Heather: The story of Olive Thomas is one that I had never heard of before reading the blurb for your book. How did you come across this story and what called to you to write about it?
Laini Giles: There’s an awful/wonderful, morbid book called Hollywood Babylon that came out in the 1970s that has all kinds of stories about old Hollywood, and Olive is in it. I discovered it at the library when I was about 12. Most of the information in it has now been proven false and/or embroidered beyond belief, but it’s still a cult bestseller.
H: I just adore old films – even the silent ones – they are so different from the films we have today. Did you do any research by watching films Olive Thomas was in? Any that you particularly enjoyed? I would love to check some out.
LG: Of course! Unfortunately, it’s estimated that close to 90% of all silent movies are now lost, and Ollie’s are no exception. One that has survived is called The Flapper, from 1920, which is where I derived the title of the novel. It was released on DVD a few years ago, along with a documentary on Ollie. Also, there is a shorter one called Play Ball, which was a serial Beatrice Fairfax episode. It’s available on youtube, along with another lesser known one (in not very good condition) called Love’s Prisoner.
H: There appears to be a trend in your novels – that of the early film industry. Have you been interested in this period for quite some time?
LG: Yes! My mother worked at a movie theater in the late 1940s, and told me stories about some of the movies she had seen and loved (or hated). Because of her, I became a fan of MGM musicals when I was around 10 or 11. I discovered the Marx Brothers on my own.
A few years ago, I rediscovered an old silent movie documentary series on youtube (produced for Thames television in 1979 by a man named Kevin Brownlow). That was all it took. I’d recently read a book called Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (a fictional biography of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress), and had been looking for a real-life person to write about to test my feet in the waters of that type of genre. Since I’d been extra interested in Olive’s story in Hollywood Babylon, she seemed like the perfect test subject.
H: I noticed on your website that you are working on a novel of Clara Bow. At what stage of the writing process is this novel? If it any easier/harder than working on The Forgotten Flapper?
LG: The architecture is in place, and I have 300-something pages written, but some scenes still need to be fleshed out a bit more. All first drafts are awful, but mine are extremely skeletal, with some bad dialogue to indicate what I need to happen in a scene based on events in the real person’s life. I go back over and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite—I compare it to Michelangelo finding his angel in that block of marble. He just had to keep carving to find it. Clara’s a little easier to write, in that there isn’t as much conflicting timetable information I have to resolve (Olive and Jack were back and forth across the US continuously. It was REALLY hard to mesh their travel times and visits to each other. Kind of nightmarish actually).
On the other hand, for the Clara book, I’m writing in 1st person again, but it’s more of an observational viewpoint, since I’m not writing AS Clara, I’m writing as her secretary. So I have to consider the motivations and feelings of TWO strong women rather than just one. They each have their challenges.
H: The time period you are writing about is not all that long ago – have you had to deal with any estates or relatives of the people you are writing about (positive or negative)?
LG: Not yet, but I’m still very early into this new genre. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. As they say, you can’t libel the dead. I try to be extremely sensitive to my subjects, but I know I won’t win any Pickford fans with this book. It’s well documented that Ollie and Mary Pickford couldn’t stand each other (although Mary tried to fake it very well after Ollie’s death). Due to that, I had to create an adversarial relationship between them.
Some people out there insist that Jack did NOT have syphilis, simply because it didn’t appear on his death certificate. I’m of the opinion that if his mother and sister could get his service record cleaned up with the US government, having a death certificate changed wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for them at all.
Some cousins of Ollie’s have already told me they’re excited to read the book. I’m hoping they enjoy it. All I want to do (in addition to writing the books that I want to READ) is to introduce these forgotten actresses to a new generation of fans.