Amber Tamblyn’s Book Of Poems Is About Dead Actresses

Most people will recognize Amber Tamblyn from her breakout role in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and her recent recurring guest appearances on Two and a Half Men. But when Tamblyn isn’t performing for the camera, she’s always got several other hats on — she’s also a writer, producer, director, and an accomplished poet who has already released two previous books of poems. In her third and latest release, Dark Sparkler (Harper Perennial), Tamblyn explores the sad underbelly of Hollywood as she recounts and reinterprets the tragic young lives of 38 gone-too-soon actresses. We caught up with Tamblyn about her life as a poet, the girl who inspired this whole project, and what she’s got up her sleeve next.

Where did the idea for this book come from?
The book was completely accidental, meaning I didn’t seek it out or say “Here’s a really good idea.” It started out because I wrote this poem about Brittany Murphy in 2009, the year that she died. She’s the only one in the collection who was a peer. We were in the same age group. I sent the poem to a couple of friends of mine who are poets and editors and they really responded to it. Two of my close girlfriends said to me, “This is going to be in your next book.” So it started with this one poem and I took other peoples’ idea [that I should turn this into a book].

There are a lot obscure actresses represented in here, a handful that go way back into the silent film era. Did this require a ton of research?
For the most part I didn’t really know many of these actresses. It took a lot of research. It took six years to write, with a year break in the middle of that. The more that I would search, the more I would find actresses that had these similar tragic stories, and I realized this was a much bigger project than I had anticipated, just because of how many there were. I felt like it wouldn’t be a full book unless I put absolutely everyone that has ever been recorded in history in it, whether I knew them or not.

Did writing about so many of these dead actresses mess you up in the head?
Well, that’s why I took a year off from writing the book. Honestly, because of exactly that. There’s only so much you can do, spending time researching your dead peers. There were many times I felt like maybe this book shouldn’t happen, like maybe I was wrong. So there was a good year and a half where I didn’t write anything and I took a break from the entire project because of how much it messed with my head.

So what pushed you to finish?
I’d come so far and I’d written so much that it felt weird not to finish it. Writer friends were very supportive of it. A friend said to me, “Why don’t you take a break, start another project, and then come back to this in a couple of years?” But it was also one of those things where if I couldn’t finish the book then I wouldn’t want to write again, you know? It’s not the sort of thing you walk away from and come back to 10 years later. I was either going to be obsessed with the project or I wasn’t. There was no other choice. There was no “not finishing it.” But after my year break was when some of the best work came to fruition, I think. And it wasn’t until after I sold the book that my editor pushed me to write the epilogue. That was not part of the original book at all.

I definitely wanted to ask you about the epilogue. It’s the part of the book where you turn things around and write your process of writing this book — super meta, very inward — and you go into dark places of your own. Were you nervous at all about your friends and family reading your inner thoughts and some of your personal emails that you published?
Yeah, there’s even a part where I black out someone’s name [in an email] because I felt so guilty that she would read it. I said to my editor, “I don’t wanna insert myself into this book any more than I’m already in it.” I initially didn’t want to write the epilogue but he was the one that said, “But people are going to want to know. You’re talking about the eternal lives of these women. You’re talking about what it feels like to be them. People are going to want to know what it feels like for you while you were writing about them.” It turned into an argument I couldn’t win. He was right, though. I just didn’t want to do the work. It’s like a whole other book within a book. And it’s dark, but to me it’s also about rediscovering myself and rebirth, shedding of old skin. I think the epilogue very much reflects that sense of while I’m scared of death, there was a huge part of me that needed that, this feeling of isolation and knowing I have no control over my life.

Every poem in here is written vastly differently from the other. One is in the form of a script, another reads like a short story, some are really alternative and left open to interpretation. How’d you figure out each poem?
Each one came to me differently. Some of them were easy. I knew how to enter into them quickly and I understood how to write them. And other ones, like the Martha Mansfield piece, which isn’t even in the “poetry part” of the book but it appears in the epilogue was more difficult. Hers appears as a voyeuristic story where I show the reader what it was like to create a poem for this young starlet whose hoopskirt caught on fire and she burned to death at 24 years old. And for me it was as if I was saying, “You’re last on the list of my actresses and I can’t quite figure out how to write for you,” and then I’d go off on a tangent about taking a pill and drinking to numb the experiences and feelings I was having about that journey. It was sometimes hard to get through a certain piece and it had nothing to do with the actress’ personal story and more about how the writing process was naturally unfolding.

Then there are ones like the Barbara La Marr piece, which is only a phone number and that’s it.
A lot of reporters have asked me what the phone number was for and I’d say, “Why don’t you call it” and they’d say, “I don’t want to!”

Should I call it? It looks like a real number but I’m too scared to know who or what is on the other end.
Maybe it’s a metaphor for death! The fear of the unknown. [Laughs]

The design feels integral to the book. The layout has the vibe of a literary journal — it’s minimal and the color palette consists of white, black, yellow, and magenta.
When I first saw the final book in color, I was taken aback. Not in a negative way, but I assumed that because the content is so dark that the book’s appearance would also be dark. I was blown away by the idea of it being a fluorescent book. But I think it’s a nice contrast to how overall dark the book is.

You also have a bunch of original pieces from notable artists in the book — David Lynch, Marcel Dzama, Sandro Kopp, Sage Vaughn, to name a few.
The first artist that was attached to the book was Marilyn Manson who was originally going to do all of the art but time went by and we both got busy. After he had done this piece for me, I decided to make this book 10,000 times more complicated and the most difficult process, so I reached out to a bunch of artists. I knew for sure I wanted it to be all male artists just because the book is so female-heavy. And the more these artists said yes, the more I felt happy that this project meant something to them. I felt very fortunate. I even have my father’s art in there.

My last question for you is about your production company, Nevermind I’ll Do It Productions. What do to hope to accomplish with that?
I started it when I wrote and directed my first film last year, which I’m actually in the editing room for today. I’m very interested in very real, honest, gritty stories about women. I hope to make shows and films about tragedy and things that are intense to watch and take in. Not just for shock and awe value but with real stories to tell, like the film I directed which was originally a Janet Fitch novel called Paint it Black that I adapted. She also wrote the book White Oleander. If any of your readers are Janet Fitch fans, they’ll understand!