Even if you’re only the most casual reader of the Los Angeles Times, you’re sure to have read lots of pieces by Mary McNamara, a 20-year veteran of the paper who’s been an entertainment reporter, features writer, columnist (family travel and driving being just two of her specialties) and, now, the paper’s TV critic. The Baltimore native and La Crescenta resident has channelled her years of showbiz reporting, and her considerable sense of humor, into two novels: Oscar Season, which came out in 2009 to considerable acclaim, and The Starlet, which hits the shelves this week. Both are funny, fast-moving murder mysteries that skewer the excesses of Hollywood stardom, movie-making, posturing and PR, and both would serve as the basis for a terrific TV series (we’re just saying).
We managed to grab a precious few minutes of Mary’s time, when she wasn’t working, launching The Starlet, writing the next novel in the series and spending time with her family: magazine editor husband Richard Stayton and their kids, Danny, Fiona and Darby. To continue the conversation with one of L.A.’s sharpest and most entertaining writers, head to Once Upon a Time in Montrose for a reading and signing on Friday, June 18th, at 7 p.m.
You have three kids and a demanding job at the L.A. Times that requires that you both write a lot and watch a lot of TV, and yet you’ve found time to write not one, but two novels. How did you do it?
It was hard! I actually wrote a piece about called The Working Mother’s Guide to Writing Novels, which can be found on my website marymcnamara.com. You can also find out about a fairly fabulous contest my agent is sponsoring as well—win two nights at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills or a trip to Italy!
Both The Starlet and Oscar Season have a lot of fun at Hollywood’s expense. It’s a world you know well and yet are not a part of. Were you worried about making too much fun, or of burning bridges?
I really don’t have any bridges to burn in Hollywood. I covered it for years, but that doesn’t make me part of it. I think a lot of journalists get personally invested in the Industry—because it is by nature seductive—and then their hearts are broken when they realize the moment you are no longer of use to all those producers/stars/publicists is the same moment Hollywood collectively stops taking your calls. That said, one of the things I tried to do in both books is show that no matter how irritating and outrageous some of the people and behavior can be, there’s good reason for it. Most people I’ve met in Hollywood work very hard. They may be crazy or of varying degrees of talent, but most still believe in the work. This is especially true in The Starlet. While I do send up a lot of bad behavior, I also tried to show the many reasons for it—these young stars are rich and bored and confused, and many of them have actual addiction issues. But if they are still making people money, no one is going to suggest they stop working long enough to actually get healthy. And by long enough, I mean a couple of years. Instead they get slammed in some 30- or 60-day rehab center, usually more for damage control than actual sobriety.
The Starlet is set partly in Tuscany… was this an elaborate excuse to go on a tax-deductible trip there? Did you actually visit?
It takes place at an estate based on a similar tenuta called Spannocchia, where my family and I have visited. I wrote about it years ago for the Times, and my dream was to live there for a year and write about that, but I’m not Frances Mayes. So when I sold the sequel to Oscar Season, I had to decide where Juliette would go, and I realized I could send her to Spannocchia. I did revisit it two years ago to refresh my memory (and warn the owners), and it worked as a setting because it represented one of the themes of The Starlet—that being an object of desire can be a dangerous thing, whether you’re a lovely young movie star or a gorgeous Tuscan retreat.
I’ve read about your travels in Ireland with envy, and you’re clearly tied to your Irish roots. Any plans to write a book set in Ireland?
Well, I admit that I am happy I gave my main characters careers that can involve travel. Juliette and Devlin work in hotels, and Michael and Mercy are stars, so the action can go anywhere. If the gods are willing, there will be a book in Ireland, because that’s where Devlin is from.
What drew you to live in La Crescemta?
We moved to La Crescenta because, as the child of public school teachers, I wanted my kids to go to public schools. We love it here. Twenty minutes from downtown, and we have an owl who lives in the tree out back and deer in the street. Montrose is right down the hill, and Pasadena is right around the corner. It wasn’t fun during the fires, but now we are safe for another decade or so.
How are La Crescenta and Pasadena similar? How are they different?
Both La Crescenta and Pasadena have a small-town feel that is very appealing. Obviously Pasadena is much busier and fancier, but it is still very green for an urban center, with walkable streets and those lovely mountains in the background. La Crescenta is not quite as hot in the summer and has the added benefit of being “The Balcony of Southern California” (it says so right on the sign), which means we have pretty spectacular views of the city on a clear day or night. But I’m a big fan of Pasadena.