I discovered Billy Wilder’s films in the late 1970s, when I was a teenager. But the first film of his that I saw (on television) was not one of his acknowledged masterpieces – such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot – but The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, his reimagining of the great detective’s personal life, which had been a commercial and critical flop.
I’ve written elsewhere about how my love for this film developed into a full-blown obsession. And of course it led me to watch all of Wilder’s other films, and to find out as much as I could about his life: his formative years in Vienna and Berlin, his flight from Nazi Germany in 1933, his transition from Hollywood screenwriter to Hollywood director. I became fascinated, in particular, by his meticulous, craftsmanlike approach to screenwriting, the formal solidity of his plots, the elegance of his narrative structures. Before the age of video recorders, I recorded his films off the television onto audio cassette and listened to them in bed at night, absorbing the rhythms of his dialogue. His influence on my development as a writer was much greater than that of any novelist.
So I have always wanted to write a book about Billy Wilder. But there are already several good biographies. And besides, while writing Like a Fiery Elephant, my biography of BS Johnson, the thought had stolen over me, more than once, that it might have been a better idea to write a novel about him instead. I might have got closer to him that way; perhaps even written something more truthful. And so I finally arrived at the idea that my book about Wilder should be a work of fiction, albeit based on real events.
The real event I chose to focus on was the making of Fedora, Wilder’s penultimate film – one of his most rarely-viewed, and one of his most puzzling. I knew that it had not been an altogether happy experience, either for Wilder himself or for his co-writer IAL Diamond (who is also an important figure in my book). So because I didn’t want this to be a bitter novel, a story of failure and disappointment, I decided to narrate it through the eyes of a completely invented character – a young Greek woman called Calista, who is taken on as an interpreter during Fedora’s location shoot, and who is full of optimism and starry-eyed wonder at being admitted into the world of Hollywood filmmaking.
I wanted to write a novel about the nature of creativity, and how it changes as you grow older. About the relationship between America and Europe. About the love between two professional colleagues (Wilder and Diamond) who in many ways are closer to each other than they are to their wives. About the most intense forms of personal grief, how you deal with them and how they find their way into your art. Above all, I hope it will be a novel that will make its readers want to watch Billy Wilder films again.