I’ve known Margaret Porter for several years and have admired her writing as well as her kindness and support to other writers in the historical fiction community.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading her latest novel The Limits of Limelight. Like Margaret’s earlier novel Beautiful Invention, the story of Hedy Lamarr, The Limits of Limelight transports the reader to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a world of glamour and glitter where the stars were beholden to their studio bosses and wannabe stars struggled to be discovered.
I asked Margaret several questions about her novels and her writing.
- What fascinates you about the golden age of Hollywood?
It’s my father’s fault. He was a massive fan of cinema, and never stopped watching the classic black and white movies of his youth. So I was very familiar with them as well, and all the great stars of the era, female and male. When I took a break from my stage career to earn my M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, my course work included classes and seminars and writing papers on film history. And I was regularly seeing movies at the big city art house cinema and the one on campus.
But many years went by before my early interest and my later acquired knowledge transferred to my writing career.
- You’ve chosen women like Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, and Phyllis Fraser. What is their appeal? Why did they stand out for you?
Their appeal can be summed up in this phrase: “More than meets the eye.” Each one of them had to make their way in a Hollywood that placed a premium on feminine beauty, and a studio system that created stars and controlled them. But these women managed to break through and/or break out of the mold, in different ways.
Hedy used her intelligence and information about innovations in munitions development, obtained in Austria during her first marriage, to collaborate on the invention of frequency-hopping and spread spectrum technology. Her motivation was to create an undetectable torpedo that could evade Hitler’s U-Boats, which were bombing transport ships carrying children and women across the Atlantic from England to Canada. She wanted the Allies to have a secret advantage in the war.
Ginger left high school at fourteen to become a performer on stage, and eventually the screen. But she wasn’t content to simply dance and sing in musical comedies. A great reader, she educated herself through books, fiction and nonfiction, and she read dictionaries, memorizing words and definitions. As her fame increased, she not only fought for better contract terms and a higher salary, she also insisted on more challenging, dramatic roles. She stepped away from her iconic partnership with Fred Astaire, and by doing so earned her only Oscar for Kitty Foyle. She was also an artist, a sculptor, and an avid photographer.
Phyllis went along with her Cousin Ginger’s plan to turn her into a movie actress. But ultimately realized that her heart wasn’t in it. Her first love was writing. That led to scripting and producing radio drama, then becoming an author of children’s books. And her editorial career reaches its apex in her collaboration with Dr. Seuss as co-founder of Beginner Books. You can thank Phyllis, in part, for The Cat in the Hat, and many of the Seuss books that followed.
- How does writing in this era affect your research process?
It certainly adds to the research workload! Unlike the centuries I previously inhabited, the 17th and 18th, there is an almost terrifying wealth of information available to the author of 20th century celebrity biographical fiction. Movies, newsreels, newspaper interviews, movie fan magazines, and all the many photographs, candid and promotional. I create multiple timelines: Hollywood history, character history, and fictional storyline. Then I weave it all together into a single unit, selecting and discarding incidents that either serve to create conflict or bust long-held myths or to highlight an unknown aspect of the individual and her life choices and their repercussions.
My mantra is supposed to be “I only need to know what I need to know to write the novel.” But if it weren’t for a rabbit hole I fell into when writing Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I wouldn’t have discovered the fascinating story of Ginger Roger’s cousin Phyllis Fraser. So the wide-ranging research process, time-consuming as it can be, often produces buried treasure.
- Why do you write under two author names?
I don’t, not really. My first eleven novels were published as romantic historical fiction, as Margaret Evans Porter, and those backlist titles are still available and some have been re-published in various formats and languages over the years. But when I finally realized my adolescent ambition of writing historical biographical fiction, I wanted to differentiate from my earlier pen name. So—with my parents’ understanding—I dropped my maiden name. Margaret Porter fits a bit better on a book cover! And whether or not future projects are biographical in nature, I think that’s the one I’ll keep.
- You’ve written novels in other eras. What different challenges do these eras represent?
I do miss the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why I’m going back in time. I’m starting a wholly fictional story set in 17th century France, in a region familiar to me. I suspect this is a product of nostalgia and longing, stemming from my inability to return there due to restricted travel during the pandemic. Although a significant character happens to be a real historical woman, and an amazing one, the main characters come from a different source, which I’m not ready to reveal. I’m having lots of fun letting my imagination run without having to conform so much to known history. And already in progress is a historical biographical novel set in the theatrical realm of 18th century London. It is extremely research-intensive. Fortunately, I completed all my on-site investigations in England before the pandemic! For quite a long time I had been gathering material from primary sources in the British Library and the Folger Library and other collections.
Researching people and events and locations from two or three centuries in the past has its own challenges. Tracking down documents, portraits, memoirs and letters (not necessarily in English, which means translating, often in archives or private collections), is a mammoth task. And the more famous the character, especially if he or she inspires diverse opinions, the harder I dig in order to determine the best way to present him or her. In so many cases, the records of female lives are either deeply buried, lost or discarded, or simply nonexistent. That is a curse, in that curiosity can never be completely satisfied. But also a blessing, because it leaves enough of a void to be filled in by the author’s imagination and creativity.
I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll juggle these two very different books, in terms of my writing schedule. For a little while longer I’ll continue working on them simultaneously.
I’m excited to hear about these future novels, Margaret. And equally excited that The Limits of Limelight is ‘out there’ for readers. Ginger and Phyllis are deeply fascinating characters. The story has wonderful twists and turns, and the world of Hollywood truly comes alive.
Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamor and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.
Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.
While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? Which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.