Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Q&A with Jerome Charyn



Jerome Charyn is the author of the new novel Big Red. His many other books include The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. He lives in Manhattan.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in your new novel?


A: I was originally going to write a novel about Orson Welles, since he's the greatest genius that cinema has ever produced, but I realized I couldn't write it in his voice without surrendering to his own bravura.


Q: How did you create your character Rusty Redburn?


A: I wanted a female voice to tell the tale. This name came to mind: Rusty Redburn (Redburn is the name of one of Melville's novels.) 


I felt more comfortable if she were to be an outsider in movieland, so I made her a visionary lesbian who saw through the veneer of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood and how poorly women were treated, including Rita herself. 


Rusty is everything that Hollywood moguls hated - a female maverick who went her own way and saw right through that veneer.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the treatment of women in Hollywood in the mid-20th century?


A: It shows how women were enslaved to the "Hollywood System" - their contracts could be dropped at any time, and they could never decide which films they wanted to make. They were sexually abused and treated like delinquent children. Women in Hollywood were never really allowed to grow up. 


Look at Judy Garland, Louis B. Mayer's favorite star. She sat on his knee while she gobbled pills to keep her awake as she wandered from film to film. She was swallowed up by Hollywood's own lust to make money - by churning out film after film.


Q: What did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: This is always the dilemma, since you want to be true to your subject, but they are always fictional, and also a reflection of who you are. 


So when you are writing about Rita, you're really writing about yourself. You thrust yourself back into the past, wearing her clothes and assuming her voice. Yet Rita had such a poignant life that writing about her breaks your own heart. 


You research and research and yet you come back to the same dilemma. The voices you assume are always torn out of you in a brutal way. I've never been more moved by a character than by Rita, her silences, her voicelessness and her ability to speak only through her perpetual dance.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a novel about Maria Callas. I fell in love with her and decided to divorce my wife for a dead woman. Maria is always on my mind. I realized that we had similar pasts. I can't sing a note, but the two of us arose out of nowhere and reinvented ourselves. 


She was born in New York in the decade before I was, went to junior high school in Washington Heights, and then sailed off to Greece. But she was a child of the streets, as I am, self-invented, always one inch away from stumbling. 


That was her greatness. Other singers may have had better voices, but they could not match the way she could interpret the role. She lived out her life in every performance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As a movie-goer from the age of 5, Hollywood became my one and only cathedral. The one time I visited Hollywood Boulevard, I felt I was really at home. So I was able to recapture these streets through Rusty's voice - an outsider, like myself, who was reborn in Hollywood. 


Anyone who enters into the narrative of this novel will discover a Hollywood that has never been depicted before. I can still smell the aroma of the streets, its particular, hypnotic perfume. And that is what I wanted to deliver to the readers of Big Red


What was it really like to be alive in Hollywood in 1943, in the midst of World War II, when the West Coast still had a residual fear of a Japanese invasion? Yet during the war, Hollywood became the capital of the Western World. Everyone lived both their everyday lives and their Hollywood lives. And


I hope that readers will discover themselves living on these very streets and going to The Regina, Rusty's own movie house, right on Hollywood Boulevard, where Rusty held court as Regina X.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jerome Charyn.

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