IN MANY WAYS, it feels as though Alison Gaylin has been building toward her new novel What Remains of Me for her entire career. Through her two Edgar-nominated mystery series and standalones and her own history as a Southern California native, an entertainment journalist, and a tabloid reporter, her abiding fascinations have been: missing sisters, the trickiness of memory, the power of image and illusion, the ripples of the past on the present, and the dangerous glamour of Hollywood. Perhaps that is why the ambitious and sumptuous What Remains of Me is so deeply satisfying. It feels like the work of a writer who has achieved a new level of symbiosis between subject and theme, scope and narrative urgency.
The story of two murders, What Remains of Me brings us into the labyrinthine world of tabloid-favorite Kelly Lund, a woman who spent 25 years in prison for shooting a Hollywood director while she was only in her teens. Moving back and forth between 1980, the year of the murder, and the present day, we watch as another mysterious death in Kelly’s midst renders her a suspect again, and the many buried secrets from the past threaten to fall upon the present.
For lovers of Hollywood lore, there are countless pleasures to be had here, not the least in the echoes of scandals past, particularly in the dangerously freewheeling late ’70s/early ’80s. But the novel reaches far beyond nostalgia and becomes something larger: a dark and compelling meditation on an industry (or more than one, as the tabloid true crime business looms large here too) that considers young women disposable and that cannot reckon with female power until it’s too late.
MEGAN ABBOTT: In some ways, even though only a small portion of the novel resides in that world, What Remains of Me is a Hollywood novel. Were there Hollywood novels that were inspirational to you? It’s a notoriously difficult “genre” (if it’s a genre); were there pitfalls you wanted to avoid?
ALISON GAYLIN: There are some really great Hollywood novels, from The Day of the Locust to The Player to your own fantastic The Song is You. But I really think it was more Hollywood nonfiction that inspired me. Some of the essays of Joan Didion (including “Girl of the Golden West,” which you’d recommended). And definitely true crime books set in the area. As you know, I read Helter Skelter at 10, growing up in L.A. not all that long after the Manson murders. It was the feel of that book and that crime — all that ugliness lurking under the glittery, slick surface of Hollywood — that haunted me for years and inspired me, I think.
It is a difficult genre. I think the one thing I wanted to avoid was focusing too much on the name brands, the wealth. Some Hollywood novels focus too much on label porn. I definitely wanted Kelly, who is relatively poor, to be seduced by Bellamy and her world of “Hollywood Royalty,” but I wanted her to be seduced by things more dangerous and lasting than just money.
You take many of the Hollywood tropes and subvert or even overturn them, particularly the “starlet/victim” we see in so many novels. Was that purposeful?
Yes, it was. Most of the characters who drive the action in the book — for better or for worse — are female, and I really wanted to do that. It wasn’t due to any type of agenda; it was more a desire to do something different. Plus, it felt more natural to me, with this book in particular, to put female characters in the driver’s seat. The two very glamorous victims are men.
A major theme in the book is female relationships — good ones and bad ones. As the book begins, Kelly has lost a sister and gained a friend, Bellamy. That loss and that friendship are, in many ways, the main driving forces in her life. They make her stronger and they mess her up and ultimately, they make her into what she becomes — a very famous convicted killer. And they’re both female.
Many of your books are similar in that way, Megan. Female characters drive the action. Queenpin, The End of Everything, The Fever, and Dare Me all come to mind, as they are, at their core, about female friendships.
I think we’re both very interested in the complexities of women’s relationships with other women. And the way that women, especially younger women, may identify with or aspire to a version of womanhood they see in someone else. It feels like that’s a big part of What Remains of Me. Your female characters’ relationships to the male characters seems either strategic or secondary. The real energy is between the women — especially between the teenage Kelly and her “wild” friend Bellamy. Was that intentional? What interests you about that?
We really are similar in that way. It’s something I always love to explore. In many ways, those relationships are so much more complicated and interesting to me than the relationships women have with men. And comparatively, in fiction, they’re somewhat uncharted territory. I am an only child, five of my nine books have revolved around a very complicated, intense relationship between sisters. (I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about that …)
With Kelly and Bellamy, I really wanted to look into the power of that relationship — that one friend you wake up in the morning thinking about, the one you can talk to all night, the one you trust with all your secrets. They can be so all-encompassing. Think of how young girls change for each other — how they’ll start dressing like each other, talking like each other. (Those girls in The Fever, all in their colorful tights …) Those friendships are great material for noir. Think Heavenly Creatures (or for that matter, Dare Me). There’s so much trust that goes into them, such importance placed on them — and therefore such potential for things to go very, very wrong. As it does with Kelly and Bellamy, neither one of whom is ultimately very trustworthy.
Going back to what you said about Hollywood true crime, one of the things I find most fascinating about your book is its exploration of media portrayals of Kelly. I saw echoes of Patty Hearst, of Amanda Knox, of many women accused of crimes who don’t behave the way they’re expected to.
I had both of them in mind, as they didn’t go according to script and were vilified as a result. If you’re a young girl accused of a crime and you don’t act terrified and helpless, as Kelly doesn’t, or if you aren’t that personable (which Kelly isn’t), if you don’t cry, if you don’t literally throw yourself on the mercy of the public, you’re convicted in the court of public opinion whether you’re truly guilty or not.
And the sentence lasts forever. No matter what Kelly did, no matter what her reasons were, one ill-placed smile at the age of 17 outside the courtroom and she’s forever a bogeyman. At one point, in one of the present-day sections, someone asks her if she’s guilty of the second crime and she says, “Does it matter?” and they agree it doesn’t. That’s really the main point I was trying to make. The book is full of unreliable narrators, and the press may be the one that does the most damage. (And I say this as an entertainment journalist!)
This is actually quite a powerful theme in The Fever — how the facts created by the press, or by rumor, public opinion, etc., can be more pervasive than the real facts behind a crime (or in this case, a type of mass illness). There’s also a lot said about celebrity — the one girl who becomes a star when her seizure appears on YouTube. I loved this element of the book. Was this something in your mind from the beginning?
Yes. Like you, I just grew up consuming that stuff. And, like many things you consume without thinking about when you’re a kid, it can come back to haunt you. Now I shudder at the way I bought into so many troubling narratives about the way woman “should” behave. Speaking of the media, you include faux TMZ, various tabloid and celebrity true crime reportage about Kelly in the book — it’s almost like a paging through a pulpy scrapbook. What did you want to achieve in those sections?
There’s a convention in many suspense/crime fiction books — the faux newspaper stories that fill the reader in on the details of the crime — what “really happened.” But of course the truth is, in real life, the press can be just as unreliable a narrator as anyone else. So I wanted to play with that convention. In the book, the press excerpts depict how the public perceives events and characters in the book — which very often winds up being completely inaccurate. I included everything from faux TMZ and BuzzFeed to faux L.A. Times to faux Rona Barrett’s Hollywood to a faux excerpt from a Truman Capote-style true crime book. They were so much fun to write.
So are you leaving Hollywood’s siren song behind now? What comes next?
I’m currently working on another standalone. Like What Remains of Me, it’s about a crime that winds up being larger than life, with misunderstood participants, but this book is set in a small, upstate New York town, about as far from Hollywood as you can get.