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Between the Lines

Interview with Helen Knode
The Ticket Out
Helen Knode

A smart, engaging, film noir plot which looks at women in Hollywood—and how dangerous it can be when you know all the right people.

Ann Whitehead, a bored and much-hated film critic, decides to turn crime reporter after discovering the dead body of aspiring screenwriter and director Greta Stenholm in her bathtub. Ann's search for the killer becomes a search for the victim's missing script—a script rumored to reveal details of yet another murder in 1944. Suddenly there are two dead women and a complicated conspiracy spanning decades. As Ann continues her not-so-legal investigation, the body count continues to grow. Ann gets in trouble and in bed with the police, cold-cocked, and shot as she discovers that people in the Industry—including her friends—will do anything to get power—and keep it.

Helen Knode's was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1957. She worked as a film critic and columnist for the L.A. Weekly from 1985 to 1991. She now lives in Northern California with her husband, bestselling author James Elroy. This is her first novel.
Q: As a former film critic and columnist for the L.A. Weekly, you've had direct exposure to the Industry scene and to the movements of those rising and falling on the ladder. Do you have your own secret room filled with stories and did this story come from there?
A: My not-so-secret room is filled with epic adventure stories starring women. All my favorite novels are adventure stories starring women—where the heroine begins the book as one person and ends the book as someone different. Dramatic historical events change them; and a man changes them. Trials by fire and trials by tea cake: I include among my favorite novels Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Gone With the Wind, We the Living, Shadow of the Moon, The Little Drummer Girl, and a series of French novels featuring a heroine named Angélique.

The Ticket Out came from that room, most definitely. It's an adventure story and a love story in the crime genre. The starting point is autobiographical: I trace my own trajectory as a minor critic on the outskirts of Hollywood. I went to L.A. in love with movies, and left as a completely different person with a completely different relationship to movies. All the melodrama in between is invented—based partly on the real dynamics of a business that I watched for years.

Q: This heroine, Ann Whitehead, is a kick-ass, take no prisoners kind of woman. She takes a hit with a pry bar and later proceeds to severely beat the assailant with a set of brass knuckles and a sap. Do women in Hollywood need to be this tough (metaphorically) to make it in the Industry?
A: Some argue that a woman has to be completely, neurotically, insane to make it in the Industry. Yes, women have to be tough. The Industry demands toughness from everybody: it's a violent and irrational business. But women, because of the resistance they face every minute of every day, have to make special adjustments and special psychic arrangements to survive. I don't see Ann Whitehead as representing Hollywood women. Her outlandish father complex might be typical, though. Her rage might be typical—just more naked.

Q: With your background, one would think you'd write scripts before books. Instead you've written an entertaining, peppy little multi-murder mystery about the movie industry. What or who inspired you to write this story as a book? Is there a script in the wings?
A: I've never wanted to write movies. Ann Whitehead says at some point that she's no good at artistic collaboration. I'm no good at it, either. I never even wanted to write a novel; I was happy as a journalist, I thought. Then I met my husband, James Ellroy. He had just published L.A. Confidential and I'd never heard of him. But he runs around telling everybody that they should write novels if they want to. He says writing novels is a blast, and everything that goes on the page is absolutely yours. That was the first time it occurred to me to write a novel. Now I hope I never do anything else.

Q: The Ticket Out reveals quite a bit of history about the MGM film studio—including your portrait of a brothel of beauties reserved exclusively for the movie moguls—how much of this background is fiction and how much nonfiction?
A: Most of the MGM history is true. The history of the founding of the studio; the studio's rise and decline; the various owners of the legendary lot: all that is true. It's true that Louis Mayer resented his young protégé, Irving Thalberg, by probably the late 1920s. It's true that MGM's Thalberg Building had a secret elevator and still has screening rooms in the basement. It's true that the studio at its height was run like a fascist state. There was a police force and internal spies; offices were bugged and left-wing politics were suppressed. I made up the brothel called the Casa de Amor. But I didn't make up the idea of philandering male movie executives, and the kind of sex their power buys.

Q: What was the most revealing lesson you learned in the process of writing, editing, and publishing this debut crime novel?
A: Two lessons: 1. You have no choice but to be yourself. 2. Never give up.

For more information about Helen Knode, visit her website at www.elisabeth-harvor.com.

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Helen Knode

Helen Knode
photo credit:
Isacc Alongi

The Ticket Out

The Ticket Out