June 05, 2020
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How a move to Maine set an author free to write fiction

Peter Davis may never have written his novel “Girl of My Dreams” if he hadn’t moved to Castine from New York City in 1990.

“Coming to Maine set me free,” he said. “I don’t exactly know why, but it made it possible for me to make things up in a way that I certainly couldn’t do in California nor in New York, where my whole working life was nonfiction — first nonfiction films and then nonfiction writing, including books and innumerable magazine pieces.”

Davis, 78, is best known for “Hearts and Minds,” the 1974 documentary film about the Vietnam War. It won an Academy Award in 1975.

“I did write another nonfiction book, ‘If You Came This Way,’ [published in 1995] in Maine, but I was thinking about this novel the whole time,” said Davis, who also lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The other reason Davis was able to write a novel set in Hollywood in the 1930s from the point of view of an ambitious, young screenwriter, is that his parents, Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger, were writers for the motion picture industry. Their son grew up on the fringes of Tinsel Town on a 7-acre ranch in Upland, California.

“It was removed from the environs of Hollywood,” he said. “My parents worked at home and went into the studio once every three weeks, so I had this distance.

“But growing up with two parents who were screenwriters allowed me to write about the kind of creativity, the kind of fear, the kind of ambition that I heard about,” Davis said. “So, it was feelings, really, that I ingested as a kid that stayed with me forever and that I finally wanted to write stories about.”

He didn’t rely only on his parents’ experiences but spent the 1990s amassing 2,400 pages of notes and scenes that eventually made their way into the book, which was released in May. Davis read books about Hollywood when the studio system reigned and he thumbed through every issue of Variety, the magazine that still covers the movie industry, printed in 1933, 1934 and 1935.

The author wove into the novel the impact the Depression was having on the film industry, the rise of labor unions and the efforts to keep them from amassing power and the role the Communist Party played in Hollywood during the Depression.

Davis decided to set the novel in 1934 so he could include the longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco that ended in violence.

Davis said he learned his parents were Communists in the late 1940s, when investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee came to question his father and asked him to “name names.”

“I asked, ‘Why didn’t you?’” Davis recalled. “He said because that’s what we call ‘banging another nail into their coffin.’ I asked him if he’d ever been a Communist. He said, ‘Yes, but we didn’t have cards. You weren’t a card-carrying member.’”

Davis described his father as a “patriot,” who served in World War I and was the air raid warden in Upland during World War II. While he drew on his parents’ experiences to write sections of “Girl of My Dreams,” Davis said they aren’t in the story.

Davis’ three main characters — movie star Palmyra “Pammy” Millevoix, mogul Amos “Mossy” Zangwill and screenwriter Owen Jant — tugged at his imagination for years before they were described in words on a page.

“This novel has been baking for a very long time,” Davis said. “I knew about the woman Pammy for a very long time. I knew that I wanted to write about her in 1978. Later, I knew I would be writing through the eyes of a young screenwriter who was very ambitious.”

“Soon after I discovered Owen, my best character appeared to me and that is the studio head,” he said. “I knew he was going to be a scoundrel and hoped that I could write him so that people could both dislike him and have fun reading about him.”

In 2004, after covering the war in Iraq, Davis began writing “Girl of My Dreams” in earnest. He finished the first draft in Castine but continued to revise the manuscript until 2007, when he began looking for an agent. Davis found his credentials as a nonfiction writer held no sway in the world of fiction. The publishing industry had changed drastically since his last book was published in the mid-1990s.

After 18 drafts, “Girl of My Dreams,” found a home at Open Road Media, an on-demand publisher. Books are printed when they are ordered through distribution firms such as Amazon.

The book begins very cinematically with “a man who looks like a boy perched on a motorcycle at the top of a palisade above the ocean, his face empty as if he doesn’t quite know what he is supposed to do next.” His name is Joey Jouet, and he is the unemployed stuntman whose death would bring Pammy, Owen and Mossy into each other’s orbits.

“In 1934, 25 percent of Americans were out of work, and now this guy is going to join them,” Davis said. “He has a wife and two kids. It just seemed appropriate to me to bring him on, make him appealing and, then, kill him right away.”

Several Hollywood producers have expressed interest in “Girl of My Dreams,” Davis said, but no deal has yet been sealed. Excerpts from the book will be featured on the website hollywooddementia.com, created by former journalist Nikki Finke, who reported on the entertainment industry for many years.

While waiting to see whether his book goes Hollywood, Davis plans to keep writing in Castine, the place that lets his mind wander from fiction to world events and back again.

Peter Davis will appear at a book signing at 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Sherman’s Books and Stationery in Bar Harbor. He will read from his novel, “Girl of My Dreams,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor.

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