Adam Shankman has been a dancer, choreographer, film director and producer (Hairspray, A Walk to Remember) but people probably know him best from the seven years he spent as a judge on the TV program, So You Think You Can Dance? Now he adds another credit, that of author. PW caught up with him on the eve of the release of his first YA novel, Girl About Town, a whodunit set in Hollywood’s Golden Age, co-written with Laura L. Sullivan.
You have had an enviable career – dancer, choreographer, director, producer – but was there always some unfulfilled desire to be a writer?
Quite the opposite. I’ve been terrified my whole life of the blank page. I’m not afraid of a rehearsal room, but a blank page scares the hell out of me.
How did you decide to write a YA novel then?
The entree to the whole thing came because of my tweets. I heard from a book agent who said he loved what I had to say to the world, would I be interested in writing a book? I thought, what a crazy idea, but it was the nudge I needed. He introduced me to Laura Sullivan, who became my co-writer, which was a really good thing because what I needed was accountability. If I was co-writing with someone, I would be sure to do my share, knowing the other person was waiting for me before they could continue.
How did you settle on a mystery set in old-time Hollywood? Was that your idea?
Well, we went through several passes of ideas before we ended up landing on this. I had always had a fascination with books, especially mysteries. I grew up on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie. That was my great love and I had a voracious appetite for books as a child. So the idea of a mystery was appealing and then because I have a pretty deep knowledge of that period, the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, Laura suggested a YA version of The Thin Man. That was the idea that seemed like it had the most appeal and potential.
How did you write together? Do you both live in the same place?
I’m in New York and Los Angeles and Laura is in Florida so the entire process was conducted by phone calls and emails. I have never even met her! But we’ve now written two books this way – we just turned in the second book in the series, also starring the same two main characters – Lulu and Freddie. This one’s set at Hearst Castle.
Was it easier to do this than you thought it would be or harder?
Both. The part that was harder was forcing myself to make a huge emotional leap, giving myself the freedom not to be good at it at first. I had to make myself write down every thought I had and then go backwards and edit it down, allow myself to be terrible and not get paralyzed by the impulse toward perfectionism. If I had been unable to get past the fear of being bad, I would never have written a word. It’s a time-consuming process, too, and I had to give myself permission not to rush, to take my time and get it right.
What kind of reaction have you gotten when friends and acquaintances learned you were writing a YA novel?
Shock. Straight-up shock. The most common response has been, ‘How did you have the time to do that?’ But I haven’t been involved in hard production on anything for a couple of years. I’ve been working on other movies, plays, and projects, but I gave myself the ability to carve out certain times, five to six hours a day, just to write when I needed to. I am not a procrastinator because I’m terrified of disapproval. I loathe disappointing people. I’m going to meet a deadline even if I make it just under the wire.
Why do you think this period – Old Hollywood at the dawn of film’s first golden age – continues to fascinate so many writers?
Because it’s all fabrication. No one really knows what happened because the studios completely controlled what the public knew about what was going on. And because it was the beginning of an industry that became one of the most powerful in world – and by power I mean the reach. The reach of Hollywood entertainment is almost indefinable. It’s hard to measure but it’s way beyond considerable. And then there is also just the naked appeal of movie star glamour. Until the late 1950s, Hollywood was not paying much attention to real life. It was mostly about fantasy and glamour with little attention paid to gritty reality. It was all fake, a myth, but people wanted desperately to buy into it.
You will be appearing at this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Fair. Have you attended in the past?
I haven’t been to the book fair and I have to re-read the book because I don’t remember everything I wrote since I gave the book in a long time ago. But I’m very excited about the book and the fair and this new, unforeseen opportunity. I never wanted to be a director either. When I was a hyper kid I just thought I wanted to be an entertainer but I didn’t know what that was going to look like. It’s amazing that it has manifested itself in all different ways but I have learned that when an opportunity comes up, I should run towards it. Go at it. If something else comes up, I’ll probably go at that, too.
Girl About Town by Adam Shankman and Laura L. Sullivan. Atheneum, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4814-4787-4