Susan Meissner’s Stars Over Sunset Boulevard Draws Readers into 1930s Hollywood
Susan Meissner is not your typical historical fiction author. With a background in journalism, she began her career with contemporary fiction but soon shifted to writing historical novels with a modern-day hook. Her latest novel, Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, follows a modern-day heroine who discovers a hat used during the filming of the iconic Gone with the Wind. The reader is then drawn into 1930s Hollywood and the stories of Audrey and Violet, two unlikely friends. Audrey is a gorgeous aspiring actress while Violet is a reserved Southern girl running from a tragic past. Thrown together on the set of Gone With the Wind, the women learn about love and betrayal, jealousy and forgiveness, and the resilience of friendship. Meissner recently took the time to answer a few questions about Stars Over Sunset Boulevard.
CW: You have authored multiple novels set in many different periods. A Sound Among the Trees was set during the Civil War while The Shape of Mercy took readers back to the Salem Witch Trials. So what drew you to 1930s Hollywood?
SM: I am forever on the lookout for detail-rich historical settings in which to set a story. Hollywood’s golden age is just that. This place was like a dream-factory in the years between the two world wars and before television changed the face of the entertainment industry. The movie theater allowed worn and weary people to regain their sense of adventure and hope and romance after the demoralizing years of World War I and the Depression. It’s a locale that geographically is only a two-hour drive away from me, but it’s not the same place culturally that it was seventy years ago. That fact makes for a great setting choice, too, in that old Hollywood is not a place you can visit anymore. More specifically, I’ve always loved the movie Gone with the Wind, a film that at its heart is about what we are willing to do to hang on to what we think we can’t live without. The more I thought about classic Hollywood as a context the more I knew this particular movie would lend itself perfectly to a story about two studio secretaries whose dreams collide on the set of the most iconic movie ever made.
Audrey is very a nuanced character. At times I felt desperately sorry for her and then a couple of chapters later I wanted to strangle her. Did you purposely craft her to have both good and bad traits or did she develop that way as the story unfolded?
When I was plotting how I wanted these two main characters – Audrey and Violet – to come across, I initially thought one would be like the Gone with the Wind character Scarlett O’Hara – opportunistic, headstrong, self-serving – and the other would be like Melanie Hamilton – kind, wise, and loyal. As I started writing the book though, both Audrey and Violet seemed to suggest to me that they were a blend of both. Not only that, but Scarlett and Melanie were actually not polar opposites. Most of us have an inner Scarlett that we have to tamp down from time to time, and we all have the capacity to be as gentle and perceptive and honest as Melanie Hamilton. I wanted to explore this idea that we already have the skills to be both self-serving and self-sacrificing. It’s in how we make our daily choices that we discover out of which mindset we’re operating. In Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, Audrey is not Scarlett, and yet on some of the pages, she is. And on some, she is not.
Why do you prefer to pair a modern storyline with a main historical plot?
It’s been my brand since The Shape of Mercy in 2008 to dovetail a historical setting with a contemporary one. I’ve really enjoyed employing this kind of story construction and I think my readers have, too. So I knew from the get-go that I needed some kind of current-day tie-in to serve as a framing device for Audrey and Violet’s story. I like to have something from the past – either physical or ideological – emerge into the here and now and it’s that item or idea that becomes the metaphorical portal in which the reader can emotionally travel from the current day to the past and then back again. For this story, I reasoned that a prop or costume piece from the making of Gone with the Wind could certainly still be around seventy-five years later. It wasn’t hard for me to choose the curtain-dress hat from the scene where Scarlett O’Hara makes desperate choices to save her family home. To me, Scarlett’s curtain-dress hat is emblematic of what dire circumstances can lead someone to do when what she loves most is in danger of being ripped out of her hands. When we’re afraid of losing what we treasure most, we sometimes choose to do things that we would never do in an ordinary situation. I don’t think it’s any accident that hat is part velvet and gold braid and part barnyard rooster feathers. It’s an amalgam of Scarlett’s strength and her weakness. She will do what no one else will do because of how afraid she is of losing everything.
There is a lot of myth surrounding this rather glamorous time period. What sort of research did you conduct for the novel?
I read many books, articles, and blog posts on the time period and specifically on what life was like on the set of Gone with the Wind in 1938/39. I also visited the former Selznick International Studios, now Culver Studios, just to stand in the spot where my characters would have stood, if they had been real people. And I watched the movie Gone with the Wind several times (though over the years I’ve seen it countless times). I wanted to make sure I could tell my story in such a way that even if a reader had never seen the movie they would still emotionally connect with my characters. I do have two favorite research books that I highly recommend. The Making of Gone with the Wind by Steve Wilson is a beautifully composed, coffee-table-worthy book that was published in 2014 for the movie’s 75th anniversary. The pages tell the story of the film from start to finish with gorgeous photographs, behind-the-scenes details, and many of Walter Plunkett’s costume sketches and William Cameron Menzies’ concept paintings. Memo from David O. Selznick, edited by Rudy Behlmer, is a compilation of a mere selection of GWTW producer David O. Selznick’s correspondence, beginning with his first years in the movie industry at MGM in 1926. Behlmer was presented with two thousand files boxes of Selznick’s personal correspondence when he began this editorial undertaking! Selznick was famous for inundating his cast and crew and anyone else connected to his films with memos. Selznick was a clever and courageous visionary, and his memos attest to his unceasing attention to detail.
Susan Meissner’s Stars Over Sunset Boulevard was published by NAL and released in January. For more information on Susan and her other novels, please visit her website.
About the contributor: Caroline Wilson was born and raised in the beautiful upcountry of South Carolina. She studied historic preservation at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, and works as a historic buildings consultant. She is a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and has a self-published romantic historical entitled Rebel Heart. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline can be found on the road (or in the air) to her next travel destination or savoring a perfectly crafted classic cocktail. She lives in sultry Charleston, South Carolina, along with her husband and brood of five cats.