Celebrities lead unusual lives. Famous people have always opened those lives to the public in autobiography, but there’s no reason to think that a sportsman, an actor or a supermodel will necessarily have the ability to translate the oddness of their personal worldview into fiction. Nevertheless, a surprising number of them have had a go.
Inevitably, many such novels are seen as vanity projects – books which are bought with a star name instead of a nest egg, and published regardless of literary merit. Would those children’s tales by the Duchess of York or Madonna have got into print without the frisson of royal patronage or the glitter of pop aristocracy? Would anyone at all have been interested in model Naomi Campbell’s ghostwritten novel Swan if she’d slaved on a supermarket checkout rather then prowling the catwalk?
Probably not. But it’s a mistake to assume all celebrity writing is ephemeral – the more adaptably gifted often produce fascinating work in more than a single medium. When he died in 1999, actor Dirk Bogarde had become almost as famous for his volumes of fiction and autobiography as he was for his equally thoughtful work in the cinema; comic Steve Martin’s 2000 novel Shopgirl proved that he was as adept at satirising modern American life in print as he was in performance, and Lord of The Rings star Viggo Mortensen had been a published poet for years before he found fame as Aragorn.
At the other end of the age range, teenage folk singer Jewel Kilcher arrived from a remote Alaskan homestead to achieve international stardom with her multi-platinum selling debut album Pieces of You. Along the way she also produced a slim book of poetry, A Night Without Armour, which HarperCollins bought for a reported $1m. Variously reviewed as “artless sincerity”, “high-school poetry” and “an intricately crafted collection of honest expression”, it certainly saw the light of day as a direct consequence of those ten million album sales. But given that opportunity, Ms Kilcher later matured into a writer of promise with her prose collection Chasing Down The Dawn, a mixture of journal, reminiscence and reportage from the road.
Movie star Ethan Hawke had a similarly shaky start with debut novel The Hottest State, a coming-of-age tale about – you’ve guessed it, a confused young actor. It was predictably mauled by the critics, but with his engaging road novel Ash Wednesday he began to win over both reviewers and readers alike. Anti-hero and army deserter Jimmy Heartsock is heading back to Texas with his pregnant girlfriend Christy, and their odyssey has much to say about growing up and coming to terms with the world. It’s a shame that veteran stage and screen actor Antony Sher hasn’t received as much attention for his four novels, which have been largely passed over by readers and the reviewers alike despite their literary quality. Middlepost draws on Sher’s South African background to paint a compelling picture of life through the eyes of a Lithuanian migr at the turn of the century, but his other novels An Indoor Boy, Cheap Lives and The Feast are now difficult to find. In October last year, Sher told an audience at The Cheltenham Festival that he was giving up fiction to concentrate on acting and screenwriting. “The literary world is a sort of club that lets some people in and some not,” he said, “and for some reason I wasn’t let in.”
Heading in the other direction is Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger, who recently told the world’s press not to expect her to “walk onto a set any time soon”. She played an author in the 1998 movie One True Thing – now she’s retired to the New England countryside to write fiction. Similarly engaged is home-grown star Emily Mortimer, who’s been hard at work on a screenplay adaptation of academic Lorna Sage’s autobiography, Bad Blood. Writing is certainly in the actress’s blood – she’s the daughter of celebrated novelist John Mortimer. Filming is due to begin this year – making Ms Mortimer more successful than fellow thespian Meg Ryan, whose script for a Sylvia Plath biopic starring herself was overtaken by John Brownlow’s screenplay, later filmed with Gwyneth Paltrow in the role.
Others use their professional and personal lives even more directly to inform and illuminate their fiction. Edwina Currie tacitly dished the dirt on her fellow politicians in her series of racy parliamentary novels, from A Woman’s Place to A Parliamentary Affair and This Honourable House. Although dismissed as “bonkbusters” in some quarters, they cleverly satirised the pretensions and ambitions of her colleagues in the Commons, including characters widely supposed to be based on her own ex-lover John Major and maverick spin doctor Alistair Campbell.
Many lyricists have tried their hand at poetry – Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Paul McCartney – but it’s arguable whether many have made an impact outside their musical fanbase. Like Jewel Kilcher, many are actually more credible when they turn to prose. In the 1960s, John Lennon’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works showed an unexpected talent for punning wordplay and Goonish humour, and at the start of the 90s, outr Australian musician Nick Cave scored a massive critical success with And The Ass Saw The Angel. The novel was a dark and deranged piece of southern gothic mysticism satirising religious fanaticism, but he failed to capitalise on its success; since then, he’s published only a couple of volumes of verse. Not so lucky was frontman Bruce Dickinson of British heavy metal act Iron Maiden, whose ambitions to write comic novels around aristocratic buffoon Lord Iffy Boatrace underwhelmed a literary world already well supplied with the works of Tom Sharpe. Far more successful at weaving comedies of class and manners is comedian and actor Stephen Fry, whose novels The Liar and The Hippopotamus were both vastly entertaining and exquisitely written.
In Britain at least, one of the most successful celeb authors of all is perhaps the most unlikely. Homely gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh was the unlikely recipient of The Literary Review’s famed Bad Sex Award for his overheated evocation of “groans, sighs and liquid noises” in his steamy romance Mr MacGregor, but has since redeemed himself with gently melancholy novels of English life such as the elegaic The Last Lighthouse Keeper and Only Dad.
Why do they do it? Perhaps for some, it’s a search for some kind of perceived artistic respectability. As Dirk Bogarde once said, “There’s something wrong with actors, we’ve always been a suspect breed. Socially, I find myself more admissable now in England because I’ve written books.” For others, like Renee Zellweger, maybe it’s a chance to stretch out and continue to develop when an established career becomes stifling. Or perhaps, as actor, poet, painter and photographer Viggo Mortensen told Vanity Fair last year, “People who are creators create. People say to me all the time, ‘Why don’t you just focus on one thing?’ And I say, ‘Why? Why just one thing? Why can’t I do more? Who makes up these rules?'”
Does celebrity sell? All the evidence shows that a famous name might attract a publisher, but it won’t sell a book on its own. A badly written book will still fai, no matter whose name’s on the cover, as Britney Spears’ publishers know only too well. Despite a six figure author advance, A Mother’s Love failed to thrill the singer’s teeny fanbase. Similarly, an audience impressed with someone’s acting, singing or politics may be curious about their work in literature but they won’t stay with it unless the work is good. In an age where fame is feted for its own sake, readers of fiction seem to be holding out for quality.
A Choice of Celeb Fiction
Ethan Hawke:Ash Wednesday
Antony Sher: Middlepost
Jewel Kilcher: Chasing Down The Dawn
Stephen Fry: The Liar
Edwina Currie: This Honourable House
John Lennon: In His Own Write
Alan Titchmarsh: The Last Lighthouse Keeper
Nick Cave: And The Ass Saw The Angel
Viggo Mortensen: Coincidence of Memory
Steve Martin: Shopgirl
Dirk Bogarde: Jericho