Harriet Evans is the bestselling author of many novels, including I Remember You, A Hopeless Romantic, and the upcoming Not Without You. On her website, Harriet tells her readers a bit about her book, her dad, and her love of classic movies. Below we’ve given you a bit of her essay, and we encourage you to click through to her blog to read the rest!
How I wrote Not Without You (clue: with a computer)
Writing books is a weird job to have. Explaining how your mind works and how you write books is also weird. I suppose the strangest bit is the beginning. I don’t force myself to think about what book I’m going to write next. I wait till an idea pops into my head and sometimes I don’t even realise it’s there till it sort of springs out, more fully formed, and I find I keep thinking about it. Not Without You began as an idea for writing a glossy tale about a British film star and her bonkbuster-y Hollywood world, but I don’t have it in me to write a Judith Krantz, Valley of the Dolls-style airport novel, much as I’d like to! And I kept hearing this other voice of another character, one from the past, in the back of my head, and eventually I had to listen to that voice too.
I knew this other character should be called Eve, and that she’d be a huge film star at the end of the Golden Age of movies in Hollywood. I was a massively geeky teenager and that has many advantages, not least that you learn lots of weird things. I knew Eve so well, even now I can picture her perfectly clearly. I knew that something tragic would happen to her, she’d go missing and be almost forgotten about for years and years, until the modern-day actress who lives in her house in 2012 starts to track her down. What I loved was as I wrote more of the novel the two characters of Eve Noel and Sophie Leigh (the modern-day star) became more and more real to me.
My favourite actress growing up was Vivien Leigh, born 100 years ago on 5th November 1913 and it’s strange to be writing this in the week of the centenary of her birth, because she was also my inspiration for the character of Eve. I love old films, especially Hollywood in the 30s to the 50s. My obsession started (as things so often do) between the pages of a book. When I was fourteen I devoured Gone With the Wind and I thought it was literally the best book ever. I’d never really read a big juicy blockbuster in that style before that has a world so utterly different from everything you know and I became obsessed with the film, too. But we didn’t have a video player *gets out small violin* and so I didn’t see it for ages. In the meantime I read all about the film, its tortuous production history at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and stared obsessively at what small pictures there were in books my parents owned about cinema instead. I read biographies of Vivien Leigh, Margaret Mitchell, George Cukor (first director, sacked for being too empathetic to the actresses and not being manly enough for Clark Gable) and Victor Fleming (second director, bit of a chauvinist pig but got it made, having just finished working on Wizard of Oz, so you have to give him some respect for that, even if he sounds pretty awful).
GWTW started for me a love of old films that endures to this day. I used to watch random Myrna Loy comedies on TV during half-term, or stay up scaring myself witless if there was a late-night Hitchcock movie on. This was when there were only four channels, and when it wasn’t unusual to show, say, Notorious at 11.20 on a Saturday night. My parents loved films, my dad especially and it’s through him I got most of my information about it, too. Plus the one connection to a proper old movie star that I actually have.
In the 70s, my dad was a paperback editor at Coronet. He was lucky enough (and clever enough!) to publish David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s A Balloon, which sold over a million copies, as did the follow-up, the more Hollywood-orientated Bring on the Empty Horses. I loved those books. I absolutely gobbled them up. I couldn’t believe that my dad had a) met David Niven b) David Niven actually knew his name. I’d sat on his lap when I was two or three and didn’t even know it! He’d been to our house! (Along with Delia Smith, but that’s another story). When I was nine months old, Dad had had a terrible car accident that left him in a coma and later, using a wheelchair (which he still does). David Niven recorded tapes of himself in Geneva that he posted to my dad to cheer him up. ‘Hello old boy… Hope you’re doing a little better. Well, I’m sitting here overlooking the mountains, and I must say…’
He was a lovely man, someone who wrote thank-you notes, had friends he’d known all his life, a sense of right and wrong, someone with an interior life that wasn’t all about him. A proper old movie star, not someone who has an aftershave range and a DUI conviction. What I loved best about Bring on the Empty Horses in particular is this sense in Hollywood in the Thirties to the Fifties that the stars of that era were very much just making it up as they went along. It was a slick, hugely successful business that had exploded out of nowhere but the movie stars seem much nicer, more realistic, more intelligent, less self-obsessed, somehow. Their private lives were more private. They went to each other’s houses for dinner, they went fishing together, they volunteered for World War 2. They looked out for each other as they were being manipulated by the studio system into having their teeth ripped out or their hair electrolysised or being forced to give up love-children. And when they came out on display they were goddesses and gods, idols whom mere mortals couldn’t believe they were lucky enough to witness.
To read the rest of Harriet’s essay, please click through to her blog… and don’t miss NOT WITHOUT YOU, available now from Gallery Books!