Hollywood & Helter Skelter: Alison Gaylin Discusses her Reading Road to Crime Fiction and WHAT REMAINS OF ME

 Alison Gaylin, author of several suspense novels and psychological thrillers, including most recently  What Remains of Metells us about her early writing inspirations: Southern California geography, pop culture and true crime. 

  • Guest post by Alison Gaylin

L ots of crime writers fall in love with the genre at an early age, via mysteries like The Hardy Boys series, Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew. Not me. While I did read and enjoy a few Nancy Drew books, she was too perfect for my taste – I much preferred her flawed but loveable friends George and Bess, who, in my opinion, didn’t get anywhere near enough page-time.

“It was Helter Skelter. I thought it was about The Beatles. And, while I realized early on that it was, um, not… I was hooked. The flip side of the movie magazines I poured over, this was another form of escapism – a long look under the glittering rock of Hollywood; a larger-than-life ugliness, all the more terrifying because it was true.”

So for me, the route to crime writing was a little more circuitous. I got interested in it via my interest in true crime, which I came to via my interest in Hollywood.

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, which while a 45 minute drive from Hollywood, was light years away as far as attitude. I lived in the suburb of Arcadia, which basically like any suburb anywhere, albeit with palm trees. But that didn’t stop me from being utterly fascinated with the entertainment business. My mother, a reader of anything and everything and a pop culture addict, brought home stacks of gossip magazines and subscribed to both Hollywood trades. I loved all of it. As an elementary school student, I was a regular reader of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter (I especially liked Army Archerd’s column) as well as Rona Barrett’s Hollywood and People. When my friends were getting lost in fantasy worlds of hobbits and winged dragons, I was skimming the rags for my favorite bolded names. Once I got a little older, I began devouring celebrity bios (Lauren Bacall’s By Myself was a favorite). And that’s how, at ten years old, I picked up my first true crime book.

It was Helter Skelter. I thought it was about The Beatles. And, while I realized early on that it was, um, not… I was hooked. The flip side of the movie magazines I poured over, this was another form of escapism – a long look under the glittering rock of Hollywood; a larger-than-life ugliness, all the more terrifying because it was true.

“I was struck yet again by the very specific way in which Hollywood crimes haunt – the way horror and glamour are so closely intertwined, the movie tagline-like phrases the press uses to describe them (The Crime of the Century! The Fatally Obsessed Fan!) and the lingering celebrity attained, for better or worse, by the participants.”

I went on to read many, many true crime books, then works of crime fiction, and then finally, I began writing crime fiction myself. But Helter Skelter – that most Hollywood of true crime books – stayed with me, as did the idea that celebrity and tragedy are two sides of a coin. After writing the New York-set Brenna Spector suspense series, I’ve returned to that early obsession with my new, Hollywood crime book, What Remains of Me. Writing it, I was struck yet again by the very specific way in which Hollywood crimes haunt – the way horror and glamour are so closely intertwined, the movie tagline-like phrases the press uses to describe them (The Crime of the Century! The Fatally Obsessed Fan!) and the lingering celebrity attained, for better or worse, by the participants.

Helter Skelter wasn’t about The Beatles. But it was about fame – its seductiveness, and also its horror. That was what kept me enthralledall those years ago. And it’s what continues to fascinate me today.

I was drawn in by the connection to pop culture – song lyrics subverted by a madman into bizarre messages, those messages reinforced to his followers via heavy drug use. But more than that, it was the inevitability of evil – the idea that no one is safe, not even in the Hollywood Hills – that terrified me, that gave me nightmares. Of course, what kept me reading was the desire to see the bad guys get caught and to see that evil brought to justice, explained, rendered powerless.

You can find copies of Gaylin’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. You can also find copies of Helter Skelter on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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