To celebrate the 17th anniversary of my biography of Winona Ryder this week, here is the very first interview I did for the book, which I did with Neil Milner for his quarterly published Winona Fanzine. The interview appeared in Issue #9, one month after publication of the book. In the interview, I talked to Neil about how the book came about, some of the people I interviewed for the project, and what I thought of Winona herself...
NM: I suppose the most logical place to start is, why a book on Winona? What gave you the idea to do a book on her?
Nigel: The initial idea came from Hannah MacDonald, then the publishing editor at Virgin Publishing. We were discussing another project when the possibility of a book on Winona came up. To write about the actress whose career I had followed with interest and admiration ever since watching her in Lucas in 1986 simply excited me. Not only that, but it would be entirely different from the type of books I’d done before. At that time, I was writing works of references, but now I had a vision of writing, what I hoped would be the first book about Winona Ryder. So that gave me the idea. I submitted a proposal for what I wanted to do, but all of a sudden, several books were announced for publication in the States. Dave Thompson’s book was the first straight biography and was, I thought, a very accomplished one, and one which sort of encapsulated some of my own ideas.
NM: Was it difficult to get a publisher interested?
Nigel: Yes, because it’s a very erratic market. Believe it or not, most rejected the idea in their belief that Winona, although ranked among the top ten box-office stars, and certainly one who encourages millions of fans, still didn’t have the profile to warrant a book. I remember one publisher telling me that most bestselling film biographies were the ones about the male heartthrobs, or if female, the ones with a reputed gay fan following, and as Winona didn’t fall into either category, I didn’t find anyone rushing to do my book. Even when I did find a publisher, they were only interested if it was authorised, which always scares me because I know how difficult it is to encourage someone like Winona to become involved with a project like this. And although some publishers take the view that it is best to co-operate and/or authorise a biography to ensure accuracy, not many Hollywood stars share that view. Nevertheless I had a go. In fact, I approached Winona’s public relations firm several times with several ideas asking for Winona’s co-operation and an interview, but as I have explained in my author note, her publicist made it clear that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a biography at this stage. I even remember when Hannah moved from Virgin to Andre Deutsch, she came up with the idea of Winona writing her own film dairies for a year or so, but even that was a no-no. Still Smith Gryphon did come back to me months later with an offer for an unauthorised work, and so, I began writing in the early part of April 1997, and quickly got up to speed as the manuscript had to be delivered at the end of June for publication that October to coincide with the landmark release of Winona’s twentieth film, Alien Resurrection. But about two weeks before it was due to go to print, Smith Gryphon sadly went into liquidation and my book on Winona was cancelled.
NM: And this was only the first delay…
Nigel: Yes, but I was really pleased that Blake Publishing were now going to publish Winona in April 1998. the icing on the cake was that they were going to put it out in hardback with two picture sections – one in black and white and one in colour. But their attempts to rush out my book didn’t really work out. The shops were reluctant to order a hardback and they also felt that they had not been given sufficient notice of publication which was really strange since Virgin’s sales teams had already been out selling the title for Smith Gryphon. Reluctantly Blake put publication back to September, and also decided to produce the book as a large format trade paperback instead of a hardback. Only differences were the price and that one was in soft covers and the other wasn’t. But there were advantages. I now had the opportunity to ensure that my book on Winona would be the most up-to-date published, which I think it is since it ends with Winona and Matt Damon. But it also allowed me the opportunity to do some fine tuning and polishing to the body of the text. Even the picture spreads got a re-working.
NM: Who did you interview for the book, and did they give you much material?
Nigel: Everyone at the Polly Klaas Foundation was extremely helpful in checking the chapter on the Polly case and guided me to write that part of the book more accurately. I spoke to them a number of times because one of my prime concerns was the sensitivity of the story and I didn’t want to cause any distress to Polly’s family and friends. The public relations associate at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco was equally helpful for commenting on the accuracy to the background of the A.C.T and to Winona’s time there, as well as supplying me with details of Winona’s honorary degree that they awarded to her in early 1997.
NM: Where there many people who turned you down, who said that they didn’t want to be interviewed?
Nigel: There were a few, but that was understandable since people can be very suspicious about co-operating with unapproved biographers. Long before I spoke with the public relations associate at A.C.T, I called the director of their Youth Conservatory, who had been there when Winona was a student, but he was reluctant to talk with me about Winona’s time at the A.C.T unless she called him to say it was okay. I respected that. Not only for the fact that he remained close to Winona and her family, but also because Winona continued to be very supportive to the conservatory. And from that point of view, without Winona’s blessing, I understood his reluctance. He did however tell me, that if I did ever manage to talk to Winona, I should be prepared for the fact that she didn’t really like talking about herself as she was very shy.
NM: Where there people you interviewed who perhaps hadn’t spoken at length about Winona before?
Nigel: I’m sure there were, but I wouldn’t claim great credit for that, you know, it’s not like ‘Hey! I interviewed this person for the first time!” because it’s not like I did any great thing. As I have already said, the Polly Klaas Foundation and A.C.T were extremely helpful, and maybe it was the first time they got involved in anything like this. I have to be thankful for that. That they allowed me to speak to them a great number of times, they’d go over the same ground for me, and they put up with me asking what probably sounded like stupid questions because I wanted to clarify so much.
NM: Was there anything that didn’t end up in your book?
Nigel: Yes, but that was to do more with legal reasons than anything else. I was very disappointed to lose the story about Winona being asked to leave Kenilworth Junior High because she was a distraction. Our libel report, essential to any biography, pointed out that this, as with a few others, could be taken with defamatory of living, identifiable individuals, and also alerted us the the fact that it should not be assumed that quotations or source material is necessarily accurate. So I’m afraid some passages of the manuscript had to be withdrawn.
NM: I heard that you also had difficulties with obtaining to use certain photographs. Is that true?
Nigel: Yes! Unfortunately, most of the film companies were reluctant to grant permissions because the book was unauthorised which is understandable in a way, and I respect that. We lost a lot of movie stills that way. You know things like Mermaids, Edward Scissorhands, The Age of Innocence, The House of the Spirits, Reality Bites, Little Women, The Crucible and Alien Resurrection. It was very disappointing, but we managed to replace them with some relevant pictures, something that still had a connection wherever possible. For instance, we used Winona receiving her Golden Globe for The Age of Innocence, and Winona and Daniel Day-Lewis at The Crucible premiere in place of the actual stills. In fact, I think we ended up with a selection of pictures that are perhaps not so often seen, so I hope that will please the fans. I think we’ve got some really good ones, and a few surprises too!
NM: I understand that the local newspaper in Winona’s hometown, in Petaluma, were very helpful. How much material did they give you for the book?
Nigel: Yes – the Petaluma Argus-Courier have definitely been helpful, in fact, I’m doing an interview with them in November which I’m very excited about. Nothing pleases me more than that because it’s Winona’s hometown – just hope she’s home when I’m in it! But I really appreciated their help in supplying me the article and interview they did with Winona around the release of Lucas in April 1986, which we have been able to include in the book. It features a wonderful picture they shot of Winona in her classroom at Petaluma Junior High. They also sent me an article and interview from the San Francisco Chronicle that Winona must have done around the same time. The picture that featured in the article of Winona stretched out across a railway track with her hair cut boyishly short, and wearing a lace scarf over a beat-up Levi jacket, and equally beat-up jeans, was another wonderful picture, and must be one of the least seen, but it was impossible to get hold of. We were unable to negotiate a permission fee, but there are always going to be photographs that you can’t use for one reason or another. I suppose you’d never finish a book if you wait until you’ve got hold of every picture you want. It’s just impossible to do. I remember we also wanted to use the one of Johnny Depp kissing Winona on the nose that was an official shoot for Vogue, taken by Herb Ritts, and was not available for unauthorised projects, but I’m glad we’ve got what we have in the picture spreads. I think they sort of depict what I’ve written in the text.
NM: What’s the publication date in the States?
Nigel: November in the States, it’s being distributed by Seven Hills, but I’m not sure of the exact date. I assume it’ll be out in the early part of the month. It’s been a labour of love – more so than any of my other books, but that’s because I think Winona Ryder is such a very, very, special actress, and it’s from that perspective that I was writing. I hope I don’t disappoint anyone! My ambition is that’ll it reach a readership of people who feel affectionate about Winona. People it’ll mean something to. I set out with the thought that this is such a great, great story and she is such a great actress. I have tried not only to tell her story but also to offer a sense of the world that she grew up in, and the excitement of the world she entered into – and it’s pitfalls.