I don’t know about y’all, but I love rewatching a performance after I learn that something catastrophic has gone down behind the scenes. Whether it’s the iconic 1997 Fleetwood Mac performance of “Silver Springs” in which you can watch Stevie Nicks put a curse on Lindsey Buckingham in real time, or a film like What Happened to Baby Jane, which featured an on-set rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford so legendary that Ryan Murphy had to make entire tv series about it.
When I began researching my debut novel Do Tell, I already had a longstanding love for the films of classic Hollywood. As I learned more about the backstories of the actors, directors, and studio executives of the era, I found myself revisiting the classics and pinpointing the intersection between performance and personal life. There’s something very satisfying about watching The Long, Hot Summer and knowing that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are about to destroy their respective marriages in the name of one of the greatest love stories in Hollywood history.
Do Tell follows Edie O’Dare, a gossip columnist who thrives in the gray area between personal and public when it comes to the stars of Golden Age Hollywood. Edie’s livelihood is dependent on her ability to piece together what’s happening off-set—which stars are sneaking off together, who’s feuding, or why that last-minute swap of leading starlets had to happen. I love novels that explore the disparity between what the public is meant to see and what really went down. If you’re like me and you live for the drama, here’s a list of my favorites that show us the mess off-camera, behind the curtain, and backstage.
Playhouse: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert’s story of a rundown New York City playhouse during World War II is a delectable treasure. Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar, so she heads to the city to live with her eccentric aunt who works in showbiz. Not the Broadway kind of showbiz though—the Lily Playhouse is running on castoff showgirls, recycled costumes, last minute scripts, pennies, and prayers. At the playhouse, Vivian discovers a found family with her aunt Peg and her live-in “secretary” Olive, along with the eccentric cast of characters that inhabit their world. I love how unapologetic Gilbert is with Vivian’s exploits and mistakes, because, of course, she makes the sorts of mistakes any nineteen-year-old would make if given the opportunity to run amok in the bars and clubs of New York with a legion of beautiful actors and actresses. City of Girls is a perfect novel: transportive, entertaining, and empathetic.
Reality TV Show: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun
Have you ever watched a reality dating show and wondered to yourself: Why aren’t more of these contestants queer? I have the book for you! Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive follows Charlie, a high-profile tech developer hoping to do some PR rehabilitation by appearing on a dating show. There are dozens of women who are meant to be competing for Charlie’s affection, but, oops, he seems to have a lot more chemistry with the show’s producer, Dev. While Dev works to create a romantic storyline for Charlie on-screen, he also has to do a lot of one-on-one coaching off camera to get Charlie up to leading-man status. What follows is a tender-hearted story about navigating through love, sexuality, mental health issues—all in the spotlight of the public eye. It’s the perfect romance for anyone who’s ever binged a dating show and thought: maybe the best on-screen chemistry isn’t always hetero.
The Opera: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Lilliet Berne is the star of the 19th-century Parisian opera scene in Alexander Chee’s incredible Queen of the Night. Lilliet’s origins are vague and riddled with secrets that could cost her the spot on the stage that she’s worked so hard for. When she’s offered an original role in an upcoming opera, Lilliet identifies some alarming parallels to her hidden past in the character she’s meant to play. Chee’s expansive novel follows Lilliet through her many reinventions, both past and present, through war and political upheaval, through royal courts and patrons with ill-intent. Queen of the Night is my favorite kind of historical fiction—not oversaturated with research and facts, but always conscious of how the events and politics of the era shape its characters’ lives. It’s a seductive and enchanting novel that I return to time and time again to see what historical fiction can look like in the hands of a writer like the great Alexander Chee.
Film Set: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
This absolute trip of a novel—it’s got gothic horror, it’s got romance, it’s got historical fiction, it’s got metacommentary, it’s surreal and strange and I adore it! In 1902, at the Brookhants School for Girls, a group of young ladies become obsessed with a salacious Sapphic memoir, and they become urban legends when two of the girls are found dead with a copy. A century later, a film crew is set up at Brookhants to adapt a breakout hit novel based on the events in 1902, with an up-and-coming queer it girl playing opposite a former child star. As the two narratives unfurl alongside each other, past and present intermingle, facts become stranger than fiction, and everyone questions both their reality and their sexuality. Plain Bad Heroines clocks in at over 600 pages, but trust me when I say you’ll want to read Emily M. Danforth’s intoxicating novel in a few gulps.
Ballet Company: They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey
Give me a story about ballet drama and I’m always in—Meg Howrey’s They’re Going to Love You is one of the all-time greats. Set between the 1980s ballet scene and today, it follows Carlisle Martin, a trained dancer turned choreographer, and her father Robert, an artistic director for a dance company. When Carlisle receives a life-changing call from her father’s partner, she has to reckon with a rift in their family that she caused with one impulsive decision many years ago. I love the vulnerability of this novel, emphasized by how beautifully Howrey (a former dancer herself) writes about the physicality of ballet. They’re Going to Love You is about the dance world, but it’s also about being an artist in the modern world, the sacrifices we make and the people we hurt.
Music Industry: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Leave it to the musicians to make a big ol’ mess of their lives—while actors and reality stars can clean things up in post, there’s always something very raw about the drama of rock stars. Dawnie Walton captures it perfectly in her debut The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, which follows a music journalist collecting the oral history of the unconventional 1970s duo of Opal Jewel, a Black woman with a voice so powerful it rivals the likes of Tina Turner, and Nev Charles, a white British singer-songwriter. After a race riot is incited by Confederate flag waving rock fans at one of their shows, Opal & Nev are broken up—Nev continues with a great career and Opal eventually fades into the background. Walton’s incredible novel chronicles the harsh realities of racism and misogyny in the music industry, while also offering up a page-turner filled with a chorus of captivating voices and secrets.
Film Industry: The View Was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta
Look, fake-dating is my favorite romance trope and The View Was Exhausting is one of my favorite examples of it. In Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta’s debut co-authored novel, Win Tagore is an A-list film star who has a notorious on-again-off-again relationship with international playboy Leo Milanowski. What the public doesn’t know is that Win and Leo’s heavily publicized flings are all carefully orchestrated by Win: they just happen to be perfectly timed for when Win needs an image boost. Rather than lambasting Win for the superficial nature of her relationship with Leo, Clements and Datta dig into the world that necessitates creating these scenarios for the public—as a British-Indian actress, Win is subject to heavier scrutiny than her white counterparts. I loved seeing Win and Leo’s story unravel in this sumptuous novel of fame and riches.
Hollywood: Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra
I couldn’t do this list without a Golden Age Hollywood novel and Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents is one of the greatest. The eponymous studio at the heart of Marra’s novel isn’t like the MGMs and Paramounts of the era—Mercury Pictures specializes in B-list films and is primarily run by a crew of immigrants and refugees from war-torn Europe. Among them is Maria Lagana, an Italian transplant whose father is still being held under arrest by the Fascist regime in their home country. Maria finds herself at the helm of Mercury Pictures as an associate producer, dealing with ego-driven men in power, attacks from the Production Code Administration, racist typecasting, and threat of bankruptcy. What I love about this novel is how deftly Marra moves between high and low brow art, revealing the underlying currents that shape B-list productions and the machine of propaganda in America. It’s always a pleasure to read Marra, and a delight to see him working in this era.
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