INTERVIEW: Michael Callahan On Searching for Grace Kelly

Tomorrow night, author (and, full disclosure, former Philadelphia magazine executive editor) Michael Callahan will visit Barnes and Noble to read from his recently published first novel, Searching for Grace Kelly. The story is a fictional account of three  young ladies who move to New York City in the 1950s to find fame, fortune and romance in the Big Apple. It’s inspired by and centered around the famed Barbizon Hotel, a boarding house / charm school of sorts that played home to legends of page and screen like Joan Crawford, Sylvia Plath and Philly’s own Grace Kelly. The book was actually inspired by an article Callahan wrote about the Barbizon in Vanity Fair in 2010.

In anticipation of his reading tomorrow, I shot my former colleague a few questions about the book. He talks about the in-depth research that went into re-creating New York City in the 1950s, how he came up with the title, and the possibility that it will be turned into a television series.

Photo by Evan Schapiro

Photo by Evan Schapiro

Congrats on the book, Michael! We’re all really proud of you around here.
Thank you. It’s been a wild experience with every possible emotion.

When did you realize the story would become something bigger than the piece you did in Vanity Fair?
Like most magazine writers I had always felt I had a book in me. I just didn’t know what to write about. I had done one book proposal for a nonfiction idea that went nowhere, and I was struggling to come up with another, more sell-able idea. My agent and I knocked around doing a book on the Barbizon, but it seemed like there was little left to say, non-fiction wise. Then she suggested I write a fictional story about the hotel. I was really, really nervous, because I had no fiction experience. So I told her if I could come up with a good narrative, I would give it a try. And I did.

How did you come up with the title?
Of all of the women who lived at the Barbizon for any real length of time, Grace Kelly was by far the one who became the most famous. I always picture Lisa Fremont, the role of Jimmy Stewart’s girlfriend that she played in Rear Window, as the ultimate symbolic Barbizon girl. Every girl who stepped inside in the 1950s wanted to be Grace Kelly, to channel that sense of mystery and glamour. Hence the title.

The character development is so great in the book. Did you use anybody in your real life as inspiration?
The three main characters each represent a strata within the Barbizon: the glamour girls, the dreamers, and the bad girls. They are amalgams and composites. There were no specific women they were modeled after. But each represents a particular “tribe,” if you will, that co-existed within the hotel’s walls.

Which of the three main characters do you relate to most? Why?
Well, Laura wanting to be a writer and to defy her family’s expectations were certainly things I related to. Vivian’s snappy rejoinders mimic my own sense of humor, I think. And Dolly’s terrible romantic history and indulging in comfort food to ease the pain are, alas, certainly, shall we say, not untypical of my own.

Your descriptions about New York in the 1950s are so vivid in the story. What kind of research did you do to paint the perfect picture?
I had done an exhaustive amount of research for the magazine story, so I felt I knew the entire sociology of the hotel pretty well. I hired a fantastic young researcher named Christine Wei to help me unearth some of the more hyper-specific things: How much was a cab? What shops did these girls frequent? Where did you go for breakfast? We sort of divided and conquered and just treated 1955 like it was this gigantic puzzle for which we needed to find all of these disparate pieces to put together an accurate picture as a backdrop for the three girls’ stories.

I can see this made into a movie or TV series – maybe an old school Sex and the City. Have you had offers to turn it into a script?
I am happy to report that I have sold the TV rights to a production company called Endemol, which is a fantastic producer of quality programming around the world and which is hard at work on trying to develop SFGK as a series. That said, I think something like only 8% of all works optioned actually make it to the screen, so the odds are long. But you never know. We’ll see.

If you had to do the casting, who would you pick to play the three main characters?
Ooooh, that’s tough. I mean, I have the characters in my head, but they don’t necessarily look like anyone famous. Though I think one of the Fanning girls or someone like Emma Watson would be terrific as Laura, for example. And I think you could sort of see Dolly as a more naive, more self-depricating version of Ginnifer Goodwin’s Connie in Mona Lisa Smile.

Any other novels in the works?
Yes, as a matter of fact. The next one is inspired by a true story. I am going to Martha’s Vineyard this spring for a few weeks to work on it, and hopefully get it really into some sort of off-and-running shape. And I have another idea for a story set in London. One book at a time!

Michael Callahan will read from the book this week, on Tuesday, February 3rd, at Barnes and Noble. More information here.