Hilary Liftin knows what it’s like to be a star — well, kind of.
The publishing industry veteran has been writing about celebrities for years as a ghostwriter for A-listers such as Tori Spelling, Mackenzie Phillips and Miley Cyrus. Liftin, who studied English at Yale University, spent 10 years in New York before making the move to Los Angeles in 2003.
Now she’s taking her knowledge of Hollywood culture to a faux celebrity memoir called “Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper.” The author spoke to us about her first novel, written from the perspective of a fictional actress (Lizzie Pepper), who finds herself in a failed marriage with a hotshot Hollywood movie star and cult member who sharply resembles Tom Cruise.
What was it like going from ghost-writing to penning a novel?
No one grows up thinking they are going to be a ghostwriter. Many do it because they are journalists and want some other work. I realized it was what I really wanted to do.
Writing a novel was both daunting and liberating. I’d never written or studied fiction. I’d never faced the blank page, so to speak. That was the daunting part. Mark Twain was the one who said truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to be believable. The daunting part about writing fiction is you can’t just say this happened so believe me. You have to make it believable.
But at the same time it was liberating because I realized when I write celebrity memoirs, I stick to the facts. We do our bests, my clients and I, to orchestrate the narrative to play out in an interesting way. Here I had the total freedom to time things the way I wanted to time them. I could put two dramatic moments right next to each other if I wanted to. I could have Lizzie Pepper reading her pre-nup as she’s pumping milk for her babies before her wedding. That just does not happen in real life.
So … I know whom Lizzie reminds me of: A young actress who came from humble Midwestern roots, starred in a teen TV show, fell in love with a big A-list star. Did you keep anyone in particular in mind when writing?
It’s really pulled from all of the tabloids and this tabloid culture that we all absorb.... It’s not about a specific celebrity but all the drama we see play out every week in the gossip magazines.
The book introduces a cult-like mind-body group called One Cell. What kind of additional research did you do to write about this fictional group? Did you write it thinking of various Hollywood A-listers’ relationships with Scientology?
The reason I invented the cult for the book — I made it up — is that it plays the role of a third party almost in the marriage. I wanted there to be some interest that Rob Mars, the megastar, had that wasn’t a turn-off to her, was intriguing to her as a girlfriend, as a Hollywood actress … he even thinks it will improve her figure.
It had to ultimately force her hand in deciding, do I stick with this man who seems to be perfect or do I need to get away from this? Ultimately that decision turns into how it affects her children. In that way, even though it’s a very Hollywood context, I was trying to explore what the breaking point is of a marriage.
In that way I was trying to show Lizzie as very Hollywood but also very human in the choices she has to make. We see Hollywood marriages implode every day and people get sad about it — people were really sad about Ben Affleck and Jen Garner — but no one knows why they are sad exactly. So I wanted to talk about how we feel connected to them because we see all these pictures, but that’s not the real story.
There are a lot of moments in the book that go behind the scenes, like when Lizzie gets dressed for her outings and realizes everything is meticulously orchestrated by her handlers. How did you get in the head of a star?
Most Hollywood stories are satire about how a Hollywood assistant has to fix someone’s latte. I think being a ghostwriter has made me see that any celebrity started off as this person and as far as they are concerned they stayed a normal person. That’s what I get celebrities to express in their own books.
I feel a level of sympathy for the complexity of a life that is in the public eye. To me the saddest thing for Lizzie is when she realizes she can’t just walk out and get a frozen yogurt, that part of her life is over, possibly forever.