Through vivid and deeply relatable prose, Cincinnatian Leah Stewart’s new novel What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw is a carefully crafted meditation on modern identity and the divisions between our private and public selves. It arrives at bookstores this week.
The narrative follows a rising actor, Charlie Outlaw, who leaves the U.S. for a secluded island where something terrible happens: He is kidnapped. The prose leaps seamlessly back to sunny L.A., where Outlaw’s ex-girlfriend Josie Lamar struggles with her decline in Hollywood fame. (Both struggle with their recent breakup.) Charlie and Josie met on set; their characters fell in love, and so did they. On one level, Charlie Outlaw is a suspense novel, but it is multilayered.
“As always, what I’m interested in about relationships is that they be complicated,” says Stewart, a creative writing professor and head of the Creative Writing: Fiction department at the University of Cincinnati. Though they’re not together for the majority of the book, Charlie and Josie think of each other. From an omniscient point of view, Stewart draws these thoughts out and reveals notions that the characters themselves may not have yet confronted.
Concerns about identity have been a consistent theme in Stewart’s previous novels, such as The History of Us and Body of a Girl (this is her fifth book). But Stewart says that in Charlie Outlaw, fame amplifies those concerns. “(Actors) have all the roles they play,” she says. “They have who they believe themselves to be, and then they have all these variations on who the public believes them to be.”
Stewart says that with the emergence of the digital world, celebrities have become more humanized and more accessible to fans than ever.
“People have always had a public self and a private self,” she says. “It used to be that when you talked about the public self, it was the self they were at work or at church. We didn’t necessarily mean that someone who lived on the other side of the country could put your name into a (digital) box to see pictures of you and learn a bunch of information about your life. This is a relatively new phenomenon for people in culture — even those of us who are not famous are now accessible to strangers in a much wider way.”
Stewart hopes her new novel challenges readers to reflect on their reactions to celebrities and the way we can confuse them with their roles. “We know intellectually that the person is not the character,” she says.
She began working on the novel two years ago, travelling to L.A. twice to tour sets and interview a plethora of actors and other staff (even a shuttle driver). She learned methods of acting and what goes into creating television programs. (For the kidnapping, she read memoirs from those who have experienced it.)
“When you’re trying to enter someone’s world imaginatively, it’s not enough to just know what they do. You also have to know what it feels like,” Stewart says. “For instance, something I kept asking the actors was, ‘Do you actually believe yourself to be the other person when you’re acting? Do you actually let go of yourself? Do you become the other person? Or are you aware the whole time that you’re saying the line in a certain way?’ ”
Stewart’s omniscient point of view (this is the first time she’s used this approach) allows the reader to intimately know the characters’ innermost thoughts, fears and desires — but from a distance.
We may feel like we know Charlie Outlaw from the book, just as we feel we know a celebrity from reading an article or scrolling through an Instagram feed. But, as the book’s title suggests, we really don’t. And that’s the point Stewart wants to drive home — in our tangled, hazy landscape of perceptions about life, there are indeed moments of truth to be recognized. But a full understanding of our reality is ultimately is more complicated than we may think.
Leah Stewart will debut What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2692 Madison Road, Rookwood Commons) 7 p.m. March 28. For more information, visit leahstewart.com