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Interview: Michael Libling on “Hollywood North”

– Tell us a bit about “Hollywood North.”

I’d like to say the story is about Hollywood, but there’s only one other person I know who sees it this way. Rather than fight it, I’ll say that “Hollywood North” is about two boys, one who finds things, another who wants things, and how their lives play out against the backdrop of Trenton, Ontario, an actual small town with a compelling and inexplicably secret history.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

There was never a single moment of inspiration. Certain parts of the story had been with me for years. I’ve got notes that go back to the early 1980s. Despite growing up in Trenton, it was only years after I moved away that I began to find out about the history of the place. For starters, the town had suffered more than its fair share of disasters. An ammunition plant explosion. A mid-air plane collision. Train wrecks. Huge fires. And then came the bit that intrigued me most: Trenton had been a center for the Canadian silent film industry from 1917 to 1934. Oddly, while growing up in the town, neither I nor my two older sisters had ever heard a word about any of it. Not from our teachers. Not from our parents. Not from anyone. Why would these facts have been kept secret?

Another element was added in 2010 when Trenton made national news with a serial killer.

I knew I was onto something, but I still wasn’t sure what. It was while working on another story in 2013 that these questions came into my head: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to another person? Is it relatively minor, an anecdote you might eventually share with someone close to you? Or is it something so terrible your only option is to keep it inside of you forever?

I knew immediately how and where the questions applied, and “Hollywood North” flew from there.

 

– Was “Hollywood North” personal to you in any way, and if so, how?

Every story is personal. But the fact I grew up in Hollywood North definitely ups the ante. Many of my stories are set in small towns and Trenton tends to factor in to some extent, though this is the first time I’ve used the actual setting and history. Like Jack’s parents, my mother and father ran a small restaurant. Similar to the Marquee in the story, the Theatre Bar was a popular hangout for locals. As a kid, I spent hours in the place, with regulars bending my ear, telling me stories about this or that. Also, like Jack, after I moved away, I returned in my teens for a summer job at the marina. One day, Rod Serling showed up on his boat. I sold him a block of ice and told him how I wanted to be a writer. He tipped me generously.

 

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

The research was ongoing over many years and in a variety of forms. My own memories, of course, if you can call that research. Conversations with my sisters. Newspaper archives. A couple of books about Trenton, most notably Peggy Dymond Leavey’s “The Movie Years”, a history of the town’s film industry. The book came out in 1989 and now seems to be a collector’s item. I also made several visits to Trenton, exploring my old haunts, as well as the sites and landmarks that turn up in the story. It’s always a weird feeling going back there. My nostalgia inevitably leads to a knot in the gut.

 

– What might you want someone to take away from “Hollywood North?”

The reader is free to take away whatever she or he may like. While I have an ultimate message in mind, I’m not going to tell the reader how to feel or think after finishing it. My priority is to tell a good story that entertains and, if I’m lucky, moves the reader in some way. Remember, as I said at the outset, I’m one of two people who think I’ve written a story about Hollywood, so I’m hardly the best person, author or not, to consult here.

 

– What are you working on now?

I never talk to anyone about anything I’m working on for fear of boring myself to death before I get down to the actual writing. In general terms, I completed a novel not long ago and have more short stories in various states of completion than ever before. I hope you’ll get the chance to see some of it in print, preferably sooner than later.

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

Speaking of boring, I rarely get the chance to blather endlessly about my fiction to anyone. I thank F&SF for giving me this forum.

“Hollywood North” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of F&SF.

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