DEATH HAG:
an interview with Kathy Charles

Posted on December 13, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

I was walking through a provincial French town to see a famous cathedral. Within the glass pastry cabinets were dazed bees, flitting around from one cake to another, and the cobblestone streets were narrow enough to give me a medieval migraine. I walked past a cinema screening three films, all Hollywood, one of them, Judge Dread. It’s not a film I’ve seen but I could tell you a few of the actors in it and the story line. I still don’t know a lot about Chartres, who built it, or why it made so little difference to me.

You’re an artist driven by pop culture. Why do you think it broadcasts so powerfully, persistently and broadly?

KATHY CHARLES

I worship at the church of popular culture. Pop culture has saved my life more times than I care to remember. After my first big heartbreak I devoured the films of Woody Allen to find some kind of explanation for the way people behave in relationships. When I was in the most hardened grip of my death phobia I turned to the music of Marilyn Manson to embrace the darkness. There’s a paragraph in my novel where the main character, Hilda Swann, likens her new friend Hank Anderson to a song by Tom Waits, or a novel by Charles Bukowski. So many relationships have been forged over a mutual love for something as seemingly frivolous as Seinfeld or Monty Python. Pop culture gives us ways of identyifying ourselves and each other. It is accessible and poignant and a great communicator of contemporary hopes, fears and desires. I live in pop culture. I live in my dreams. I think most writers do, whether they be contemporary or otherwise.

ALEC PATRIC

You wrote that on your website as well, that you ‘worship at the church of popular culture.’ There’s a lovely nonchalance to the way you use that expression, and yet clearly, you’re sincere. Pop culture is a kind of battle pennant as you charge into the self-righteous All-for-Art enclaves of the literary world. Maybe there’s a kind of faith in it as well, though I’m not sure if anyone believes in pop salvation. In your latest book John Belushi is Dead’, your characters are fascinated by celebrity suicide and murder. When you look at someone like John Belushi you can’t help but feel he was a victim of pop reality. Is there a way pop culture helps us deal with suicide and self-destruction?

KATHY CHARLES

Pop culture helps us deal with everything. As teenagers experiencing the dizzying, nauseating illness that is first love, John Hughes may be a point of reference well before we seek our parent’s advice.  Generally it’s also our first contact with death and destruction, as arguably most of us will see a death on television far before we have to experience it in real life. Celebrity death allows us to address our own mortality. It shows us that death is the great leveller, and comes for us all, rich or poor, famous or not. Celebrities who struggle with their fame like Belushi did are in many ways more endearing to the public and easier to connect with then those who appear strong and untouchable. We want our celebrities to be both human and super human. It’s a complicated relationship.

ALEC PATRIC

What was your process for writing this book? How long did it take and how’d you go about it? I know you have a screenwriting modus operandi and I was hoping you might touch on that. What kind of research did you do into the suicides and murders? Did you feel like the anecdotes were enough or was there a desire to penetrate the myths and look at the actual tragedies?

KATHY CHARLES

I’d been traveling back and forth between Melbourne and Los Angeles many years before I wrote the novel. The initial draft came out very fast: 6 months in total. There is definitely a spareness to my prose that is reminiscent of screenwriting. Most of my editorial time was spent actually lenghtening the novel, filling in the blanks and being more descriptive. I’ve always been interested in celebrity death and true crime so most of the research had largely been done. I devoured the works of John Gilmore, LA’s most notorious true crime writer, and ended up naming one of the characters after him. I also read books like Hollywood Babylon and Helter Skelter. They’re all listed in the acknowledgments page of the novel, so if you’re looking for a detailed ‘celebrity crime’ reading list that’s a good place to start. I wasn’t so interested in examining the myths as I was in simply reminding readers about celebrities who I feel have been largely forgotten or don’t get as much respect as they deserve, people like John Belushi, Sharon Tate, even River Phoenix. I hope when people read my novel it compels them to look into the lives of these celebrities further. Belushi is experiencing a renaissance which is wonderful. There’s finally a biopic in the works and I’m really excited about it.

ALEC PATRIC

Did you fall for John Belushi? Or was it a nostalgia for the time and place, that ragged celebrity, for which perhaps he’s nothing more than a totem? Maybe you could tell me a little bit about him. Why should the world remember John Belushi?

KATHY CHARLES

I wasn’t a fan of John Belushi before I started writing the novel. I was aware that his death was one of the most significant and scandalous in Hollywood history so I wanted to make it the centrepiece of the story. As I started to research his life I found myself becoming quite obsessed with him. He was a good man who never felt good enough about himself, no matter how famous he became. He was also very genuine in a way movie stars just aren’t today. There are some great stories about how he would wander the streets on a bender, knock on someone’s door and ask if he could come in and make a sandwich. He wanted to be around people and to connect with people. You are right when you say he has become a totem, and it’s sad to me that the individual behind that has been lost. In terms of contemporary comedians, Belushi paved the way for Zach Galifinakis and Jack Black, but many fans of these comics may have never heard of Belushi. Hopefully the biopic will rectify this.

ALEC PATRIC

Since Tarrantino there’s been a new respect for the artistic credibility of pop culture, though that was already well under way in Warhol’s day. With the breakthrough of Pulp Fiction however, it became a brash aesthetic that declared, this is the world we live in, these are the things we surround ourselves with, this is the stuff we have faith in because this is all we really own. I know you’re a fan of Brett Easton Ellis. He deals with the disposability of pop culture and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the subject. The dilemma seems to be that the more relevant you are to today the less relevant you’ll be tomorrow.

KATHY CHARLES

When I was first looking for a publisher for my novel some US editors said that teenagers today wouldn’t be interested in reading about Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or John Belushi. The sentiment was that teens are only interested in what is happening NOW, and by NOW I mean today, this hour, this minute. I find this incredibly patronising to teens, and it definitely wasn’t my experience growing up. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are of when I heard bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd for the first time. I remember being home sick from highschool for many days and watching nothing but black and white movies: Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, Psycho. I believe quality endures, and finds a new audience with each generation. Bret Easton Ellis writes about the disposability of pop culture and yet his work endures because it is good. There’s a lot of muck out there at the moment that’s dominating the media, but it will eventually sink, and work that is worth something will float to the top. I hope.

ALEC PATRIC

Hollywood Endings was released in Australia by Text and carried a slightly confused identity with it. On the one hand it was intended for Young Adult market, and on the other, was a book dealing with suicide and murder in L.A. When it was released in the U.S. by MTV it was called John Belushi is Dead. It’s a far better title I think. What was the original title for the book? Was it always intended for YA or was it reshaped for that demographic by Text? I’m interested in the changing face of the book and I was hoping you could talk a little about that.

KATHY CHARLES

Yes, I made things very difficult for myself by writing a novel that had teen protagonists and was filled with murder and suicide. All I can say is I wrote the kind of book I would want to read, and it’s up to the publishers to position it however they think it will work. But yes, it’s a book that defies easy catagorization. All you can do is hope that word of mouth drives people to it, which has definitely been the case.

The original title of the book when I wrote it was ‘Death Hag’, which is what a group of people in the US obsessed with dead celebrities actually call themselves. It was decided that title was not particulary palatable, so ‘Hollywood Ending’ was chosen as it fit well with the main themes of the book. My US publisher thought this title was a bit too generic and asked me to give them a list of other possible titles. I always said if I started a rock band it would be called John Belushi is Dead, so I put that title on the list for a lark, and that’s the one they chose. Using a well-known name gives you an inbuilt audience and also brings movie fans to the book, which is a big plus. John Belushi is also the spiritual heart of the book, so it works well.

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