Today we're talking with Diana Altman, author of In Theda Bara's Tent.
FQ: - I am intrigued by the title of the book. How did you decide on In Theda Bara's Tent?
The hero of my novel is sixteen when he sees the latest film starring Theda Bara and falls in love with her. He believes everything he’s read, that she’s the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French mistress, that she was brought up on the sands of Arabia and danced on the French stage. She wears gossamer culottes and twisty snake bracelets on her milk-white upper arms. She holds interviews with the press in an incense-smelling, candle-lit tent where she speaks in whispers and is surrounded by human skulls. Harry sneaks into her tent and there he sees…I laughed so much writing this scene. Poor Harry comes to his senses but at the same time what he learns is useful for the rest of his life. Theda Bara was the first screen star whose biography was entirely invented. Her employer William Fox (1879-1952) was the first movie mogul to use vaudeville ballyhoo to promote a photoplayer. It’s Harry’s first recognition that the public can be manipulated. He also meets William Fox in the tent who, impressed by Harry’s nerve, promises him a job at Fox News.
FQ: Do you have a particular connection to this period in history?
The history of the American film industry is, as my reviewer so astutely points out, the history of the United States because the growth of that industry is tied to World War 1, prohibition, the Spanish flu epidemic, and technology inventions. These huge events infiltrate the story and matter a great deal to all the characters. On a personal note, my father, the late Al Altman, was intimately involved with the growth of the industry because he worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from the beginning in 1924. He was the talent scout who discovered Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart, Ava Gardner and dozens of other unknown actors who became great stars.
FQ: It is clear that a lot of research went into the writing of this book. How much research did you do along the way? What were some of your best sources?
In Theda Bara’s Tent is based on the research I did for my first book Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System (Carol Publishing, 1992), a non-fiction project that took six years. I loved doing that research, imagining my father at eighteen going to work in Boston for Louis B. Mayer, an obscure theater owner who would become a Hollywood legend. The hero of my novel treads in my father’s footsteps. The founding of the American film industry is the fascinating story of men with impoverished childhoods who understood the importance of entertainment and vowed to bring the best of it to poor people, to the audience that couldn’t afford stage plays or opera. Until the 1960’s the film industry was controlled in New York by the theater companies that owned the studios. Hollywood was just a pretty face; New York was the heart and lungs. I read newspapers from the early 20th Century, movie star biographies, and film histories. I interviewed Celeste Holm, Paul Masursky and others whose screen tests were shot in New York at the old Fox Film studio on 54th St. and Tenth Ave.
FQ: How did you get started writing fiction?
While I was doing research in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Louis B. Mayer, age 22, once owned a theater, I came upon a photograph of The Elizabeth Home for Destitute Children, an orphanage that used to be in Haverhill. I knew that one day I’d have to invent a child who goes to live in that place. I decided to show that child coming of age during the birth of the film industry. It’s tricky to do that, of course, because you have to make sure the history parts are not too intrusive. Just those two words together “destitute child” is enough to wrench an author into writing!
FQ: Is Harry based on someone in your life?
Harry is a fictional character. He’s highly intelligent, courageous, and lovable.
FQ: The use of the child's voice in the first part of the book is very convincing. Any comments on how you achieved such a realistic view of the world through the eye's of a child?
I became Harry as I was writing. Most authors have long memories. To me it was yesterday that I was seven and no one came to visit me in the hospital when I had my tonsils out. I wallowed in that memory when I took away Harry’s parents in a fire, and when I had him waiting all day for his uncle to show up and take him out of the orphanage. I understood his fury and despair and humiliation at being so helpless. I seldom thought it was fun to be a child. There was so much injustice all over the place!
FQ: As Harry becomes more involved with film, he experiences some disappointment and disillusionment with the men he admires and with the industry.
Harry is disillusioned with his boss Louis B. Mayer who invests in Birth of a Nation, a film that extols the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan. Mayer sees only the profit that will allow him to pursue his dream of starting a film production company while young Harry thinks the film is racist. Harry sees posters in Stamford, Connecticut announcing a Klan meeting open to all except those whose names are un-American. Birth of a Nation has spawned a resurgence of the Klan across America. Young Harry (years before the invention of television) now understands how the screen can be used for propaganda.
FQ: How do Harry's mixed feelings about the politics of the media mirror your own?
The hero of In Theda Bara’s Tent believes that broadcast news is entertainment, not journalism. We much prefer to see a baby playing with a puppy than a soldier burned beyond recognition. If the images coming into our homes are too awful, we turn off the television and so it was in Harry’s day. The images and stories in newsreels had to appeal to families sitting in the dark watching, both adults and children. I thought I’d show how making up the news is as old as broadcast news itself. Many of the newsreels were shot in the studio rather than at the actual event. For instance, as a child Harry sees a disturbing newsreel of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He finds out later that it was shot entirely in the Biograph studio in Brooklyn. Pathé, a newsreel company of the day, was actually in San Francisco at the time and had real footage of the real fires and the real people and the real chaos. Biograph constructed a cardboard San Francisco, set it on fire, and got their shots to the theaters first. So audiences never did see the real thing. They thought they did. I guess I’m afraid of the power of broadcast news, how photographs can be altered and stories written in slanted ways. Remember how we believed the Iraqi people were standing around cheering when that statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down and how we found out later hardly anybody was there and no one was cheering?