Taylor Jenkins Reid on the Scandalous True Stories That Inspired Her Latest Novel

Taylor Jenkins Reid returns with this Summer's juiciest beach read, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (out June 13), and I promise you won't be able to put it down. I laughed, I cried, I couldn't stop thinking about the empowering, relatable, and flawed women at the heart of this story long after reading it.

On the surface, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is about the scandalous history of Old Hollywood with a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of glamorous celebrity couples — but beyond that, it touches on issues of sexuality, race, and what it means to be a strong woman, both now and in the '40s and '50s. I spoke with Taylor about the fascinating true stories that inspired her novel, the problem with "women's fiction," and why she's nervous to put this book out there. Read the interview now!

Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

POPSUGAR: What initially drew you to this story?

Taylor Jenkins Reid: It was a book called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversation. In the '80s, Ava Gardner hired a ghostwriter and told him everything, and he had all of these tapes of their conversations. She was going on record about so many things. She was talking about her marriages to Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, and Artie Shaw and Lana Turner. She was just spilling every bean. Toward the end of them preparing for this biography or autobiography, Ava Gardner got cold feet. Supposedly, Frank Sinatra had called her and said, "No. No. No. You can't do this. If you need money, I'll give you money." And she called the whole thing off. Then in 2013, once both Ava Gardner and the ghostwriter had passed, the book got published.

They [posted] an excerpt of it in Vanity Fair, and I remember reading that article and thinking, "How great if you could do an entire book that feels like the juiciest part of this Ava Gardner book?" So I started to think about this idea of a fictional memoir of a Hollywood star. Then I got really into the idea that you have a device of her telling her story to someone else and those two stories intersecting in interesting ways. I started doing all this research about Hollywood and actresses and various scandals and coverups and all that, which is maybe the most fun research I've ever done in my life.

PS: Were there any other celebrities who inspired her story?

TJR: The most obvious comparison is Elizabeth Taylor. Evelyn had seven husbands, and Elizabeth was married very many times. There's one or two other things that she ends up having in common with Elizabeth Taylor. Also, Rita Hayworth is a really big inspiration because she was Spanish, and she came to Hollywood and she was getting roles that weren't leading roles the way that she wanted. So she changed her name, and she became Rita Hayworth. She went red, she curled up her hairline [to look like] a white woman. She also had that famous line, "Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me." Those two things I thought could really inform Evelyn's life, given Evelyn is Cuban and she has that same decision to make. Does she want to be seen as a Latina woman? Or does she want to be a leading woman? At that point in Hollywood, those were the choices. You weren't necessarily going to be a mainstream leading lady unless you fit a very narrow understanding of beauty and identity.

PS: Were there any other fascinating tidbits in your research?

TJR: The book that I think was the most helpful was Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen, who is now a writer for Buzzfeed. I read some fascinating stuff, specifically about Elizabeth Taylor's friendship with Montgomery Clift. He was gay, and the two of them were essentially best friends. Their relationship over the years, and this tenderness between them, is really a beautiful thing. Then Monty Clift gets in a car accident in Benedict Canyon, leaving Elizabeth Taylor's home one night. I didn't even know about this heartbreaking story, where she finds her best friend in this car crash and is the first one at the scene with him. He went on to live, but he had a very, very difficult life after that. When we talk about Elizabeth Taylor, we talk about Richard Burton, right? That was a fascinating part of Hollywood history that I feel like is a little bit forgotten about.

PS: Without giving too much away, there are some LGBTQ themes and issues in this novel. What inspired the storylines that dealt with Hollywood and homosexuality?

TJR: One of the books that I read that informed this idea of what it was like for LGBTQ people in Hollywood during that time was an autobiography by Tab Hunter. He was very similar to [one of the husbands in the book]: a matinee idol, a very clean-cut guy who happened to be gay. He spent a lot of his career actively trying to hide that and in fear that people would find that out. They made a documentary of the autobiography. It was so compelling when it comes to that question of "What do you sacrifice about yourself to get where you want to go?" And the question of whether it's right or wrong to lie about who you are in order to navigate these oppressive systems. I put a lot of what [he went through] into Harry's story. That feeling of "I am what I am. I'm not personally ashamed of it, but I have to be aware of what people's reactions are going to be and what that is going to cost me."

I would rather be respected than liked, and I think my characters are going in that direction.

PS: Evelyn clearly has her flaws, and her life story is far from perfect. Could you talk about the idea that characters need to be likable and whether or not you feel like there's more pressure for female characters specifically to be likable?

TJR: I think when we talk about characters needing to be likable, we're almost only talking about women needing to be likable. I don't think I've ever heard someone say that they put down a book or turned off the TV show or walked out of a movie because the man was so unlikable. It just doesn't happen. Look, I've curated my entire personality to make sure that I'm likable. We do that. All women are given this message that we have to be palatable, that even the uglier sides of us — our anger, our sadness — they all need to be packaged in a way that feels nonthreatening and cute in some way. I've lived my life like that for a long time. I've written books like that for a long time. I'm keenly aware. I've written four books before this. I certainly thought my main characters were likable. One of the things I've learned in publishing books is that even people that I think are likable, even actions that I think are relatively tame, people are going to have an opinion about. Sometimes I get emails from readers being like, "That's really wrong, what that woman did. Why did you have to do that?" I'm a people pleaser. I've been that way my whole life. Writing books has taught me that you cannot please everybody, and I struggled with that for a while, and I finally just decided that that is freedom. I can't please everybody, so why try?

I just decided that what I wanted to do was tell a heartbreakingly honest story, and you might like Evelyn and you might not like her. My guess is most people, regardless of whether they like her or not, will respect her. That's another thing that, as I get older, I'm realizing can be diametrically opposed when it comes to being a woman. Being likable and being respected are sometimes something we have to choose between. As I grow as a person, I'm trying to err towards the latter, that I would rather be respected than liked, and I think my characters are going in that direction.

I know there are people that are going to be very put off by the things that Evelyn does. I wrote her with the intention to be honest and not the intention to be liked. I'm nervous with the book out there; I know that it's a different book than anything I've ever written. Evelyn and the other main character, Monique, both struggle at different times to come into their own and demand to be respected and get their due and see themselves as powerful women. I'm writing about that because I'm going through that, because I'm trying to become that. My hope is that other women are in that same place that I am, and that when they see these women doing it, they feel like they can do it. Like me, like the book, like Evelyn, or not, but hopefully, it starts a conversation.

PS: I thought Monique's struggles, especially as a modern working woman, were really relatable.

TJR: Monique was an exercise in writing about what's in my own heart, maybe more than any other character I've written before. She's at this point in her life where she's trying to figure out how powerful she is and maybe how she has undermined herself in the past. At some point, everyone says to her, "The world doesn't give things. You take things," and women traditionally are not takers. Women are givers. What does that look like to be a woman and to take? It's not something that comes to me naturally. I'm trying to teach it to myself, basically. Monique's going through it, and hopefully, other women that are feeling that way too can come one step closer to getting there themselves.

It's called women's fiction because we want to make sure, in no uncertain terms, men know "don't read this," which is just absurd.

PS: The idea of this whole "women's fiction" category is constantly debated. How would you describe your genre?

TJR: Anytime I meet someone and they ask me what I do and I say, "I'm an author," and they say, "Oh, what kind of books do you write?" I say, "I write fiction." And they say, "Well, what does that mean?" What I choose to answer is, "I write book club books. I write books that you would read in a book club." What I mean by that is I write commercial fiction that is hopefully accessible to anybody that wants to read it, but they can be thought-provoking and give you something to talk about. But that's a very long answer to a small question, and the short answer is I write women's fiction, and the reason why it's called women's fiction is because we want to make sure, in no uncertain terms, men know "don't read this," which is just absurd.

We have a society in which woman have learned to read about men and to find interesting things about the inner lives of men, and we have not done that same service for men. We have told men that women in their lives are not interesting to them, that the stakes of domestic fiction is not relevant to them — all of these things are completely untrue. Books about love and family are just as important and can be just as skillfully and beautifully written as books about war. I don't know why, so often, we put such a larger value on the story areas that men are interested in than what women are interested in. I also just don't buy the conceit. I think we just haven't allowed for men to admit when they're interested in these things, to open themselves up to be interested in these things. We've said, time and time again, to men, "What goes on in a woman's mind is not relevant to you." And that's just crazy. What goes on in every man's mind is relevant to me. We exist in the world together. I'm married to a man. The world is full of men. We should be doing that same thing for men. I think we're fixing it slowly. Big Little Lies was such a great example of a story, exclusively about women and about issues that directly affect women, that men watched. They cared. We're at the beginning of it.

PS: What is the one thing that you hope readers come away with after reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo?

TJR: I want them to feel like if, at some point, they want to pull an Evelyn Hugo, that they're ready and capable of doing it. As complicated as Evelyn Hugo is, I think Evelyn Hugo can teach us a lot about how to get what we want out of this world. It's time for women to get ours. We've got to go up there and take it. It's going to be uncomfortable, but I think that the rewards will be there for us. We need to find the confidence in ourselves to say, "Pay me what I'm worth. Promote me when I deserve it. Don't take advantage of me. Don't underestimate me."

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo hits bookshelves on June 13 and is featured in the June POPSUGAR Must Have box.