We’re happy to welcome one-half of Renee Patrick, aka Vince Keenan, to the blog today!
Tell us about your new book!
The Sharpest Needle is the fourth book in the Lillian Frost & Edith Head series that I cowrite with my wife Rosemarie Keenan under our pen name of Renee Patrick. (The fifth book will be out next year.) Edith Head is, of course, the renowned costume designer who has more Academy Award nominations (35) and wins (8) than any woman in history. We’ve always envisioned her as our armchair detective, a sort of Nero Wolfe in Hollywood. She needs an Archie Goodwin, and that’s Lillian, a transplanted New Yorker who came to Los Angeles to become a movie star and, after a single lousy screen test, decided to put her love of the movies to work in other ways.
In The Sharpest Needle, Lillian and Edith are called upon to do a simple favor for Marion Davies: find out who’s sending poison pen letters about her past around Hollywood before Marion’s lover William Randolph Hearst learns about them. But the letters are only the first stage in a plan that includes murder and is connected to the war raging in Europe.
Please tell us a little about yourself. What’s it like co-writing books?
I’m a journalist, screenwriter, and the editor-in-chief of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. Rosemarie is the brains of the operation; she’s a research administrator at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, a Jeopardy! contestant, and a stand-up comic. We’re both New Yorkers—and Mets fans—so naturally we met in Florida. This year we celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary. We’ve spent most of that time watching and talking about movies, so when Rosemarie cooked up the idea of Edith Head solving crimes during the Golden Age of Hollywood, it seemed like a natural (and fun) project for us to take on. Co-writing is so much easier when you already know each other’s rhythms. Our main problem is not talking about the book every minute of the day, so we set up a schedule. We have regular work meetings, and we also plan regular date nights where we can’t discuss the book at all. So far, the system has worked very well.
Have you gone on any literary pilgrimages?
Do cinematic pilgrimages count? We’ve been lucky enough to connect with the archivists at Paramount Pictures, where Edith spent the bulk of her career, and thanks to them we’ve visited the studio’s costume vault. Being able to see and even touch costumes Edith designed—including some that are featured in our books—has been a thrill.
Did you do any unusual research while writing this book?
We try to visit actual locations whenever possible, and when we started thinking about a book involving Hearst and Davies—along with a young Orson Welles, newly arrived in Hollywood to make his debut film—we knew a trip to Hearst Castle at San Simeon was in order. We made it a point to travel there from Los Angeles by train, to experience the journey the way our characters would have. Being in that house and roaming the grounds is as close as we’ve ever come to going back in time.
Do you have any must-do writing habits, like needing certain music, or a drink, etc.?
Period music is enormously helpful in grounding you in the era you’re writing about, a constant reminder of what people of the time were hearing. I normally don’t like writing to music with lyrics, but I make an exception with the Renee Patrick books; a few turns of phrase from popular songs of the 1930s and early 1940s have worked their way into the text. As for drinks, I write about cocktails in my other job, so that comes after the day’s pages are done.
What’s your favorite book that you’ve read in the past year?
During the pandemic I decided to read all of the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—another married team of writers—in order, and it was a revelation. I loved The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin, a contemporary noir novel set in the Pacific Northwest that is utterly harrowing. Lawrence Block is a huge influence, and I devoured his memoir about breaking into the world of paperback fiction A Writer Prepares. It describes a publishing world that has completely vanished but sounds like an awful lot of fun.
If you could go back in time and give your younger author self advice, what would you tell yourself?
It sounds completely obvious, but concentrate on the only part of the process you can control: writing the best book you can. Everything else flows from that.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Read constantly. Read deeply and widely. Follow your interests, because they will lead you to ideas you’ll never see coming.
How can people learn more about your book and follow you?
One of the benefits of writing under a pen name is you have so many more avenues to reach people. Renee’s website is reneepatrickbooks.com, and while you’re there you can sign up for her newsletter. In it, she talks about what she’s working on, her recent research reading, and milestones in Edith Head’s career. Subscribers also receive a free article about Edith’s costumes for film noir. Renee is also on Twitter at @RPatrickBooks.
As for me, I loiter around Twitter, too, at @vpkeenan. I’m usually talking about film noir or complaining about the Mets.