Elissa Sloan and Jennifer Banash on Celebrity, Myth, and Fiction
The Authors of Two New Books on Fame and Its Discontents Talk 21st-Century Culture
Elissa Sloan is the author of The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes and most recently of Hayley Aldridge is Still Here, both examinations of women and celebrity that look back on how unfairly treated the pop culture idols of the early aughts were. Jennifer Banash is the author of The Rise and Fall of Ava Arcana, split between 2005 and 2019, as a Rolling Stone journalist uncovers the secrets behind a Gaga-esque celebrity’s early career and the friend that almost made it instead. Elissa Sloan and Jennifer Banash agreed to interview each other about pop culture, celebrity, and misogyny, for a fascinating and essential conversation.
Elissa Sloan: I have so many thoughts about Ava Arcana; Let’s start with the time period. I loved the book and am curious why you chose 2005/6 and 2019 as your setting.
Jennifer Banash: I feel like Hayley Aldridge, Ava Arcana, and Lexi Mayhem are all probably hanging out by a fictional pool somewhere in Hollywood—in the shade, of course. I started writing Ava in the summer of 2020, a few months after lockdown began. I knew right from the very beginning that I wanted the novel to take place in the present day, but not SO present that I would have to write about the pandemic . . . because I was living it, and I needed the book to be a refuge from the hellscape that was my life. So setting the book in 2019 was very much a conscious choice. It came about organically in the narrative that Lexi had met Ava thirteen years prior—so we ended up in 2005-06!
ES: That makes total sense! I tried to gloss over the pandemic in my book as well, but I also wanted the story to span to the present day so I had to mention it lightly.
You have dual narrators in Kayla and Ava. How did this narrative structure come about? Was it always going to be these two narrators or did your writing undergo a shift during the process to accommodate both voices?
JB: The book was originally structured as a podcast, with a male journalist investigating the story—and, yes, I am glad I scrapped that idea early on! After that, I tried a dual POV between Ava and Lexi . . . until my agent made a very good point that it kind of killed the mystery to have so much of Lexi’s POV, that she needed to be more of an enigma in order for the story to really work. So I brought back the journalist character—this time recast as Kayla, a writer for Rolling Stone—and restructured the book so that chapters alternated between Kayla and Ava.
ES: So how many drafts did it end up taking you to finish AVA? I’m always curious about these sorts of things…
JB: I didn’t do drafts, really. I usually edit as I write, making small changes along the way, and sometimes throwing out whole chapters or ideas entirely and beginning again. Generally, I write a few sample chapters and then run it by my agent to get her feedback. But at the end of the day, there’s this unmistakable feeling when everything clicks into place—I intrinsically know when I’m on the right track. I nitpick the beginning relentlessly so that (hopefully) I don’t have to go back and revise too much after I’m done.
ES: That’s really cool! I try to finish a full draft before I start futzing with it. Otherwise I re-edit the same spots over and over again. Though with my first book, that ended up making the process take a lot longer to finish the whole thing…
Fashion plays a role in the story. I’m curious how much research you did to have an authentic 2006 “feel”? The YSL dress that Ava wears is iconic in the story—is it a real dress? How did you come across it in your research?
JB: I didn’t really do any real research. I didn’t want Ava or Lexi to look like everyone else, and both women are really figuring out their own identities as their careers accelerate. Ava and Lexi very much have their own style, although they definitely borrow a fair bit from one another along the way. At the beginning of the novel, Ava doesn’t think much about what she wears, but has an effortlessly cool, street style nonetheless, while Lexi’s image is much more contrived—she’s far more of a risk taker, in every way. She’s at home on stage in a way that Ava can only dream of at the start of the book, and I wanted their respective wardrobes to reflect that.
The YSL dress is strictly from my imagination. I wanted the girls to have their first couture moment at the show that catapults the both of them into stardom, and YSL is both classic and slightly edgy all at once.
ES: This story could have worked with a generically “American” character but Ava is the daughter of an immigrant. Could you explain a little bit more about your development of Ava’s character and the characterization of Irina?
JB: As the daughter of an immigrant, Ava is hardworking, but she is also a dreamer, much to the dismay of her mother, Irina, who sees her daughter as largely a failure, which is why Ava keeps her musical talent a secret for so long. Unlike her mother, Ava never really expects much out of life, and so she is stunned when she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Lexi is also hard working, but expects EVERYTHING to be handed to her on a silver platter—fame, stardom—as if it is her birth right. She is the epitome of American entitlement. I wanted them to be polar opposites in that way.
ES: That makes so much sense! As the daughter of an immigrant myself, I questioned why I made Hayley a white American—my second main character in a pair of books where the lead was a generic white girl. But then I realized that it made sense that even her white privilege didn’t extend to what happened to her; that women, especially women celebrities, are held to a standard that is impossible to achieve. And her whiteness didn’t shield her from the legal entanglement that is a conservatorship.
JB: Yes, scarily enough, what happened to Britney absolutely could happen to any woman in this country, given the right circumstances. Although in my novel, Lexi Mayhem isn’t literally put under lock and key, she is still a product of the music industry, a business that exploits and hypersexualizes women in service of capitalism. Lexi’s deal with the devil, so to speak, is that she buys into it.
As you conceived of and wrote Hayley Aldridge during the whole “Free Britney” controversy, how careful did you feel you had to be about where to depart from the original source material? Were there any differences that were turning points in your process? Are you a Britney fan?
ES: I’m a casual Britney fan. I remember her first single coming out and jamming to it in my parents’ car on the way to a school function. “This is terrible,” my dad said. Haha! I defended it, like, “This is the top hit on the radio right now!” I still stand by it. Baby One More Time is a hit. But I never really paid attention to the conservatorship drama until it came to a head in 2021. Suddenly I was thinking critically about what was happening to her, and had been happening to her, and I realized this could totally happen to another young woman in the world we live in. Britney was just the spark for the story.
I found it easy to make Hayley her own person, with her own personality and totally different backstory. I wanted to talk about things I hadn’t touched on in my first book, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes, which also deals with the pressures of fame, but doesn’t include toxic stage parents or the fleshing-out of much older men preying on young teenage girls. HAYLEY is also a coming-of-age story, in that we’re with her from age seven and beyond, so we discuss puberty, the trials of being a child star who has to develop in the public eye, and more.
JB: Like many readers, I love books set in Hollywood! What was the impetus to make Hayley an actor and to set the book in the world of tv/film?
ES: I read a lot of celebrity gossip and my first book, about a pop group that imploded in 2002, was also set in the Hollywood space. I find the idea of celebrity so intriguing—like, very private things become public knowledge and fodder. When I thought up Hayley Aldridge, it just made sense to make her an actor, and not just a movie star, but a star who has a long-running job on a TV show. I didn’t want her to jump from movie to movie, which would make it hard for us to get to know side characters, as her co-stars would change from project to project. I wanted her to have a TV family and deal with the strangeness that is having long-term co-stars who are friendly, but not loving.
I’m curious what made you want to write this story, about Ava and Lexi, in particular. What was the spark?
JB: It was summer 2020, and I was holed up at my house in Maine recovering from Long Covid. I wasn’t thinking about writing another book. I was just trying to get through each day. I’ve always written about pop culture in one way or another (THE RISE AND FALL OF AVA ARCANA is my sixth published novel), but nothing had sparked my interest in a few years. One afternoon, I was on the phone with my agent, and she offhandedly asked if I’d heard “that bizarro urban legend about Lady Gaga? You know, that she pushed her friend off a rooftop?”
I’ve never been a huge Gaga fan, but I’ve had a lifelong love affair with music in general, not to mention the idea of celebrity, so I was immediately intrigued. I knew she’d gotten her start on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early aughts, which was familiar terrain for me as a native New Yorker who’d spent her formative years in those same streets, those same dive bars. When we hung up I immediately jumped online and started researching, and by the time night fell, I had pounded out a first chapter, completely exhausted, but exhilarated.
ES: Oh wow, I had no idea about this urban legend! I wonder how many readers of AVA will be familiar with it. The Britney conservatorship drama is so fresh in people’s minds, it makes them immediately think that HAYLEY is a fanfic or something. Which can be a pro or a con, too, I guess.
JB: Who knows! But if it sparks a reader’s interest and gets them invested, I’m ok with it. The impetus for a character or a novel is just that—a spark. The story, and the characters themselves, end up doing and acting as they will, and taking us on their own journey in the process.
Hayley Aldridge is extremely timely, in terms of what’s going on politically in the country right now. Can you speak to how Hayley’s conservatorship relates to current debates over the infantilization of women and the autonomy over women’s bodies?
ES: I am so angry about what is happening in our country right now. (My next book starts with the main character getting a clinical abortion in the first sentence. Because F the patriarchy.) Hayley becoming a commodity to her parents echoes how women are treated in the US. In this modern age, we’ve always been tools to be used and discarded, according to the media. Just look at ads where women are props, act like furniture, are half-dressed arm candy. It’s as if a woman’s value is only in what others can get out of her, and assigning her to be a womb is so easy to politicians, it’s maddening.
JB: I know. As the mother of a nine-year-old daughter, I’m both furious and terrified. I just read that the Republican party in South Carolina is trying to pass a bill that would give the death penalty to women who terminate their pregnancies. Britney, if I remember correctly, had an IUD inserted against her will for the entirety of her conservatorship. Lexi Mayhem has no children by choice.
In fact, it doesn’t even come up in the narrative. But I think I make it clear that her relationship with Ava is the most maternal bond of her life, and the only time she would ever allow herself that kind of intimacy or closeness with another human being. For Lexi, who is ostensibly the biggest pop star in the world and thus lives in a vacuum, intimacy is dangerous, and no one can really be trusted.
ES: I got the sense that Lexi didn’t want children just from the way you wrote her, so I’m glad my instincts were right! And yes, Britney mentioned she had an IUD that she didn’t want because her body wasn’t hers to own. Just typing that makes me angry on her behalf. I live in Texas, which is just as bad as South Carolina in terms of abortion access and maternal “punishment.” Don’t get me started…
JB: Speaking of motherhood, one of the things I love about the book is Hayley’s relationship with her daughters. Is the book a commentary on parenting in the face of fame, in that Hayley doesn’t receive enough (or the right kind) of care from her mother? Do you think Hayley does a better job with her own girls? Does she do them a disservice at all in sharing her story?
ES: The parenting part of this book was so hard for me, so thank you for mentioning it as a positive! I am not a mother, and don’t have a lot of experience with children (be it babysitting or otherwise). It’s funny, I wrote Hayley’s parents to be loving at first, because that’s all I know—my parents are amazing people—but then remembered that they’re supposed to be using her, and changed their demeanor to be more sinister. “What would my parents NOT do?” became my mantra as I was writing. Anyway, I wanted Hayley’s parents to be toxic stage parents, like Dina Lohan or the Culkins, and have the reader observe the difference of what it’s like to have parents who see their children as commodities, versus parents who see their children as children.
I do think Hayley does a better job with her girls, though she’s not the perfect mother. I think she waited until the right time to tell her story to her children, as they’re on the cusp of adulthood and should know what is going on with their mother.
JB: That makes sense! I think this is why Ava hides her musical talent from her mother for so long—she instinctively knows that because Irina has all the driving ambition that Ava lacks, that if given half a chance, her mother might well become the kind of overbearing stage mother/monster that would make being raised by Dina Lohan seem like a walk in the park in comparison.
ES: Ooh, I didn’t even think of that! Thanks so much for the interesting conversation! I really enjoyed getting to know Lexi, Ava, and Kayla.
JB: You’re welcome! And likewise!
The Rise and Fall of Ava Arcana is forthcoming from Lake Union on April 1st.
Hayley Aldridge Is Still Here is now available from William Morrow.