ELIZABETH GRACEN is a force of nature.
First off, she's a beauty queen -- a former Miss America, so there's that. Her acting career includes hit TV series like CHARMED and HIGHLANDER, and she briefly headlined her own show: HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN. She also directed THE DAMN DEAL (2000,) a documentary short about three young, female impersonators in Arkansas who compete in beauty pageants. Lately she's been pouring gas on her own creative projects, directing dance-themed shorts like THE PERFECTION OF ANNA, MARY ANNE and IN BETWEEN as well as collaborating with Lineage, a modern dance company dedicated to helping charitable, educational and nonprofit organizations across the country.
Now she's just published SHALILLY, a whimsical, delightful YA fantasy novel with a healthy splash of magic. We chatted with Elizabeth about career highlights, finding inspiration and getting it done however you can.
by Jim Cirile
Jim Cirile (JC): Elizabeth, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. You’ve had many impressive careers: you’re an actor, writer, and director as well as a former Miss America. Can you tell us a bit about the course your life and your career has taken and how your divergent enterprises fit together and inform each other?
Elizabeth G. (EG): Thank you so much for wanting to hear about my new book. I so enjoyed meeting you guys in Hawaii at the Big Island Film Festival a couple of years ago. It was exciting to meet fellow filmmakers and to make new friendships out of the experience - you guys are top of the list!
Back in 1982 - after traveling around America and abroad for a whole year and performing every day as Miss America, I got the acting bug and decided to use my scholarship money to move from Arkansas to NYC and study acting at HB Studios in Greenwich Village. There, I learned that is was necessary to open up the Pandora's Box of emotion, experience and reflection within me. It is absolutely necessary to access that part of yourself for the craft… and it was a great jumping off place for me to develop as an artist.
Since then, I think everything I have done to express myself over the years, either as an actor, writer, painter or filmmaker feels like the same expression to me – it all feels connected. Connected to my basic ideas, curiosity and intuition. Ultimately, I hope that what I create connects to something intrinsically true and familiar to everyone.
|She is 1,000 years old and cannot die - alas, the show could.|
EG: I was so lucky to have worked on HIGHLANDER. It was the best acting job I ever had. Nothing else compares in terms of a creative experience as an actor. I got the job on a recommendation from one of the producers who helped bring the late, great Bill Bixby's DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK to life - another very important job for me. When they called and asked me if I wanted to fly to Paris to play an immortal jewel thief named Amanda, I couldn't pack my bags quickly enough! What happened after that was the start of a long, fruitful, amazing experience.
Television, in general, works at a fast pace - something that suits me perfectly. I move, think and 'spitball' quickly - it drives a lot of people crazy, but it's just the way I work. I tend to write quickly at first, trusting my instincts, without too much judgment. If time permits, I put it away until I can see it with fresh eyes. I think my long experience on HIGHLANDER bolstered that style of working.
For me, this way of working can be a hindrance as well. It means that I have a lot of ideas that never get developed. There are just so many hours in the day, right? A spontaneous process can also leave you with way too much on your plate... or plates! That happens to me all the time. I have to fight to keep it all contained and not get distracted with a new idea.
JC: Often we find that actors who are also writers are particularly strong when it comes to characterization and dialogue. Do you feel the same way?
EG: If that's true, I'm sure it comes from having to create a living, breathing person out of the words on a page. It's working in the opposite direction when it comes to character development. I think my acting experience makes it easier for me to write, direct and produce any project.
JC: Tell us a little about SHALILLY, your recently released debut novel.
EG: SHALILLY is a YA romantic fantasy novel set in ancient Greece in the time of the Oracles. Fippa is a sixteen year-old misfit mystic who lives at the temple in Delphi. She wants desperately to be a famous Oracle, but her life is thrown into chaos when she travels through a portal to a parallel dimension to rescue the warrior, Ision, and bring him back to Earth before Darkness annihilates love from the Cosmos.. The only problem is, when she travels through the portal, she is transformed into a creature of legend – a butterfly girl called the Shalilly. She is captured, caged and sold at auction to the very man she came to find – Ision. Ision, however, has no idea of who he really is because he was pulled into the parallel dimension against his will. With time running out before the bad guys figure out who the Shalilly really is and destroy her, Fippa decides to entertain her new captor with a story. Unbeknownst to him, it is their story – the story of Love.
JC: That’s pretty cool. What was your inspiration?
EG: Thanks! It started with an article in Scientific American about Mt. Parnassus in Delphi and the ethylene gas that emits through the cracks in the mountain. The thrust of the article is that this gas was probably the reason these young Pythia, or Oracles, were sent into wild trances and uttered gibberish and barked like dogs back in the day when a Delphic Oracle was considered the mouthpiece of the god Apollo.
The idea started there – along with a lyric from a fabulous song by Rufus Wainwright called, "Go or Go Ahead." There is line that says, “Oh, Medusa, kiss me and crucify this unholy notion of the mythic power of Love.” It got me spinning on the idea of a world without love and compassion.
From that point on – I don’t even know when I actually decided to send my young heroine into a parallel dimension called the Paradigm -- full of mythic creatures, talking animals and the Pale Ones who rule them. It just manifested itself as I went along.
|The wonderful art of Luca DiNapoli|
EG: I'm definitely interested in the whole world of young adults. It is such a volatile, important phase in human development. A lot my original film work and scripts have a young female protagonist who is questioning the world around her, challenged by her surroundings -- trying to figure it all out. I can't seem to not write about that phase! Some of that comes from the fact that I have a ten year-old daughter, but a lot of it can be traced back to my particularly difficult childhood and horrible time during adolescence. Some really bad things happened to me that I won’t go into here –- but I didn’t have a lot of guidance during that time, and I didn’t really see my experience reflected in books or films. I think I’m still processing those experiences and healing through my art. My hope is that other young people – especially young girls - might identify with the emotions and questions these female protagonists are going through – and that they find hope and inspiration to carry on the good fight and learn to take up for themselves and develop healthy self-esteem and compassion for themselves and those around them.
The fantasy genre is one that I have always enjoyed reading. I’m a true believer in magical thinking! That comes from the best part of my childhood spent with my wily Grandmother Murphy. I spent a lot of time with her in a world of make-believe. She used to tell me stories about the fairies at war with the evil spiders in her attic. She was what I call a Would-Be Witch who had palm reading books, crystal balls performed magic tricks and told fortunes for me and all my friends. Fantasy is in my bones.
JC: What are your future plans for SHALILLY? Where do you hope it goes? Do you see it as potentially being part of a series of novels?
EG: I don’t know that SHALILLY will be a series in the traditional sense. More than likely – because I absolutely love the book’s illustrations by the artist Luca di Napoli – we’ll take the butterfly girl to a younger demographic. I’m thinking of a series of books for young readers or possibly even board books for an even younger audience. It won’t be the same story – just the lovely Shalilly. It will be a fantastic world with no Darkness – just beautiful creatures living in harmony and learning valuable lessons.
JC: What are your future plans for Flapper Press?
EG: I’m very excited about Flapper Press and all the possibilities. It will eventually be a boutique, curated publishing company and e-commerce source for books, poetry, blogs, art and unique offerings from a stable of talented influencers, thought leaders, writers and artists. My intent is to expand the site into the realms of art, ideas, film, television and themes in popular culture. The website will feature indie authors and original content that explores culture, gender, work, art and magical thinking. On of my great pals, Kate Canada Obregon - a brand strategist and social scientist - will be the site's 'eye on culture.'
My next book is actually a non-fiction guide called THE GO-TO GAL’S ULTIMATE EMERGENCY ORGANIZER. It’s a mom-friendly take on emergency prevention and disaster preparedness. We’ll have a line of really helpful decals that supplement the book =- emergency contact info, medical information & alerts, medication dosage, emergency pet information, utility shut-off, etc. We think it would make an amazing, useful package for school fundraising – much better than chocolate bars and candy!
JC: No kidding -- I have a daughter, too, and let me tell you, every semester I wind up buying an enormous box of fund-raiser chocolate bars. I love that you just went out there and DIY’ed -- which is what we always preach here at Coverage Ink.
EG: I'm learning as I go, but I feel fortunate to live in a time when any form of DIY is possible. I decided to become a filmmaker at just the right time. The DSLR came out - I shoot a lot of my films myself with a Canon 5D, Mark II - which made it incredibly easy to shoot and experiment. I've also found tremendous success in finding talented people to work with through Thumbtack, Upwork, Freelancer, etc. I think it is amazing that the illustrator for SHALILLY lives in France, my book editor lives in San Diego, my book formatter lives in the Philippines, and I employ virtual assistants from as far away as Nigeria -- and I've never seen them or even spoken with any of them on the phone! How cool it that? I love that I'm part of an international village of artists and technicians.
JC: We love that you always find a way to shoot projects that you're passionate about through your production company Flapper Films.
EG: I'm always in the process of shooting and adapting the work of choreographer Hilary Thomas. The Lineage Dance Company is a constant source of inspiration for me. I've just finished shooting what I thought was going to be a simple behind-the-scenes doc for my Parkinson's film, MARY ANNE. However, as more interviews and footage materialized in the process, the film has become a documentary short called DANCE FOR JOY - a tribute to my grandfather, Tom Murphy, who had Parkinson's, and to the great work that the Lineage Dance Company and the Mark Morris Dance Company in New York are doing with their Dancing Through Parkinson's programs. Its also a real celebration of the unique, inspiring relationship between the stars of MARY ANNE - Austin Roy and Mary Anne Moses.
|Lee Meriwether in "Star Trek"|
Aside from that, I just shot former Miss America and Catwoman, Lee Meriwether! What a treat! It's another documentary short, and may be the first of many short films I do about amazing women over 70. Lee is so lovely and just radiates warmth and beauty.
My goal is to get my first feature off the ground. It's a dark fantasy called JEANNE and is set in the Loire Valley in the early 70's. I need to go back in an do a rewrite, but I have to clear off the deck to make room!
JC: Thanks so much for taking the time. Do you have any advice you’d give other writers, or perhaps a key piece of advice someone gave you?
EG: I’m such a work in progress. I’m still learning, still exploring. One of the greatest things about living at this point in history is that the technology is there for artists, young and old, to express themselves – to create films, books, art… You just have to have to believe in yourself and not be afraid of what people think of you. Life is short. Say what you want to say. Just do it!
You can check out Elizabeth Gracen's SHALILLY right here on Amazon. Her film MARY ANNE was just accepted by Moscow's International Breaking Down Barriers VIII Film Festival, and .THE DAMN DEAL was just picked up for Dekkoo.com - a subscription based streaming service dedicated to gay men. Visit Flapper Films at http://www.flapperfilms.com/.