They say to write what you know — freelance reporter Abby Stern has taken that advice to heart in her debut novel, According to a Source ($12.99, Macmillan). Stern, who's been a freelance red-carpet reporter for years for publications like People, takes readers inside the life of Ella Warren, an undercover reporter for a celebrity magazine in the vein of US Weekly. When faced with a shake-up and a new boss of Devil Wears Prada proportions, Ella begins to question her life choices as her glamorous job threatens her friendships, relationships and even her sense of self.
Ella bears a striking resemblance to Stern as a fashionable, petite blond working in the world of entertainment journalism. “She definitely has some of my characteristics and mannerisms,” she admits. “The way she speaks, sometimes struggling with the choices she makes, that was definitely me when I was younger, so I tried to add a little bit of that into her.”
Though Stern insists that the book is “definitely fiction,” it has the undeniably fizzy temperament of a book buzzing with insider knowledge — the story and the details of Ella's undercover assignments are fictional, but the slick sensation of Hollywood glamour combined with well-rounded characters go down like expensive Champagne. Stern admits that the idea for the novel first came from her own experiences as a reporter. “I would tell people that I freelanced for a celebrity magazine and they were so intrigued,” she says. “I’d always been writing, and I just thought, 'There’s gotta be a story in here somehow. I just need to find the way to tell it.'” After 10 years of work on the manuscript on and off, using some of her own knowledge of the Hollywood landscape, Stern finished According to a Source.
Stern doesn't use celebrity names in the novel, but it maintains its insider-y effect with the use of a GPS-like knowledge of Los Angeles locales and blind-item descriptors. Stern leaves it up to the reader to guess who she means when she mentions “Not-So-Innocent Oversexualized Pop Star,” “Sexy Indie Film Actor” or “Southern Girl-Next-Door Movie Star.” This is half the fun of reading the book — trying to match up monikers and details to the celebrities they might represent. Stern says this is why she chose the tactic. “Whatever archetype I may have had in mind, it created a choose-your-own adventure story for the reader where they get to use their imagination,” she says. Rather than make up celebrity names, Stern felt this approach would keep readers engaged in the story. “Sometimes with fake celebrities, it actually takes you out of the story a little bit. I found that with television shows,” she says.
For those familiar with L.A.'s distinct neighborhoods and “it” spots, the book captures the city with the keen eye of a local. “The city has such a unique energy,” says Stern. “There’s even such a different energy on the Westside in Santa Monica and in Venice as opposed to this 'Hollywood' stuff, so [I] really had to get specific about where these characters were because it would inform their decisions and their thought processes and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Despite its glossy, bubble-gum-pink cover, the book isn’t afraid to dig deep and show some of the seedier aspects of fame and nightlife. Stern says part of the fun of writing this story was the chance to peek behind the velvet rope. “Being on red carpets, it looks like so much fun and so glamorous, and being there, you’re standing around, you’re waiting forever, your feet hurt, it could be raining,” she says. “It’s kind of nice to take that peek behind the curtain and see a little bit of what really goes on in a fictitious way. You’re not seeing completely how the sausage is made, but you’re seeing everything is fantasy versus reality.”
As a protagonist, Ella is far more messy than she is “likable.” Stern delights in that complexity. She says Ella was even less likable in previous drafts, but that her goal was always to make Ella more real than anything else. “I’d rather tell a story that’s relatable than a story where somebody said they liked the character,” she says. Ella Warren could hold court alongside women like television’s Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) — complex, occasionally selfish women who are struggling to get it right just like the rest of us. “That’s real life, right? I am not likable on all days. As much as I wish I was,” Stern says. “With male characters and men in general, they’re allowed to have more facets to them and sides to their personality and still be considered likable, where, for us, we almost have to be perfect and cheery all the time. The same thing with characters. I like that they’re complicated and they’re messy and they don’t always do the right thing. Because as much as we want to do that in life, we don’t always.”
This book has been 10 years in the making, but she didn’t initially dream of writing a novel. “It was never on my bucket list to write a book before I started,” she says. “I was never in high school thinking one day I’d like to write a novel. Not in a bad way. It just wasn’t in my mind.”
She first moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, majoring in theater and hoping to become an actress. Then she was struck by the example of Good Will Hunting and the idea of writing material for oneself, so she started writing more earnestly. Stern tried everything from stand-up comedy to writing screenplays but found her journalism career steadily gaining steam. With the publication of her novel, she's come full circle, producing the sort of personal creative material she set her sights on creating when she was a college student (and she says she still hopes to get back to performing).
What she didn’t entirely anticipate was how rewarding this process of writing a novel would be. She calls this chance to “be creative and use [her] imagination” “the opportunity of a lifetime” and admits to still not fully processing the accomplishment. “As a reporter you’re using soundbites and servicing whatever your thesis and your headline is. … This, for me, was a complete blank canvas, and I could go in any direction,” she says. “When you’re doing journalism, you’re fact-checking; it was really fun to be able to embellish things because it was fiction and it is not real life.”