WHY HOLLYWOOD IN 1929?
By Libby Sternberg
The place is Hollywood, the year is 1929. Just two years earlier, cinema’s gentry had watched—with “terror in all their faces,” according to Frances Goldwyn—the L.A. premiere of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length sound movie. They’d known their world was about to change.
This tense atmosphere provides the backdrop for my novel Sloane Hall, which follows John Doyle, chauffeur for starlet Pauline Sloane, as Pauline is about to make her first sound picture. He falls in love with her, and just as they are about to find happiness together, he is repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. Although the book is inspired by Jane Eyre, it tells a fresh story of obsession and forgiveness.
Why did I choose this setting and time period to tell my Jane Eyre-inspired tale?
Here’s a secret—originally I’d set the book in the early 30s, when sound pictures were the norm and the tumult of transition was over. I worked on several drafts set during that time, in fact, honing and polishing and revising and tweaking. Those versions were very close to what is now the finished book except, of course, for the introduction of a couple key characters.
One new character added to the final version is Leo Bartenstein, a veteran cinematographer from the silent days who mentors the protagonist, John Doyle, and recommends him for the chauffeuring job after John ruins a reel of film at a studio job. I loved writing Leo and even considered a prequel that would have involved him and an unresolved crush on Lillian Gish!
The other “character” I introduced in the final version is the time period itself, which threatens Pauline’s and other stars’ livelihoods like a demon waiting in the shadows to snatch their breath away. I wanted the time itself to feel like a character.
Moving the novel back to the silent-to-sound years came upon me one day after I’d just finished reading Water for Elephants. I’d really enjoyed that book, and I was mulling the elements of the story that had made it so interesting and compelling. One was the time period—the 1930s. But that wasn’t the only fascinating part of the backdrop. It was the circus life and the pressures of that work environment, too. They became a separate character in the story.
Suddenly, it came to me—how much more tension would pervade the otherwise sunny backdrop of California if the heroine in my novel wasn’t just any starlet but one about to make her first sound picture. I knew that shifting the time to one where many in Hollywood feared for their jobs, where there was “terror in all their faces,” would give Sloane Hall the true Gothic feel of the original Jane.
Although the shift didn’t require a huge amount of actual rewriting work, it did mean a big chunk of research faced me. But this turned out to be a joy as I read books about that period, thrilling with every new discovery, and watched some old silents and early talkies with my husband. One of those silents, Sunrise, is now among my favorite movies.
I’ve been heartened to receive some lovely reviews of Sloane Hall so far. Romance Reviews Today says it’s “well worth reading,” while Fresh Fiction reports that “Sternberg never loses sight of the story she's re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”
I hope to hear from readers on whether they enjoy it, too. You can read an excerpt at my website or my blog (www.LibbysBooks.com or www.LibbysBooks.wordpress.com). Those who comment on this blog within the next 24 hours will have their names entered into a random drawing for a free copy of Sloane Hall.
Libby Sternberg is the author of YA mysteries (the first of which was an Edgar nominee) and women’s fiction. She also writes as Libby Malin. You can visit her blog at www.LibbysBooks.wordpress.com (where she blogs about Sloane Hall, old Hollywood, Jane Eyre and more), or her website at www.LibbysBooks.com . You can friend her on Facebook at Libby Sternberg, or contact her to get on her mailing list at Libby488 (at) yahoo (dot) com.