Sally Koslow Dishes on Hollywood Gossip Maven Sheilah Graham
Another Side of Paradise: Graham's rollercoaster affair with Fitzgerald.
Posted Jun 01, 2018
Sally Koslow knows a thing or two about reinventing herself. Maybe that’s why she was attracted to telling the page-turning story of Sheilah Graham, who spent her childhood in a harrowing orphanage in London and became one of Hollywood’s first gossip columnists during the glamorous 1930s.
After decades as a magazine editor, Koslow tried her hand at writing fiction. The result was three contemporary women’s fiction novels over the past 14 years. Now, she’s heading down another road: historical fiction. Another Side of Paradise, the story of Gatsby-esque Graham’s tumultuous and tender love affair with a down-trodden F. Scott Fitzgerald is one helluva ride! Here’s more from Koslow:
Jennifer Haupt: Why did you delve into writing fiction after being a magazine editor for years?
Sally Koslow: After decades as a magazine editor — including being the editor-in-chief of McCall’s for eight years — I was hired by Hearst and Disney to start a magazine companion to Lifetime Television. This was in 2002, when Lifetime was red hot. After a few years, unfortunately, the job and magazine tanked, which is not unusual for startups.
For the first time, I was at liberty with the luxury of a long running contract and no need to take the first job that came along. A friend suggested that I indulge one of my hobbies. Since I had no hobbies—being a mother of two and a 24/7 magazine editor had sucked up all my time—as a lark, I enrolled in a writing workshop, where I started a novel, though I’d never written a word of fiction. When I finished, which took more than a year, I found an agent, who sold the book that became Little Pink Slips in a pre-emptive bid by Putnam. (The editor who acquired the manuscript was an industry icon. Sadly, she died before we even met.)
I never intended to write more than one book, but the perfect magazine job never came along—probably because I wasn’t willing to relocate and I stopped looking aggressively as magazines began to shift to more celebrity coverage. Was I put on this earth to report on a Kardashian? I think not. Instead, I started a second novel, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, which sold in two-book deals and became a European bestseller.
JH: What was the hardest thing for you about this transition?
SK: To go from supervising a staff of 50 with a zillion dollar budget to supervising only me was a jolt. I missed having colleagues — magazine editors are lively, smart and fun — along with tech support and a personal assistant. At first, I was terribly lonely. One of the reasons I enrolled in a writing workshop was so I knew that at least one night a week, I’d see other people. I had to learn how to structure and balance my time to get writing done and not be a recluse. Luckily, all those years of magazine work had honed my discipline.
My deal soon became to start the day fairly early at my laptop, work for about four or five hours, take a break to meet a friend for coffee or lunch or go to an exercise class, then work again at the end of the day. I’m not the fastest writer, but this routine has allowed me to write six books, a lot of essays, some reported pieces and quite a few would-be books that died on the vine.
JH: What was the most fun part of writing fiction?
SK: The freedom to control my time is a kick. At the end of the afternoon, when my brain is fried, I switch gears to cook and read. As a magazine editor, I had piles of manuscripts and other magazines to chew through, and rarely got to books, but now I'm reading mostly books, for pleasure and inspiration. I read for two book clubs, but I also try to keep up with friends’ books (I’ve met as lot of authors, and we try to support one another) as well as titles I hear about through word of mouth or reviews, plus books I’m asked to blurb.
JH: Your first two novels were contemporary women’s fiction and had great reviews, establishing you firmly in this popular genre. What made you try your hand at historical fiction?
SK: Eleven years ago, the year my debut novel was published, I was wowed by Nancy Thayer’s Loving Frank, and always thought I might try to write a biographical novel, a specific variation on a historical novel where the author recreates the story of real people. When I stumbled across the story of Sheilah Graham, a woman who was 90% Gatsby-esque self-invention and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lover at what tuned out to be the end of his young life, I got excited and mentioned the idea of writing about her and Fitzgerald to my agent. She reacted with enthusiasm. It was a challenge to try a new category. I’ve never believed, however, that authors have to stay strictly in one lane—although it’s not a negative if they do. I admire some of the greats, like Margaret Drabble or—closer to home—Anna Quindlen and Jane Smiley, who toggle between genres.
JH: How much time did you spend researching the love affair between Fitzgerald and Graham? Where did you begin?
SK: For a few months I read and read: Sheilah’s columns and memoirs (there are a bunch and the telling of her life wiggles a bit,) biographies of Fitzgerald and Graham, newspaper clips, books and articles about England in the first half of the 20th century as well as the Golden Age of Hollywood and its stars. Then I just dug in and started to write, researching specifics as they came along.
JH: Was there anything in your research that shocked you — or, at least, surprised you?
SK: In Beloved Infidel, Sheilah’s first memoir, which was later made into a popular movie, she pretended that she wasn’t Jewish, though her roots were an open secret she denied her for her entire life. I found this sad but understandable, given that in Great Britain, where Lily Shiel —Sheilah’s real name — was born in 1904 and lived for more than 30 years, anti-Semitism was rampant. She was raised in abject poverty, became an orphan by the time she was sixteen and literally made herself up. This came with the price of a certain amount of lifelong guilt, I suspect.
JH: What’s next for you? More historical fiction?
SK: If I can find the right subject, another biographical novel. I’ve started and abandoned several books in the last year. I’m talking to you, Maria Callas, Diana Vreeland and Ivanka Trump.
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from the time you spent with F. Scott and Sheilah?
SK: From Scott Fitzgerald, I learned that to use an exclamation point in writing is like laughing at your own joke. From Sheilah Graham, I learned to try to remember to follow my intuition; she was engaged to a Marquees when Scott entered her life, yet she recognized that he was the one. From telling the story of both of them, I learned not be afraid to break rank and try something new.
Sally Koslow’s Another Side of Paradise has been called “captivating” by People and “dishy with a side of rye” by Oprah.com. Sally lives in Manhattan but hopes the statute of limitations never ends on mentioning that she was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota.