fine, smooth, paved road, and then, oh shit, you stumble, you fall into a pothole, and the person you love helps you out, and you’re both the stronger for it. And if you’re not stronger for it--the both of you--then you might as well pull up your pants and go home.”

#1 “My name is Roxanne Granville and I have more panache in my little finger than you have sperm count in your left testicle. I’m open for business. I’ll read your work. If it’s any good, I’ll represent you. I’ll find you work. I can’t promise Paramount or MGM, or even Empire or Paragon, but I can promise I will work for you, and I’ll take ten percent of everything you make from here to eternity.”

#2 “It’s hard in this business for a woman to deal effectively with men, and to remain a lady.”
“Remaining a lady is not a priority for me,”I replied. “Where is it written in stone that just because women have ovaries, we have no balls?”

#3 Hollywood is like a huge hothouse, steamy and enclosed. Everyone’s lives and loves, their fortunes, their so-called sacred honor, their sins, their failings, their bad judgments, their bad breath, their bad debts are like the steam that rises. To live and work here is to know that fame, money, reputation, friendship, even love and marriage are conditional, flimsy and often for effect. No one is invincible. The film business is like the house of straw where everything can be blown away with one foul gust.

#4 I pulled the scripts from their envelopes, and grabbed handfuls of pages, ripped them from their little pronged paper holders, and flung the over the chain link fence into the Los Angeles River. The pages blew and danced in the wind, falling along the concrete slopes where they rolled beside the brown seam of dirty water. I felt a fresh crack of energy with each handful I tossed aloft, a thrill of vindication or vengeance, or some emotion I did not quite recognize, to think of all these words that no one would ever read. All these lines no one would ever speak. All these scenes that would never see film. All that gone with the wind. As they say.

#5 I was enthralled there in the rowdy company of writers who would scribble, debate, cast, pour another drink, flip the pages on their pads, and start all over again. Their talk was salty, often raucous. These men were free-wheeling story tellers, and funny as hell. Their fingers were stained blue with ink and brown with nicotine, but they proved to me, even then, and I was just a kid, that work and joy could be synonymous.

#6 “Loving someone, it’s like you dance along this fine, smooth, paved road, and then, oh shit, you stumble, you fall into a pothole, and the person you love helps you out, and you’re both the stronger for it. And if you’re not stronger for it--the both of you--then you might as well pull up your pants and go home.”

#7 A darkened theatre was our favorite place on earth. We believed that theatres were a place of worship where magic washed over us, a world heightened, made brilliant with music, and with action and romance where all the sounds are crisp, and all the words are meaningful, and all the endings are happy or poignant, and you walk out bathed in emotions you didn’t have to suffer for, or struggle for, or take any risks to feel so wonderfully enhanced. A gift. In any theatre the false opulence, plush carpets, stale air, and palliative darkness combine to create a sacred space. A place of solace, hushed and holy. I recognized this same consecrated ambience the first time I walked into Notre-Dame in Paris, except that Notre-Dame did not have stale air, and the stories glowing in the stained glass windows were not nearly as exciting as the coming attractions.

#8 Errant, uninspired raindrops descend, enough that women pull their mink stoles closer, and many people look up, surprised. In this vast sea of celebrity—the stars who glitter in the cinematic heavens and the producers, directors and studio heads who make their lives hell—no one believes there can be rain unless the director says, Cue the thunder.

#9 “The picture business is not for people with touchy pride or impeccable taste, it’s not for weaklings, or people who want tidy lives. There’s no eight-to-five, clock out, and go home. You have to live, breathe, eat and sleep movies, so that even in your dreams you hear the wheels, the gears and sprockets of the cameras and editing machines and the whirr of projectors as the film threads through it. You’re one of those people.”

#10 And yet I had escaped being unloved, and that escape seemed to me suddenly miraculous, and I saw my life strangely, as if I had somehow survived a shipwreck that had cast others into the loveless deep.

The daughter of Hollywood royalty, Roxanne Granville is used to getting what she wants--even if she has to break the rules. But after a falling-out with her grandfather, a powerful movie mogul, she has to face life on her own for the first time....

Roxanne forges a career unique for women in the 1950s, becoming an agent for hungry young screenwriters. She struggles to be taken seriously by the men who rule Hollywood and who often assume that sexual favors are just a part of doing business. When she sells a script by a blacklisted writer under the name of a willing front man, more exiled writers seek her help. Roxanne wades into a world murky with duplicity and deception, and she can't afford any more risks.

Then she meets Terrence Dexter, a compelling African American journalist unlike anyone she's ever known. Roxanne again breaks the rules, and is quickly swept up in a passionate relationship with very real dangers that could destroy everything she's carefully built.

Roxanne Granville is a woman who bravely defies convention. She won't let men make all the rules, and won't let skin color determine whom she can love. The Great Pretenders is a riveting, emotional novel that resonates in today's world, and reminds us that some things are worth fighting for.


"What a good book! Engagingly readable, full of Golden Age of Hollywood glitz--and a wonderful story of idealism, courage and the price of love. Enjoyed every page!" —Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

"In her riveting new novel, Laura Kalpakian has given us a heroine to cheer for in this juicy tale of Hollywood. Roxanne Granville’s journey from diffident daughter of privilege to boundary-shattering career woman who takes on both the Hollywood blacklist and the racial prejudices of the early Civil Rights era is breathtaking and moving, even epic.” —Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Girls in the Picture

“This empowering historical fiction novel reminds women everywhere that they’re capable of anything they put their minds to.” —Brit & Co

“Brave and confident, [Roxanne] refuses to let men make all the rules.” —She Reads

"Both a wild romp through glittering 1950s Hollywood, and a poignant journey of love and courage in the blacklist-era of the silver screen. I was swept away by the passionate story and whip-smart writing. Laura Kalpakian's clever prose introduces us to a vibrant woman we can admire--a woman both brave and vulnerable. After one fearless choice, her life seems to careen toward certain wreckage, yet Roxanne is there to show us that integrity and love are the conquering powers. Deeply moving, intelligent and charming, this is a story to savor. " —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop at Water’s End

"A fascinating journey into the intrigues and hypocrisies of 1950s Hollywood, coupled with an indomitable heroine who dares to shatter the rules. Exciting, fast-paced, and revelatory.” —C.W. Gortner, author of The Romanov Empress

"Set against the glitter of Hollywood during the McCarthy era, one courageous woman, forced to start anew, reinvents herself as an agent and ends up selling blacklisted scripts. The screenwriters she represents are every bit as forbidden as the African American man she falls in love with. Kalpakian has written a timely story that deftly deals with racism and the fight for justice. The Great Pretenders is poignant, touching and often filled with laugh-out-loud wit.” —RenĂ©e Rosen, author of Park Avenue Summer

You can purchase The Great Pretenders at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you LAURA KALPAKIAN for making this giveaway possible.
Winner will receive a The Great Pretenders by Laura Kalpakian.