Frisky Q&A: Starstruck Author Rachel Shukert On Old Hollywood Glamour & New Teenage Problems
Here are some things you should know about author Rachel Shukert: She looks an awful lot like Kathleen Hanna; she wrote and recorded an amazing awards show-worthy Oscar movie medley; she recaps so-campy-it-hurts “Smash” for funsies; and she’s the author of three of my favorite books ever. Shukert’s first two, Everything Is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame?, were memoirs, the former a hilarious meditation on her post-college European travels, the latter, essays and stories about growing up Jewish in Omaha, Nebraska. Here’s how great Everything Is Going To Be Great is: I almost (almost!) stole my librarian friend’s library copy so I could finish it (I now own my own).
Her latest, Starstruck, may seem like an unlikely departure. It’s a young adult novel set in the 1930s about teenager Margaret Frobischer, who leaves her well-to-do family behind to pursue success in Hollywood. On the lot of Olympus Studios, Margaret (renamed Margo by the studio) befriends fellow starlet Gabby Preston, ogles leading man Dane Forrest, and puzzles over the mystery of star Diana Chesterfield’s disappearance. And here’s why Starstruck is great: it’s rife with juicy period details, and exposes the seedy side of what it took to succeed in the film industry — plus, it has tons of fascinating little tidbits about life in the weird Hollywood studio system. And don’t let the “young adult” moniker fool you — there’s plenty of torrid romance, drama and unseemly characters to hook even the most depraved grownup.
I spoke to Rachel about Starstruck, her writing process, and her enduring love for all things Old Hollywood. Check out our interview after the jump, and don’t forget to grab your copy of Starstruck, available online and in bookstores now.
Starstruck is about a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in, and who’s desperate to make her way in Hollywood. Was that your dream growing up, too?
Rachel: I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but I had sort of an unusual childhood in the way that my parents sent me to Jewish Day School all through elementary school. And that doesn’t sound too weird, until you remember that I grew up in Nebraska, so this school was INCREDIBLY small. I think at its height, there were about 36 kids in the whole school. I was a little bit lonely. None of my friends from school (not that there were a lot of them) lived near me, so I didn’t have any friends in the neighborhood (although I would watch them all play with each other and long to be one of the group.) A lot of the kids at the school I went to, well, mostly they were fine, but it was kind of a self-selecting group, in the sense that a lot of them were either VERY religious (which we weren’t, really) or had various special needs that made a very small school desirable. So basically, I was totally cut off from most average kids my own age, and grew up in this kind of peer vacuum, where I was just sort of free to like what I liked, without any fear of ostracization, because I was already sort of an outcast. It turned out what I liked were Tennessee Williams plays and Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland and “What Makes Sammy Run?”
That can be freeing. You can just get your weird on.
Rachel: Exactly! I got my weird on. I would like, check out Cat On A Hot Tin Roof from the library, and act out all the parts for an audience of stuffed animals, and like, that was my Saturday, and that made me happy. I was like, seven. “I’m not living with you! We occupy the same cage!” [Ed note: That’s a quote from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.] But I also think that feeling like such an oddball DID kind of lead me to that stuff, to the creation myth of old Hollywood, like, you’ll be discovered by someone who sees how special you are, and become another person who everyone wants to be, who is bigger and better than everyone around you. That really appealed to me.
So was the character of Margaret in some ways a wish fulfillment from that time?
Rachel: Oh, God, totally. Margaret is who I wished I was. She knows she’s different than the people around her, that she wants different things. She wants to be more alive than they are, or at least, what that feels like to her. And there is a certain kind of person, and God knows I am one of them, who feels the most alive when everything they’re doing is pretend.
So we know the roots of your fascination with old Hollywood — let’s talk about how that’s manifested in your life, and in this book. You pursued acting for a while, right?
Rachel: Yes. For a long while, actually. I started doing community and regional theater at a really long age–again, about 9, when everything started happening to me, apparently (9 was when I got really weird, is what I’m saying.) And I actually think some of those experiences informed a lot of Starstruck, being young and being around adults…and especially those kind of adults, who weren’t your typical suburban parents, you know what I mean? It made me see there was a way to be an amazing, creative bohemian weirdo, even when you grew up. I went to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and got a BFA in acting. I mean, I am a seriously trained actress. But when I got out into the real world of it, I realized that I didn’t actually want to be a 21-year-old actress making the rounds in 2000’s New York City. I wanted to be a 21-year-old actress in the 1930’s in the old Hollywood studio system.
So was this book always percolating in the back of your head? It it Rachel Shukert fan fic?
Rachel: Sort of, I think so. When I was a kid, my favorite books, that I would check out from the library again and again, were these sort of vintage show biz novels. Like Valley of the Dolls and Inside Daisy Clover and this amazing book called Chocolates For Breakfast (that we somehow managed to talk Harper Perennial into republishing). And at some point, I had this thought…what if someone tried to write a book like that that was meant for actually teenagers? Like, on purpose?
That seems like a totally impossible challenge. There are no vampires in your book!
Rachel: No, the only vampires are the agents!
Rachel: The more I thought of it, the more I kind of started to see these parallels–that the studio system, with its limitations and codes of behavior and paternalism, is not unlike a high school. It kept its stars bound to this sort of eternal adolescence. And I thought that might be relatable.
Why do you think Starstruck is garnering so much attention from adult readers?
Rachel: I mean, I knew it would be a book with a lot of crossover appeal, and it’s incredibly different than a lot of the other YA books on the market. It’s not magical, nobody is secretly a robot or a werewolf or a ghost or roaming a dessicated dystopian wilderness with some totalitarian government after them.
Yeah, I really couldn’t imagine Margaret “Hunger Games-ing” it.
Rachel: No. Gabby on the other hand, Gabby would kill them all. Gabby is living in an eternal “Hunger Games.” But look, here’s the thing: when I was a teenager, all I wanted was for people to see me as a sophisticated, glamorous adult. That’s what I aspired to. And what I love about this period, about the ’30’s in general, is that it has that same kind of self-conscious sophistication. All those terribly witty Cole Porter songs, all the very well-cut, understated clothes and dry little double entendres and pretending not to be very shocked by anything. To me, that feels so much like me as a teenager. This kind of studied, elegant apathy.
And that teenage self-conscious sophistication never changes, no matter the decade.
Rachel: Look at something like “Now, Voyager” where Bette Davis transforms from a spinster with a unibrow into this gorgeous, sophisticated, tragic knockout because Paul Henreid was clearly fucking her brains out on that cruise ship but then he has that crazy wife he can’t leave. We don’t have to see him do it to know he’s doing it–in fact, not seeing it introduces the concept of “longing” into the whole equation…and to me, longing is ALL about adolescence. That yearning for someone, wondering if they like you, if they’re ever going to to tell you…
It’s so earnest and innocent and “before.”
Exactly. Before. Before life happens to you and you stop caring so much about anything anymore. But these are real grownups in feeling that way in those movies, not John Hughes characters. And that gives it a kind of gravitas, you know what I mean? I wanted the world to feel accurate enough that you didn’t have to constantly think about it. I started to find that the best research was just to go back to those original contemporaneous novels that had inspired me, and just steal things. Like which restaurants they would go to, or where someone would buy a dress, and they’re all the right ones because the people writing those books were just there.
You must have loved it — I know we share that love of weird old British families and historical family narratives and all that crap.
Oh, God, yes. I loved it. I feel like that stuff is like baseball statistics for girls, you know?
And this is the first book in a trilogy? What else can we expect down the road for Margaret, Gabby and the rest of ‘em?
Rachel: Well, without giving too much away, Margaret is going to begin to see that easy come is easy go, in a lot of ways. She had the meteoric rise, and in a lot of ways, she hasn’t earned it. She’s going to start asking herself questions about where she can go from where she is, what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted, but you can’t quite keep it, and it doesn’t make you happy anyway. Gabby is growing up, and getting more restless. She’s got a new love interest who is actually interested in the physical company of women, if you know what I mean. And let’s just say that the “vitamins’ from the studio have proven to be kind of a gateway drug.
Viola is such a stage mom, too. She reminds of one of those pageant moms or something.
Rachel: Viola is totally a pageant mom!! But I always say Honey Boo Boo is our Shirley Temple.
You don’t get the Shirley Temple you want, you get the Shirley Temple you deserve. One thing: I’m not naming names, but that brother/sister/lovers plotline was a shocker.
Rachel: Hahaha. I think I had been watching a LOT of “Game of Thrones” in advance of writing the book. But also, I have this very, very vivid childhood memory of being in a bookstore in Seattle. I must have been about 9, and I was just becoming obsessed with classic Hollywood and old movies and the 1930’s and the Holocaust and all the various other topics that grip me to this day. And I remember being left alone in this bookstore where my parents were doing something else, and I picked up a copy of “Hollywood Babylon” by Kenneth Anger.
Totally appropriate for a 9-year-old.
Rachel: I opened it to a random page, and the first thing I saw–I remember this SO clearly–was something about Lilian and Dorothy Gish, and it said something like: “But was the unthinkable true? Was Lillian Dorothy’s lover????” (They were sisters, obviously, which made it weird.) So I think maybe that was a little bit in the back of my head when I was conceiving of this plotline.
Obviously adult ladies love the book — have you heard much of a response from teens yet about it?
Rachel: So far, teens seem to like it! But it’s only been out for a few days now, so I think I’ll hear more soon. But I have gotten a lot of nice blog attention from a lot of bloggers who are teenagers, and it seems like they are getting into it. And that it’s getting them into checking out some old movies, which is nice. My ulterior motive was always to make a generation of girls as weird as I was as a kid. Playmates at last!