november 30, 2022
ong gone are the days when Tara Stillions Whitehead worked 26-hour days on the sets of American sitcoms. A former assistant director and assistant to executive producers, she’s now a filmmaker and assistant professor of film, video, and digital media production at Messiah University in Pennsylvania.
When people discover that Stillions Whitehead once worked in Hollywood, they often ask her about the most famous person she’s ever met or for a detailed account of Hollywood life. But she’s quick to tell you not to be fooled. Beneath the glitz, glamour, and prestige is an entertainment industry built on rape culture, suffering, and manufactured identities.
“The American west, in terms of Hollywood and the culture it affects, is trying to constantly hold up this artifice of control over narrative,” says Stillions Whitehead. “And as a writer, I’m always just like, fuck your control. Let’s break out. Let’s undo all of this.”
Her newly released book, The Year of the Monster (Unsolicited Press, 2022), is a middle finger to Hollywood culture. While Stillions Whitehead captures the essence of Los Angeles, Monster goes beyond the city and explores everything from climate disaster, loneliness, the #MeToo movement, mental health struggles of military families, and other aspects of American life and culture.
Stillions Whitehead and I spoke over Zoom about subverting the Hollywood mystique, how television narratives influence our real lives, and writing books for the cinematic screen. This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Content warning for mention of sexual assault.
In The Year of the Monster, you focus on different monstrosities – people’s behaviors, natural disasters, black holes. Can you talk about what it’s like to launch your book in the midst of this pandemic, in the shadow of a real monster?
I found that the book started to have more significance to me emotionally after the pandemic. And contextually, too. I think [the book] is more relevant now than it was before. The pandemic brought out a lot of different character defects in people, including myself. I think the idea of human monstrosity, and what we will do and what we will sacrifice for capitalism, for entertainment, for all of those things, are much more apparent now.
When I look at things in the book, like even the entertainment industry stuff, it’s more laughable for me to see that superficiality in the wake of all this human disaster. So, the disaster surrounding a lot of those stories is different. In “There Are No Secrets in the Constellations,” which is probably one of the most difficult stories for people to read, the idea of climate change and of trying to move forward in a disaster that humans have created felt like it had a little bit more significance.
Let’s talk about “Inciting Moment,” the first story, which had several California and Hollywood references. But there were points in that story, and others as well, where you demystify the California mystique.
I’m using very specific details to actualize California in that way that you’re saying, to demystify it and to satirize the whole process of moving to L.A. and having this identity with a place. With that story, in particular, I was mining for a lot of different things that were real, but I didn’t have to exaggerate them. The whole thing about L.A. for me was feeling really lonely and craving intimacy and just making intimacy happen. Not just in a sexual way, but the sort of catastrophic intimate encounters where you almost feel lonelier afterward. And that’s that character at the end [of the story].
I wanted to open with [“Inciting Moment”] because it created a portal into the rest of the book. By deconstructing that experience of entry into a place, into a dream that is an anti-dream, then the rest of the book plays out that way. And that’s really what the book is. It’s like the anti-dream, the anti-narrative, the antithesis of expectation.
Could you speak more about creating that anti-narrative and reconfiguring the ideas of the American west, especially when it comes to Hollywood?
When we say the American west, people think of the frontier. That’s not what I think of when I think of the American west. There’s the cultural frontier, and the west thinking it’s the cultural frontier and how it defines culture. And I think that’s where Hollywood gets its esteem from, or previously had its esteem. It’s manufacturing stories, presenting them to the world, and people buying into those stories, emotionally and culturally.
For me, the American west is so defined by the media put out in the 20th century, and now probably by media content. If you think about American television and its inception, sitcom writing is our foundational identity. Through the process of learning about how a script is written for a sitcom, [I learned that] it is a well-oiled machine.
It’s the mass production of narratives. We lay this out, insert your characters here, and just find the situation that fits into that. What shapes the American west is this mass production model that you can replicate. And I think it’s terrible. With this book and all of my writing, I want to reveal to the reader how they’ve been taught to read, and teach them how to read a story.
You blew my mind when you were talking about the shape of the sitcom episode and its different components. It felt very much like an assembly line.
My goal is to bring awareness to the fact that you’ve been conditioned by what you watch – and what you read, too.
How do you incorporate your scriptwriting and production techniques into creating your stories? You put some of the structure from filmmaking and script writing into them, but you’re also applying your on-set knowledge to deconstruct our ideas of narrative.
On the one hand, I kind of want to merge the forms of screenplay and prose. I do it a lot more in my book that’s coming out, framing it with more than just scripts, but other kinds of film documents, like treatments. In a way it’s trying to open the door and potentially expose people who have never read scripts before to scripts.
But it’s also to show, what both forms are capable of. One of the stories [in The Year of the Monster], “Plot Point I,” is entirely dialogue, with like two sentences of direction opening it and a couple of pauses. And that’s because I just wanted the dialogue of these two douchey Hollywood guys to play out uninterrupted for people to get what they get from it, knowing what I’m trying to convey. That this is the prestige that people ask about when they ask me, “What was it like to work in Hollywood?”
What’s the difference between writing your book with the anticipation that it will become a movie and writing with the knowledge of how filmmaking directly impacts a story?
Those are like the two panels that I’m on at [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs] next year. One of the panels is writing the screen-worthy story. And the screen-worthy story has to have visualized plots. For writing something to be adapted, I think you have to have a sense of space. I find that when most books are adapted, obviously they change, but they have to have what’s going to keep your butt in the seat, which is the plot. Everything else is what either makes it a good movie or not.
And then conversely, with the impact of film on writing, I keep seeing a lot of complaints from writing professors or agents on Twitter who are saying writing is just too cinematic, it’s too visual. I honestly think it’s just because we live in a very visual culture. People are writing in a way that appropriates even the transitions in film. Not just what we’re seeing, but like smash cuts to a new scene or the way one scene trickles over into another like a crossfade. I definitely do that in the next book that’s coming out. I use cinematic transitions to kind of play with that and see how the audience can exist simultaneously in the written word and in the visual narrative that’s happening in their head.
What’s your next book called?
They More Than Burned (ELJ Editions, 2023), which is in reference to the Twin Towers, but it comes up in one of the stories. It’s basically a collection that’s hybrid, and it imitates an archiving and assemblage of footage for a documentary that doesn’t end up happening.
How did you discover new relationships to the settings that you created in this collection?
I left California in 2013. Once I got [to Pennsylvania], and we started making a life here, part of me was excited to move because I was deep in my alcoholism. I really wanted to go somewhere where people didn’t know me and I could pretend to be okay. And Mechanicsburg seemed like a place where I could do that.
I would say 80 percent of the book was written before I got sober. Once I got sober, it was like somebody turned the light on and I could see things. I could see where I was, and with the light cast so far, I could see back to California. I was looking in that direction a lot of the time when I was doing the revisions and all the writing. So, while I was writing a lot of it while I was [in Mechanicsburg], I missed places. So I started reconstructing them.
All of those locations are usually somewhere that I was longing to be. I was never in a place that I was longing to be in while I was writing about it. I do that with my stories a lot. It’s a way for me to travel emotionally. Even though I talk a lot of shit about Hollywood, I wouldn’t have stayed there for the amount of time that I did, and I wouldn’t have gone back in the last couple of years to do some things, had there not been some hope or something that place was giving me or revealing about myself. A lot of those places are places that I wrote about in really intense longing. When I go back to places where I came of age, it’s sort of like those places are still inside of me, and I can feel their geography. But when I write them, I’m translating those geographies into something new. ♦
Learn more about Tara Stillions Whitehead and her upcoming book, They More Than Burned (ELJ Editions, 2023), on her website. Shop copies of The Year of the Monster at Unsolicited Press.
DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers.