Novels sometimes have odd and oblique origins. For instance, Vladimir Nabokov said that his novelLolitawas inspired this way: “The first little throb ofLolitawent through me late in 1939 or 1940, in Paris…somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”
My new novelMake Believeis a light-hearted romance set in Los Angeles in a world of wealth and celebrity. It’s nothing like the three novels that came before, which were dark and violent affairs, dealing with organized crime and murder and lynchings and ghastly atrocities in faraway jungles. But in its initial incarnation,Make Believewas pretty dark too. It even had “dark” in the title.Beyond the Dark, it was called. I’ve loved supernatural books, movies, and TV shows ever since I was a kid, andBeyond the Darkwas to be a book about a vengeful ghost.
So how do we bridge the seemingly impossibly wide gap betweenBeyond the Darkand Make Believe? I will, with a nod to Nabokov, do it this way: The first little throb ofMake Believewent through me in 1992 or 1993, in Westwood, in a high-rise office building where I was seeing a psychologist. I’d turned forty a year or two before, and I was taking stock of my life. During my thirties, I’d been on a crash-and-burn trajectory fueled by an ever-increasing number of gin and tonics, but I’d met a girl and quit drinking in 1991 and didn’t have the fiery crash after all (I’m talking literally: during this period two separate sources, a Ouija board in Arkansas and a young psychic woman named Suzanne that I met at a party in L.A., informed me I would die in a car wreck within a few years. Suzanne also said the wreck would be caused by alcohol but the future wasn’t fixed and disaster could be averted if I changed my ways).
I had decided I should take a look at my rather problematic childhood to see how it might have adversely affected my life. Seeing a shrink was one of those things I thought I’d never do, and yet here I was in Westwood, sitting in the office of one. One of the first things I’d noticed was the box of tissues sitting on the coffee table within easy reach in case they were needed for eye-dabbing and nose-blowing. I liked Susan right away. She was a little older than me and petite and had short straight brown hair and a benign, calm demeanor that was just what I wanted in a person I’d be telling things I had never told anyone. Susan was to learn all about me, but it was interesting how in the two years I sat across from her for an hour every week I learned so little about her. I was curious about her, but I didn’t get the feeling she wanted to talk about herself so I never asked her anything. The closest I got to a peek inside Susan was once when I commented it must be a bummer for her sometimes listening all day to people like me talking about all the horrible shit that had happened to them, and she said no, to the contrary, she found it inspiring, she wasn’t listening to stories of suffering and sadness but to tales of survival. The only hard biographical fact I can remember getting from her came in the context of a conversation we were having about the possibility of life after death. She said that before she was a psychologist, she’d been a registered nurse. She’d been with a lot of people as they died, and she’d never had the sensation of a spirit or soul-like essence departing the body at the moment of death. But there had been something that had occurred that was very strange. Once she had happened to go into a room where lay the body of a recently deceased woman. She knew nothing about the woman or the cause of her death, but immediately she sensed something, invisible but almost palpable, emanating from the woman. Not some kind of spirit or entity, but an emotion. Anger. Fury. Rage.
Susan left the room. She asked another nurse what had happened to the woman. She was told she’d committed suicide. She had left a note addressed to her husband: “I killed myself because you wouldn’t take me to the movies.”
Ah! And there was the throb!
Cut to, as they say in Hollywood parlance, many years later. I was casting about for an idea for my next novel. The sad, chilling story that Susan had told me about the dead woman and her posthumous anger came to mind, and pretty soon I’d cooked up a story about a man whose troubled marriage ends when his wife kills herself, but who then is tormented by her wrathful ghost. Ghost stories usually take place in isolated settings, deep in the woods or on craggy, wave-battered seacoasts, but my story would happen right here in palmy, crowded, sprawling L.A. I’d spent most of my adult life as a writer in Hollywood, so I decided to use that experience by making my hapless protagonist a screenwriter and his unhappy wife a fading movie star. I became excited by my new project, I would write a classic supernatural story, Beyond the Darkwould be myTurn of the ScreworOmenorExorcist—and then a funny thing happened. I began to see a divergent path for my book. What if the fading movie star wife asked her hunky screenwriter husband to dance with her, and he declined? And what if other people were watching and the movie star felt furious and humiliated and she stormed away? And what if the screenwriter husband was already on thin ice with her because she’d caught him in an affair with a young Polish actress, and she locked herself in the bedroom in their Beverly Hills mansion and wouldn’t come out? And what if early the next morning the screenwriter was awakened by police at his door, who told him his wife’s clothing and purse containing her ID had been found on the beach, along with a note addressed to him, and they handed it to the screenwriter? And what if the note said: “I killed myself because you wouldn’t dance with me”? And though it appeared the movie star had swum out in the ocean and drowned herself, what if no body was recovered, and it was uncertain she was actually dead? And what if the screenwriter met an attractive young woman who worked in a sweater shop and rescued animals, and he fell in love with her? And what if—what if I didn’t write a ghost story at all, but a comic novel about Hollywood instead? And that, my friends, is how the grim, frightening Beyond the Dark metamorphosed into the airy, sun-lit Make Believe.