Rachel Shukert is the author of EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE GREAT, HAVE YOU NO SHAME?, and the Starstruck novels. She has been fascinated by the Golden Age of Hollywood since she was a girl, when she used to stay up all night watching old movies and fall asleep the next day at school. Rachel grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated from New York University. She lives in New York City with her husband. Visit her at rachelshukert.com. Your newest book, STARSTRUCK, is your first novel for young adults. What inspired you to make the switch to YA?
You know, it wasn't exactly a conscious switch. I didn't say to myself, I'd like to write a YA series, what can I think of that would work? It was more organic than that. I had this world in my head, and an idea of how I wanted the book to work and what I wanted it to be like and who I wanted it to be about, and as soon as I began to think of it YA terms, it instantly made sense to me.
I'm a huge old movie buff, and one of the things that has always struck me watching them is how young the performers—especially the actresses—were in those films. They don't seem it, since they're so poised and groomed to within an inch of their lives, but it's always sort of a shock to see, say, Lana Turner playing some totally-in-control femme fatale and then realizing, "Hey, she's only nineteen." Jean Harlow was sixteen when she got her first movie contract; Barbara Stanwyck was fifteen—and they weren't playing kid roles, either.
People really did grow up so much faster historically than they do now (I always think about European medieval history and wonder how different things would have been if everyone making the decisions about warfare and revenge and all of those things weren't, like, 22-year-old boys) but that was fascinating to me, to think of women that young having navigate this incredibly adult world. They're just in the process of discovering who they are, and then there are all these very powerful people saying, "We will make all your wildest dreams come true if you'll just be whoever we tell you to."
Now, that's something everyone goes through to some extent, everyone goes through, but in this world it's really writ large. What does that do to you? How do you handle that? What kind of compromises and sacrifices do you have to make? The conflict was just irresistible to me, as a storyteller.
And then, just in a stylistic sense, I knew I wanted the books themselves to feel as much like old movies as possible, and to me, there is something very cinematic about YA literature. They can have these rich, complicated characters, but the plots themselves really kind of gun forward; there's not this same emphasis on interiority that you get with a lot of literary fiction, where you can go on for about 200 pages with very little action. I wanted that for this, and I wanted to capture some of the longing for glamour and sophistication and escape and recognition that I had as a teenager, and really dig into that in an interesting way. STARSTRUCK follows three girls seduced by the glamour of Hollywood in the late 1930s—a time period you clearly know well and reference often. Still, it seems apparent that the novel required a good deal of research. What was that process like?
Well, I had actually done a lot of the research without knowing I was doing it! As I mentioned, I was really, really obsessed with this period of history and classic Hollywood in general when I was younger. I read everything about it that I could get my hands on, I watched old movies pretty non-stop for a period of years.
So a lot of things—details about the way the old studios were run, the kind of movies that they made, the historical context of it all—I really had at my fingertips. And since Olympus, the studio all the main characters work for, is fictional, I didn't have to adhere to anything truly exact—I could kind of make amalgam of lots of different studios and a lot of different executives and stars.
The research I did wind up doing was all in the details—really tiny, everyday things, because that's what makes the world feel full and real and makes the reader taken care of. You have to get that stuff right, and then the setting comes to life and the reader doesn't question it. It's like that Japanese idea of making a building so perfect that the architecture disappears.
And that was all stuff that happens in the moment, because you can't exactly predict what you're going to need to know before you get to that part. I mean, literally, I'd get to someone needing to settle a bill in a restaurant. And I'd need to figure out exactly how much it would cost, but then I'd need to know exactly how that character would pay for it. Would they have credit at this place? Would they whip out some big bill and tell the server to keep the change? All of that tells you something about the time and place, and who the character is.
I wanted all the research to kind of do double duty that way. Margo's lipstick that her mother won't let her wear is a good example. I knew I wanted it to be the name of a real lipstick that was on the market at the time, but then I also had to think about which one she would buy. It wouldn't be from a department store, because that would have to be a special trip and she wouldn't go there by herself. So she bought it at the drug store, but a girl like Margo, who is used to having nice things, would want it to be special, she'd save her allowance, maybe. So it was like this math problem: what would be the fanciest lipstick you could buy at a drug store? And the answer is: _____.
But I did get a little compulsive about it all. In the second book, a character takes the train from Hollywood to New York City, and I had to stop writing for three days to figure out exactly how you'd do it, which stations it would leave from, where it would stop, where you'd have to change lines. And there was this point where I was making myself absolutely crazy because I couldn't find the exact time table I needed, of what time the train would leave on what day, and finally, I was just like: "Rachel, this has to stop. Nobody is going to know the difference." But I tried never to do that unless my own sanity was at stake! Multiple reviewers have compared STARSTRUCK to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Do you agree with this assessment—and if so, where do the similarities end?
Look, obviously VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was a huge inspiration for me, and I take those comparisons as a huge compliment: it makes me feel like I told a good story!
Structurally, the books definitely have some things in common: the three main girls, who come from very different places, and I think you can see who their corollaries are. But they're different too. Margo is a lot more ambitious and driven than Anne Welles; Gabby isn't as much of a monster as Neely O'Hara; Amanda is a lot smarter and more self-sufficient than Jennifer North, and they will all change and grow even more as the series goes on.
But the biggest difference is that VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is essentially a cautionary tale, and STARSTRUCK really isn't. Yes, the world the girls are in is dangerous and populated with people who don't have their best interests at heart, and yes, bad things happen and they have setbacks and heartbreaks and make big mistakes. But it's possible to learn from your mistakes, to be smart and strong and resourceful enough to make it through. It may be a cruel world, but you don't have to let yourself be destroyed by it, and staying home your whole life isn't going to keep you safe either.
I don't want anyone—girls especially—to feel like they are going to be punished for having big dreams. To borrow a turn of phrase from THE WIZARD OF OZ, what Margo, Gabby and Amanda are looking for ISN'T in their own back yards, and that they all have the courage to try to find it is in itself a victory. They may be in over their heads, but they are also brave. Much of your writing reflects on life experiences and mistakes you’ve made (not to mention your incisive observations about TV’s SMASH!)—but targeted more toward (for lack of a better word) grownups. What were some of the challenges in writing for a younger audience?
You know, it honestly isn't something I thought about a whole lot—I was just trying to tell a good story, and let myself do what I needed to do! But I definitely handled a lot of things a little more delicately and euphemistically than I might have otherwise.
Actually, I was really inspired by the source material in this! For most of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, Hollywood adhered to this self-enforced Production Code, this very complicated form of censorship that had all these rules about what you could show and what you couldn't show, what you could say and what you could only allude to.
So all the writers and directors of this time became masters of suggestion—you know, what can you say with a closed door? Or a cutaway shot? I thought about that a lot when I was writing. It's all about leaving things to the imagination. You have accomplished so much at such a young age, and have already published two memoirs. Do you find it easier to write stories about your life, or to create characters of your own?
Oh, thank you! It doesn't always feel that way. As far as fiction vs. nonfiction goes, I wouldn't say one is exactly easier for me. I will say that nonfiction is faster. By the time I sit down to write a story about myself, I know what happened, I know what it felt like at the time and how I feel about it know, I know my characters.
With fiction, I have to take my time to get to know everyone, to find my way in to the world and all these other people's minds, to figure out the story, logistically and figuratively. It takes a lot more time and energy to imagine.
But once that happens, there aren't really any limits. With my first two books, I was constrained by actual events, you know? With this book, if something wasn't working in the story, I could just change it! And that was a big imaginative leap to make, but once I made it, I was like, this is amazing! The sky is the limit!
So it's different. But easier, no. Writing is never easy, that's the hard truth. But it's also what makes it so great.
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