Justine Bateman on Writing & Designing Fame: The Hijacking of Reality

Justine Bateman on Writing & Designing Fame: The Hijacking of Reality

Photo: Steven Meiers


Justine Bateman absolutely, one hundred percent could have written a celebrity memoir. You know the ones with the catchy titles, the People Magazine prose, the quirky-but-always-pretty photos splashed across the front. One of those. Bateman could have written one — publishers were pushing her to write one — and you know, it would have been easy.

Easy because Bateman's a writer, a lifelong writer, she was writing before she was acting, she's written original screenplays and magazine articles, comparative literature term papers, hell, she has a degree in computer science, she's written computer code. Sure, she could string together gossipy tidbits about her acting career, from the '80s when she played Mallory on hit TV show "Family Ties" to her right-now project, her feature film directorial debut "Violet," which she also wrote. Absolutely, she could string those tidbits, write that book.

But also, she could write harder, write more. Bateman could write about fame. Not the celebrity memoir version, with the bubbly champagne-soaked gossip, but fame the machine, fame the cultural construct, the inescapable reality, toxic and intoxicating, fame a wave you ride, a wave you survive.

Bateman could write that book, a more difficult, more interesting book, a complex book that moved fast and deep, coming at fame from all the directions. A book inspired by Bateman's favorite writers, gonzo Hunter S. Thompson, Herman Melville, dense and poetic, and Michael Herr, whose nonfiction prose is the best and darkest storytelling. She could write that book, and she did: Akashnic Books released Fame last month.

Talking with Spine a few weeks back, Bateman said Fame started as an academic title, a heavy-research-type book. "I had just finished college, and that was the mode I was in." (Bateman graduated from UCLA in 2016.) She interviewed 18 famous people, she transcribed 40 hours of conversation, and she subjected their experiences of fame, and her own, to various sociological theories. An academic approach made sense, until it didn't.

"I was able to expand the connection between the points in the lifecycle of fame and the sociological theories in the academic version. I got halfway through writing another dissertation that I knew would get me another degree." But then she realized she could do more if she opened herself up, if she opened up her writing, if she took the guardrails off, if she wrote herself out on a limb and pulled her readers out there with her.

Risky, right, but also made sense. With Dispatches, Michael Herr blew minds, blew Bateman's mind, by writing himself into the Vietnam War, embedded journalism long before it was a thing. "Though I've never been anywhere near war or battle, his book gives you this stream of consciousness, and I assume I know how that would feel, actually inhabiting somebody's body who's in it," she said.

She could do the same. Bateman had studied fame, she'd immersed herself in sociology and formed her own theories, but also she knew fame like Herr knew Vietnam, from the inside. "I really wanted to give that to my readers, emotional time travel." She could take them there, inside fame, inside her fame but also inside the machine, and she could arm them with everything she'd learned, realized, theorized, everything she'd come to understand.

Beginning with the general concept of her academic book, she reworked, eyes still focused on that thesis, that fame, but traveling different roads, new roads to get there. The new book "still follows my original framework, which was the life cycle, the beginning and the end of the life cycle of fame. I wanted to show that life cycle from the inside, to focus on why the public is behaving the way they do, and also as a society how did we get here, to this place where we put celebrity and fame on a high pedestal."

The end result, reading it, reading Bateman's book is like sitting next to the smart person at the party, not any smart person but the smart person that knows how to talk it, how to take everything colliding in their head and talk it to you, give it to you, tell it to you in a way that you understand, that you get, that gives you something to take and to think about later, when you're back home alone in your quiet.

So much more about Bateman's process, so much more you should know about the writing and the thinking. You should know about Bateman's strict adherence to her thesis, no side roads to champagne gossip or career talk. "I didn't want to get into my career path, or even my career in general. I was really trying to keep it focused on fame, not about career, not about the entertainment business." You should know about that.

Also, you should know how Bateman writes at a thing from the best angle, always the angle that makes sense. Sometimes it's the story, her story, but sometimes it's the theory, and she explains it, and you get it. Other times it's analogies, beautiful, crazy analogies because Bateman has a thing, a talent, a gift for analogy. She'll start in, and you'll read, and you'll wonder, and then the light will break, and again she's taken you where she needs you to go, and again she knew how to get you there.

All that's in the book, she does all that in the book, inside the book. But outside the book, you should know about that too, because Bateman designed it.

She's a designer. Like she's always been writing, she's always been designing, drawing logos and other graphics for her clothing line, for production companies. And she's obsessed with fonts, moons over books like "Typographic 3" and designers like David Carson, he of RayGun magazine and "dirty" type. For Fame, she found Swiss designer Alexandre Pietra's Lombok font, made a mockup in PhotoShop, "and that was that. Here, I like this. Great. Looks great!"


Front Cover, Design: Justine Bateman

Back Cover, Photo: Gianetta Fluent


Book out, Fame out in the world, Bateman's hunkered down on her first full-length feature film "Violet," which she is directing, which she wrote, which stars Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux, but also she's thinking toward that next book, that next deep-dive, about looks and women. It's going to be called Face and if you read the first book, you already feel her language, and you already wonder what theories she'll pull in, which she'll develop, and what stories, what analogies she'll use to make sure you understand.

Find Justine Bateman online at www.justinebateman.com and on Twitter @justinebateman.

Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.