Exploring the Lives of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman: Sam Toperoff Talks to HNS

Tony Hays

images-73In Lillian & Dash, novelist Sam Toperoff, author of Queen of Desire and Jimmy Dean Prepares, dives off into the relationship between two of the best known authors of the middle years of the 20th century. Sam kindly agreed to tell us about Lillian & Dash, as well as his views on historical fiction.

TH: In the past, you have taken on such American icons as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. What moved you to write a novel about Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman?

ST: I guess I must have realized that what I am trying to do with this form — trying to recreate the internal lives of people we do not know — is done more effectively with figures who are not icons, about whom less, not more, is assumed to be known. This is a tricky form to begin with because some readers want to know definitively what is “true” and what is “not true.” With icons, those readers have already made emotional attachments, and if I present a character very different from one they already believe in, a certain resistance has to be overcome. In other words, they do not readily accept my Monroe or Dean. Hammett and Hellman, by contrast, are people they may have heard of but may not know a great deal about, so I can feel much freer — within the rules of historical truth, of course — to offer my Hellman and my Hammett.

In addition, I was just finishing an almost twenty year stint as a writer, director and producer at PBS, and I knew I’d soon return to writing novels full time. Purely by chance I decided to write a short story in the form of a “Sam Spade” radio play of the 1940’s. Spade was a popular Dashiell Hammett detective series I listened to as a kid. As I did some Hammett research, I came upon his incredible thirty years relationship with Lillian. It had everything that interested me — the struggles and successes of the writer’s life, the political eras it spanned, their personal courage, their insecurities and cruelties, their love. I had my themes. I discovered that they met at a party in the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood in 1930, picked up my pen (yes, a pen), and I was off.

Lilian Hellman

Lilian Hellman

TH: Transferring historical characters to the fictional page isn’t always the easiest thing to do. What challenges did you face with Hammett and Lillian? How did you overcome them?

ST: Every writer and, more importantly, would-be writer should try to discover early what he or she does well and does not do well. You know, the old strengths and weakness lists. I know I do two things very well. I’ve always been able to tell a good story. And my imagination is not only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, it can transfer itself into other people — in other words, I can actually imagine myself as Dashiell Hammett as a boy in Maryland, schmoozing with L.B. Mayer, or in the throes of the worst D.Ts. Same with Lillian as a girl in New Orleans, making love to Hammett and others, writing The Little Foxes. I find this sort of “make-believe” within the rules pleasant, so I can’t recall any real challenges. Also, when I go to sleep each night, I try to imagine the next day’s work and don’t — or can’t — fall asleep until I’m content that I know what I’m going to be doing. This way, great obstacles don’t build up.

The only problem I had to overcome was finding the time to do the research and the writing. Since PBS was going to “terminate” (their word) me eventually, I quit and devoted myself fully to this project.

TH: As a follow-up to that question, of your two leads, which was the most difficult to come to grips with – Hammett or Hellman?

images-74ST: Most critics who reviewed the Marilyn Monroe novel agreed that I can write women well, so there was no gender barrier with Hellman. In addition, her star was on the rise during the period covered in the novel, so she pretty much moved from success to success with Hammett’s encouragement until she collided with McCarthy and the Un-American Committee in the 50’s. She was, personally speaking, the steadier of the two but with just enough faults and foibles to keep her interesting for me. Hammett was in decline, personally and professionally, so his may have been the more intriguing character to develop — and as a result, the more interesting character to create. But, as I’ve tried to suggest in my earlier answer, for me there was no “heavy lifting” involved once I thought I knew them and was able to enter into their consciousness. (I honestly wish I could say, “Yes, it was all terribly difficult but somehow owing to my skill I managed to pull it off.” It wasn’t really like that.)

TH: As an author of historical fiction myself, I sometimes enter into a project with a certain perception of a character. But by the time I finish the novel, I see him or her differently. Have you encountered that in your own work?

ST: One of the themes that drew me to these characters and the project in general was trying to discover how writers write, what is the essential nature of this mysterious process and the needs that propel it. I guess I was driven by curiosity because I know how I work, but since I don’t know many other writers, I have no idea how they go about putting words on paper (or on screen). Also, it is a theme rarely encountered in literature. I discovered that at first Hammett — already a success and twelve years her senior – was Hellman’s writing mentor and a harsh taskmaster and that she attributed her success to his demanding standards. But he did not set the same rules for himself and his decline can be attributed not merely to his drinking but to his carelessness and dishonesty as a writer. Her writing success prompted such jealousy in him that even their love could not sustain them. As the novel went on I began to understand better not only the writing life but the role competition played in that life. That discovery was something I did not fully anticipate going into the project. In the end, however, the fact that their love re-emerged and enabled them to transcend rivalry gave the novel the ending I had not anticipated.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

TH: The McCarthy era was a frightening experience for many actors and authors. Did you do any special research to accurately portray that period? If so, what kind?

ST: The McCarthy era was indeed frightening — because I lived it. I was in my twenties in the ‘50s and just about to start a teaching career. I recall having to sign a loyalty pledge not to overthrow the U.S. government in order to get my first job. Some of my favorite performers — not just a few but many score of them – had their careers destroyed because of their political beliefs and the McCarthy witch hunt. That’s why I made it a point to include Chaplin and Hazel Scott and Paul Robeson in the novel. Even though Hammett went to prison for refusing to name names, Hellman suffered the greater professional loss because she was at the top of her game just then while he really couldn’t write a lick any more.

My McCarthy era research was confined to getting the names of the offending Congressmen and Senators right, as well as the dates and venues of the hearings. And also, of course, in discovering the specific ways in which Hammett and Hellman—and others—were punished unjustly.

TH: Your writing career shows that you have eclectic tastes in subject matter, but it also shows a general inclination towards historical fiction. What possibilities does historical fiction hold for you that, perhaps, contemporary fiction doesn’t?

ST: The key element for me in responding is something I mentioned earlier, which is my perceived ability to tell a good story. Now of course a good story can be told using the forms available in contemporary fiction, but for me that would be the equivalent of telling an entire story in the present tense. Why be so restrictive? When we have the past as an echoing hallway to where, what, and, most importantly, who we are now. Those echoes, those reverberations, are essential to the best stories. And nothing reverberates like the past.

Interviewing someone of Sam’s experience is a daunting task, and I could have posed a hundred follow-up questions, but I truly appreciate Sam taking the time to share his thoughts with us. Lilian and Dash is published on 16th July 2013, but you can pre-order now. The HNR review of Lillian & Dash will be posted on 1st August 2013.

Posted by Richard Lee

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