In 2011, Byron Lane was working the midnight to 7 a.m. graveyard shift as a newswriter for TV station KCAL 9 in Los Angeles when a friend reached out and asked, “Want to work for Princess Leia?” The New Orleans transplant spent the next three years as Carrie Fisher’s personal assistant, doing everything from traveling with her to Australia and Japan to meting out her daily medications, prescribed for her bipolar disorder.
Lane, an actor, screenwriter and playwright — his outlandish comedy “Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist,” starring Lane and Tommy Lenk, has played to packed houses in London and New York and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — is now releasing his debut novel, “A Star Is Bored,” a fictionalized account of a depressed news reporter who lands a dream job as the assistant to film icon Kathi Kannon. With prose in turns incandescent and uproariously funny, as well as poignantly tender and sweet, Lane’s novel, due out July 28 from Henry Holt and Co., is a love letter, not only to Carrie Fisher, but also to the ridiculous, bizarre and oft-magical world of Hollywood.
What was your inspiration for writing the book?
Carrie used to always say, “Take your broken heart and go make art.” So really after she died I had a real moment of reflecting on our time together and how special it was for me and how much she taught me about life and fun and friendship and family, so that’s where the inspiration for this book really came from. She had just this amazing spirit and I wanted to really capture that on these pages, and I hope I’ve done that and created a kind of a memory of the spirit of our time together.
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You could have written a memoir about your experience working for Carrie Fisher. Why did you decide to heighten this story to fiction?
Carrie used to like to write that way also, to take some inspiration from real life and turn it into a fictional story. Those are the kinds of stories I like to read and those are the kinds of stories I like to write, so it sort of landed on that. And also being fiction, it does allow you the freedom to enhance moments for humor or emotion, so it really just gave me a little more freedom creatively.
When Carrie Fisher died, how long had it been since you’d seen her?
I went to her birthday party, which was in October — she died in December. But I’m not sure, I would have to look up exactly if that birthday party was right before. The thing about her, I always felt she was there, we always felt connected. We texted and we emailed. One day, for example, I was walking through Jonathan Adler and they had this giant foot sculpture made of marble and I took a picture of it and sent it to her. And she was like, “Where is this? How much is it?” So there was always this kind of connection, so I never felt far away from her. And maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time remembering when I last saw her.
Kathi Kannon is a fictional character, and yet you very distinctly capture Carrie’s voice within Kathi — in her sarcasm, her wit and her compassion. How were you able to perfectly capture Carrie’s essence? Is it because her spirit is still so very much a part of you?
She does live inside me. When you work for someone as an assistant — and there are different assistant relationships — but in my experience with Carrie, I love her, I loved her, I cared about her, I felt in so many ways that her life was my responsibility. I woke her up in the morning. Not being with her in the evenings was weird, not seeing her on the weekends was weird. And so you do build their life inside you. You try to anticipate their needs and what’s happening. “What will she say when I tell her this? What will she say when I tell her that?” So I think some of that spills out a bit even in this fictionalized version of her. I also think I’ve had a good experience writing interesting characters. Like, my Tilda Swinton play was about Tilda Swinton, whom I’ve never even met, but I’ve had some success in sort of capturing this voice. Maybe it’s just something I’m good at, I don’t know. But with Kathi Kannon and Carrie Fisher, the similarities are coincidence. But Carrie does live inside me.
The descriptions in the book of Kathi Kannon’s house are so vividly wrought and absolutely hilarious. That line about the chairs made of animal corpses that she named after Chinese emperors — was anything in the home decor details rooted in truth?
I tried to fictionalize almost everything, so the chairs were not actually given names of the emperors. In real life those chairs came from a garage sale in Paris and she had them crated and sent over years and years ago. Everything in her house was magical, she was just magical. Everything around her, the people around her, the art around her, everything was magical. So I tried to capture that as best as I could and fictionalize it as much as possible to create some space between real life and fiction. But the seeds of truth are buried in there. There are whispers of truth here and there.
There’s a chapter in “A Star Is Bored” in which you and Kathi travel to see the northern lights. In real life, you also got to see them with Carrie Fisher. That must have been an incredible experience, for so many reasons.
It was one of the highlights of my life, and not just because of the natural phenomenon aspect. That was one of the things on her bucket list and, of all the things she got to experience, of every exotic place she got to go, that was one she had never experienced. And I got to do it with her. It was really powerful and special, and it did happen a little bit as it was written in the book. Carrie got a text from the weather report saying the conditions were the best ever for viewing the northern lights and we booked flights to Canada and we were out of [Los Angeles] the very next day. I didn’t even have a proper winter coat, so she bought me a proper winter coat. We had time to kill so we went dog sledding, and then when it came time to see the actual lights we ended up on a tour with a bunch of other people. I don’t even think they knew they were with Carrie Fisher, we were all so bundled up. We pulled up to this frozen lake and watched the lights and took pictures and it was so freezing cold and she was so happy and it was just a really beautiful moment.
You’ve written a play, a novel, screenplays, a web series. You’ve worked as a journalist. Is there one particular type of writing that feels more comfortable than the others?
I love all of it. I’m not afraid of any medium and have had such a great experience. I wrote a film for Octavia Spencer called “Herpes Boy,” of all things. We won best comedy at ComicCon back in the day. I’ve done a web series about my testicular cancer. I really just kind of go for whatever I’m inspired to do, that’s how I land. It’s not that each of these doesn’t bring its own set of learning curves. The Tilda Swinton play has been pretty well-received and that’s in part because I did so many versions of it. I did table reads and if people laughed, I kept it. If they didn’t laugh, I cut it. Sometimes there were accidents onstage that people loved and we would try to work those accidents into the script. It was really a living organism and it translated into a great education in writing and flexibility and being able to take good notes.
You’ve got your first novel coming out, but you’re also going through cancer, which you originally wrote about in your 2016 web series, ‘Last Will and Testicle.’ How are you feeling? Will you be speaking publicly about the cancer?
I try to live a really honest open life. I just feel like it serves me that way. Most of the time when I tell people I had testicular cancer five years ago and it just came back and I’m in chemo, people are like, “Me too,” or “my brother had it,” or I’m getting Instagram messages from people about their own experiences. It just serves me to be honest. Right now, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I think this is all ridiculous, that we have to go through this ordeal with our bodies. But on the other hand, I’m really trying to practice radical acceptance, to love what is. I saw this thing spray-painted on the sidewalk in L.A. one day and it said: Live this life. And that really struck me — not being at war with reality. The truth is, because the book’s coming out, I just gotta get through this chemo. It’s really treatable, really curable. I think I have a good perspective on that. By July 28 my cancer stuff should be done, hopefully I’ll get a clean bill of health, my hair will grow back and I can rock and roll with the book.
What do you think Carrie would say during this time?
She was always all about, “Don’t take life too seriously, find the humor in things.” She loved any conversation about genital jokes, so this was all right up her alley. When I did the “Last Will and Testicle” web series she really loved that; she tweeted about how it was hilarious.
She was just a good sport and a ray of sunshine and a bright light. So I do try to think about her positive influence and the good, kind things she would say. And
it does bring me comfort.
What is something about Carrie Fisher that we may not already know?
Carrie was a real open book. What you see is what you get. That was her: honest, real, hilarious. She was super damn generous. If fans approached her, wherever she was, whatever was happening, she had a minute for them. That’s how she was. She was so fucking cool.