What happens when a successful ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs decides to write her own novel about...well, about being a celebrity who writes a memoir, of course! Author Hilary Lifton tells us exclusively about how she came to dish the dirt on Hollywood, this time under her own name. Sorta.
From the time I took on my first ghostwriting job, I fell in love with the form. Here was a chance to tell intimate life stories far richer than my own on thrillingly tight deadlines. There were strict parameters"”the voice of my client, the arc of his or her life, the emotional journey"”and these limits appealed to me. I never had to sit down and wonder where my imagination might take me that day. That whole open-ended, blank-screen, angsty thing? Not my bag.
Ever since I started ghostwriting, people have asked me if I want to write my "own" books. The answer is, simply, I love collaborating. It's by no means a lesser version of what I really want to be doing. I don't care about seeing my name on a jacket, or going on tour, or writing the Great American Novel. Being a ghostwriter isn't about ego. I just like working on books that people buy and enjoy.
Whenever a celebrity has a story to tell (Caitlyn Jenner, are you reading this?), I long to be the one to help him, her, (or her, formerly him), tell it. But I don't always land the jobs I want. And the people with the best stories don't always want to sell them (Stevie Nicks, I know you're not reading this).
Then one day, when reading about yet another celebrity drama in Vanity Fair, it dawned on me. I didn't need to be hired to write the celebrity memoir of my dreams. All I had to do was"¦write it. I would write a fictional celebrity memoir, and it would be the juiciest one imaginable. And so Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper was born.
For my first novel I was taking the age-old advice of writing what I know by doing it in the form I'd (arguably) mastered. Lizzie Pepper was my made-up celebrity, born from the tabloid pages, and I was her "ghostwriter." Now the blank page of fiction didn't feel as daunting. The parameters I usually relied on weren't there, but I knew them well. My protagonist had to be a celebrity, naturally. She had to make major life decisions under public scrutiny. There had to be a scandal. She had to want to tell all because she'd been maligned by the press. Oh yeah, and a cult. I wanted a cult.
I couldn't help bringing my love of collaboration to Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper. My first book, Dear Exile, was a series of letters I exchanged with a friend who was in the Peace Corps in Kenya when I was a single twenty-something in New York. (Note to my current friends: I used to be more fun.) Since then I've collaborated on more than fifteen books, many of them bestsellers. I couldn't be expected to write my first novel all by myself! In Hollywood, TV shows and movies are written and rewritten by multiple writers. I see team writing all around me. Granted, the results are up for debate, but the point is that I like company.
Before I wrote a word, I assembled two close friends, both more talented writers than I. One of them was still nursing my goddaughter. We spent two hours between feedings breaking the story of Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper. Later, once I had a draft, I dragged my husband (aka my secret weapon) to a resort for a working weekend disguised as a romantic getaway. He spent three solid days editing the book. I am not remotely embarrassed about this, any more than my clients should be ashamed of working with a professional writer. I wanted to create the best book I could, and I had no ego wrapped up in the process.
Hollywood books typically make fun of Hollywood, and who wouldn't? I mean, just last week my hair colorist was trying to persuade me to "freeze" with him. You know, cryotherapy. Apparently it's a thing. I told him I was doing infrared saunas right now, and I didn't want to fluctuate between extremes. True story. But I wasn't really interested in making fun of all that, and Botox, and beleaguered assistants. As my husband likes to tell me, I'm not that funny. Instead, I wanted to indulge my favorite part of working with my celebrity clients: getting to the heart of matters. What did it really feel like to be Lizzie Pepper, married to a megastar, caught up in a world of uber-celebrity, trying to make real-life decisions while hounded by paparazzi and agents and hangers-on?
Our fascination with celebrity is insatiable. My clients publish books that strive to tell their stories in honest and meaningful ways. And yet every time I go to a cocktail party (let's pretend I do that more often than a semi-suburban mother of two actually does), someone always wants the inside scoop. What was it like to work with X or Y? The books I ghostwrite invariably go behind the scenes. You'd think that would be enough. But no matter how personal a story my client tells, people want to break through another theoretical level of privacy. They want the behind-the-behind-the-scenes. I've come to feel real sympathy toward this element of fame. An actor signs on to play invented characters but is constantly prodded to expose more and more details about his personal life.
With Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper, I set out to satisfy that curiosity. I want readers to feel like they are finally getting real answers to what it's like to be a celebrity on the rise, navigating a marriage gone bad, searching for a way to hold on to herself in the dizzying commotion of branding and spin. It's celebrity dish without exploiting celebrities. Someone give me a medal.
Ghostwriting led to this book, but it isn't a way station for me. I'm not a wannabe novelist who finally got my break. Much as my clients' lives call for memoirs, mine called for this book. I will say, however, that it's a bit different to have my own name on the jacket. A little riskier, a little scarier, but, okay, I'll admit it, kind of cool.