Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Kelly Durham author of four Historical Fiction Novels set during The 1930’s and 1940’s, the latest of which The Movie Star and Me will shortly be published.
Norm: Good day Kelly and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Kelly: Thanks Norm. As a school child, I always enjoyed reading, especially biographies. I was always interested to learn how famous people—athletes, movie stars, inventors and so forth—became the people they became.
In my teens, I started reading historical fiction and was drawn to stories set in the first half of the 20th century. This was during the Cold War and I think there was some comfort in reading about World War II where we knew the good guys had won.
Later I read espionage novels by Ludlum, Le Carre and others and at some point I wondered if I had the ability to write a novel myself. So one night, I was sitting on the deck behind our house and a little voice whispered in my ear: if you’re ever going to write that book, you better get started. The result was my first novel, The War Widow.
Norm: What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
Kelly: As far back as the cave dwellers, people have been telling stories. Maybe they scratched pictures on the rock walls or maybe they sat around the fire and made motions with their hands. I think people’s thirst for good stories will never be quenched. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen the successful explosion of so many media outlets.
People want to be entertained. They want some escape from the daily routine. Writing is always going to be the foundation for these stories, whether they’re presented as books, stage plays, television shows or motion pictures. I think the future of both reading and writing will remain bright.
Norm: What are common mistakes you see aspiring writers make?
Kelly: One of the mistakes I often make is shifting too readily between points of view. I’ll be writing along telling the story from character A’s perspective and will all of the sudden feel compelled to let you know character B’s innermost thoughts. That can really break up the narrative and cause the reader confusion.
It’s also important to realize that as a writer, you don’t have to get it right the first time—and that’s good because not many of us do. It’s important to read what you’ve written, rewrite it and then repeat. It’s also important to remember that as handy a tool as Spell Check is, it won’t catch a lot of your mistakes.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Kelly: It’s hard to turn your masterpiece over to someone else and accept their criticisms. You’ve put so much effort into crafting your story! But, that’s an important step in the writing process: you may know exactly what you hoped to convey to the reader, but does the reader get that same message?
While we have an emotional investment in our work, if we’re truly writing for an audience that goes beyond our spouses and blood relatives, we’ve got to be willing to offer the work for criticism and—as difficult as it may be—evaluate that criticism dispassionately. After all, what we’re really after is the best story we can produce!
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing? As a follow up, do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Kelly: I hope readers find my stories historically realistic and driven by compelling characters. I hope they find the stories entertaining and funny. Speaking of which, when I wrote my fourth book, The Reluctant Copilot, I asked my Mom and Dad, as is my habit, to read the story and share their thoughts. Mom said, “You’re a lot funnier in writing than you are in person.” Thanks, I think! Because my stories are set in the past, I do a great deal of research to help fashion a realistic setting in time and place.
As a result, a critical part of my writing process is research. I read books relating to the time/place and I also study primary sources like newspapers and memoirs when possible. I’m a bit of a history nerd, so I enjoy the research as much as I enjoy the actual writing.
The process of writing has evolved for me. When I was working, I used to sequester myself whenever I had a couple of free hours and write. Now, that I’m writing full-time, I start writing in the mornings after breakfast in my home office. I break for lunch and then get back at it in the afternoon. Depending on what’s going on with our family, I may even write again in the evening. I enjoy the act of writing—of putting words on the page. I do that on an Apple Mac laptop and it is a very pleasant way to spend time.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write and what was least useful or most destructive?
Kelly: Outlining! That’s my answer to both ends of your question. I remember Stephen Covey, the leadership guru and author, wrote that successful people always “begin with the end in mind.” I think that’s generally true of good writing as well. But…writing is a creative process and it’s difficult for me to plan out an entire book, episode-by-episode, character-by-character.
As with real people, you don’t really get to know your characters until you spend some time with them and see how they react in various situations. So, I still agree with Dr. Covey: begin with the end in mind. Have a good starting point and at least an idea of where you want to end up, but don’t let that idea shackle your creativity. Sometimes as you create, new opportunities and ideas will present themselves. That’s part of the fun! Of the first four books I wrote, only one of them ended the way I originally expected it to!
Norm: How do you feel about E-books vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
Kelly: I’m old-fashioned enough to love holding a book in my hand and turning pages. I’m techno-savvy enough (just barely) to appreciate that with an e-reader, I can carry a whole library in the palm of my hand. I love to browse bookstores, but I also make use of the nearly instant delivery that e-readers provide. Both traditional books and e-books have their advantages and I think there will always be room in the marketplace for both. I mean, how do you get an author to sign an e-book?
I got my start with alternative publishing through Smashwords and Amazon. Without those self-publishing outlets, I probably wouldn’t have sold more than a few dozen books. Alternative publishing gives every potential author access to the marketplace without having to go through a gatekeeper like an agent or a publisher. There’s something democratic and appealing about that.
I’ve only recently signed a contract with Lake Union Publishing to publish my book Berlin Calling. When I started out, obtaining a publishing contract was my objective. Although I’ve enjoyed moderate success through my own efforts, I’m anxious to see the publishing process from the conventional side. So far I’ve found the Lake Union people very professional (as you might expect) and also very pleasant to work with.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of The Movie Star and Me?
Kelly: As I mentioned earlier, I love stories and storytelling. The movies are a great example of storytelling on an epic scale. I’d go to the movies several times a week if I could. Motion pictures are such a powerful medium for stirring our emotions and helping us travel in time and space. In particular, I love old movies, those classics from Hollywood’s golden age from the 1930s and 1940s. In my early teens, I remember traveling one Saturday evening to a nearby city where there was a theater that showed classic films.
This was before cable TV, satellite TV or the internet made these kinds of movies available at the touch of a button. The movie that night was “Casablanca!” What a great story! After more than 70 years, that movie still delights. It has a great cast, conflicted heroes, villainous bad guys and the dialogue is as good as it gets! I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but I still get goosebumps every time I watch the scene in which Victor Lazlo leads La Marseillaise! I get goosebumps just talking about it!
So that love of old movies and an interest in the studio system that dominated Hollywood during those years led me to The Movie Star and Me. American movies during the ‘30s and ‘40s were arguably the most influential cultural force not only in our country, but around the world. Every other American went to the movies once a week! Movie stars were so famous and made so much money for their studios that they could—and often did—get by with outrageous behavior. In the absence of a royal family, screen stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Clark Gable were American royalty.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Kelly: My goal was to share a peek behind the scenes of this fascinating world of illusion. How did the studios work? How did they treat the big stars compared to the extras and the dozens of crew members who worked on a picture? What was life like on a film set and in the executive board room of the studio? Again, I read a lot to help recreate the time and place.
Memoirs by writer/director Garson Kanin and biographies of Hollywood legends Louis Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Cecil DeMille gave me a good basis for setting my story. I also traveled to the Library of Congress to read archived copies of the Los Angeles Times and toured Paramount Pictures Studios, the only major studio still located in Hollywood proper. I’ll leave it to readers to determine how well we did with the story, but I think it’s very entertaining.
Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Lieutenant Frank Russell and is there much of you in the character?
Kelly: My previous books had been set in Germany, Washington, DC and England—all during the war. I wanted to begin this story in the Pacific theater. That’s where Frank comes in. He’s a young replacement officer sent to Okinawa where he is thrown into the battle against the Japanese.
Like a lot of replacement soldiers, Frank doesn’t last very long on the front lines. His wounds and medical evacuation begin his journey toward Hollywood. Frank, like so many of his contemporaries, came out of the crucible of war with a strong belief in his own abilities. He gained confidence from his experiences, and so when a fleeting opportunity comes along, Frank grabs it and ends up building a future for himself at a Hollywood studio. And while Frank is a man of action, he’s a little inexperienced in the romance department. That creates some, shall we say ‘challenges,’ for him as the plot unfolds.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Kelly: I can be something of a history nerd. I like to share with readers what I’ve learned about how things worked—whether it’s at a move studio or aboard an 8th Air Force B-17 flying out of England. But there also has to be plenty of conflict to drive the plot and keep the reader involved and entertained.
The first draft, quite frankly, didn’t meet the standard. Sure, it was interesting, but there wasn’t enough conflict to sustain that interest. So, I went back to the very beginning of the story and added a character, a colorful one at that, whose main purpose in the plot was to generate conflict. The readers ultimately are the judge of whether this tactic succeeded, but I’m optimistic enough to be working on a sequel centered around the relationship between this character, Joan, and Frank.
Norm: Did you know the end of your book at the beginning and what is the most favorite part of your book?
Kelly: In this case yes, though as I said earlier that’s not always the case. In The Movie Star and Me, I knew how I wanted the story to end but I didn’t know exactly how to get there. During the couple of months it took to write the first draft, I’d take long walks with our dog, George Marshall, and think about the next step in the plot. Piece by piece the story fell into place and we ended up with strong ending. And that’s my favorite part of the book, the ending. It’s not necessarily what the reader expects, but it all fits together very neatly.
Norm: What projects are you working on at the present?
Kelly: I had so much fun with The Movie Star and Me that I’ve already drafted a sequel. It features Frank Russell again as the story’s narrator with Joan, whom I mentioned earlier as the antagonist. This time the story revolves around the filming of an epic war picture and includes a couple of secrets that the studio wants to keep covered up. In addition to the Frank Russell books, I’ve recently been working closely with editor David Downing to prepare Berlin Calling for its February 2017 release under the Lake Union imprint. So, I’ve been keeping busy and enjoying it greatly!
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Movie Star and Me?
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Kelly: I always like to ask people what they’re reading. What are their favorite books and who are their favorite authors? Most of us have a long list of favorites. For fiction, my all-time favorite is the late Pat Conroy. He’s one of those rare authors who is at once a great writer and a great storyteller. Ron Rash writes haunting tales set in the region in which I live. Nelson DeMille is one of the great dialogue writers of all time. Joseph Kanon, Dennis Lehane and the late Patrick O’Brien are among the very best writers of historical fiction. There are so many great writers and great storytellers and it’s a treat to share them with others.
Thanks a lot for giving me a chance to talk books with you Norm!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Durham lives in Clemson, SC with his wife Yvonne. They are the
parents of Mary Kate, Addison and Callie and also provide for their
dog, George Marshall. A graduate of Clemson University, Kelly served
four years in the US Army with assignments in Arizona and Germany
before returning to Clemson and entering private business. Kelly is
the also the author of THE
WAR WIDOW, BERLIN
WADE’S WAR and THE
RELUCTANT COPILOT. Check out all Kelly’s books at