Design for Dying: An Interview with Renee Patrick

Film and fashion fans know Edith Head as the Academy Award-winning costume designer who dressed Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Hedy Lamarr, and other silver-screen starlets. In Bas Bleu’s June Book a Month 2018 selection, Design for Dying, Edith is still an up-and-comer at Paramount Pictures when she meets Lillian Frost, the narrator of this “effervescent whodunit.” Together, the two women join forces to solve a murder in 1930s Hollywood, in a historical mystery penned by the husband-and-wife team of Rosemarie and Vince Keenan under the pseudonym Renee Patrick. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, we’re chatting with Rosemarie and Vince (referred to collectively as Renee) about the allure of Hollywood, the importance of Edith and Lillian’s friendship, and how they stay married while writing a novel together.

Authors Rosemary and Vince Keenan (Renee Patrick). Photo by David Hiller

Bas Bleu: This is the first novel for both of you. How did you choose this story to tell?

Renee Patrick: One of the shared interests that brought us together was a love of classic Hollywood. We’re always watching old movies, ideally in a theater with an appreciative audience. This led to our involvement with the Film Noir Foundation, which preserves noir films and exhibits them at festivals around the country. Vince became the managing editor of the Foundation’s quarterly magazine and Rosemarie decided to write an article spotlighting costume design in noir. She began by researching Edith Head, and that gave her the germ of the idea that became Design for Dying. Fortunately, one of our other shared interests is mystery fiction. We never planned it, but the books are the perfect combination of everything we love.

BB: How exactly do two people co-write a novel and establish such a strong, single voice as Lillian’s? Do you work side-by-side? Did each of you take a section and work on it individually, then edit the pieces together? Does being married to your co-author make the work easier or more challenging?

RP: We’ve had the opportunity to appear on several panels with other writers who work as duos. The experience has taught us two things: every team has a different approach—and ours is the worst one possible. We couldn’t have picked a more cumbersome method. First, we outlined the entire book together in detail so we’d both know what happened in every scene. Then Rosemarie tackled the first draft; she’d never written anything on this scale before and wanted to prove to herself she could do it. After she completed a second draft, Vince stepped in and revised the entire manuscript. We then sat down and worked side by side, page by page. Time-consuming? You bet. But Lillian’s voice grew organically out of that process, so when we reversed roles on the second book, with Vince writing the first draft and Rosemarie revising, it worked out smoothly.

Being married to your co-author manages to be both easier and more challenging. We’ve been a couple for so long we share the same sense of humor and can communicate via shorthand, which saves time. But it’s harder because you can’t get away from the work. It would be all too easy to spend every minute we’re together focused on the book. We decided early on to set aside time and even schedule date nights when we’re forbidden to discuss what we’re writing. So far, it’s worked.

BB: Edith Head is a Hollywood icon, her designs still revered today. And fictional portraits of real people are notoriously tricky. How did you find the right balance between fact and creative license when creating the novel version of Edith?

RP: Edith herself provided the inspiration. She was very attuned to the power of story, probably from reading so many scripts in the course of her work. She’d tell varying accounts of events in her life, embellishing as necessary and disregarding all previous versions. One of her biographers asked her about an anecdote and she demanded, “Where did you hear that?” When he said it was from her own memoir, she told him not to believe anything that book said!

Still, we tried to hew as close to the factual record as possible. Reading Edith’s personal papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library gave us tremendous insight into who the private Edith was, and made us feel more comfortable about putting her into fictional situations. Among her correspondence we found a handwritten checklist of Erle Stanley Gardner novels. Discovering Edith was a fan of mysteries gave us additional license to turn her into a detective; we can’t help thinking she’d get a kick out of it.

BB: At first glance, Lillian and Edith’s friendship is an unlikely one. What do they see in each other? During your writing/pitching/editing process did anyone try to convince you to make the central relationship a romantic male-female one vs. a female friendship?

RP: Edith sees something of herself in Lillian—a woman trying to make her way in the world without money or connections. Lillian views Edith as a role model, someone who has achieved success in show business using her own strengths and a different kind of glamour.

Luckily, no one ever suggested a romantic male-female central dynamic. We knew we’d found a good home for the book when we spoke to our editor for the first time and she described Edith as Lillian’s “fairy godmother.” That type of female friendship, which includes an element of mentoring, is what we’d always intended to explore.

BB: Design for Dying is set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, a period often romanticized yet (as Lillian learns) rife with broken dreams, scandal, and downright criminal behavior. With all we know about the entertainment industry today, why do you think the allure of Hollywood is still so powerful?

RP: Hollywood is the world capital of reinvention. It appeals to anyone yearning for a fresh start, a chance to become someone different. Plus movies create a perfect world, and that perfection is their lure. As a spectator, you can’t help but want to be part of it. We often think of the lyrics from “Another Day of Sun,” the first song in the Academy Award-winning musical La La Land. An aspiring actress sings about watching a movie with her small-town boyfriend: “It called me to be on that screen / And live inside its sheen.” Of course, when you see those gorgeous men and women with their perfect hair and makeup and immaculately tailored clothes, you never think about how much effort went into creating that fantasy. That’s another thing Lillian admires about Edith—the extraordinary amount of work she does.

BB: Several Hollywood legends have cameos in your novel, including Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck. Were there any stars you wanted to include that you couldn’t fit into the story?

RP: More than we can count! We would love to have included Mae West, the first big Paramount star Edith dressed on her own, but we couldn’t find spot for her. Who wouldn’t want to write saucy dialogue for Mae West?

Then there are the cameos that may not register as cameos, names from the past that many people may not recognize. Gertrude Michael was a well-known actress in the 1930s who is largely forgotten now. We’re thrilled to give her one more turn in the spotlight.

BB: Our reviewer called your novel “a rollicking adventure with all the snap and vigor of a silver-screen classic!” Did you draw from classic films (or classic crime novels!) to give your dialogue that distinctive cadence? If so, which ones?

RP: Please thank your reviewer for us and tell her the check’s in the mail! Design is set during the heyday of the screwball comedy, and we wanted it to have the frothiness of the movies of that period while still keeping one foot in reality. The Thin Man novel and film series were huge influences. So were the books of Craig Rice. She often featured show business settings—and even celebrity sleuths. We’re also big fans of B movies, especially musicals. Disposable titles that didn’t try to be sophisticated and feature hell-for-leather plotting and loads of contemporary slang. A romp like Garden of the Moon (1938), with John Payne and Pat O’Brien, is a master class in snappy dialogue.

BB: Which book(s) from your childhoods helped to shape the people you are today?

Rosemarie: The collected novels of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. I was a voracious reader as a child, and it probably helped that each of them wrote a huge number of books!

Vince: I went from Encyclopedia Brown to the Hardy Boys to the Three Investigators as a kid. Somehow, that miraculously led me to Donald E. Westlake. Nobody could mix comedy and mystery like him, and I learned the presence of one didn’t detract from the other.

BB: Aside from your own title(s), which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?

Rosemarie: I have to begin with Rex Stout. I love the Nero Wolfe books. We like to think of Lillian and Edith as the Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe of Hollywood. I’m a fan of women crime writers, from Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes to their descendants like Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lately I’ve become obsessed with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Vince grew up reading them but they’re new to me, and I love the pace and punch of them.

Vince: Westlake, again. Lawrence Block, Ross Thomas, Ross Macdonald. Duane Swierczynski finds new ways to surprise me with each book. I’ve recommended every novel Jess Walter has written. And I’m thrilled Keigo Higashino’s mysteries are now being published in the U.S.

BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

RP: Lillian and Edith’s adventures continue in Dangerous to Know, which is available now. Marlene Dietrich, Nazi spies, and a long-forgotten real-life scandal we discovered while researching Design for Dying. We’re currently gathering material for a third book. Edith worked into the 1980s and we’d love to write about her entire career, creating a whole fictional history of Hollywood.

BB: Thank you, Rosemarie and Vince, for guiding us through your writing process and introducing us to these two fabulous dames!

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