After working for author, actress and pop culture icon Carrie Fisher as her personal assistant, it’s not surprising that Los Angeles-writer Byron Lane was inspired in more ways than one. When Fisher died in December 2016, his Facebook post about her went viral, but that was only a hint of what was to come. The woman who played Princess Leia and later went on to be a prolific writer, made such a profound impression, Lane had to follow his mentor’s lead, penning a novel inspired by her.
A Star is Bored aims to capture the superstar’s humor and spirit via its protagonist “Kathi,” and it’s been hailed as a top summer and quarantine read by a handful of entertainment publications since it came out a few weeks ago for good reason. Byron, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer five years ago and has been documenting his fight via his web series “Last Will and Testicle” (featuring appearances by Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness) shares an excerpt from his warmhearted fictional but obviously very real insider’s look at Hollywood life, here.
Worn out from a day of airports, I get Kathi settled in her hotel room and prepare to leave her for the night. I watch her. She tinkers with her phone, fiddles with her e-cigarette. She’s in a strange room and is just as comfortable as if in her own home, just as comfortable living her life with me staring at her as with me not staring at her, probably more. Kathi Kannon has never been alone. She’s been surrounded her whole existence with help, nannies, assistants, chefs, directors, doctors, enablers. She can sleep soundly with throngs of people around her, impervious to noise.
“Well, good night,” I say.
“What is the meaning of it all, Cockring?” she asks.
“Of life.” She looks up at me for an answer.
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you wake up in the morning?”
“I just wake up.”
“But what forces you from your slumber, what urge, what drive, compels you from your bed?” she asks.
I think for a minute while Kathi does her movie-star thing, her technique where she stays deadly still, letting the imaginary camera in the room capture the seconds of silence. In a film, this kind of blank space is where the audience can ascribe their own emotions and feelings to the moment. But, alas, this is a moment just between Kathi and me. She is motionless and open, not unlike her quiet poise when I first met her years ago—Kathi Kannon, film icon, waiting for me, loser, to speak up, to tell her why I want to work for her, and for her to pipe down, to listen, to see where her scene partner will take her next. And I’ve—we’ve—ended up here, across the world, me assigning to the quiet between us the role of “interest,” assigning to Kathi a curiosity about me, assigning to her the role of interviewer, for a change. And in the silence comes truth: I’m not prepared to be like her, to be an interviewee, to grab the microphone and profess some wise insight to the universe. Instead, I’m happy but it feels precarious, like I’m still bumbling around in the dark, taking baby steps to avoid tripping and falling, waving my hands and knocking things over, clumsy and inept, grossly unable to articulate any reason why I might actually have a true, tangible desire to be alive, what I have to live for, truly, besides her. My possible answers are stifled by confusion, dismay, and, I daresay, also a warm and surprising questioning of why she is asking about me at all, why she would even have any interest in lowly me—an assistant—and my egregious humiliation that I have no immediate answer for her, for what does get me out of bed in the morning? Really?
“I don’t know,” I say. “Is that sad?”
Kathi considers it for a moment. I wonder if she will stretch this time out, too, a great pizza dough spinning in the air until the inertia is too much and it becomes spotted, spoiled, unwhole. But she doesn’t. She takes the reins again, steering us, guiding us, though to where I’m not sure either of us knows.
“It’s okay to not know. That’s genius mind,” she says. “Not knowing is what makes people discover great things, do great things.”
“You sound like the message in a fortune cookie. Or like the moral of some kids’ cartoon show.”
“Well, I am an action figure.”
“And so what forces Priestess Talara from her slumber?” I ask.
“Usually you do. Waking me up at all kinds of ungodly hours.”
“And when I’m not there?”
She pauses. “I don’t know,” she says.
I look at Kathi Kannon with great fondness, my boss, my big, living, human action figure, fierce, strong, a fighter. I try to imagine how she would have fought back against my dad had she been there with me all those years ago, all those many moons ago when he yanked her plastic image and likeness from my hands to punish me for what he called, “running like a girl.” What a fitting replacement I’ve found in her actual presence in my life.
She says, “All I can think about right now . . .”
And I guess: “Life? Death? Love?”
“A jar of peanut butter in my purse that I shoplifted today.”
She stares at me, like she’s bracing for admonishment, then sits up straight, a smug look on her face. “Acting.”
I breathe a sigh of relief.
“I’m just fucking with you, Cockring. I paid for it.”
She looks at me over her glasses, a cue for me to grab the contraband. I fetch the peanut butter from her purse but then walk across the room, away from her.
“Hey!” she yells.
“Calm down!” I say, like a parent to a child, fishing two plastic spoons out of my backpack. I walk back to her, hand her a spoon. I unscrew the top, peel the foil, and give her the jar.
Kathi Kannon and I are eating Jif peanut butter directly from the container and watching the film Baby Boom on a small TV tucked into a bamboo armoire. We’re catching the movie God knows where—the beginning, the end?—and no attempt is made to change the channel and find something else.
On television, it’s the scene where Diane Keaton’s character is talking to her doctor about sex and how she doesn’t enjoy it, but she’s still upset that she’s not having it.
Kathi reaches out to me. She grabs my hand, she turns from Diane Keaton on the television to look at me, staring me in the face, her eyes watering with either gratitude or dryness. Her grip tightens and mine does, too, me clinging to my star, on our cloud of hotel bedding, in our atmosphere of acknowledging each other, finding resolve in the fact that we aren’t alone, that we’re doing just fine on this journey. Kathi nods her head, purses her lips, and before I have a chance to blurt out my affection for her, she beats me to the podium:
“You must never quit working for me!” she says, an electricity flowing from her to me, and that mysterious energy that forces our hearts to beat is suddenly shared between us. Instantly, two electrical currents are connected, forcing a dollop of grace to pop in her and a lump of love to catch in my throat, my shoulders collapsing beneath the might of the biggest emotional hug I’ve ever received. “But if you do, you must promise to never leave me for someone like Diane fucking Keaton!”
I deflate but only slightly, wondering how the two of us could be on opposite pages. Me near tears at the promise of our pseudo-ethereal engagement to each other, and she talking about the earthly and disappointing semantics of my potential employment to, I guess, one of her competitors. I’m thinking platonic-relationship commitments, and it seems she’s thinking IMDB. But her gaze doesn’t leave mine, and her emotional connection to the point seems real, and I can’t help but think maybe this is as close as one can get with Kathi Kannon, measured not by our closeness but by my distance from Diane Keaton, and it still leaves me warm.
“I promise,” I say, now squeezing her hand.
Excerpted from A Star Is Bored by Byron Lane. Published by Henry Holt. Copyright © 2020 Cookietown Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.