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An Interview With Mary McNamara, Author of The Starlet

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Mary McNamara has a job I covet: She gets paid to write about television. This marks the second time I've interviewed someone whose job I officially covet and to whom I admit jealousy.

The other was Patrick Anderson, who is The Washington Post's book critic in charge of thrillers. As I told him in our interview, one of my first career goals — back when I was about 5 — was to either become a best-selling novelist or, when I realized that might be tough to accomplish, get paid to review books.

Which brings us nicely to the present, where I switched from reviewing books to interviewing authors (which I find more interesting) and for a publication…. so it's sort of like that original plan? It'll do.

Anyway, it was Mary McNamara's job with The Los Angeles Times as its television critic – as well as her prior work writing about movie stars – that compelled me to initiate this review. Fortunately, the book she wrote which sparked this consideration in the first place is also quite good. 

The Starlet is about a young woman who has had a crazy life in the movie industry with a pushy mother, excessive attention from tabloids, trips in and out of drug rehabs. Part of the enjoyment of reading the book is trying to guess which character or situation is based on which person in real life, questions I will be asking her for part two of this interview.

The Los Angeles Times this week published this review of her book. McNamara has some good advice here about how to write a novel  — the last few paragraphs are gems — and about how to be a writer while also a mother.

With that, let's get started talking about her career and the publication of this, her second published novel.

First, I have to confess that I'm jealous of you. Do you often run into people jealous of your access to celebrities? Reading your piece here about what celebrities are really likes this made me think about parts of journalism that I miss, except in my case it'd be the occasional interviews with Sonny Bono (when he was in office), Al Gore and a few others.

I don’t think anyone’s confessed to being jealous, except my son’s friends the time I told them they were riding in a car that Robert Downey Jr. had actually driven.  (I had done a day long interview with him before “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” released and officially began his come back and when he asked if he could drive my car — because it was a stick shift — I said sure, if he had insurance and he laughed and said “honey, no one in this city has more insurance than I do.”)

People ask me about certain people I’ve met, if they’re nice or as good looking in person — one of my friends tried to steal my tape of an interview with Colin Firth once — but I think most everyone realizes there’s a difference between interviewing someone for a couple of hours and being his or her friend. (Although it takes some journalists many years to realize this themselves, alas.)

What made you decide to try your hand at a novel? And why then a second novel? Is a third planned?

I have always written fiction since I was very young, poetry, short stories, plays and unfinished novels. Oscar Season was the third finished novel — in that it had a beginning, middle and end — I’d written. The first was so bad it couldn’t get an agent. The second got an agent but no sale. The third time was the charm, and, ironically, I probably wouldn’t have tried the third time if I didn’t have kids.

I was pretty devastated when the second one didn’t sell, but my son who was five at the time, said “Well, you’ll just write another one” and I realized that when you’re telling your kids how they should never give up, sometimes you have to walk the walk. After I wrote Oscar Season I loved my characters so much I wanted to see what would happen to them next, especially if I sent them all to Italy. I would love to write a third, and a fourth — I’ve got big plans for all of them — and I hope enough people like The Starlet to make that possible

Should readers new to you start with this book or Oscar Season?

You can read The Starlet without having read Oscar Season because my wonderful agent and editor kept reminding me to make this very possible. But I encourage everyone to read Oscar Season as well.

What have been the high and low points of your writing career (both as a reporter and, now, as a novelist)?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I have always been able to write for publication which I think is every writer’s dream. I began my journalism career as an editor— actually as the slush pile reader at Ms. Magazine — but I always wrote too, essays, reviews, front of the book pieces. After I had my first child I realized I really wanted to write full time and fortunately, my bosses at the LA Times said okay.

The toughest thing about going from newspapers writing to novelist is the time warp — I’m used to writing something one day and seeing it in print in a week at the most. With a novel, you just have to pace yourself. You’re not going to finish it in a week or even a year and then there’s rewriting and editing and the whole publishing process. It was easier this time around because I knew what to expect. But now my husband, who is also a journalist, is working on a novel and it’s highly amusing to hear him moan about how he’s been working for so long and it’s still not done.

Have you read the Imperfectionists? If not you need to it's a perfect capture, I think, of newspaper life. I interviewed the author and I want to ask you a question I asked him namely: Do you have a favorite book and/or movies about journalism? I remember one editor who used to watch The Paper once a week to cheer himself up.

I haven’t read The Imperfectionists yet, though I want to and now I will go out and get a copy. Sometimes it’s hard to read a book or see a movie about a world in which you actually live — if you’re not careful, you’ll dwell too much on the things they “get wrong” in pursuit of drama. Like the final season of The Wire was pretty fabulous in its depiction of a newsroom, but it drove me crazy that a reporter got a Pulitzer for manufacturing a serial killer. I mean, there have been examples of high profile fabrication, but a serial killer? If I spell someone’s name wrong, I get a thousand emails.

Still, The Wire was great. His Girl Friday, classic, All the President’s Men (even though it led us girls to believe reporters would look like Redford and Hoffman which they don’t) and, of course Broadcast News. When I was working in New York, fact-checking, we were all about Bright Lights, Big City too.

How did being a journalist help and/or hinder writing a novelist?

I’ve been working in journalism so long that it’s hard to answer that question, really. I learned how to write and think and see and hear through journalism, from the time I was in journalism school to my days now as a critic. Obviously, the subject matter for Oscar Season and The Starlet came pretty directly from my work as an entertainment reporter.

As a writer, journalism helped me develop my voice, a passion for detail, for dialogue and description, as well as whatever narrative talent I possess. I’m not afraid to write because I do it literally every single day and that is more important than it sounds. But there were obstacles too. The pacing of fiction is very different and the freedom can be a little overwhelming.

You still want to get things “right” — in the first draft of Oscar Season I had about a dozen extraneous characters because I felt I had to staff a hotel the way hotels are actually staffed until my lovely agent explained that this wasn’t a documentary, it was a novel. I still feel that movie people reading The Starlet will roll their eyes at the description of what happens on set — for one thing I’ve only got two principal actors and a few extras for weeks worth of shooting which is just crazy.

But as one big-time producer to whom I sent an early draft said, in fiction, the “facts” are there to serve the story. Which is, of course, newspaper heresy.

As a former Baltimore resident are you a fan of  novelist Laura Lippman?

I am a fan of Laura Lippman’s and reviewed one of her books, which included, ironically, murder on location. She and David Simon (creator of the Wire, Treme) make such a terrific power couple it is almost sickening, isn’t it?

What is the upside and the downside to being a TV critic? My guess is the upside is you can get to do interviews regarding your favorite shows (just as I get to interview my favorite authors) but the downside is you have to act equally interested in shows which you'd rather not existed.

Being a TV critic is one of the best jobs in the world and you can quote me on that. There really isn’t any downside, at least not right now, except that there is so much good television I literally cannot watch it all. I am not a huge fan of spirit killing reality shows like The Real Housewives franchise, but they’re still fascinating to write about. Television is the most powerful medium we have so whatever happens on it, good, bad, or Charlie Sheen, is instantly important and for a critic, it doesn’t get better than that. The most difficult thing is writing about those shows that aren’t either terrible or terrific, the ones that are probably not going to make it — everyone’s heart is in the right place but the magic just isn’t happening.  That’s hard.

The whole Jay Leno at 10 p.m. was also pretty awful to live through because we all knew it was going to end in disaster and then it did, which was kind of satisfying except that in the meantime lots of people lost their jobs and NBC cancelled Life for which I still haven’t forgiven them.

 And I'll save the toughest question for last but will make the last question of part two the easiest  – What do you see as the future of journalism?

Oh my gosh, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview! I think, unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better. Obviously, the Internet is a huge part of the future but we have to figure out how to make that cost-effective — you really do have to pay the people to generate content — and how to maintain the professional standards. The loss of so many journalists, particularly the old time investigative reporters, is taking a huge toll on the nation — we need a vital press for democracy to work as it should.

Those reporters don’t have to be writing for newspapers per se but they do need to be paid, and edited. Reporters and writers are lost without editors, the people who help shape the stories from conception to narrative accuracy to the horrifyingly regular misuse of “enormity.” Right now, we’re in a terrifying transition in which newspapers are dwindling at a frightening rate but no cohesive alternative has appeared to replace them. And that is just as big a national crisis as healthcare or the environment. Bigger, because without journalists, we won’t be as nearly as informed about healthcare or the environment.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.