I “met” Martin Turnbull through his blog. I fell in love with his humor and enthusiasm and persistence in bringing to life his novels about the Golden Age of Hollywood. When I read his first Garden of Allah novel, The Garden on Sunset, by damned, double the pleasure, the guy can write. His characters, Marcus the screenwriter, Gwendolyn the actress, and Kathryn the reporter, enchanted me and I wanted more. I’ve been waiting, rather impatiently, for Martin to finish the second novel, The Trouble With Scarlett. Now it’s here and it doesn’t disappoint. Aside from the three main characters, what makes these novels so much fun to read is how Martin brings the period to life. It’s like being a fly on the wall at a Hollywood party. Name-dropping, gossip, machinations, scheming, struggles, feuds, glamour, fashion and places so real you can hear the music and smell the food.
I asked Martin about The Trouble With Scarlett and how it fit in with his series. This is what he had to say:
I was about 15 when Gone with the Wind was theatrically re-released and I couldn’t wait to see it. I was the kind of kid who, if I wasn’t spending my after-school hours with my face wedged in a book, I was watching old Hollywood movies on TV. I had my favorites, of course—Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall—but generally speaking, if it was made during the golden age of Hollywood, I tuned in. But I’d never seen the movie-to-end-all-movies. And at last I was going to get to see it.
I wasn’t disappointed. From those opening chords of Tara’s Theme all the way through to the closing credits, my eyeballs were super-glued to the screen the whole time. Still half-dazed, I wandered out of the Forum Theater in downtown Melbourne promising myself that I’d read the book one day.
To help survive the exams at the end of high school, I dangled a carrot in front of myself: on the day of the French final, my last exam, I planned to ride my bike directly from school to the local book store and buy myself a copy of Gone with the Wind and, by golly, I’d spend the rest of the month reading it! That’s what happened and I passed the first few weeks of my post-high school life sprawled on my bed burrowing my way through 1000 pages.
Why a bookish teenage kid from Australia would be so thrilled about a tempestuous, willful, spoiled, determined Southern belle from halfway around the world and 100 years before is beyond me. Who’s to say what characters we are drawn to in fiction? I’m sure more than a thesis or two has been written on the subject, but my guess is that it’s probably got less to do with the outer circumstances of the character and more to do with that character’s inner life, struggles and ambitions.
At any rate, fast forward 30 years and I am now living in Los Angeles and I conceive a series of historical novels set in Hollywood during its golden age, centered around life at the (real) Garden of Allah hotel which sat on Sunset Boulevard from 1927 (the dawn of Hollywood’s golden era) to 1959 (the dusk of the Hollywood studio system.) My Garden of Allah series of novels follows the lives of a screenwriter, a gossip columnist and an actress. Gwendolyn, the actress, is from the South (in fact, she’s from Hollywood, Florida) in part because, from the get-go, I wanted her to want the role of Scarlett O’Hara so badly she’d do practically anything for it.
Fast forward another four years and the second novel in my series is released. It’s called The Trouble with Scarlett and looks at life in Hollywood from 1936 to 1939 when Hollywood—not to mention the entire country—was obsessed with all things Gone with the Wind, and especially the casting of the central role of Miss Scarlett O’Hara. The list of actresses who were considered for the role is as long as it is varied, and sometimes startling. The list ended up totaling nearly 130 names which included Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Tallulah Bankhead, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Katharine Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Pola Negri (!!!), Paulette Goddard, and Susan Hayward. I knew that if I was going to write about life in Hollywood during the late 1930s, I couldn’t not write about the book and the movie that gripped a country in the same way it gripped the imagination of my 15-year-old self all those years and all those miles away.
Nowadays, we live in the world of monthly blockbusters, billion-dollar mega-hits, Harry Potter warlocks and Twilight witches, but back in the 1930s, enormously popular, game-changing books like Gone with the Wind came around once in a generation. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it remains so popular—after more than 75 years, the book still sells an estimated 75,000 copies a year. Or maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to look any further that Miss Katie Scarlett O’Hara herself. Love her, hate her, admire her, loathe her, fear her or just flat out are baffled by her, there’s no denying that she provokes a reaction in just about everyone, and that’s why I thought it was worth my while to take care of the trouble with Scarlett.
When I was a kid, I learned to love pulp fiction mostly because grown-ups tried to stop me from reading it. My mother had a thing for potboilers and “trashy” historicals with their godawful, oversexed covers and lurid descriptions. My father found such books appalling, so Mom hid them. I found them and devoured them. Along the way I fell in love with history. History classes in school bored the snot out of me. Pulp historicals brought history alive–forget the dates and the data. Give me real people living real lives.
Another Union general of concern to Wilkens was Ben Butler, a bartender politician with a genius for stuffing ballot boxes. Lincoln, as a political favor to Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, had put Butler in military control of Baltimore. In addition to his vote-getting skills, Butler was quite adept at trampling on the feelings of important personages. That nearly cost the Union the State of Maryland. Lincoln quickly removed Butler to Fortress Monroe, where the general promptly launched “an attack on Richmond,” a debacle that cost the Federals two hundred lives. Lincoln sent Butler to the North Carolina coast.
The Confederacy at this time was laughing at the blockade ordered by the gaunt stringbean from Illinois. A paper blockade if ever there was one, for the Union would be lucky if what passed for her fleet stayed afloat long enough to reach the coast—and if it did, the Confederate chain of fortifications was impregnable. A man, Lord Nelson once said, who attacks stone forts with wooden ships is a fool. Ben Butler had barely heard of Lord Nelson. He ordered Union Flag-officer Stringham to strike against Fort Hatteras. Fort Hatteras fell.
One sub-genre my father objected most strenuously to was plantation pulp. These were generally set in either the ante-bellum South or doing the Civil War, and a great many of the characters were black. They became popular during the Civil Rights movement in the late 60s. I was too young at the time to know who exactly they were popular with–black or white readers–and I didn’t really care. I do remember when Mandingo was published in the early 70s and it was a runaway bestseller and my mother refused to hide it even though its cover was horrendously trashy, so there was an argument with the book ending up in the trash can, and then ending up stashed under my mattress.
I’m sure many thought these books were exploiting blacks, denigrating them. The covers did, certainly. I bet the real objection was to how subversive these books were. Back then no one would have cared if the books were about happy slaves singing spirituals and loving Massah and eating watermelon and spouting humorous lines. The only shucking going on in these stories were to cast off the stereotypes and accepted thinking about how blacks should act and think and talk. Most frightening of all to the establishment was that many of the characters dared to be angry.
And then came the dream within the dream. The grass was all green and soft. Flowers sprouted everywhere. The dogwoods and magnolias and rosewoods were in bloom, and the air was fragrant with their perfume. It was a temperate, pleasant day with fluffy clouds scudding through the sky and thrushes singing. A towering white man would loom into view, crossing a meadow with giant strides. His face was indistinct and nothing could be told about it save that it was white and that it was kind and that it was benign. Around him gamboled his slaves, the tallest of them barely reaching his shins. Labe was among them, and so were many others that he knew and thousands upon thousands more that he did not know. The white man laughed, stooped now and then to softly scratch someone’s wool. He was their loving benefactor. He clothed them, he fed them, he housed them, he cared for them when they were ill and he desired their happiness at all times. And then the slaves were no longer about his legs, but lying prostrate on the meadow—an unbroken carpet of black mat stretched as far as the eye could see. The white man was treading over them, his huge booted feet rising and falling, crushing their juices and their lives out, and nothing could be told about his face save that it was white and that it was kind and that it was benign.
That is some subversive shit.
Add to that, the writers (some good, some not-so-good, but some truly great) dared to treat all their characters as real people–good and bad.
In the past four months Williams had taught him a good amount of reading and writing and some geography and some history and even a smattering of economics. And Williams had become frightened of Vulture, because though it was unlikely Vulture would ever bridge the cultural gap between them, would ever equalize the education that a life of freedom combined with the profligate aid and encouragement of idealistic whites had given to Williams, Geoffrey Williams knew Vulture was the more intelligent of the two, inherently so, and it embarrassed and hurt Williams to reach a point where the only alternative to throwing up his hands in frustration and saying, “I don’t know!” was to find an excuse to become angry with Vulture and break off the conversation.
“So why the Furies come after him?” Vulture was saying.
Williams leaned forward, staring into the fire, which had been reduced to embers. “Because he committed matricide—that is, he killed his mother, Clytemnestra. That is the word for killing one’s mother—matricide. It was an unthinkable crime.”
“But she killed his daddy, an’ the law say he s’pose t’ take revenge.”
“It was unforgivable,” Williams insisted. “The gods would not tolerate it.”
“Seems t’ me, these Greeks o’ yours, there weren’t any way they could keep they gods happy.”
“No, that’s not true. Certain forms of behavior were proscribed, but—”
Vulture repeated the word and nodded
I had the pleasure of reading The Long Tattoo, by Jerrold Mundis (the above excerpts are from that book). He’s reissued his Civil War series, The Shame & Glory Saga, as ebooks. I do believe I may have been a fan of his way back in the day. I’m glad that epublishing makes it possible for a revival of the genre.
Do we need a revival? I don’t know. They’re fun books to read. I know they brought history alive for me when I was a kid and I learned a lot more about our country’s back story than from any textbook. Many of them are written far better than the original pulp format would lead you to believe. Moreso, we need subversive fiction. Our current culture of Political Correctness holds potential for its own brand of evil. It’s a culture that divides people into groups and howls in outrage when an individual dares to act like, you know, a real person as opposed to a demographic. It’s divisive and short-sighted and lazy. Novels like The Long Tattoo are anything but that. People are people, these novels said. Black or white, male or female, they all have their flaws and strengths, and if you oppress them and treat them as less than, watch out. This is what history shows us will happen.
I met Martin Turnbull several months ago when I happened upon ‘The ‘Garden of Allah’ novels blog. At the time he was shopping his novel to agents. I liked his energy and sense of humor, so started following his blog. I chimed in with some words of encouragement. As he kept hitting brick walls, I sez, Hey, just because agents don’t think your book is a good fit in the current market, doesn’t mean they’re right. Have you thought about self-publishing?
Martin did think about it. He did the research, figured out what was involved and decided to go for it. This week it paid off. The Garden on Sunset went live on Amazon. Whoo hoo! I bought the ebook a few days ago, read it and am happy to report that I am most pleased Martin didn’t let the nay-sayers dissuade him.
(from the book description)
When Marcus Adler’s father runs him out of Pennsylvania, he can think of only one place to go: 8152 Sunset Boulevard, the home of luminous silent screen star Alla Nazimova, who visited him on his sickbed when he was a child. But when Marcus gets to Hollywood, Madame Nazimova’s home has been converted to a hotel. Marcus checks into The Garden of Allah and starts his new life. He soon finds friends in Kathryn Massey, who ran away from her overbearing stage mother to become a journalist, and Gwendolyn Brick, a hopeful actress from the Other Hollywood—Hollywood, Florida—who wants to try her luck in Glitter City. The three naïve hopefuls band together to tread water against a tidal wave of threadbare casting couches, nervous bootleggers, human billboards, round-the-world zeppelins, sinking gambling boats, waiters in blackface, William Randolph Hearst, the Long Beach earthquake, starlets, harlots, Harlows and Garbos. But how will they get their feet inside Hollywood’s golden door?
(Odd thought, pardon me, but it’s on my mind. What exactly determines “historical” fiction? Rule of thumb in antiques: fifty years makes it vintage and a hundred years make it antique. Would a story set in the 1920s-1930s qualify as a period piece or an historical? I think my rule of thumb will be, anything older than me is historical. I can do that. This is my blog.)
What really intrigues me is Martin’s passion for Hollywood. Hollywood in its glory days. The Hollywood that set the standard for glamor and style. Ever since Martin ended the agent-quest, he’s been writing articles about historical Hollywood. He writes about the movers and shakers, movie stars, and legendary places. The Mocambo nightclub, Schwab’s Pharmacy, Sunset Boulevard, Bullocks Wilshire, and famous theaters like Earl Carroll’s and the Palladium. If you have any interest at all in the Golden Age of Hollywood, you’ll love Martin’s well-researched and highly entertaining articles. Just as cool, too, has been following Martin’s own Hollywood-story starting with his article, My Big Fat Hollywood Meeting, about his first encounter with a movie producer. It’s a hoot.
The Garden on Sunset didn’t disappoint. Martin brings Hollywood and its stars to life. But wait, there’s more! There’s dish on journalists and gossip columnists and studio heads and talent scouts, too. I fell in love with Marcus, Kathryn and Gwendolyn (Oh, that Gwendolyn! You never know what that girl will do in order to be discovered. Her antics had me laughing and wincing) in their struggles to follow their dreams and their hearts, and it’s a tough town for that. It’s a story, too, about friendship and love, mostly learning how to love yourself and be yourself in a place where such values aren’t usually valued.
Good job, Martin. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.
Discovered: The author’s blog
Bought: on Amazon for my Kindle, January 4, 2012, $4.99