Silent-film romance speaks eloquently

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May 6, 2014

British Columbia writer Margaret Gunning just published her third novel, The Glass Character, with Thistledown Press.  Gunning, a long-time print journalist, columnist and reviewer, as well as a poet, has written two previous novels, Better than Life and Mallory.  She recently took the time to sit down in her office in Coquitlam, B.C., to answer questions  from Lynne Van Luven about The Glass Character.  The novel is a well-paced narrative that melds a young girl’s coming of age story with insights into the ambition and competition that drove the creation of silent films.

Margaret, for some reason the subject of your new novel startled me.  How did a sensible no-nonsense journalist (as I think of you) get so interested in Harold Clayton Lloyd, a 1920s silent screen comedian?

The first thing I ever wrote or published was poetry, so I have never really been all that sensible! But if it hadn’t been for Turner Classic Movies, I don’t think this novel would have happened. Not only do they regularly feature silent movies in their programming, they seem to champion Lloyd above all the others (including Chaplin).  So I first became hooked five or six years ago when I tuned in halfway through The Freshman, during a hilarious dance sequence when Lloyd’s cheap suit falls apart piece-by-piece.  But as a kid, I distinctly remember seeing a full-page black-and-white photo of Harold Lloyd, I think in a coffee table book called The Movies. It was the iconic photo of him dangling from a huge clock, and somehow his name fastened itself to that image.

Can you talk about all the research you did to capture the nuances and action of the Jazz Era in your novel?

I kind of did this backwards! I had already become enchanted with Lloyd, but at that point I was interested in a lot of things and was randomly picking my way through YouTube snippets. Then at some point – I remember the exact instant, when I was sitting in my office chair in a daydream and the idea hit me like a brick – I realized I was going to write about Lloyd. This filled me with woe, because at that point I knew very little about him. I had ordered a superb DVD boxed set called the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection – take note, it has all his best stuff in it! – but by the time it arrived, I was already writing. So the research ran parallel to the work, and continues today because I am still interested – or should I say, enthralled.

Your narrator Jane is an inspiring character on so many levels.  Do you think “Hollywoodland” would be any different today for an innocent, star-struck teenager?

I think it would be totally different. In the novel, I use the cliché of the girl from a small town getting on the bus, headed for stardom. I figured if it was such a cliché, it must have been true in a lot of cases. Nowadays, a girl could not just walk on a movie set and get a part as an extra. At least, I don’t think so. The devouring machine of these TV talent shows is shark-infested water, as far as I am concerned, and no matter how gifted and determined you are, it’s a lottery with almost everyone going home heartbroken.

As I continued to read your novel, I realized that I had a subliminal memory of seeing the occasional Harold Lloyd movie, but that I was more familiar with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Do you identify with the ordinary guy/underdog epitomized in Lloyd’s many “Glass Character” roles?

Funny you should say that! Over and over again, when I told people I was writing about Harold Lloyd, I’d get a blank look. Then I’d say:  “You know, the guy dangling off the clock 20 stories up,” and then came the “Ohhh! Yes, I know who you mean.” He’s filed somewhere in the back of people’s minds, but one reason we don’t know him better is that he was overprotective of his movies. He literally locked them in a vault and refused to show them on TV. He seemed to be engineering his own oblivion. As for being the underdog, Lloyd described the Glass Character as “just a regular fellow,” so most of us could identify with him:  an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I noted that you make no mention of Lloyd’s involvement with the Freemasons at the height of his career.  He reached an exalted level within the Masons, and that association was always part of his life.  Did you skip that fact as just too cultish and unromantic for Jane to absorb, a fact just unhelpful to your fiction?

Oh, there were so many things I could not cover, because Lloyd was the ultimate Renaissance man, an amateur scientist, painter, 3D photographer, show dog breeder, magician, golfer, acoustic innovator, and on and on. Right now, Freemasons are looked upon as targets for all sorts of conspiracy theories, but when my Dad was a Mason in the 1960s, it was just something you did, a dull men’s club. So in many ways it was the most conventional aspect of his life – but perhaps he needed it to remain grounded amongst all the more pedestrian souls.


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