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Looking Back and Laughing

Author offers thinly veiled story of her painfully funny Hollywood childhood.

August 05, 2000|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most writers are advised to write what they know. Author Diane Leslie did that with a vengeance in her novel "Fleur De Leigh's Life of Crime" (Simon & Schuster, $23).

Leslie will speak to the Ventura County Writers Club on Tuesday on "Becoming a Writer." Although she has been writing since she was 17, this lightly fictionalized account of her life is her first novel.

After surviving a painfully funny childhood in the 1950s in a Hollywood family, where a succession of 60 nannies paraded through her life, Leslie submerged much of herself into Fleur De Leigh, a precocious 10-year-old whose mother is a B-movie actress and whose father produces television game shows. Any resemblance to Leslie's childhood is purely intentional.

Leslie's mother was a screenwriter from the 1930s through the '50s, and her father was an entertainment lawyer with high-profile clients. Both Fleur and Leslie were largely ignored by parents, who left them to find attention and love from the hired help, Leslie said. Strangely enough, her mother loved the novel, which was on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for 19 weeks and was chosen one of the best books of 1999 by Library Journal.

"I handed her the manuscript and thought I might never hear from her again, but she called me the next day and just raved about it," Leslie said. "She told me I got my father and his mother exactly right."

Before she started the novel, Leslie spent 17 hours taping interviews with her mother--interviews she said her children might want to listen to someday. During the writing process, she realized that it would be fine if her novel was never published, because she had resolved so much for herself, she said.

"It's so funny that after all this time, I've gotten my mother's approval, which I never had--or her interest. That's a kind of a fascinating result that I never expected," she said.

When a book signing was scheduled at Dutton's in Brentwood, where Leslie sells books and leads study groups, her mother wanted to know if she should wear her tiara, since she was the star of the novel, Leslie said.

Leslie's next book is about being sent away to boarding school at 15--she said it still bothers her. She tried to write it in a different setting, with other characters, but decided to continue on with Fleur. Some of the things that happened are painful to write about, and she is in the pain stage right now, she said.

"I was not a very happy child, but I always knew it was funny--that what was happening around me didn't happen to everybody--so it was really funny on one level," she said.

One of those painfully funny things happened when she was 17. Her parents bought a bigger house nearby and left her living in the old house by herself. Meanwhile, they were preparing the servants' quarters in the new house for Leslie, with a separate entrance.

"When I saw it, I realized that if I moved in there I would never move out again--it would be impossible to get away," she said.

Escape came in the form of a sailboat rigger named Fred Huffman, who invited her to sail around the world with him. She agreed and said it turned out to be a good decision made for all the wrong reasons. They are still married, she said.

Meanwhile, she is living out childhood fantasies of keeping house and raising her children without nannies--when she isn't writing about Fleur's latest escapades.

Also during the Ventura County Writers Club meeting, Lee Wardlaw, author of "We All Scream for Ice Cream," will whip up some treats. With the help of volunteers, she will demonstrate how to make soft ice cream in five minutes, using a zip-lock bag. It's one of the recipes in her book. Samples will be available after the book signing.

HAPPENINGS

* Today: 1 p.m. Glynn Marsh Alam will sign and discuss "Dive Deep and Deadly" at Mysteries to Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 374-0084.

* Sunday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Janice Marschner will sign "California 1850--A Snapshot in Time" (Coleman Ranch Press-$19.95). The book was written to commemorate California's Sesquicentennial on Sept. 9. Marschner is donating 40% of the proceeds from sales to the Olivas Adobe Historical Park in Ventura. She will be in the Olivas Adobe Historical Park booth in the Agriculture Building at Seaside Park at the Ventura County fairgrounds. For more information about the book, e-mail coleman@cwo.com or call (916) 393-9032.

* Sunday: 10 a.m. Fran Halpern will interview Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's magazine, on radio station KCLU-FM (88.3).

* Tuesday: 7 p.m. The Second Tuesday Contemporary Book Group will focus on "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham. Borders, 125 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 497-8159.

* Tuesday: 7:30 p.m. The Ventura County Writers Club will hear Diane Leslie, author of "Fleur De Leigh's Life of Crime." Also, Lee Wardlaw, author of "We All Scream for Ice Cream," will show how to make soft ice cream. Samples and book signings. The meeting is open to the public. For more information, call club president Joanne Sehnem at 579-9414. Borders, 497-8159.

* Wednesday: 9:30 a.m. Story time with circus stories and face painting. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 4360 E. Main St., 339-9170.

* Wednesday: 7 p.m. The Wednesday Night Readers will focus on T. Coraghessan Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* Wednesday: 8 p.m. Poetry Workshop. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* Thursday: 7 p.m. A reading group will discuss "Crow in Stolen Colors" by Marcia Simpson. Mysteries to Die For, 374-0084.

Information about book signings, writers groups and publishing events can be e-mailed to anns40@aol.com or faxed to 647-5649.

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