Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Q & A with Johann M.C. Laesecke, author of the Louise Brooks inspired Roaring Road novels

Recently, author Johann M.C. Laesecke agreed to answer a few questions about The Roaring Road: Book 1 The Road West and The Roaring Road: Book 2 The Road East, two new works of Louise Brooks-inspired historical fiction. This blog post is a follow up to yesterday post about the books themselves.

Louise Brooks is a character in your two novels. What inspired you to write about her?

I will admit to falling a little bit in love with Louise. As I searched for a Hollywood star who could also serve as someone who stirred things up, there was Louise and within a few minutes I knew she was the one that could certainly stir things up. Her character was so perfect it seemed she had lived just to be in movies and in books that other authors and myself have written. I already had plenty of bad people, I wanted a person on Dan and Laure’s side to create mayhem in their favor. Learning about Louise confirmed that she lived the lifestyle to do just what I needed for the story. These were interesting scenes to write.

As a fiction writer, were there specific incidents in Brooks' life that attracted you? Or was your inspiration found in Brooks' personality?

Her personality was the main hook. What made her interesting to write about is that she was interesting. I didn’t have to make up stuff. She wasn’t afraid to go places and do things. Louise went back and forth across the country on the railroads and I make reference to a Pullman porter who watches out for her on his train because she treats him with respect. I have no basis for that assumption except my feeling that as an intelligent and well-traveled woman, loyal and generous to her friends, she would recognize those who worked hard for their living. She might have had fights with Eddie Sutherland and later on George Marshall, but those were different kinds of relationships.
However I would be remiss if I did not admit that her beauty was a factor. When Dan meets Louise he becomes muddle-headed and somehow fails to introduce her to Laure. Billie Dove later tells them that “Louise has that effect on men, and many women too.” It happens to me every time someone posts a new photo of Brooksie on the LBS Facebook page.

You've mentioned trying to be true to Brooks' voice. Was that a challenge?

My guideline in writing historical fiction was to stay true to events, places and characters as much as possible. In truth, there are a small number of inconsistencies and they will be disclosed on the website along with more information including maps, sources for more information and even author interviews with my main characters so they can explain why they did certain things. This proved a comment that I found on an author’s forum website: “Editing your manuscript is the revenge your characters get on you for thinking you’re running their lives.”
I decided to write Louise Brooks into The Roaring Road and to use her natural personality traits that were uncovered in my research to serve the story instead of vice-versa. Louise is sexy and sexual, and nearly destroys Dan and Laure’s relationship but Louise being Louise, they understand her and still love her afterward. 

Louise’s role does is not one of going into battle with guns blazing, in fact she only touches a gun once, and that is to smuggle a derringer to Laure. She accomplishes this by making use of her talent as an actress. I got the impression that she enjoyed playing practical jokes. That photograph of Louise dressed as a policeman stopping a car is hilarious and the look on her face indicates she was having a great time doing it. Of course it was all a setup, but still. Her appearance in The Roaring Road begins when she sets up a prank to play on the Hollywood elite at a garden party. Using Louise’s disdain for the way business is done in Hollywood, she enlists Dan and Laure and a few others to start a rumor and it takes hold, becoming a truth on its own without anyone outside the participants in the prank suspecting it. Today we would say it went viral, but that wasn’t in the vocabulary in 1926. It was fun to write and became a secondary story-line that continues through the rest of the book, and will continue on into the sequel, Road Trip Blues

Lois Long wrote in The New Yorker “We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing.” One could make the point that was exactly what Louise Brooks was doing with her life at the time and I tried to replicate a slice of that. I am left with the feeling that I only touched the surface.

When and how did you first come across Louise Brooks?

In researching the 1920s I came across Wallace Reid who was one of the top stars of his day. He came to a sad ending from his morphine addiction which was caused by his injuries from a train wreck, and the studio gave him morphine to get through the movie. They continued to give him morphine and eventually his wife tried to get him into rehabilitation but the doctors of the day did not know what to do and with his body weakened by years of addiction, he died. I have Wallace Reid appear in 1921, early in the book. He was one of those stars who appealed to men and women. He was an accomplished musician, actor and did many of his own stunts. He was a handsome man and by accounts was a nice guy as well. The guys liked his race car driver movies, the women swooned over him as they thought of him as their lover.
This led me to find 1920s stars like Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Alice White, Billie Dove and others and then Louise Brooks appeared on my radar. I was immediately enthralled by Louise Brooks, bought the two biographies and in trying to learn more about her I found the LBS, which I joined. I plan to read the other books about Louise but in the last few months I’ve been too busy with The Roaring Road to do much other reading. 

I didn’t realize until later that the best loved of my lady friends in my life had similar hairstyles to Louise’s bobbed hair. This includes Lori, who transmogrified into Laure in The Roaring Road. When I found Louise I knew I had seen her photos before but didn’t know anything about her until I started researching for the novel. As I said above, I included Louise because of my attraction to her and because she is a most interesting woman in many ways. She fit the need in my story for a female character who would be a hell raiser and a shit-stirrer, who would easily do things that would cause other interesting things to happen. Louise Brooks added a whole new dimension to my plot lines, causing much rewriting. She did this just by being Louise Brooks.

Was there a novel or book that inspired you or that served as a model for your books?

I love history but before writing The Roaring Road I had little interest in the 1920s until it became the backdrop for my first novel. I work in the Sonoma/Napa wine industry and read an excellent documentary by Lin Weber titled Prohibition in the Napa Valley. The first part is rather dry (pun intended) as it describes how Prohibition came about. The second part reads like a novel as the author describes the shenanigans that happened in Wine Country. Another Wine Country Prohibition book is Rumbling Wine Barrels by Bruno Buti, which he maintains is the story of his family’s activities during Prohibition. The things that went on in California’s Wine Country during Prohibition rival the happenings on the East Coast, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. 

I have been influenced by many authors over the years and I filtered through my mind and made up my own story. I wanted to write my own train chase after I read Clive Cussler’s The Chase. I read about the gritty side of Prohibition in Whiskey River by Loren D. Estleman. The two Wine Country books I listed above, of course. The interest in Hollywood side started when I read Stuart Woods’ novels with his characters Vinnie Calabrese and Rick Barron, although they were set in the 30s and 40s, they give an interesting picture of the way Hollywood did business. A lot of additional information came from local wineries which often research and use their historical background for presentations to tour groups. Other ideas came from my own family history. My grandfather bought a tavern in 1918, two years before Prohibition began and it stayed open until he sold it in 1924. Sometimes the town constable was in the tavern having a beer with his neighbors. 

None of the stories or events in these sources except for the documentaries are repeated in The Roaring Road. The fiction is entirely my own. My train chases are completely different from Cussler’s, and although I tried to portray the grittiness and the ‘above the law’ attitude of the local crime organizations as the book about Detroit does, my characters and their actions are a synthesis of my own imagination. 

I have to add something rather incredible and humorous here. Another influence, and possibly the one that got me thinking about writing a Prohibition era novel, is the graphic webcomic Lackadaisy by Tracy J. Butler. Now don’t laugh or think I’ve lost my marbles, because Lackadaisy is so far from my normal genre interests that it seems nearly impossible, but then that’s how things are sometimes. The novel is populated by furries, in this case anthropomorphic cats. Normally I stay far away from that kind of thing but someone got me to look at Lackadaisy and it hooked me right off the bat. If you look at the story line development, the realistic dialog and characters (except for the fur) and direct correlation to real history (Tracy has done a lot of research) and you’ll see what I mean. The artwork is superb. I have no relationship or link to Tracy or the Lackadaisy webcomic except for my admiration. 

I pay homage to Lackadaisy in The Roaring Road. In the webcomic, Lackadaisy is the name of the café above the speakeasy. In my book, the café above the speakeasy is named Café Lulu and you can see the double meaning in that, but in 1926 Louise would have no foreknowledge of what that meant. And yes, in one scene Louise and Laure put on a Charleston dance show in Café Lulu. I just had to do that. . .

Any favorite LB films or books?

Louise Brooks: A Biography by Barry Paris
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks

I haven’t seen all the existing LB films yet, but I’m getting around to them. I’ve seen all or a good portion of the following:

It’s The Old Army Game
A Girl In Every Port
The Canary Murder Case
Pandora’s Box
Prix de Beauté
God’s Gift to Women
Overland Stage Riders

I’ve seen clips of some other of Louise’s movies and through the LBS I’ve seen many publicity stills and other photographs. It’s like being in a long running treasure hunt, almost every day I find all sorts of interesting photos and movie clips and writings of and about our Lovely Louise. I’ve tried to think of what my story would be like had I written Clara Bow or Colleen Moore into The Roaring Road, but I always finish that wonderment with the thought that there is only Louise Brooks!


Ten day from today, the Louise Brooks Society blog will run an excerpt from The Roaring Road: Book 2 The Road East. Stay Tuned.

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