If you've read The Damage Done, you already know the name of the woman my main character, Lily, aspires to be: Ava Gardner. Lily loves vintage clothing and she's fascinated by classic Hollywood movies in general, but has a habit of watching ones starring Ms. Gardner over and over. Ava's impact on Lily's life isn't just limited to the screen either. For better or worse, she's been a kind of role model to Lily.
The irony is, when I started writing the book, I had no idea that Lily admired Ava. I knew Lily loved old clothes and old movies, but at that point Ava was interchangeable with Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman, all of whom were great actresses who starred in some noirish films. But when I pictured Lily, she looked a lot like Ava Gardner, and I put a photograph of Ava on my desk to keep her image in my mind as I wrote.
Little did I know that Ava's influence over Lily would grow from there.
There was a line of Ava Gardner’s that Claudia liked to paraphrase. Deep down, you’re pretty superficial, she would say to me. Sometimes she was contemptuous, like when she bought me Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre and months later I admitted I couldn’t finish it because it pushed me into a place darker than I was willing to go. Occasionally Claudia said it fondly, like when she caught me watching The Barefoot Contessa for the hundredth time.
Putting up that photo of Ava led me to watch some of her movies; I'd seen a few, like Mogambo and Showboat, but there were many I hadn't. There were only a few things I knew about the actress's real life: she'd grown up poor in North Carolina, she'd had a tempestuous relationship with (and brief marriage to) Frank Sinatra, and she'd moved to Spain when Hollywood started to bore her. That last detail was one that I could relate to, in a way: out of every country I've visited, Spain is the one that I dream about moving to. And so, Spain became part of Lily's story. Instead of just being a roving travel journalist, she'd actually moved to Spain a year before The Damage Done begins. Of course, Lily had her own reasons for that:
“Okay, but why Spain?”I wasn’t about to confide the combination of frazzled nerves and broken heart that had pushed me to leave New York. After Claudia moved in with me, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Living with my sister was tough, but living with my sister when she was on drugs was impossible. I spent most of my time instead at Martin’s apartment. Then, in the wake of the lady architect debacle, I’d decided that I couldn’t trust Martin. After taking temporary refuge at Jesse’s place, I’d seized the chance to work on a project in Spain and never looked back.“I went there originally because I was writing a guidebook, but I ended up staying,” I told Bruxton. “It’s so beautiful there, and the food is amazing, and there’s incredible art and architecture. The people are so nice.”“Come on. You’re from New York. You didn’t move there because people are nice.”“I was inspired by Ava Gardner. Do you know who she was?”“Actress. She was in The Killers,” said Bruxton, “and The Sun Also Rises.”I was impressed. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a fan of old movies.”“I’m not. But I like Hemingway. Those two pictures were pretty good, unlike some of the crap they made out of his stories. Like, To Have and Have Not — I mean, throwing Hoagy Carmichael and a bunch of songs into a Hemingway story? Screw that.” Bruxton dragged on his cigarette and I wondered if the style was inspired by Bogart before it became a habit. “So what was the Ava Gardner thing?”“She got sick of Hollywood, and she’d filmed a couple of movies in Spain and loved it there, so she decided to up and move. It was a pretty gutsy thing to do. She really lived it up there, partying with bullfighters…”“You know any bullfighters?”“No.” I laughed. “I write books.”
It was a kind of happy accident that Ava Gardner's love life was such a mess, because I'd pictured Lily's as a disaster. Unlike Ava, Lily hasn't been divorced, but she was engaged to a dubious character named Martin, whom she dumped when she went to Spain. On the surface, Lily is very polished and seems to have her life together, but underneath she feels like she's in danger of unraveling. As her life starts to come apart in The Damage Done, she reaches for parts of her past, including Martin. Everyone except Lily can see that's a mistake. As her best friend, Jesse, tells her:
“Sorry, Lil, but your taste in men stinks. It’s like your fatal flaw. You’re smart and witty and kind and you look like Ava Gardner, but your love life is the pits. Just like Ava’s. Look at the men she married. Mickey Rooney? Then that control freak Artie Shaw. Then Sinatra.” He shook his head. “You ever think that the reason you like Ava Gardner so much is because you relate to her life?”“What do you mean?”“Well, her daddy died when she was 13, same age you lost yours, Lil. She had a lot of relationships with older men… Like maybe she was looking for a daddy.”“Is that what you think I’m looking for?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. Claudia had said the same thing to me before. “Do you think I want Martin to be my father?”
While I was writing The Damage Done, I ended up reading about Ava Gardner's life, and I was stunned to find out that her father had died when she was 13. Lily's father had died when she was 13, and that was a detail that had been part of her story from the very beginning, when I'd written the first draft of Chapter 1. There was something a little bit eerie about the connection, but it also resonated with the book, and it made me feel like the connection between Lily and Ava went deeper than pure fandom. When I was writing my second novel, The Next One to Fall, I thought about that connection in a different way, since that book takes Lily to Peru at a particularly low point in her life, and she doesn't have the beautiful vintage clothes and props she uses to hide her feelings behind. Her connection to Ava becomes less about glamour and more about survival.
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