It’s a Hollywood Story: A Conversation with Alison B. Hart




IN AN ESSAY appended to her debut novel The Work Wife, Alison B. Hart writes about her time working in the family office of a finance CEO in New York, the experience that informs her compelling story about Hollywood, money, and power. The novel centers on Ted Stabler, a Hollywood producer-director who employs dozens of highly educated individuals to manage every aspect of the lives of Ted, his wife Holly, and their kids.

The book begins with staff member Zanne Klein, a queer English-lit PhD student, managing a crisis: a monkey — hired to be part of the entertainment for a fundraising party — has broken into the IT server cage at the Stabler estate, and it’s Zanne’s job to get it out. Over the course of the novel, as Zanne deals with ever more absurd demands on her time, she also faces increasingly difficult moral questions about her role, especially once she’s offered the position of chief of staff. The events of the novel unfold with the pacing of a thriller and the sharp details of an ethnography, exploring how the lives of women are consumed by the men who sit at the top of a capitalistic and patriarchal order. 

I recently had the chance to talk with Hart about her novel and the inspiration behind it.

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LUIS JARAMILLO: The book opens with a very detailed description of the Stabler estate in Pacific Palisades. Why did you choose this setting?

ALISON B. HART: It’s a Hollywood story, so we need to be in Los Angeles. Setting the story in Pacific Palisades puts the characters up on the hills overlooking the city, which is fitting for the “King of Hollywood.” It was both an aspirational thing on my part — like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there again, only in the fancy part of town?” — but also pragmatic. The characters need to be able to get to the studio and back, and to the motel and back, with some fidelity to the limitations of L.A. traffic. If you’re going to set a story in one day — which in a book feels like in real time — we couldn’t have Ted Stabler living in Santa Barbara, for example, where it would take hours to get into town. So, I wanted the estate to be close in, and I wanted there to be that sense of place. The Stabler estate is on a double plot of land and yet very claustrophobic because of all the staff that Ted has working for him in these cottages that are tucked into the back of the property. Relative to his neighbors, he has a ton of space and could do so many things with it — plant an orange grove, grow his own grapes. But this is what he chooses instead — to have a large and very discreet staff at his beck and call.

The book takes place over the course of 24 hours. How did you decide on this time constraint?

I think as I go along in my career, I’m realizing that having those kinds of limits on a story and knowing what that limit is going to be pretty early on in the drafting process is key to me. Because otherwise it makes it hard for me to know what to include and what not to. Also, in my heart of hearts, I’m a soap opera writer. That’s how I think. In soap operas, you could spend the entire month of July as a viewer watching one wedding day on the show. So, even though I’m putting those limits on the timespan of this novel, you can still cram a lot in there.

A lot does happen over the course of this day. Can you talk about your handling of pacing and plot?

I knew that I wanted it to be fast-paced, but I didn’t want it to be so fast-paced that it felt like cotton candy. There are three perspectives in the book. I could have handled the perspective shifts in a number of ways, but what made sense to me was to always go where the plot was going. That’s why the three perspectives are not perfectly balanced. Two characters get a little bit more time because they’re making more moves. My editor and I approach plot in a similar way — I thought the story was pretty lean and mean when I gave it to her, but she trimmed the fat even more. And that became a fun challenge, to make it as tight as possible. If there was a flashback, it needed to really serve the story, with only as much presented as necessary.

You mentioned that there are three perspectives. There’s Zanne who works for Ted Stabler, the movie boss; there’s Holly Stabler, his wife; and then there’s Phoebe Lee, Ted’s ex-partner in movies and in life. These three women are circling around the black hole at the center, Ted. What goes into writing a character who doesn’t have his own perspective but who provides major psychic and plot gravity?

I wasn’t really interested in writing from Ted’s point of view because the world is already set up for the Teds of the world. It isn’t just that the industry revolves around him, but everybody in his home does too, whether it’s his wife, or the staff, or even people from his past. No matter how far away from him these characters get, they’re still thinking about him. Because Zanne, Holly, and Phoebe are all either directly relating to him or kind of shadowboxing with their own memories of him, I felt like you would have a really clear sense of who he is just by, like you said, the black hole he leaves at the center of their lives. You get the sense of how important he is to the other characters, the power that he holds over all of them.

Was the novel always structured the way it is now?

As you know, I first wrote about some of these characters in short stories that were meant to be part of a linked collection, kind of a Visit from the Goon Squad type of thing, because everybody wants another Visit from the Goon Squad. Even Jenny Egan wants another visit. Years later, I decided to revisit some of those characters in a novel instead, and when I wrote the first draft, it was all from Zanne’s point of view. I wanted to bang it out as fast as possible, so it was super short, almost novella length. When I got to the end, I already knew that there were things that I was having Zanne do or know that would sit more naturally in Phoebe’s point of view. So, then I rewrote the whole thing to be a two-person point of view, going back and forth between Zanne and Phoebe’s perspectives. It was in talking to my editor that we decided it would be worth it to try and have Holly’s perspective as well. When I was working on the short stories, I’d written from Holly’s perspective, so I knew I could access her mindset. Each time I wrote a draft, I mapped it out with different colored sticky notes on my wall to keep track of when I was going from one person’s perspective to another. Red for Holly, pink for Phoebe, orange for Zanne. It was fun, like a puzzle.

This book is partly about #MeToo and abuse in the film industry. How did you make these somewhat abstract ideas more concrete?

One way was to really get into these women’s bodies as much as I could, trying to make sure that, in these moments where whatever trauma they’ve experienced in their life is coming up again for them, you feel what they’re feeling. You see how something that happened years ago can still feel very fresh and really disorienting, and can drive their decisions, changing what their plan of action is. It’s easy to treat something as an idea if you think of it as an all-caps headline. Even using the term #MeToo makes it feel like a headline for a certain era that’s just about over. But none of these behaviors are new or recent. It’s just the way that we’re talking about them and thinking about them that’s new. These issues can crop up in all kinds of relationships and in all kinds of ways. For example, there’s a 15-year age gap between Zanne and her girlfriend, Gaby — even more than the 10-year age gap between Ted and Holly. Zanne’s not inclined to think about it too closely, but by the end of the book, I think she realizes their relationship might not really be the best thing for Gaby. Zanne’s experienced some trauma in her own past, but even with that history, she’s not above having a relationship that asymmetrically works for her. Realizing that is something that changes the way she sees others and herself.

In the essay at the end of the book, you write about working in the family office of a billionaire, and you describe it as making a deal with the devil. Zanne seems to be doubling down on this deal as the book goes forward. She’s definitely making choices that are not great.

It’s fun to be able to write from the perspective of somebody who’s making bad choices. Twitter loves to debate whether it’s a problem to have an unlikable character, but I think it’s only a problem if you don’t understand them. Zanne is motivated towards self-sufficiency. She doesn’t feel like she has anybody else in her life that she can rely on, and so she thinks she needs to be very successful at this job. She also has a bit of gallows humor about her situation. There’s a line in the book where she thinks something like, “This wasn’t some factory in China with locks on the doors. […] We all know why we’re here.” In her view, the staff kind of all locked themselves in and made their own deals with the devil.

What surprised you when you wrote this book?

I was surprised by the character of Holly. I knew she would, at some point in the story, try and run away, that there would be some moment where she didn’t know what she was doing in this life anymore. And I knew that she would come back or be brought back. But I don’t think I knew what was going to happen when she got back. Figuring that out gave me a lot of insight into her character and how she might change going forward.

What she does at the end is a big twist, and very satisfying. Early on in the novel, you write, “Holly didn’t want to know who made things happen in her life.” Can you talk about that mindset?

Holly’s able to compartmentalize. When she marries Ted, he’s already successful; he’s older than her, and he’s more established in many ways. She’s jumping onto a speeding train when they fall in love. She has to adapt to his life, and the way that she does that is by deciding not to care about who’s doing what to make their lives run smoothly. Eventually, she has to find a way to be as uninterested in that machinery as Ted is, but she’s built differently than he is. She’s curious about people, and she naturally does care about them. But it doesn’t really serve her, because then she has to care about the sacrifices the staff are making to please her, or the various small and large ways in which the people who work for them get the shaft on a daily basis. And she doesn’t want to think about things she doesn’t feel she can change.

When you were writing this book, were you thinking explicitly about inequality and imbalances of power?

Yes, I was. I was reading a lot of nonfiction at the same time, like the book Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, about the philanthropic efforts of the wealthy, which can distract us from how much wealth they continue to hold on to while also serving to build their influence in society. Of course, as a woman and a feminist, I had all of the #MeToo stuff very much on my mind, so I was following the reporting of Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and others. I was also reading Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. There are different kinds of inequality threaded through the novel — gender-based, class-based, race-based, age-based. I was posing the question, Can there ever be a fair relationship and exchange happening between two people when there’s an imbalance between them? I think my answer at that time was No, I don’t think there can be. I don’t know if that will always be my answer. But for sure, during the years that I was working on the book, everywhere I looked, I found another example of power imbalance.

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Luis Jaramillo is an assistant professor of writing at The New School and the author of The Doctor’s Wife, winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Contest, an Oprah Book of the Week, and one of NPR’s Best Books of 2012. His fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in Tin HouseLit Hub, Poets & Writers, and The Chattahoochee Review, among other publications.

 

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