Birdie leaves home because she cannot embrace her family's religious evangelism, yet the fame she hopes for requires nearly the same leap of faith as the next life her parents are awaiting. What is the connection between Birdie's and her family's respective desires to be transformed?
Everyone wants to feel their life is important in some way. Whether you are in church on Sunday or in line at an audition for a reality TV show, I think you are revealing a very basic human desire. You want to be seen by someone, really seen. You want to know that you matter. I don't think it is a coincidence that our culture is so captivated by fame and religion at the same moment. To me, these obsessions are not contradictory. They are illustrative of our desire as human beings to feel our lives are meaningful.
Both pursuits require sacrifices. Birdie's parents spend their lives devoted to their evangelism. They don't have hobbies or social lives or anything that might be perceived as self- centered. There is no doubt they have selfish desires—they are human, after all—but they have subjugated them to keep God at the forefront of their lives.
Having lived in a house hold that ran on faith, Birdie naturally has these same resources. She is very much her mother's daughter in the sense that she has staked everything on one hope. The sacrifices Birdie makes—delaying gratification, enduring ridicule, accepting uncomfortable circumstances in the pursuit of a greater reward—are behaviors she learned from her family. In a way, faith is the family business.
Was your own religious background on your mind as you were writing this novel? How did it affect your thinking about Birdie's relationship to faith?
I grew up in Virginia in a very religious family. We were Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian religion, though I think most mainstream Christians see it as pretty radical because of the Witnesses' door-to-door evangelizing work. I am no longer an active member of this religion, but my parents are. Though these circumstances result in conflict from time to time, we manage to have a very positive relationship. Our family dynamic is very different from Birdie's, thank goodness.
Although my background clearly informs many of the religious references in the book, I avoided naming any specific religion for a few reasons. First, the book is not a critique of a particular religion or its believers. I am no longer a religious person, but I understand the desire to have faith in a specific outcome—a sense of destiny, if you will. I am not prosecuting that inclination. Rather, one of my intentions with the book was to focus on the commonalities between those who express their faith through religion and those who express it through other ambitions. Though Birdie's goals are not expressly spiritual, they require great faith regardless.
Second, the conflict between Birdie and her family isn't really a theological one. Yes, there is the matter of Birdie's abandoning the religion of her childhood, but her conflict, stated generally, is relatable to anyone: how to navigate the disparity between your parents' expectations of you and the life you imagine for yourself. Your parents may not want you to evangelize . . . but perhaps they have mentioned you really should go to law school? Art, they keep telling you, is simply not practical.
I had a baby daughter as I was finishing the book, an experience that made me think further about the nature of the conflict between Birdie and her parents. I found myself sympathizing with her parents more than I had before. Though their choices seem pretty radical, they simply want what every loving parent wants: a long and happy life for their child. Of course, especially now, I relate to that desire very much.
How did Birdie's encounter with Wes change her or shape her future?
Until she met Wes, Birdie had only practiced being someone else at home in her bedroom mirror. That preening and posing was clearly just a dress rehearsal. With Wes, she takes her act out into the world.
It is an encounter driven by desire, but not of the sexual variety. Yes, Birdie loses her virginity, but what she desires, I think, is to do something irrevocable. Sex is irrevocable, so the encounter is a way for her to permanently change who she is. She is tired of just posing in front of the mirror. Think of the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Alone in her bedroom, Birdie lacks impact. But with Wes, she has an audience. She makes a sound.
What she discovers is her ability to be convincing. She can make a person (in this case, Wes) react to her the way she wants them to. She can elicit desire. She can shut down parts of herself—deaden her emotions, really—in the interest of playing a character. This experience sets a precedent for the ways in which she will use sex in her adult life. Her relationships with men have little to do with love and everything to do with playing a part and testing her power.
Birdie feels terrible guilt about Judah's death, far more than she seems to have felt about abandoning their marriage. What makes her react so strongly?
More than anything, I think Birdie is feeling survivor guilt. Had she stayed with Judah, had she been the devoted wife that she should have been according to her religious upbringing, she would have been in bed beside him on that night and would also likely have died. She survived because she left. There is a terrible irony in being spared death as a result of breaking her vows and abandoning her marriage.
Judah's death also increases the pressure for Birdie to succeed. Birdie, like her mother, has staked everything on a happy ending, that "final redemptive scene." She is no longer a student of the Bible, but she cannot stop seeing the world in terms of condemnation and forgiveness. If she can make it, her life up to that point— including Judah's death— takes on a kind of biblical logic. It was painful, yes, but an inevitable part of her journey to the reward. Making it, therefore, becomes equivalent in her mind to forgiveness for any pain she has caused along the way.
Lewis enters Birdie's life at a crucial moment, when she's teetering on the brink of success. What does Lewis represent to Birdie, and what does she need from him?
Initially, Birdie simply enjoys the attention she gets from Lewis. She is at a moment of career crisis, feeling depressed about the prospect of doubling for Melena on yet another movie, and Lewis comes along—this terribly good-looking, albeit oddly dressed, young actor—and tells her how impressed he is by her. What she views as evidence of her failure—the fabric softener commercial in particular— he sees as a major success. He is just the medicine her ailing ego needs. Of course, when Lewis begins unpacking his personal baggage Birdie quickly loses interest. The whole point of that initial night together was to escape reality and to be simply worshiped. She didn't want to be the sounding board for some emotionally unstable kid.
But in the aftermath of Jules Dylan's party, Birdie decides she needs Lewis. Specifically, she needs his realness. Max told her she was real (as Leo had). But the party leaves her feeling like just another Hollywood phony. She realizes the very quality that made her memorable to Max is in jeopardy. Earnest, naïve Lewis, wearer of vintage suits and author of handwritten notes, seems to offer an affirmation of her realness. So she calls him, eager to retain what she fears she is losing. If you want to get reductive, calling Lewis after that party was essentially a career decision.
Was there a particular person or story that inspired Birdie's character? Where do you look for inspiration when you write?
I have freelanced in television advertising for a long time, and part of the process of making a commercial is casting actors. I cannot begin to count the number of casting tapes I have watched over the years and the number of callbacks I have attended. For any given role you might have a hundred people auditioning and you know that only one of them can get the part. The odds are so daunting to get even a television commercial, much less a role in a film. It is pretty depressing if you start to think about the odds . . . and I guess I did. I started wondering what that life must be like—the constant rejection, the pressure to "make nice" with the very people rejecting you, and the matter of what to do with your feelings about all of it as you walk in to your next audition. There are so many factors at work: age, appearance, talent, connections, charisma, and plain old luck. I thought it must be very hard to know what one can do to be successful in that business.
The story of how Birdie came to be a character provides some insight into where I find inspiration more generally. I like to write about anything I do not understand. As you can imagine, this gives me loads of material. In this case, the ambition to be an actor just completely stumped me. I could not fathom why anyone would choose such a difficult path.
How have you been influenced by the culture of Hollywood, and of Los Angeles in general?
As I mentioned, I have worked in advertising for years, and long before I lived in Los Angeles I worked there, staying in hotels for long stretches of time while I produced various TV commercials. Because I was staying in certain hotels and eating at certain restaurants, I would see movie stars with surprising frequency. Sometimes I wouldn't even realize they were famous at first—I would think that I knew them because they looked so familiar. It is a little surreal to recognize someone when they clearly don't recognize you. There is an inequality to that relationship that is completely inescapable for everyone involved. You can think you are the sort of person who doesn't care about that kind of thing, but when you are sitting in a hotel lobby with Harrison Ford it is kind of hard not to notice him.
If you spend any significant time working in production in Los Angeles, you have these experiences. You meet famous people, you work with them, and their levels of wealth and success can be shocking. For anyone trying to "make it" in Hollywood I think that proximity would be profoundly frustrating. You are this close, literally, to the people who have what you covet. I thought about this proximity a lot when writing the book.