Television Critic Mary McNamara has written for the Los Angeles Times for nearly two decades, writing extensively about the inner workings of Hollywood. She recently released her second novel—The Starlet—which is the sequel to Oscar Season.
McNamara discusses the joys and challenges of writing fiction and non-fiction, reveals her writing processes, and more.
What led you to first start writing?
I’ve written all my life, since I was very young. I don’t remember why exactly. I assume it’s because I love reading and that writers were greatly admired in my home. Also the fact that if you showed the least bit of interest in poetry, teachers thought you were very smart and writing requires no math.
What inspired you to write The Starlet?
I wrote The Starlet as a sequel to Oscar Season and I wrote Oscar Season because I felt the years I had spent covering the Oscars without the slightest hope of ever winning won should pay off in some way or other. In The Starlet I wanted to address the issue of addiction, in particular celebrity addiction, with a bit more depth and sympathy than it is generally given. Many Americans believe drug and alcohol addiction is a disease but when young stars, particularly female stars (the guys still get away with murder) show signs of it, we call them troubled and bratty and impossible when, in fact, they’re just drunks who need to get sober.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
Since The Starlet was a sequel, Simon & Schuster kindly bought it based on an outline. I really didn’t want to do an outline—because, I said, it wasn’t part of my “process,” but really because it was too hard. But they were quite firm and so I did one and though it was indeed very hard, it made the actual writing of the book much easier, at least in terms of the various crimes etc. The characters still did very unexpected things, but at least I had a fairly coherent timeline of action, which helped.
For Oscar Season, I just wrote it and sent it to a friend’s agent, Joe Regal, who told me he thought he could sell it if I changed the really truly terrible ending—which was, of course, my favorite part. So I did, and he did, and handed me over to Lauren Pearson who has saved me from all sorts of similar problems ever since.
How was writing a book similar to/different than article-writing?
You would think being a journalist would make it easier to write a novel, and in some ways it does—I’m not afraid to write and know very well that it’s mostly perspiration as opposed to inspiration—but in many ways it doesn’t. For one thing, I’m used to writing something, finishing it in a day or so, then seeing it in print within a week. By comparison writing a novel takes a very loooooooonnnnnnnggggg time. You keep writing and writing and still you’re not even close to being done. That was hard the first time around. Fortunately, I have a decidedly limited creative output attention span. If I write steadily for more than 4 hours, I get nauseated and headachy. So three hours is ideal, and if you just look at it like a work-out—now I’m off to do my three hours of fiction writing—and not like a race to the finish line, it’s much much easier.
It is also still difficult for me to fully take advantage of the word “fiction;” it’s hard for a journalist to give herself permission to make stuff up. I searched all over Florence for a fountain high enough for Mercy to dive from and found only two—both in the gardens behind the Pitti Palace. And after spending days trying to figure out a way to get everyone there—the best one is a bit of a hike from the entrance—I finally gave myself permission to invent a fountain (though it’s very like the real fountain). But, as you can see, it still troubles me quite a bit.
How did you develop your entertainment-niche?
My niche came from years as an entertainment reporter. I don’t know if its important for a writer to have a niche. But with a full-time job and three young kids, I don’t have the time or resources to do any sort of research outside my work and since my work actually seemed to be of interest to people, I used that. In The Starlet I also got to leverage my other great interest—travel. The estate in the book is based on a real Tuscan tenuta, called Spannocchia, where my family and I have stayed. I wrote about it for the Times and have wanted to write more for years, so when Juliette left L.A. at the end of Oscar Season, I sent her to Tuscany. Since she’s in the hotel business, and the other main characters are either in the hotel business as well, or movie stars, I can send them wherever I’ve been or wanted to go, which is very cool.
Advice for writers?
My advice to writers of any sort is to just write, write, and write some more. Reading helps, and I imagine there are teachers who can give you some guidance, but really, writing is skill best learned through practice. Also, if you aren’t a terribly curious person—if you don’t find yourself wondering why and how and who and where, if you are easily bored by people, if you can’t find something of interest in even the most banal event—then you probably aren’t a writer. Because the actual writing part is the last part of the job. The first is watching and listening and asking and going—well, actually, the first is wanting to watch and listen and ask and go, but you see what I’m getting at. The best thing about being a writer is that even when you are at the most boring party ever, or having a moment of absolute mortification, or watching the worst day of your life unfold, you’re working. Just try to pay attention to everything, little and big, that’s happening.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I had spent less time talking about writing, mooning around about writing, and more time actually writing. The romance is often what draws you in but scribbling on a legal pad in a Village cafe is not writing if you are doing it because that’s what Hemingway did. Hemingway wrote in cafes because he had no heat in his apartment and no way of feeding himself—both of which were available in a cafe. I wrote a lot of The Starlet in cafes because I had a two year old in the house and, though I could tell my then 11 and 9 year old that “mommy is working,” if a two-year-old sees Mommy, she’s going to want Mommy and there’s no reasoning with her.
Writing is work, whether you’re doing it for a newspaper or a website, whether you’re writing a play or a poem or a novel, and work is called work because it isn’t fun. I know The Red Badge of Courage was written in ten days and other classics have allegedly poured themselves onto the page in huge uninterrupted waves like a case of creative dry heaves. But for me, and for most writers I know, it’s a process of chipping away, every single day, of getting your butt in the chair even when you don’t feel like it, especially when you don’t feel like it, and pushing your story, your characters, just a little bit further ahead. It isn’t glamorous, and it’s often not even terribly enjoyable, but if you’re a writer, it’s just what you do.Entertainment Writer LA Times Mary McNamara Oscar Season The Starlet TV Critic