What was the spark for “The Ballad of Marisol Brook”?
The first inspiration was early Hollywood studio contracts. In short, during Hollywood’s Golden Age in the first half of the 20th century, studios contracted with actors. The actor was all but owned by her studio—she took the parts assigned her, whether she liked them or not. I found myself wondering how cinema history might have played out if studios had contracted the right to clone their actors. Jean Harlow, always alive, always twenty-six, the leading lady in every film?
The second inspiration was the death of Natalie Wood, who drowned off Catalina in 1981. It was a deeply tragic event in Hollywood. When they buried her, all the red-carpet elite showed up at the cemetery. If it hadn’t been a funeral, it could easily have been the party of the century. I wondered if they would all have greeted her with champagne and kisses if she’d been miraculously reborn in a new body.
The structure of “TBOMB” seems like a rough sort of poetic ballad itself, with the repetition of her names and their meanings serving as a refrain. Was this intentional?
It was, more accurately, a happy accident borne out of a dead end. I originally conceived the story as a kind of déjà vu experience—similar circumstances evoking the same emotions, and the same tragic outcome every time. But really, déjà vu is a fleeting, insignificant feeling. It just couldn’t hold the weight this story deserved.
For several days, I kept repeating the first few lines over and over in my head, trying to carve out the story, figure out where it needed to go. It became an obsessive sort of chant, a prayer for inspiration. And that’s when the repetitive structure fell into place—it wasn’t déjà vu at all; it was a song, a new verse for every lifetime, until it all can end on a satisfying note.
What role does the subplot involving her son play?
Peter’s life and death were doubly important.
First, he is the only character related to Marisol by blood—he is her only true family, and he mourns her first death with an act of penance. At the end of his life, he even takes her family name, showing that he identifies more closely with her than with his father. Still, for a very long time, Marisol doesn’t think about him at all; she is still focused on fame, on pleasing people whose motives are self-serving, even insidious. When she begins to miss Peter enough to act on it, it’s already too late. But the realization that she’s lost something so profoundly important gives her the strength to rescue the only things she has left—her sense of self, her own freedom.
Secondly, Peter’s fate represents a more tragic path Marisol could have taken—an irrevocable descent into addiction and crime.
There are no contractions in the story, adding to its formality and distance: What were the language choices you made for “TBOMB”?
I wanted the story to read like a biography, like a documentary. The kind you might catch on late night public television—the tragic tale of some starlet who flared and died young, lots of montages, possibly narrated by an actor with an Oxford accent. Always evoking the right emotions, but never melodramatic.
That style, of course, is native to film, not to written fiction. Mimicking it requires abandoning contractions, dialogue, and any close point of view—devices that ordinarily serve to draw the reader into the story. I approached it as a challenge: I needed to make the character and her story as sympathetic as possible within those stylistic constraints.
Those crows at the end, can you talk about them and the two bodyguards that appear throughout her lives?
Metaphorically, I intended the bodyguards to represent Marisol’s fears, her desire for respect and admiration, all the emotions that kept her obedient for so long. They’re waiting for her at the beginning of each new lifetime, armed and dark as ever. Not the sort of men you’d want to cross.
In the end, the bodyguards are still there: a pair of crows doing their best to be threatening. But they are only birds. Marisol has already moved on.
Stories about starlets rarely end well—what made you choose to end “TBOMB” the way you did?
The key part of every starlet tragedy is her all-consuming desire to please others—directors, lovers, audiences. Along the way, she loses her identity so completely that it becomes all but impossible for her to step back and address her own needs. There’s a risk of that happening to anyone of any gender whose life is geared toward the limelight, of course, but actors in particular specialize in filling a role controlled and designed by someone else.
Broadly speaking, we’ve come to see this as tragic entertainment. “Starlet” itself is a diminutive and it evokes rather sad images: the poor broken country girl lost in the city, struggling to make it big, always misunderstood, always exploited.
I wanted this quintessential starlet to walk away from the culture that locks her into that role, to break free of that cliché and find a path back to herself—even if it meant making lethal mistakes, and even if it took several lifetimes to accomplish.