Co-authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, also known collectively under the pseudonym, Renee Patrick, discuss their debut novel Design for Dying: A Lillian Frost and Edith Head Novel
CT: Your book was so fun and interesting – almost like I was watching a classic movie
RP: Thanks! That’s wonderful to hear. We were very conscious of the book having something of the feel of a 1930s movie. We’re trying to be faithful to the period, and also the movies of the period.
CT: It definitely has that feel, with the details of the show biz characters, Edith Head (of course), the dialogue (especially) the clothes…
Speaking of dialogue, Ruby called Lillian Frost “mermaid” very often. Why is that? What inspired that nickname?
RP: There’s the story reason, namely Lillian coming to Hollywood as the result of winning a beauty contest in which she wore a bathing suit even though she can’t swim. But also that kind of character tag comes out of ’30s film, and it says something about Ruby that she’d bestow a nickname on someone upon first meeting them.
CT: Do you think your characters would be different if you lived in that era? How would you imagine yourselves?
R: I think the characters would have less of that classic movie feel if we were living in that era. Maybe their conversation would move at a slower pace. I imagine myself as one of Lillian’s fellow salesgirls – and not a very good one. My customer service skills are sadly lacking.
V: I almost feel like the entire book would be completely different. It wouldn’t have that element of affection, even nostalgia, for one. A lot of the books about Hollywood from the time are either dark, like Horace McCoy or Nathaniel West. Or much frothier, fan magazine type stuff: “I Became A Star!”
I see myself as a writer. Sitting at the lowest-salaried table in the studio commissary and grousing about not getting my shot at an A picture.
CT: Is it also because we romanticize the past? Was it really the Golden Era? Or does it just seem that way?
RP: We (as a society, not as co-authors) definitely romanticize the past. And that period of Hollywood history is certainly held up as an exemplar. The movie business was every bit as driven by ego and fear, and attracted the same misfit personality types, as it does now. But they weren’t on display as much. And everyone was dressed better.
CT: What was it like to collaborate on a book together? What were the highs and lows of this project?
R: I was new to the whole writing game. I had the idea for a mystery set in classic Hollywood featuring Edith Head and Vince loved the idea. We worked out the plot together and I insisted on writing the first draft because I knew I had a lot to learn. Then Vince picked it up and we worked together.
One of the highs for me was trying to make each other laugh with some of the dialogue.
V: We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. It’s pretty rare to see an entirely new side of your partner when you’ve been together that long, so that was definitely the high for me. It was also, in a sense, the low. Rosemarie has always been my first reader, so she was somewhat aware of my process. But collaborating meant I had to show her material that I hadn’t revised and I knew wasn’t ready, which was more painful than I’d like to admit.
CT: Oh wow! Congratulations you guys! I think I saw some photos on FB. It also says something so special about your relationship that you can find more ways to discover and challenge each other. It’s inspiring! Did you ever catch each other speaking in that 30’s style vernacular? Or acting out certain characters?
RP: We talk that way all the time. We talked that way long before we started writing the book. Rosemarie went through a phase when she was a child where she imitated Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE. It’s almost like having a secret code you can use in front of people.
CT: Haha! That’s great. Which is why you put Barbara Stanwyck in the book…
RP: Thank you! We did have conversations before we started collaborating about parameters, because we knew it could become intense and we didn’t want it to affect our personal relationship. Clearing the air before we began helped enormously.
R: Oh, yes. Love, love Barbara Stanwyck.
CT: What were some of your guidelines?
RP: Have a set schedule for writing. Also set aside time for non-writing activities; we went back to having date nights. I’d been working as a writer for a while, so the most important thing for me was to make sure Rosemarie understood when I critiqued the work I wasn’t critiquing the person. I’d developed a thick skin over the years, and I’m used to notes in a way that normal people aren’t. Normal people don’t get notes in life.
R: Another guideline is homemade dinners and household chores fall to the wayside. I have a day job and I wanted to approach this with the same energy.
CT: and was it easy to remain in the parameters you set?
R: The dinner thing came really easily to me. I think the hard part was carving out that time when we weren’t thinking or talking about the book.
V: You’d think with two writers there would be more time, but when one of them is working 9-5 (on a good day), there’s actually less. The book could become all-encompassing, and we had to force ourselves to step away from it. Which we’d usually do by watching a 1930s or ’40s movie, so we weren’t stepping away too far.
CT: Which movies are some of your favorites (other than Ball of Fire)?
R: How about Preston Sturges as a genre. I love The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels. 42nd Street has been a favorite since I was little. I also love The Women and its full-color fashion show.
V: I’m a huge film noir fan, and do a lot of work with the Film Noir Foundation, which restores and exhibits these movies. Double Indemnity and Out of the Past are my favorites. Fast-talking people up to no good.
CT: Could you give me a little more insight into Liliian Frost? What was the inspiration behind her character?
V: Part of it was practical. The one thing we know to be true about Edith Head — her bios and her own books tend to contradict each other — is that she worked constantly. So we knew when we started that Edith couldn’t abandon the fitting room to chase down a lead. She’d have to be an armchair detective, like Nero Wolfe. So she’d need an Archie Goodwin.
R: Lillian herself is somewhat of a tribute to my mother and aunts, women who grew up in the 1920s and 30s and faced the Depression with hard work and determination. Lillian’s journey west was undertaken by a lot of young women who were attracted to Hollywood. They weren’t going to become movie stars and they needed to make lives for themselves.
CT: To Vince’s response: What were some of the ways her books contradicted each other? and for Rosemarie: Do you have a brooch your mother gave you as an heirloom?
V: Edith believed in telling the best story at the time. Years after her books came out, people would ask her about something and she’d say, “Where did you hear that?” The person would sputter, “From your book.” And she’d tell them you couldn’t believe anything her books said. Her biographers have differing takes on her, too, which I’m sure is what Edith would have wanted. Keep ’em guessing.
R: No brooch, sorry to say. My mom wasn’t a big one for jewelry.
CT: If Edith Head were to judge your appearance today, what would she say?
R: She’d probably say I should dye my hair! (Her hair was dark well into her 80’s.) I was coloring the gray until about a year ago and I’m so happy I stopped. I hope she’d approve of my clothing choices. After reading her books, I’ve taken her advice to heart.
V: She’d have a better opinion of me now than when we started. That’s one big benefit to writing the book. I actually think about my wardrobe now. I always tried to look presentable and that was about it. Lately I’ve become more conscious of color, combinations, tailoring. On our book tour I ended up wearing sports coats every day. I picked up some that were a bit flashier. And they made a difference.
CT: What’s some of her advice?
RP: Be ruthless about yourself. Edith advised cutting eyeholes in a paper bag and putting it over your head before looking in the mirror. Without seeing your face you can look at your figure objectively. I can’t say I went that far but… now when I try on an outfit that’s trendy but doesn’t look quite right I don’t buy it.
CT: Hmm. I’ll definitely try that tomorrow! What was the most shocking – or exciting – revelation that came out of your research?
V: Edith projected a very reserved, even stern image. She thought it was essential to her job, because she didn’t want to take the focus away from the performer she was dressing. And she certainly had a reputation for being very, shall we say, political in navigating through the studio. But when we read her personal papers, which she donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this wonderfully warm and quirky personality came through. She was very affectionate with her husband, sending him pressed flowers from her travels while he’d send letters telling her what the cats and the Dodgers had done in her absence.
CT: If you could solve a crime with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? And why
V: I just had a chance to see a restored print of A SCANDAL IN PARIS on the big screen, so I’d have to say Eugene Vidocq. He was a criminal who ended up becoming the head of the Surete, so he understands the mindset from both sides of the law. And he was played by George Sanders in a movie, so he’d have to be good company.
R: I’d say Honore de Balzac. He had such insight into human nature and worked around the clock so he’d be a good partner. Definitely Balzac. Or Groucho Marx.
CT: That’s all I’ve got for you guys!
RP: That flew by! It was great fun. Thank you so much.
CT: Thank you for the interview!