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Scenes From Hollywood

Writers find creative outlet by transferring real-life excesses of film capital to pages of novels.

March 27, 1997|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Screenwriter Phoebe Ephron used to remind daughter, Nora, "Everything is copy." The Hollywood veteran knew what all writers come to know: that writing is an act of recycling, a way to turn the base metal of experience into gold. That's just as true when the experience is awful as when it's good. Real-life agony underpins much admirable writing. Phoebe Ephron reminded Nora of this even as she was dying.

"You're a journalist," she told her daughter. "Take notes."

Virtually every writer who has worked in Hollywood has been stunned by the money, appalled by the behavior of some of the players, and realized, even as the star ranted or the deal dissolved, that there was a book in it.

According to writer Carolyn See, who wrote her UCLA doctoral dissertation on the Hollywood novel, the industry has been inspiring fiction at least since 1907, when "Love Story of a Movie Star" appeared. Hollywood novels, she says, "have been breeding like rabbits ever since."

Almost everyone agrees that Hollywood has produced at least one great novel: Nathanael West's apocalyptic "The Day of the Locust," published in 1939.

In the classic manner of Hollywood novelists, West had a day job cranking out B-movie scripts for Republic Productions, widely known as "Repulsive Pictures." The models for his grotesque characters were the stunt men and would-be starlets turning the occasional trick who lived in his seedy Hollywood hotel.

Hollywood continues to pay writers' bills and fuel their imaginations.

Today's Hollywood novel is as likely to be about television as about film, but the new Hollywood fiction retains many of the hallmarks of the old. Celebrities who have trouble distinguishing themselves from God are still a fixture of these books. As are the foibles of the rich and famous, including the widespread belief that lethal injection is preferable to flying coach.

Lee Goldberg is a TV writer-producer currently working on "Diagnosis: Murder." The Tarzana resident is also the author of a new comic novel, "Beyond the Beyond" (St. Martin's), that grew out of his experiences writing for "SeaQuest" and other shows.

Goldberg says he loves both his writing lives: getting well paid to do the collaborative work of television writing and getting a different kind of satisfaction from writing his over-the-top mysteries.

"When I write for TV," Goldberg says, "I have to answer to the network, I have to answer to the studio and I have to answer to my fellow producers. With my books, I only have to answer to me."

Not the least of the pleasures of fiction, denied to him when he writes for television, is the opportunity to be as raunchy as he wants. "Beyond the Beyond," Goldberg's second novel and the second to feature former cop, now studio security specialist Charlie Willis, includes a scene in which an actress kills a man with her mammoth breasts.

Goldberg's book includes a manic sendup of the obsessive devotion of fans of television sci-fi. In the novel, "Beyond the Beyond" is the name of a classic TV show that sounds remarkably like "Star Trek." In fact, says Goldberg, he realized how out-of-control such fans could be when he wrote a "SeaQuest" script featuring a character from an earlier episode and deviated from the detailed "fanfic" that devotees had written about the character.

"I got death threats," Goldberg recalls.

While much of what he writes seems wildly exaggerated, he insists that "99% of the anecdotes are true."

No, he doesn't know any agents who actually eat human flesh, but he does know industry types whose bathrooms are nicer than most people's homes. By fictionalizing megalomaniacal stars and disguising incidents in which real people acted badly, he gets to vent without paying the ultimate price--losing TV jobs.

"It's a way for me to work out my aggressions and frustrations without burning any bridges," he says.

Lindsay Maracotta was a novelist before she moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and almost immediately began getting screen work. She wrote screenplays for Disney, Goldie Hawn and Dino De Laurentiis and scripts for TV and was paid handsomely for them.

"It was fabulous," she says. "It was like walking down the street and picking up money."

It was also terribly frustrating. To date, not one of the screenplays has been produced. "Things would get to the point of greenlighting, then fall apart, over and over again."

So she decided to return to the novel. "I wanted something that was all mine."

As writers do, Maracotta had been taking notes, observing the Hollywood community that she was part of with an almost anthropological eye. The world she chose to write about is "domestic Hollywood," a privileged universe where the children of the industry's elite don't have playhouses, they have entire villages in their backyards.

"I had a wealth of observations that I could finally put to use," she says. That raw material was transformed into her 1996 mystery, "The Dead Hollywood Moms Society," featuring animator-sleuth Lucy Freers.

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