Our wise-cracking anti-heroine is style nazi Carlotta Novak, an over-the-hill actress who still harbors dreams of making it big, but makes her Hollywood Hills house payments by working as a hired assassin. She knows who to call to get what she wants, including her partner-in-crime, a Variety reporter who answers the phone, "Thompson here!" (Looking for references to the familiar but fictitious Anne Thompson was not the only reason I whipped through this book in record time.) Carlotta's specialty? Knocking off top stars just in time for them to win a posthumous Oscar.
The idea for "Shooting Stars" came to Johnson as she was sitting in a restaurant having lunch with her boyfriend when they heard the news that Michael Jackson had died. It struck her that, like Heath Ledger, Jackson was worth more dead than alive. "The Oscars is something every man woman and child on the planet understands and can buy into," Johnson says. "When I was living in India, the one TV station aired farming shows and The Oscars. Winning an award is the magical anointing to the star to add zeroes to their worth--dead or alive."
Johnson knows whereof she speaks. When she arrived in Los Angeles in the 80s with her young son, she fell into journalism. She covered celebrities for Buzz and Hollywood parties for the LA Times. She talked to Charlton Heston about the NRA, played patty cake with Bob Hope--"that was surreal and weird"--talked raising kids with Michelle Pfeiffer at the Four Seasons and makeup with starlet Jennifer Lopez. For InStyle, Johnson riffled through celebrity purses for the "what's in your make-up bag" column. At Premiere, I assigned Johnson to cover one of the Dalai Lama's tours through Hollywood, complete with Richard Gere and Sharon Stone. "It was not sexy hard-hitting stuff," she admits. "We weren't talking about the movies."
After 15 years she ditched L.A. to live on a sailboat in the Oxnard Marina. She continued to freelance lifestyle and business features for Worth and other outlets, and became editor of the weekly Ventura County Reporter. Most recently she's been creative director for software training company Agile Learning Labs, where a year ago she started publishing imprint Dymaxicon Press, which has done well with eight titles, including Rommelmann's "The Bad Mother," and already launched "Shooting Stars" on Kindle, by far Dymaxicon's biggest market. Agile Learning splits proceeds with authors.
With Dymaxicon, Johnson finally came back to her first love, writing fiction. "As I got older and less sophisticated, I was reading more crap mysteries," she says, "light and fluffy or dark and fluffy guilty pleasures. I decided to write one."
So Johnson, 48, started pouring all her "ambivalence, love, hate, and everything about L.A. and Hollywood" into Carlotta, who still desperately wants to become a movie star but instead works as a killer-for-hire. "I set out to write a genre piece," Johnson says, "but at the same time, anything you want to accomplish as a writer you can do within or without a genre. It doesn't mean that as a literary writer I can't have as much fun as everyone else. You see it on TV: 'Deadwood' is a novel."
So Johnson put Carlotta in the hot seat in every way she could devise. "Opportunities come for her to land a role in a movie, or to access killing someone in a movie. How does that make her feel? One of the things I learned interviewing actors is they are forced into perpetual self-examination that would make anybody nuts."
Carlotta gets tangled in intrigue with a star couple she knows well, named Angelina and Thad, who are speculatively modeled after their famous inspirations. "I just wanted to go big," says Johnson. "I've always been skeptical about all the do-goodism, the overblown emphasis on parenting. Everyone talks about it like they invented it, discovered the secret to eternal life. It's something all people do! I wanted to mix it up, have real people, fictional people and hybrids of fictional and real people, make it fun and readable for people who know nothing about Hollywood, and a little bit of a treasure hunt for people who do know something."
The internet helped Johnson to do research and stay up-to-date. Changes on the business side of the entertainment industry have also fueled her intricate plotting. "In order for Carlotta to earn a living we needed some detached, shadowy business figures to move other people like little pawns and knock them off the board."
A whodunit is complex puzzle: at one point Johnson retired to a hotel in Tiberon and coated its big sliding glass mirror doors with post-it notes in order to streamline the plot. She wanted to sweep the reader into Carlotta's various quests without bogging them down by having to think too hard. "I've learned that that's the hardest thing to do with this kind of story. To work up a swiss watch of a plot, it has to mean something to the characters."
Johnson isn't through with Carlotta and the Oscars: "They get another round in the sequel."