A while back, Jenny R., a publicist at Pegasus Books, offered me a copy of Windhall by Ava Barry. It sounded great! But I didn’t really have time to read and review it due to various other commitments.
Here’s the scoop on it:
Hollywood in the 1940’s was an era of decadence – and director Theodore Langley was its king, paired with Eleanor Hayes as his lead actress. That ended when Eleanor’s mangled body was discovered in Theo’s rose garden and he was charged with her murder. The case was thrown out before it even went to trial and Theo fled L.A., leaving his crawling estate, Windhall, to deteriorate.
Decades later, investigative journalist Max Hailey – raised by his grandmother on stories of old Hollywood – is sure that if he could meet Theo he could prove once and for all that the famed director killed his leading lady. Then, when a copycat murder takes place near Windhall, the long-reclusive Theo returns to L.A. and Hailey finally has his chance…
As Hailey discovers that the implications of Theo and Eleanor’s controversial final film, The Last Train to Avalon, reach far beyond Eleanor’s murder, the journalist must race to piece together both recent and decades-old crimes before it’s too late.
About Ava Barry: Ava Barry was a script reader for Bold Films and Intrigue Entertainment, and an editorial assistant for Zoetrope: All-Story, Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine. This is her first novel. She lives in Australia. You can read her fascinating interview with Wendy Werris in Publishers Weekly here!
I offered to do a Q&A because I wanted to hear more! So here is my Q&A with the very generous Ms. Barry. Thank you for your time! And if you are a writer yourself, gentle reader, then you are NOT going to want to miss this!
Q. I’m a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Are you as well? How were you drawn to write about this era?
Oh man, I could write fiction about the Golden Age of Hollywood for the rest of my life and never get bored of it. I’m obsessed. I fell completely in love with it in 2009, which is when I saw Sunset Boulevard for the first time. I had always thought black and white movies were dull…boy, was I wrong. That week I went to the campus library and checked out a stack of books on film history, particularly the early days of Hollywood. I haven’t looked back.
Q. I know a lot of people ask this, but readers want to know — what type of research did you do to write your novel? How long did it take?
As soon as I started reading about Old Hollywood, I knew that I wanted to write a book about it, but I had no idea how to frame it. I loved absolutely every element of that old world, from the screenwriters and producers who coddled their leading stars, to the studio enforcers and people who covered up crimes, down to the people who made props and created those beautiful worlds. I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on: lots of memoirs and essays, as well as old screenplays. The book that gave me the most information was “The Penguin Book of Hollywood,” edited by Christopher Silvester. Since a lot of this old world has disappeared, most of my information came from books, although I did visit a lot of filming locations, as well as sites of famous murders.
I lived in Los Angeles for three years after college, and on my days off, I spent a lot of time exploring the city. I looked up filming locations for old movies like Chinatown (and Sunset Boulevard, of course), and went to visit those spots. I went to the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and hid in their basement, reading these old out-of-print books about Hollywood.
The crazy thing about this old world is that up until recently, a lot of those old stars were still alive. For a long time I wanted to meet Baby Peggy, who was the first “child star” (born in 1918 as Diana Serra Cary) – she was still alive until last year! I also held out hopes (very, very distant hopes) of meeting Olivia de Havilland and even Shirley Temple, who was still alive when I moved to Los Angeles.
Q. Many novelists say that the characters come into their own and live in their heads and drive the story. Is this your writing experience? Or did you know where the story was going when you started?
It’s very rare for me to know where a story is going when I start writing it. This is why it took me so long to find the story that I settled on in WINDHALL: I knew that I wanted to write about Old Hollywood, but I had no idea which angle to take. I finally decided to write about my own experience, which was living in Los Angeles and being obsessed about a world that has nearly died away. I knew that the distant spectatorship was probably the most compelling angle, because Old Hollywood isn’t exactly accessible; you can only obsess from a distance. Soon that world will only exist in memories and books, sadly.
Q. I see this is your debut – wow! It’s always so impressive when a debut novel hits it out of the ballpark. What tips could you share for (struggling) writers who are hopeful of getting published?
This is a misconception that I’m always happy to correct, because I feel like it sets up so many authors to feel badly about themselves if they don’t succeed in a huge way with their first published work. This is my fourth book – nobody wanted the first three! I have been writing seriously for twelve years, and that’s how long it took for me to get published: twelve years.
I’m always happy to share these figures because it might encourage other authors to keep putting their stuff out there: I queried about two hundred agents before I found mine. Not only with WINDHALL, but with my other books, too – and was roundly rejected by everyone! Annie Bomke (my agent) and I started working together at the beginning of 2017, and Annie started sending WINDHALL out that fall. I didn’t keep a tally of publishers who rejected us, but I think it was between 40 – 50. It took two and a half years for Windhall to land with Pegasus. That’s a very long time to become an instant success!
The stories of people who “succeed instantly” are the ones that make headlines, and I find that so disheartening to read. It makes you think that you either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t, you should give up now. Don’t give up! I definitely did not have what it took at first, and I had to keep learning, growing and improving.
Here are some tips that I can share:
- Learn as much as you can about the publishing industry. If you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, getting published seems like a daunting, ethereal dream. It’s a business, like anything else. I read “The Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published” – it sounds so cheesy, but I learned everything I know about getting an agent, writing a query letter, a synopsis, etc from that excellent book.
- Keep track of your “failures.” This might sound counterintuitive, but it works, and I’ll tell you why: writing without getting published can feel like throwing pieces of paper down a mineshaft. If you never see any results or positive feedback, you can feel tempted to give up. Don’t! Keeping a reminder of all the people you queried (and all the people who responded, whether negative or positive) reminds you that you have been doing a TON of work.
- READ. Oh my god, I can’t tell you how many would-be authors I meet who “don’t have time to read books.” Honey, please. Attempting to write a book without reading is like attempting to run a marathon without exercising. I have read some of these literary efforts, and it shows. I also speak from personal experience: 2011 was an incredibly stressful year for me, and I read about five books. Anything I tried to write that year was complete gibberish. I finally got my life back on track and read copiously in 2013, which is when I started writing seriously again – and it was so much easier to write after reading.
Q. Can you tell us what you are working on currently?
I’m working on another mystery set in Los Angeles. This one is also set in Los Angeles, and it’s about a female private investigator. The P.I. takes the case of a young woman who was the lone survivor of a violent attack that took the lives of her very wealthy family…and now it looks like the killer has come back to claim the young woman’s life, too.