L.A. Movie Colony of the 1950s Shines in Kalpakian’s New Novel

When Bellingham crooner Tim Kraft sings “Fly Me to the Moon” at the April 18 Chuckanut Radio Hour, he won’t be just setting the stage for Bellingham’s Laura Kalpakian’s new novel, “The Great Pretenders.”
That Frank Sinatra classic plays a vital part in the award-winning author’s story, which comes off the press on Tuesday, April 16.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. (which is when Tim starts singing) at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Theater; taping for later broadcast on KMRE LP 102.3 begins promptly at 7 p.m. Tickets for the Chuckanut Radio Hour are $5 and are available at Village Books and Brown Paper Tickets. Receive a free ticket with purchase of “The Great Pretenders.
Race relations, sexism, and McCarthyism are the catalysts for the relationships among the characters in this fast-paced novel, set in 1953 Los Angeles.
I emailed Laura some questions about her book, and she responded right away.
“I was discussing with an editor possible story ideas for a book I might write for them, and she was particularly interested in women in media,” Laura says.
“I had a minor character in a book I published in the UK. That book was set in 1950 and I had mentioned that this character, a Hollywood brat, had become an agent. I started to think what her life must have been like to be a young, independent, and a woman agent in that era of the blacklist which I found fascinating and tragic. And indeed the more fascinating, the more tragic as I did the research. The novel evolved out of a nine-page proposal/synop  that had a very different ending. I wrote four different endings until finally the characters just told me how the book should end.”
The L.A. jazz scene also features prominently in “The Great Pretender,” and since Laura grew up in Southern California, I thought that might be how she knew the particulars of that environment.
“I knew that L.A. had its own particular jazz scene because I have long been a fan of Jelly Roll Morton,” she says.
But  she says that the book that just lit up that whole scene for her was the 1998 book “Central Avenue Sounds,” which she describes as “an oral history compiled by UCLA, interviewing these old jazz men and women who had grown up in L.A. mostly in the 1920’s and ‘30s.
“These voices are not filtered through narrative. They just speak. Reading it (more than once) is like having a conversation. Their memories and anecdotes enriched the backgrounds I used for (one of the main characters) Terrence and his brother and family, as well as the integration of the musicians’ unions. I was  especially struck by the role of Samuel Browne at Jefferson High School. Come to find that (Bellingham’s) Milt Krieger who wrote a book about jazz in Whatcom County (2012’s The Less Subdued Excitement: A Century of Jazz in Bellingham and Whatcom County, Washington) is also fascinated by Browne.”
The other main character in the novel is named Roxanne, and Laura makes several references to her namesake from the 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Both Roxanne and Cyrano were judged mightily because of their appearance. In addition, Laura takes a shine to the word “panache.”
I’ve always loved the word ‘panache,’ which first came to prominence in that play.  The play and its various movie incarnations have always been a favorite as well.
“I wove the play in with Roxanne’s life (her very name is taken from the play) not only for the notion of being instantly, and often mistakenly, judged on physical appearance, but to connect with her father, Rowland Granville, the fictional West End actor who came to California to make a fictional talkie. ‘A Touch of Panache’ was an early working title for the book.”
I was surprised to Laura’s reference to “The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” recently made famous in the 2018 film, “Green Book.” I wanted to know if she knew about the film “Green Book” before she incorporated that reference in her novel.
“I was working on this book long before that movie came out or was in production,” she says.
“I first heard about ‘The Green Book’ a long time ago, but then a few years ago I read that I believe Library of Congress, or some such entity was putting it up online. I found the one for 1955, and read it, especially for California and Alabama. ‘The Green Book’ appears in my novel as one of the many elements that significantly change Roxanne’s view of the world.”
Laura also portrays the truthful existence of sexism in the movie industry.
“With regard to the sexism and the expectations of women,” she says, “of course Roxanne, never mind her Hollywood pedigree, would have a difficult time being taken seriously in any professional capacity. I was writing the novel in the fall of 2016 when  the whole ugly Harvey Weinstein thing unfolded (and continues to unfold) and I thought, yes, surely she would have faced those struggles as well.”
“I have tried to portray Roxanne as a person so steeped in movies, not just because of her family, but emotionally and mentally as well,  that she often relies on film associations to guide her own actions and choices. Sometimes disastrously. Sometimes bravely. I’d like readers to think that the novel follows Roxanne’s own description of what makes a good film: ‘The characters don’t have to be saints, they just have to have interesting motives and respond to un-looked for challenges.’ And perhaps to think, ah well, isn’t that true of all our lives?”
I found Laura’s incorporation of the House Un-American Activities fascinating.
“I remember being struck in 1999 when Elia Kazan (who testified and named names) was honored at the Academy Awards and fully half of the audience refused to applaud; protestors gathered outside,” she says.
“I did a massive amount of research for the novel, continually astonished at how complex were the roots of the blacklist era, going back 20 years earlier and connected too with World War II when the Soviet Union was our ally. And even more astonished at how the tragedies that spiraled out of that era continued to reverberate, even now.”
Laura adds that at 6:30 p.m. May 2 the Pickford Film Center will be showing “Trumbo,” the 2015 film about one of the original Hollywood Ten. She’ll be introducing the film and talking about the book. (There’ll be complimentary champagne with the purchase of a ticket! So come early!)