Richard Kirshenbaum used his experience working in advertising to tell the story of two rival beauty industry icons in his novel Rouge (St. Martin's, June 2019). Here, he reveals how he also channeled inspiration from the places he's traveled to tell the story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald vehemently declared “I want to go places … and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.” Those musings of Fitzgerald’s have come to embody Jazz age youth, insouciance, and abandon. Would his work have been as sultry, stylish, and layered without his overly stamped passport? Would he have hit the literary mother lode if he only vacationed in … Tampa? I think not.
When one foolishly makes a halfhearted attempt at the great American novel, one must either buck or embrace hubris. Clearly, old F. Scott was on to something with his touristic passion.
“Well,” I thought, “my given name may not be as lyrical as his … but I still want to go places, too!”
Through my work in the advertising business, I have had the unique opportunity to travel and work everywhere from Stockholm to Sicily. I often revel in my own well-stamped passport (which somehow always seems to be on the verge of expiring despite the daunting end date).
A few years back I was happily ensconced on a Jamaican holiday—my family and I rented the famous Ian Fleming Villa at the mystical GoldenEye Resort. Word has it that Fleming, who owned the property, wrote every James Bond novel behind the Caribbean shutters in the heat of the afternoon, hence the iconic and world-famous name.
Once we checked into the hallowed villa and unpacked, I lurked about for signs of old Ian. And then suddenly, there it was.
Atop the simple, polished wooden desk rested Fleming’s original manual typewriter. I approached it, breathless, and then did what I knew I had to do. I pulled out the attending chair and sat at Fleming’s desk, lovingly caressing the keyboard. Suddenly, I caught sight of a laminated article he had written which was placed in an amusing way on the desk.
“How to write a bestseller“ it read. Swiftly, I was reeling at the thought. I read it over and over and decided then and there that I, too, would one day hopefully write something worthy and in such glamorous environs. After all, if Ian could do it, why couldn’t I? And from that moment, walking the powdery beach cove below and feasting on savory jerk chicken, I thought about what I could not only hope to write, but also say. And who couldn’t be inspired in such a marvelous environment among Ian’s own things?
Just last week I had the serendipity to have been invited to a dinner and wine tasting of the famed Tuscan estate Il Palagio owned by the stunning and erudite Trudie Styler and her husband, Sting. “Sting wrote ‘Every Breath You Take’ at GoldenEye,” she nodded over the swirling and lush yet subtle Brunello. “Of course, he did,” I thought. “Who wouldn’t? Especially if you’re Sting!”
Which all led to what would inspire me on my travels. And it came to me in a flash at Ian’s desk.
“Write what you know,” people in-the-know advise. Being an adman by trade and having run cosmetic accounts from Avon to Revlon, it occurred to me that this would be the right vein to tap. Why hadn’t anyone done a novel about the cosmetics industry? I could never write a spy novel … but cosmetics? Surely, after all the lipstick campaigns I conceived, I thought, I could do that! Macho, no! Original, yes!
I am, after all, the first generation of men to have worked for the first generation of female entrepreneurs. Since there seemed to be a dearth of novels on this subject, I decided to tackle a book dedicated to the brave and bold women who created the first female multi-billion dollar cosmetics category. And thus my debut novel Rouge is a loving homage to many of the fabulous female executives I knew and worked for and the groundbreaking products they created and marketed.
With that idea and a rum drink in hand, and sitting beside Ian’s manual keyboard, I wrote the prologue to Rouge in less than 30 minutes, pouring like the golden rum. What better way to open a novel, I thought, than with the society funeral of a cosmetics icon, the richest woman in the world … a nice, cinematic way to set up the rivalries and inventory her life and set the proverbial stage.
Three years later, after a proud book deal and with the galley in hand, it came time to craft the acknowledgments for the impending hardcover. I didn’t only want to thank people. I also wanted to thank my places. The places where I saw people and where my mind grew. And GoldenEye tops the list, of course, for creative flow. Perhaps Sting was inspired in the same way, although possibly more with yoga than with rum. Now, as I see the final hardcover, I look at my list in the back pages and I am bowled over at the places I have been and the people I have met along the way. Not to mention the most wonderful meals happily endured and digested. GoldenEye; Ireland’s Ashford Castle; the Quisisana in Capri; the very vegan Candle 79 on the Upper East Side; and the Irish bar, the aptly named The Thirsty Scholar on the Lower East. Somehow I think F. Scott would have approved of the diverse itinerary and the victuals.
Perhaps I could not have written the great American attempt without his advice. The shutters that yield to the Caribbean Sea, the Victorian opulence of Ashford Castle with framed political caricatures of Gladstone and D’Israeli, the ancient lure of Tiberius and Graham Greene, Munthe and Neruda in Capri all provide a siren song, an inspiration and a way forward.
So F. Scott, I want to go places and see people too and write about it. Maybe certain nuggets will surface and then appear somewhere in some future tome and some won’t, but I will travel, explore, and gain from it like you and your honey did. And I will continue … to write home.