In Benjamin Svetkey’s Leading Man, Max Lerner has it all—a career in journalism, an apartment in a tony New York neighborhood, and a life with his high-school sweetheart—at least until his movie star idol swoops down from the silver screen to steal away his girlfriend. The concept may seem far-fetched, except it’s not, really: this all (basically) happened to the author.
As Svetkey, now an Editor at Large at Entertainment Weekly, explains in an essay exclusive to the Reading Group Center, Leading Man borrows liberally, if not always factually, from his youth. He fuses together his memories and encounters with real-life celebrities to create a wildly entertaining story about the unexpected turns that life and love can take. Read this piece before discussing Leading Man—which will be published September 3rd in Vintage trade paperback—with your reading group!
I started out trying to write a memoir. But the facts kept getting in the way. Life, after all, doesn’t unfold in a neat narrative arc. It takes difficult-to-explain detours. It meanders. There are long boring bits. So I wrote a novel instead.
It’s about a guy in his twenties whose first love dumps him for a movie star, which, not coincidentally, also happened to me when I was in my twenties. Like me, the book’s narrator—his name is Max—is a magazine writer who interviews celebrities for a living. Like me, he spends a good part of his youth jetting around the world visiting film sets in exotic locals, including Prague, where he meets a beautiful Czech girl who changes his life (which also happened to me). Max has the same color eyes as I do (blue), wears similar clothing (suit with no tie, the uniform of the media drone), drives a similar sporty roadster (until I totaled mine…), and, ultimately, takes a similarly harrowing emotional journey.
But here’s the thing—he’s not me.
If I’ve learned one thing by writing a novel it’s that you don’t always need to be factual to be truthful. Indeed, I found the only way I could tell a meaningful version of my life story was by making a lot of it up. In the book, for instance, when Max’s aspiring actress sweetheart leaves him for a movie star, he deals with it the only way that makes sense for him. He becomes an entertainment journalist, follows his ex-girlfriend into the celebrity world, and tries to unravel the mysteries of fame in an achingly futile attempt to win her back. In reality, I dealt with my own heartache the only way I knew how: by crawling into bed with a bag of Cheetos and not getting out for a year and a half (and only then becoming an entertainment journalist, for no other reason than I got offered a job).
Max’s reaction obviously makes for a better story, but it’s not merely narrative convenience that compelled me to write it his way. Oddly, his version feels closer to the truth—the emotional truth—even though it veers wildly from the facts of what actually happened. It captures the visceral gut-punch of my experience—what it felt like to watch as a girl I loved followed a klieg-lit, red-carpeted path straight into heartbreaking tragedy—in a way that I never got close to in a memoir. Max meets people I’ve never met, says things I’ve never said, has affairs I’ve never had, and yet somehow his story hits nearer to my core. And not just my core: I’ve been writing about my journalistic encounters with celebrities for twenty years, but it was only when I began mashing them up in a novel—mixing bits and pieces of real stars to create the fictitious ones that Max interviews over the course of the book—that I was able to dig into a deeper truth about Hollywood and fame and the entertainment-industrial complex.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that novel-writing is therapeutic—spending countless hours hunched over a laptop inventing imaginary people and making them do imaginary things is hardly a pathway to mental health. But writing this novel did help me sort out some things. Thanks to Max, I was able to pick up the pieces of my past and shuffle them around into whole new configurations. I could send Max to places—emotionally, if not geographically—that I never had the guts to go in real life. As my fictional doppelganger, I gave him the same eye color and glamorous job and bad luck with actresses that I had, but—again—he’s not really me. He exists only on the page, as my literary avatar, in that ancient form of virtual reality known as the original trade paperback.