Help welcome debut author Janyce Stefan-Cole to the SheKnows Book Lounge. Listen in as Stefan-Cole discusses her new novel, her parents, Los Angeles and even a bit of philosophy.
SheKnows: How do you describe your new novel, Hollywood Boulevard, to your friends and family?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: Hollywood Boulevard is the journey of a successful actress, Ardennes Thrush, who quit. That is how I think of the book and that is what I say to friends and family. But there is also the whodunit element so I usually say, "There's a noir tone to the book, intrigue that parallels the actress's journey." The term psychological thriller has been used to describe the book. I'm not sure about that, though I have no objection. I see the psychological part as Ardennes's search of, or back to, herself after reaching a goal that somehow left her out of the equation once success was achieved. I don't say all that though when describing the book because I'd put people to sleep. I worry with family, my mother in particular, about what she might call the book's racy parts. There is no gratuitous sex or violence — it's all earned, but try telling that to your mom. The other complication is that my father is now blind so she'll have to read the book to him, once I find the courage to send them a copy. I've read passages to them, which they liked, but I jumped over the "racy" parts.
SheKnows: Your protagonist, Ardennes Thrush, often compares New York with Los Angeles. Although you currently live in the east, which city do you prefer and why?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: If you'd have asked me that question prior to my temporary relocation to Hollywood (my husband was there to work on a film he co-wrote and was co-producing) I'd have laughed the way New Yorker's do over La La Land. We are terribly snobby here about Los Angeles. But the city got under my skin. I went empty-handed and returned with a character and the beginning of a novel. So I have a fondness, there's an attachment to the city I'd not had prior to that four-month stay. I still check the L.A. weather reports! Writing a story situated in a city is living there, in a way. I think it's important to be authentic in describing a location, unless you're Falkner or that other wonderful Southern writer, Lewis Nordan, creating an imaginary town. Even then you must be true to what you place there. So, would I live in Los Angeles? Maybe, but only if I could afford The Hills or the coast. I'd certainly go out west again. I like to travel anyhow, to have an adventure elsewhere. Being in a new location can stir up all sorts of creative energy.
SheKnows: Ardennes is a constant people watcher. Do you think that has helped make her a good actress?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: It's not entirely clear that Ardennes was a people watcher before she quit acting, but I suspect she was not. I know actors who don't seem to notice a thing outside themselves — I mean are not observant — and others who are aware of all the tics and gestures, styles and tones of those around them. I can't speak for the internal life of those actors, and this is unscientifically off the cuff, but my experience is that the actors who are less engaged with their surroundings are more engaged in their work and are better actors. An actor, unlike a writer, has to find only one character at a time. They have help with that from their director (and research) and whatever else they do to pry open a role to get at the heart of a character. I know stage actors who stay in character for an entire run, especially period pieces, like Chekov. So I would say Ardennes is less engaged as an actor as she becomes increasingly voyeuristic. She's watching others precisely because she is lost. To a degree, those others are filling her world and that may be helpful in her effort to find herself. Spoiler alert: I have to be careful here, but Ardennes says she will have to immerse herself in her character if she is to act again. That would pretty much preclude people watching and just about any other distraction.
SheKnows: One theme explored in Hollywood Boulevard concerns Ardennes' decision to quit acting. Her agent, director husband and Hollywood friends think she's made a mistake by walking away. Of course, they may have a vested interest in her career, but regardless, do you think we have an obligation to take full advantage of our talents?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: I think I touch on that question in the book. Certainly Ardennes' agent, Harry Machin, believes there is an obligation to express one's talent. This may well be hype to convince his client to utilize hers but he sounds pretty sincere. I think vested in her career, or not, he wants Ardennes to act. Her second husband certainly has motive to get her back to work, but, like Harry, he too has belief. So does her one-time lover and actor friend Fits. He quotes from J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey to almost shame Ardennes into going back to work, to utilize her instrument. Having written those characters' words and sentiments I would say, yes, I think we do have an obligation to use our talent. The Sufi idea of the destined task each of us has in life informs the book. There's a little known but wonderful movie by Tunisian director Nasser Khamir, Bab'Aziz, which is largely about the talent each of us has, which becomes our personal way to God. There is the line in the movie, "There are as many ways to God as there are souls." I don't use the term God in a religious sense, but as a metaphor for personal fulfillment, so it is incumbent, I think, to overcome the fear of taking full advantage of one's talent, whatever that talent might be. So long as it's not criminal!
SheKnows: What are you reading this week?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: At the moment I'm pretty fried. My book is just out and there was a great deal of work to prepare for that, and I worried over all of it, so reading has been a challenge, the atmosphere a little too volatile. This week I started David Mitchell's Number9Dream. I enjoyed his Cloud Atlas and took a chance on him again. I am slowly reading Gene Dattel's Cotton and Race in the Making of America, which is fascinating history, all about the stuff they don't teach in school about our founding fathers, a young nation, slavery and the economy. A month ago I finished Denis Johnson's very intense (and long) Tree of Smoke. At night I read pages from one of two books on mindfulness. I've been reading them for years, over and over, a couple of pages at a time with no particular end in doing so. I look forward to immersing myself in books again. Lined up are: Padgett Powell's Edisto, another unbridled book, The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert and Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema Of Krzysztof Kieslowski, by my friend Annette Insdorf. And there will be others.
SheKnows: Are you already hard at work on your next novel? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
Janyce Stefan-Cole: I long to be hard at work on my next novel. Again, the recent hectic pace, all the stuffage connected to a book coming into the world (about which I am thrilled) has made a mess of my concentration. That said there was a pause earlier in the year during which I did write a bit. The new novel is about a retired NYPD detective. He has a garden. His wife has died young and has not been replaced in his heart... she is still in his life. The garden was hers. He has become painfully isolated, until one June morning everything changes in that quiet garden. The one place that has offered him solace becomes a crime scene... I plan to immerse myself in that story very soon.