Dangerous debut: MFA grad says hello to Birdie
"I had the idea of a character, Birdie, who's an actress who stopped being able to tell when she was acting," says author and 2003 UVA MFA graduate Jenny Hollowell.
Birdie, the young protagonist of Hollowell's first novel, Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe, is a liar. But she's also a Hollywood actress– a career that, coincidentally, involves a form of lying.
Birdie's struggle moves from conservative Virginia to wild and extravagant Los Angeles– just like Hollowell– although we never really know where Birdie or her 36-year-old creator draws the line between fiction and reality.
"She was the seed of an idea in my last semester at UVA," says Hollowell. "I tried to start a story with her, but it was never completed. I didn't want to do a short piece with her– she felt like somebody I'd need some time to get to know."
It took graduation and a move to New York City to return to Birdie's unwritten tale. Hollowell admits that her own experiences in Los Angeles and New York formed questions for this now former television advertising freelancer.
"I was taken by the fact that our culture is simultaneously so obsessed with fame and reality show contestants– the idea of getting famous seems to have so much traction in our modern lives," she says. "At the same time, we also seem very focused on religion and the hope it provides. Those two things living side-by-side so comfortably were confusing to me."
Over three and a half years, Hollowell pushed and prodded the concept of fame, and her UVA education paid off, as critics praised the novel for its lyrical prose.
"People find all different ways to seek out that sense of feeling known, important in some way," Hollowell notes. "Whether you're doing that through spiritual life or through the desire to become famous, the core desire that drives that is pretty similar."
And although Hollowell's own upbringing rivals that of Birdie's– raised in Virginia by religious parents and breaking out to California to realize some dreams– she says she actually finds a bit of herself in each of the novel's character: from the evangelical Virginia parents to the naive, troubled actors Birdie befriends in Hollywood.
Yet Hollowell claims to live in a world far removed from the narcissistic, jaded stylings of Hollywood– and if her years with Birdie taught her anything, it was to embrace the everyday victories that come with a creative career.
"Nothing beats a great day of writing," says Hollowell. "It sounds like the nerdiest thing in the world, but the biggest rewards for writers are the ones that happen at your desk, when you look down at your page and think you've just written the best sentences you will ever write."
Jenny Hollowell reads from her first novel, Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe, at noon Friday, March 18, at the UVA Bookstore.