Ask the Author: The origins of an idea and the rewards of research

Ask the Author


In the previous instalment of “Ask the Author,” I outlined some fundamentals that every new author should know when putting their feet into the deep, dark waters of commercial publishing. This week, I’d like to get down to basics and talk a bit about the origins of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and the research that followed. 

Q:  What sparked your interest in the Oliviers? Do you feel that this couple from the early mid 20th century have an appeal to the younger audiences of today? If so, why? And, what has been the most rewarding part of writing a book on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier? – Susan G. and Sarah. B, respectively.

Let me just start off by clarifying that although the story of the Oliviers plays a major part in An Intimate Portrait because you can’t talk about Vivien Leigh’s life without mentioning Laurence Olivier’s (significant) presence in it, the book is by no means solely about their relationship. It’s about Vivien’s life and career.  That said, my original idea actually was to put together a book that focused on them as a combined entity. I envisioned it being something like Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, only with a lot more photos. But as anyone who has ever worked on a big project knows, ideas evolve and change throughout the creative process and sometimes what you end up with is completely different from, but probably better than, what you started out with.

I have Gone With the Wind to thank for not only sparking my eventual interest in the Oliviers, but also opening my world to the joys of classic cinema. It seems that a lot of people “discover” Vivien Leigh through this film, and for good reason: it’s iconic and, most importantly, really accessible. But more than that, it’s damn enjoyable, especially considering it has a running time of nearly four hours. I’ve been obsessed with movies for as long as I can remember, and there have been particular films throughout my life that I’ve latched on to for whatever reason. GWTW was one of these films. I read the book and saw the film as a teenager, and the effect on me was so great that I felt compelled to learn as much as I could about the production and its stars. This led to an interest in Vivien’s life. I’ve always been drawn to flawed characters – the recluses, the tragic ones – because I find them interesting, and, in some ways, relatable. The more I read about Vivien, the more layered her story became, and the more I felt compelled to dig deeper and try to discover who she really was. My interest in her relationship with Olivier followed suit.

I definitely think that their iconic status as a celebrity power couple continues to appeal to younger audiences. Believe it or not, a majority of the people who visit the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Facebook page currently fall into the 25 – 34 age range. And new fans discover them all the time.  

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier page stats

There are a few reasons that I believe account for this continuing interest, and I expanded upon this over at VivAndLarry recently. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were glamorous, beautiful, talented, the press loved them, and they were expert at keeping their private and public lives separate, which allowed them to take on an idyllic aura in the eyes of their fans during the post-war years. But the fact that this ideal didn’t last is also significant. This has kept us asking questions and seeking answers. Why weren’t this couple, who seemed to have such a close connection, able to keep it together? What motivated Laurence Olivier to leave in the first place? Think of what could have been! It’s a divisive issue among many fans, but it has kept us talking after all these years as we try and piece the puzzle of their lives together.

The Oliviers

We can never know everything about deceased historical figures, but what I’ve found so rewarding about researching the Oliviers is this feeling that I’ve gained a deeper understanding of who they really were as people. It’s one thing to read biographies (and even autobiographies written during old age), and to talk to people who knew them for however brief a period, but it’s another thing entirely to read personal correspondence and other primary source documents. Especially if you’re reading things that haven’t been accessible for very long (or ever). I found the Olivier Archive, which has only available to researchers for the past decade or so, to be completely fascinating and illuminating. Olivier kept everything, and thank God for that because it’s such a rich collection that reveals so much about their collaborative work and personal feelings as they were at the time. In writing about Vivien’s life, I found these materials especially useful. There’s quite a bit of grey area in her story and events that I  felt begged for some clarification (like her infamous 1953 psychotic break during Elephant Walk and subsequent hospitalization. What happened there?). She didn’t write an autobiography and, as her sister-in-law Hester pointed out to me during an interview, the truth is difficult to suss out because a lot of what we know about Vivien is based on what other people have said about her. Olivier turned down requests for interviews with all of Vivien’s biographers during his lifetime, and therefore those third-party opinions have also influenced how his relationship with Vivien has been perceived and written about. He told his side of the story in the early 80s, or at least what he chose to remember, but historical documents can offer a clearer, and sometimes entirely different picture.

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