Say hello to the glamorous and witty CynthiaOgren, a pop culture devotee and author of an introspective and richly developed novel Beautiful Monsters set in Hollywood filled with all the drama you’d expect from a glamorous romance – with a few unexpected twists.
MJN: When people talk/write about Hollywood, it’s usually with a mixture of feelings that seem to contradict each other: admiration, envy, judgment and ridicule. In real life, the grotesque and the sublime goes hand in hand. In Hollywood, these elements are taken to a whole new level. As an author, you have to know enough about the industry to make your narration authentic. At the same time, your proverbial “beef” with the industry can’t be too raw. If you have too many horror stories that you’ve experienced first-hand as an actor or director, you will be too emotional to tie those stories into a coherent plot. So what is your personal experience with Hollywood – if any – and which one of the above-mentioned emotions is prevalent?
CO: First of all, thanks for inviting me to your blog interview, Marina. I’m delighted to be here, and I’m further delighted to reply to your interesting, well-conceived questions.
Hollywood: the land of contradictions! It’s the perfect setting for Beautiful Monsters because, just as it’s a brittle glass stage for actors, it’s also the perfect testing ground for my characters. I haven’t spent too much time in Hollywood or LA, but as an avid pop culture devotee, I’ve watched and read about it for years—everything from tabloid newspapers to reality television to biographies. Also, my sister was a working actress on stage, television, and film for many years. While she never became famous, she worked with many big-name stars, and she dished to me regularly about the gossip, the craft of acting, and the accompanying lifestyle.
You might be surprised to hear that I have no beef whatsoever with Hollywood. Hollywood is just a spotlighted microcosm of the same lifestyle that most of us share on a more mundane scale. Essentially, we all are beautiful monsters to some extent. While many people think that being a celebrity would vastly improve their lives, I wanted to show that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s enormous pressure accompanying great beauty, riches, and fame—and numerous complications. And it’s extremely difficult to live a sane life under that constant microscope. Some manage it, others don’t.
MJN: We hear so many stories about Hollywood stars destroying their lives behind the scenes because they feel “ugly” and “empty” and “unloved” even though on the surface it seems like they have all the bragging rights in the world. There is a school of thought out there, perpetuated by authors like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens who glorified the “little people” of the world, that true love is only accessible to those who are totally stripped of all material and social benefits. Only outcasts, the deformed and the destitute, can find true love and friendship that’s not tainted by vainglory. I don’t know if I personally buy into that theory. I think writers invent those theories to make the down-and-out people feel a little better and give them some hope. What do you think?
CO: Well, I’m not so quick to paint the common folk as white and the rich as black—or vice versa. In fact, I feel we all should be painted in gray tones. I do think it’s a wonderful to give hope and insight to the great masses of common folk, but in Beautiful Monsters, I try to break that stereotype. Most actors are not so full of bravado as they portray on camera or at award shows. In fact, actors are some of the most insecure people on the planet. They are at the mercy of gossip, age, studio whims, and the good will of their fans. It’s a bit of a cutthroat business, and there are always prettier, younger actors right behind them who would sell their souls for a chance for a role—any role. I do, however, agree with Hugo and Dickens that wealth, fame, and beauty do not make us happy. A wealthy aristocrat—or a film star— does not automatically draw the happy card. Rather, it’s the love of family, wonderful friendships, and our interests that make life fulfilling. And those are available to people across the socioeconomic spectrum.
MJN: I see you have a dual major in English and Psychology. I often see those career paths matched up. Was there any specific branch of psychology that you studied in depth that gives you a more three-dimensional perspective when you create your characters? Your book was described as having emotional depth and meaning, so I was wondering your interest in psychology had something to do with that.
CO: Yes, psychologists and writers have much in common. They both study people, so it’s a perfect marriage. I’ve always been a people watcher who is interested in the human psyche. I particularly find abnormal psychology interesting. People (and characters) are not one-dimensional prototypes. They all have a place on the abnormal behavior scale— with neuroses, quirks, and abnormalities. That’s what makes the world diverse and interesting. All my characters have distinct personalities with inherent quirks and flaws. I LOVE flawed characters, so Riley and Keller are imbued with all manner of idiosyncrasies. When I take these two damaged characters and put them on the glass stage of Hollywood AND throw obsessive love into the mix, we’re in for a wild ride! I’m very interested in the topic of love because it makes no practical sense. People do outrageous things in the throes of love. It’s said that the legal plea “not guilty by reason of temporary insanity” was developed because of this phenomenon.
MJN: Let’s talk about the structure of your novel. One of my favorite plot tools is having a movie within a movie, or a book within a book. In Beautiful Monsters, you have a production-within-a-novel structure. How does the storyline on screen complement the turbulent love story between Riley and Keller?
CO: I’m all about subtext. Readers are smart, and they are readily able to grasp the subtleties of a well-layered plot. Beautiful Monsters is three levels deep. It’s the title of the book, of course; it’s the title of the vampire film that’s the setting of the book (more subtext and analogy there); and it’s the theme of the book. The vampiric element of the story lends itself to the predatory nature of some of Riley and Keller’s friends and co-workers. And Riley and Keller have both monstrous and redeeming characteristics, which makes them beautiful monsters—just as we all are. The element of obsessive love with Hollywood as a setting allowed me to cut the dynamic open and explore it thoroughly. In fact, I’ll be examining it more in the sequel, which I’ve started. I’ve been humbled and delighted to have readers search me out and rave about the book, demanding a sequel. I think they relate to what Riley and Keller endure to be together.
MJN: Let’s talk about your female protagonist Riley Rinaldi and the role that makeup artists play. My birth father is a former opera singer. He says that getting into character and putting on a mask really messes you up. Sometimes you lose that fine line between the character and the performer. Sometimes the masks sticks to the face too tight and you cannot rip it off without taking some of the skin off with it. Makeup artists are the often unsung and neglected heroes who help create those characters. In a sense, they play that Frankenstein role of literally “creating a monster”. Do you believe there is a symbiotic bond between the makeup artist and the actor?
CO: Very interesting question! Yes, I do think there is a symbiotic relationship between the makeup artist and the actor. Just as an author gives birth to his books, the makeup artist must feel that same pride and concern for the characters he creates. And conversely, the actor is dependent upon the makeup artist to give him the “face” of the character he populates. On a side note, I had to chuckle when you mentioned method acting because it plays a vivid role in the sequel to Beautiful Monsters. The readers want more of Riley and Keller, so I’m going to dish it up in spades!