Michael Libling's Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels (Chizine Publications) mines the rich - and largely unknown - history of a surprising Canadian film hotspot: Trenton, Ontario.
Dark, smart, and packed with compelling characters, Hollywood North, started its life as a World Fantasy Award nominated novella before Libling expanded it to a full length work. Already drawing praise and comparisons to the likes of Stand By Me and Stranger Things, Hollywood North is a coming-of-age story with a twist.
We're excited to welcome Michael to Open Book today to talk about Hollywood North, his writing process, and more as part of our Lucky Seven series. He tells us about exploring truth and guilt in the novel, his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach to plotting and outlining, and shares lots of valuable advice for writers, including the evergreen (and oh so true): "just write, dammit".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is inspired by my experiences growing up in Trenton, Ontario during the 1950s and 1960s, where large chunks of the town’s history was kept secret, never mentioned by parents, teachers, or family friends who might have been aware. Only long after leaving the town did my two older sisters and I begin to discover its rich and often bizarre history.
Among the so-called secrets were the deadly Grand Trunk train wreck of 1898, the disastrous British Chemical Company plant explosion of 1918, and the plane collision of 1937. There’s more, of course. A lot more. But the biggest and most inexplicable secret was the fact that a movie studio had operated in the town from 1917 to 1934.
Trenton was, in fact, Canada’s first Hollywood North, decades before either Toronto or Vancouver claimed the title. The studio even attracted major Broadway and Hollywood stars of the era to appear in its films. But it was only in 2006 when I stumbled across Peggy Dymond Leavey’s book, The Movie Years, in Brighton, Ontario’s Lighthouse Books that the revelations came to the fore.
I was excited. But also angry and confused. Why would the town keep this history under wraps? Why wasn’t the region peppered with historical markers? Why wasn’t this unique past being celebrated? And just like that, a concept began to take shape. I say “began”, because it took another four years for the concept to come together fully. The year was 2010 and the trigger was the gruesome news that the commanding officer of CFB Trenton was arrested for serial rape and murder.
With all of the above and more in mind, not the least of which were my own boyhood adventures in the town, the characters and plot quickly developed. From the outset, it wanted to be a novel. I had tons of content. My background and story notes were bursting from their folders. But I was also resistant. While I’d sold pretty much every piece of short fiction I’d ever written, I hadn’t had any luck selling a novel, despite coming oh-so-painfully close a couple of times. Simply put, I held back on a large part of the story and kept it short. The result was my 2014 novella, Hollywood North.
The novella first appeared in the November/December 2014 edition of the venerable Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was subsequently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. It also drew some interest from the real Hollywood. And then, at the urging of my agents and others, along with that tiny voice nagging me in my brain, I went ahead and wrote the novel the story was always meant to be.
I see Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels as a broody, rueful subversion of the traditional coming-of-age story, incorporating elements of mainstream, mystery, fantasy, and horror fiction. You’ll also find plenty of dark humour, which characterizes much of my writing. I think movie and TV buffs—heck, anyone who loves pop culture trivia—will find a lot to enjoy. And if history is your thing, well, the novel also delivers with several lesser-known and wholly creepy happenings from elsewhere in Ontario and Canada, outside of Trenton. As for the storyline, I hesitate to stray beyond the current jacket copy:
"Jack Levin is the boy who finds things. Gus Berry is the boy who wants things. Annie Barker is the girl who believes in things. Each is an outcast in their own way. Each is obsessed with movies, TV, comic books, and unexplained phenomena. And each lives with the fear bad things are heading their way.
Welcome to the 1960s and sleepy small-town Trenton, Ontario. Where hunting, fishing, arson, and drowning are the favored pastimes. Where dogs maim, trains derail, planes collide, and people vanish. Where secrets, lies, and selective amnesia pervade the adult agenda. Where only Gus, Jack, and Annie sense an unsettling connection to it all. And where piece by gruesome piece, this dauntless trio works to uncover the mystery at the malevolent heart of Trenton’s dark past… and darker future."
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
First and foremost, I write to entertain—to tell a good story. But sooner or later, themes tend to emerge, whether or not intended initially. For one, the nature of truth has always intrigued me, and this began well before the current era of “fake news.” And then there’s that potentially debilitating state of mind we call “guilt.” You might say both themes are present in much of my writing, and certainly evident in Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels.
Hollywood North also poses a large and frightening question, one that emerged as the book moved along. The question is especially relevant today, where the media barrage is 24/7. But you’ll have to read the novel to find out what it is. I’d be giving too much away, otherwise.
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
No. Very little in fact. I do not outline my stories. I fly by the seat of my pants. My advance planning is rudimentary at best. Voice and first sentence are my keys to everything that follows. Once I’ve nailed them, I’m off and running. But the novel version of Hollywood North was clear to me from the beginning in terms of plot and structure, as opposed to everything else I’ve written. I could see almost every detail in my head, the characters, their lives, and their respective fates. The challenge was to get it out of my head and onto the page.
All in all, it took a little over nine months to complete what I felt was a presentable draft—a draft I felt confident enough to let others read.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
To write the opening of a story beyond the first couple of paragraphs, I need to be in familiar surroundings—namely my home office. While that’s where I’m most comfortable writing, I can usually continue writing the story from just about anywhere. But that opening needs to be in place.
Coffee, matcha tea, toast and peanut butter, and muffins are my standard fuel. The only ritual I have is to shut down all social media and email to avoid distractions.
I use basic word processing software, either Word or Pages. I’ve tested out a few of the popular programs developed specifically for writers, but have found the learning curves too steep and the features overblown and often distracting. Hell, people, you wanna write, just write, dammit. Get the words down. Typewriters worked wonders for decades with zero super-duper features. The e-version of the same is all you need.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I tend to edit as I move along. I am not one of those writers who must rush to get the first draft complete before correcting and editing. I can also be a painfully slow writer. As obsessive and counter-productive as this might sound, I have been known to spend an entire morning dwelling on a single sentence to get it right.
Anyhow, to answer your question, I start each writing session by reviewing and editing what was done in the previous session. Usually, this allows me to flow directly into the next part without much difficulty.
Should I find myself blocked for more than a day or so, I stop writing, take a break, and read read read. Before I know it, I’m back at the keyboard, ideas and opportunities on rapid fire.
The best advice I ever received about avoiding “blocks” or becoming “discouraged” with a work in progress was “keep your mouth shut.” Do not talk about the story with anyone until it is done. Why? Because the more you talk about it, the more bored you will be with the execution of the story. Keeping it inside is also a great motivator, pushing you to complete the story so you can finally share your “brilliance” with others. The rule might not work for everyone, especially those who like to workshop their fiction, but it’s proven to be a critical factor for me.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I am a lazy reader. If I have to work too hard to get into a book, I’ll give up.
For me, voice is everything—no matter what point of view the author takes. If I can hear the storyteller, I’m hooked.
To me, a great book is one I remember years after I originally read it. At the top of the list is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Characters. Story. Plot. Passion. VOICE! It took me several tries to get into it, and then there was no putting it down. Another is Barry Malzberg’s Herovit’s World. This novel is dark, scathing, laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and mostly unknown. It isn’t everyone’s cup of literary tea, but rarely have I read an author so willing to put himself on the line in the pursuit of a higher (or perhaps lower) truth.
The second I’m done with this interview, I have no doubt I’ll come up with another dozen books I could have listed. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays... See. It’s already started.
What are you working on now?
I have a new novel completed. I’m circling the beginning of another. And I’m putting to bed several pieces of short fiction. I’ve also got an older mainstream novel, LIFE IN HENK, that I’m thinking of rewriting. HENK came close to selling more than once in the mid-90s and I’m wondering if today might be a better fit for it. I’ve also got new short stories coming out in the months ahead, including one in the September/October issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction and another in the November/December of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Michael Libling is a World Fantasy Award-nominated author whose writing has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and Welcome to Dystopia: 45 Visions of What Lies Ahead, and many others. Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is set in his hometown of Trenton or, as his protagonist puts it, “that aberrant speck of chronic self-deception on the north shore of Lake Ontario.” Michael is the father of three daughters and lives in Montreal with his wife, Pat. For more information, visit his website.