When a runway model in 1940s Hollywood makes a split-second decision meant to protect those she loves, she triggers a cascade of secrets and lies that threaten to upend her life decades later. Following up on her Massachusetts Book Award winning historical fiction novel Leaving Coy’s Hill, Kathy Sherbrooke takes us this time to the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood across the generations to the golden era of 1970s Broadway musicals. But The Hidden life of Aster Kelly isn’t just a lighthearted romp. With characters so real you’ll forget they live in the pages of a book, this is a heartfelt page-turner about the bonds of chosen family, the cost of pursuing your artistic passion, and the enduring strength of love.
I couldn’t wait to dive into the “hidden life” of novelist Kathy Sherbrooke, to learn more about her journey to writing this novel. Here’s what I found out!
Tracey Palmer: First, let’s talk about how much research you must have done for this new book, which primarily takes place in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood and 1970s New York City. How did you go about this process and how did you know you’ve done enough?
Kathy Sherbrooke: I have found primary research to be the best source of detail about a different place or time. For this book, I got my hands on a variety of vintage magazines from the ‘40s and ‘70s, like Life and Look. The articles and photos are of course extremely edifying, and it’s amazing what you can learn just from looking at the advertisements! I also acquired some helpful resource guides about fashion that detailed everything from types of fabrics to dress cuts to buttons and snaps, you name it! For delving into the inner workings of Broadway, I relied pretty heavily on a couple of documentaries about shows from that time.
As for how to know when I’ve done enough, I’ve learned the hard way how addicting and all-consuming research can be, so I try to absorb just enough about a place or time to feel confident that I’m getting the basics right. Once I’m sure a particular scene will remain in the book (so much inevitably gets cut), then I dive in a little more to specifics: where exactly was a particular restaurant located? What did the lighting apparatus in a movie studio look like back then? Those details don’t matter until they do.
The Old Hollywood research must have been so fun! Did anything you learned surprise you?
One key source for me was Lauren Bacall’s memoir. I learned a lot about what life was like as a “contract actor,” which is quite different from how Hollywood operates today. I was surprised to learn how fast movies were cranked out, with big stars sometimes starring in as many as six movies in one year. I also read up on “lavender marriages,” which were artificial marriages conjured up by big studios to keep the personal lives of gay actors a secret from the public. I knew vaguely about the concept but didn’t previously understand how widespread the practice was.
You wrote the character of Aster Kelly so convincingly that when I searched her on the internet, I was surprised to know she wasn’t a real person. How did you make her so real?
Well, I just love that you were so convinced by her that you tried to find her on the Internet, so thank you for that! When I’m creating key characters, they only begin to solidify once I consider them in relation to a multitude of people in their life, and at different ages. So, how does (or did) Aster interact with her parents, brother, first love interest, roommate, mentor, coworkers, etc.? What are those relationships really like? How open or guarded, confident or nervous is she with each of these people, and why? Those kinds of questions not only helped me formulate a 360-degree view of her, but they also introduced me to a lot of people that ended up playing everything from bit parts to major roles in the book. Additionally, I find that putting a few real-life characters and events into a novel helps amp up the verisimilitude. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland, for example, are often just off-stage in my book, swirling in the same orbit as Aster, which makes her place in it all feel (I hope!) very real.
Setting is a character itself in this novel—in addition to taking us to Hollywood and New York, you also bring us to San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard. The way you wrote these places so lovingly, it seems like you had a special connection to each of them.
I suppose I do have connections to all those places, but in very different ways. I have always been fascinated by Hollywood, and growing up not too far from New York City, our annual pilgrimages to Broadway when I was a kid made an indelible impression on me. I continue to be amazed by how the perfection of each show belies what can be a pretty gritty life behind the scenes. I lived in the Bay Area for several years, and San Francisco always felt like the city of possibility to me, not to mention that it might as well be in a different country from LA, so I thought setting a key part of the book there could offer some good juxtaposition with Hollywood. Martha’s Vineyard is my newest love of the bunch. I adore how supportive of artists the island is, and it seemed the perfect place to allow my characters to finally discover themselves. And of course, given the importance of Hollywood in the story, the fact that JAWS was filmed there in 1974 was a delicious little tidbit to be able to sneak into the story!
This story is very much about artists and what they go through to achieve their dreams. Aster longs to be a fashion designer. Her daughter struggles to become a Broadway actress and singer. And there are characters chasing their dreams. As a writer, did you bring your own experience to bear?
I relied a lot on my experience as a writer! There is so much angst and self-doubt in the artistic process. When a book is published it can look easy or even inevitable, but most books we see on the shelf are just one weigh-point in what is (in my experience) a pretty messy journey. There are constant questions: Do I really have anything to say? Will anyone care? Maybe I should just get a “normal” job instead. Not to mention how difficult it can be to define success. So, there’s a lot of me in how Aster and her daughter Lissy struggle to find their way in the artistic world. In my favorite quote in the book, Aster thinks about how, “she’d come to believe over the years that art was a handshake with the viewer—only made whole through such a bond—but a true artist must define the size, shape and motion of the hand they wanted to hold out to the world first, without a view to what anyone else might want. Then they had to trust that there would be someone, even if only one person, who would reach through the void and grasp the outstretched offering.” That’s it in a nutshell for me.
Let’s talk about the plot twist! Without giving anything away, how do you craft a successful plot twist? Because this one got me!
Music to my ears! I’m so glad to hear it got you! To state the obvious, a good plot twist is all about surprise, but it needs to make sense to the reader—it can’t come out of nowhere or it won’t feel authentic. There are two pieces to pulling that off. First, the reader needs to be emotionally invested in what the character who gets surprised believes to be true. This puts the reader right there with the character when she is shocked by a new reality. Secondly, there need to be enough breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way such that after the twist is revealed the reader will think, “How did I miss that? I should have paid more attention to that detail,” or “of course, that perfectly explains this or that thing earlier in the book.” Basically, the goal is to put the same blinkers on the reader as your main character is wearing, and then make sure that when those blinkers get pulled off the world makes perfect sense.
In keeping with our blog name…were there any Dead Darlings cut from this novel? What were the toughest parts you had to delete?
I tend to fall in love with characters in backstory, and so much of backstory never fits into the book. Aster has a complex and difficult relationship with her mother, and her father was her grounding force. While the reader sees glimpses of charged moments with her mother, I had to cut several scenes that lovingly painted her father and their relationship. It’s all still part of Aster’s character, but those scenes just didn’t fit in the book.
Where can we buy your book? Do you have a favorite local indie?
You can buy the book anywhere books are sold! My favorite indies are Buttonwood Books, right in my hometown of Cohasset, Massachusetts; and Porter Square Books: Boston Edition, which is in the GrubStreet space in Boston’s Seaport District. Anyone who hasn’t been there yet has to go check it out!
Where can our readers see you in person?
I’ll be launching the book with Porter Square Books: Boston Edition on the GrubStreet stage on April 4. I’ll be at the Tustin Library in Orange County and at Village Well Books in Culver City, California on April 12 and 13; at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with author Jane Roper on April 27; and at Buttonwood’s Coffee with the Authors in Cohasset on May 11. Come one come all!
Katherine A. Sherbrooke is the author of Fill the Sky, which was a finalist for the May Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction and the Foreword Indies Book of the Year, and won a 2017 Independent Press Award. Her second novel, Leaving Coy’s Hill, won a Massachusetts Book Award Honors in Fiction. Kathy is chair of the GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston and lives south of the city with her husband, two sons, and black lab.