What is your book about?
Reality Boulevard (http://apostrophebooks.com/books/realityboulevard), set in contemporary Los Angeles, is the story of what happens when a long-running, award-winning documentary television series suddenly goes off the air. After 16 years, the show’s idealistic producer, director, crew and editors all find themselves unemployed and out on the street in a Hollywood that has changed dramatically. Instead of heroes and redeeming TV, their job choices have been narrowed to shows like Kardashians and Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo. The novel follows this group of oddball characters (an “ensemble cast”) as they come to grips with a business that is changing, and try to reconcile their previous dreams with the reality of what’s in front of them.
How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?
I actually first thought of the main characters in the novel way back in the ‘90’s when I was directing segments for CBS’s hit show Rescue 911, on which the show in the novel, Lights and Sirens is based. But Reality TV hadn’t hit yet, so the idea was really just a sort of Broadcast News-like character piece about a group of people working on a nonfiction television program. It wasn’t a social novel like RB, it was more of a wacky ensemble ‘dramedy’ with heart (again, Broadcast News was my inspiration.) In my head, I called it “Docs” (short for documentary) and it actually started out as a movie script. But it didn’t find its true purpose until the mid 2000’s when the idea for a social novel about the ills of Reality TV began to take shape. Sometimes story ideas take a while to find their time.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
In the novel, there’s a conversation between two 20-something cable TV executives and the main character, Marty Maltzman, where the execs are describing the type of TV shows they’re looking for:
Ken steepled his fingers and gazed thoughtfully up at the ceiling. ‘Dwarves have done very well for us in primetime … of course you can never go wrong with pimps, sluts, hoes and bitches.’ He winked at Kevin. ‘We don’t mean that in any kind of racist or sexist context, of course…Anyway, our best night of the week is our Sunday primetime lineup. We call it – for lack of a better term – our ‘freaks and losers’ block.’ ”
While that scene reads like satire, the truth is, those lines are pulled word for word from some meetings I’ve been in, as a producer of non-fiction, reality TV. One day a few years ago, I was sitting in one of those hellacious meetings listening to some very young, very experienced producers give me a speech just like the one above, and I suddenly felt ill. Here were these kids, talking absolutely without conscience or any awareness that the shows they were touting would be potentially influencing the sometimes malleable minds of millions of people. Television is a tremendously powerful medium, which is why I got into it. To change the world. Idealistic, I know, but I spent the first ten years of my career coming close to it. In that meeting, I thought, “How did I get here?”
Not long afterward, I made moves to change my life and Reality Boulevard was sort of my swan song to a world of which I am – to put it mildly – somewhat critical.
Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite? Why?
The main characters of the novel are Marty Maltzman, the Oscar and Emmy-winning producer of Lights and Sirens, and Hunter Marlow, a frustrated documentary “auteur” working as a field director on the show. Hands down, Marty is my favorite. He is the only character in the book directly modeled after a real person and not an amalgam of different people and personalities I’ve known – he’s based on my mentor in television, Arnold Shapiro (“Scared Straight,” “Rescue 911”). Arnold is one of the few left who still genuinely cares about what he puts on the air. Like Marty, he’s sometimes quirky and frustrating, but immensely kind, generous and loveable and once you form a loyalty to him, it never goes away. I adore both the character and his model.
Why will readers relate to your characters?
Despite the fact that the world my characters inhabit is Hollywood, the majority of the characters are just worker bees; ordinary people just trying to live their dreams, or even just to make a living working hard, long hours but at something they enjoy. I think all people can relate to having idealism shattered, or to knowing people who will take advantage of that idealism.
Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)
My life was research for Reality Boulevard! However, as a documentarian at heart, I adore research (in fact I tend to over-research my non-fiction stuff). So I always keep a file of outside things that apply to the book; articles, scholarly writing, etc. – things that make me think even more critically about what I’m writing. I love researching little details while writing, like studying the history of the George Stanley sculpture that is a recurrent motif throughout the book, or choosing a valuable chess set like the one Davis Barron gives to Sophie Warner.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
My mother loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and wanted to name me after one of the characters. I was supposed to be “Amy Veronica.” But, my mother told me, when I was born, she looked into my eyes and said, “She’s going to be a writer.” So my name was changed to Melissa Jo – the “Jo” being Jo March, Louisa May Alcott’s avatar. My mother died when I was 22 and I miss her terribly to this day, but my middle name reminds me how deeply she knew and loved me, from the moment I arrived.
What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?
Getting down to doing it. Facing that blank page. For me, I have a lot of really ruthless critical voices that I must manage, voices that tell me that I’m not good enough and not worth it.
It’s like going to the gym – once you get there, you might as well work out. 90% of the battle is over. It’s the getting there that’s the hardest part.
What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?
Character, urgency, pace and a story that takes you into another world and draws you in so deeply that you have trouble coming out, even when not reading.
What words would you like to leave the world when you are gone?
I hope I did the best I could with the gifts I was given; I hope somehow I fulfilled God’s purpose for me here. I loved and was loved.
Have you written any other books?
Seven non-fiction books including five NYT Bestsellers. As co-author or “credited ghost.”
Do your characters ever take on a life of their own?
Absolutely. They are as real to me as the people in my life. I recently went on a ‘travelogue’ shoot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ZGW564wEExU) for promotional material in LA and found several of the Reality Boulevard characters’ houses – houses that had only existed in my imagination, but there they were suddenly in real life, almost exactly as I’d described them! Magic!
Would it matter to you if you were never published? (In other words, would it matter if no one ever read your books?) Why or why not?
Ten years ago, juiced on ambition, I would’ve said, “What’s the point”? Today, older and wiser, I can absolutely see the value of writing for the sake of writing. So the answer would be, no, it doesn’t matter on a spiritual/creative level. There are other factors at play, however.
The larger question, of course, is why create art (of any kind) in the first place? Why are there those of us who are driven to tell stories practically from birth, and feel like we’d be less alive if we weren’t doing so, in some form?
I believe any kind of artistic expression – from dance to painting to music to writing – is a natural human desire to share one person’s unique perspective of the universal with others, who can never see it exactly as the artist sees it, but can now identify with it and therefore feel less alone in the universe. If you follow that line of thinking, artists tend to naturally seek out audiences. It’s the tree falling in the forest idea. We usually want to use our art to connect, so we’d rather share than be singing into the void.
I think most of us who are at a certain level of skill do wish to make a living using our gifts. People born with gifts in math and sciences seek out professions which will remunerate them for their talents. Professional athletes are paid for their talents. I’ve been a creative professional all my life and can’t help it – writing is terribly hard work but it’s what I do, and I want to pay the mortgage too. I believe I can add more to the world using my unique skills than I can, say, selling perfume at Macy’s. Then we get into the general question of whether artists/content providers should be fairly paid for their work. I am a big supporter of my two unions, the Director’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Guild of America, so obviously I believe that. So it does matter to me that in the big picture, if I do good work, I can hopefully earn an audience and even more hopefully, earn some sort of remuneration as well. But you have to focus on telling the story first, before you can even think about a reward.
If your book was made into a TV series or Movie, what actors would you like to see playing your characters?
Oh this is so much fun! You see, I’m a filmmaker as well as a writer, so I’m always thinking about casting (in fact I always saw Reality Boulevard as a high-end series like The Sopranos or Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire – that’s how it unfolded in my head as I wrote it, in sort of a serial, episodic fashion). I wish Tina Fey would play Hunter. She is my hero and my idol and I see her in the role absolutely. I can’t really see many other people more perfect for that role. The role of Marty Maltzman is the hardest part to cast. Our friend Peter Riegert who was in my husband’s and my film White Irish Drinkers – though he’s some years older than Marty – has got the right combination of humor, nerdiness and endearing loveability. He’d be wonderful. I’d cast Bob Balaban for sure if he were ten years younger. Paul Giamatti comes to mind, and I also like the idea of Garry Shandling, whose quote opens the novel and whose Larry Sanders Show was in some ways inspiration (or at least, validation) of the kind of satire-but-mostly-true humor I try to employ in the novel. If we’re going to go “A” list, I like Michael Douglas for Jerry Stone, Owen Wilson (or Damien Lewis) for Ian Rand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Garret Shaw. The most fun is casting Brett Windsor, the aging 80’s heartthrob. You could cast a real 80’s heartthrob – like Don Johnson, Tom Selleck, David Hasselhoff, Mark Harmon etc. It’s a great role with which I think so many wonderful actors of a certain age could have a ball.
Where can people learn more about your books?
My website http://www.melissajopeltier.com which is hosted through The Author’s Guild, protecting the rights of writers and content creators since 1912.
Twitter: @apostrophebooks and @MelissaJPeltier