This reading group guide for Absolutely True Lies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rachel Stuhler. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Holly Gracin has learned that living in Los Angeles as an entertainment writer doesn’t come with any real perks. She makes little money and doesn’t get to write any fun stories about celebrities or attend swanky events. To top it all off, the fledgling magazine she’s working for suddenly shuts down. Without a paycheck, a job, or a decent apartment, Holly is on the verge of moving back home to upstate New York.
Desperate and hopeful, Holly accepts a job to write the memoir of eighteen-year-old Daisy Mae Dixson, a Nickelodeon child star, blockbuster actress, and emerging pop star. As soon as Holly embarks on her ghostwriting duties, she quickly discovers that Daisy is not the sweet, wholesome girl that the public has lovingly embraced. Instead, Holly follows Daisy around the world as she travels on yachts, drinks heavily, is stalked by paparazzi, and fights with her own staff.
While accompanying Daisy around the clock, Holly struggles to write the memoir, a task made more difficult when she falls victim to the media’s gossip mill and then becomes embroiled in a love triangle. When Daisy has a very public meltdown, Holly must figure out a way for the book to repair Daisy’s image—without ultimately ruining her own. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The title Absolutely True Lies
is a contradiction. Discuss the meaning of this phrase. What is a “true” lie? Have you ever told one? Why did the author choose this as the title of the book?
2. After accepting her new job as a ghostwriter, Holly worries that she’s in over her head. “I wasn’t qualified to do this job, not in any way, shape, or form, and I guessed it was just a matter of time before Jameson discovered this and canned my ass” (31). Why does Holly feel this way? Have you ever accepted a job that you felt unprepared for? What did you do?
3. Several characters refer to their jobs as “play.” Why is that?
4. When Holly faints in a club, lies are immediately spread about her in the media. How would you react if a lie was told about you, especially one so public?
5. How does Daisy the person compare to Daisy the celebrity? Does her seemingly wholesome image remind you of any other famous pop stars? Which pop stars do you think may not be as innocent as they appear?
6. What do you think about Holly simultaneously dating Ben and Vaughn, although neither relationship is official?
7. When Holly first met the Dixsons, she thought they were the “quintessential American family” (22). However, once she got to know them, her opinion changed drastically. She says, “As lovely and perfect as they seemed from the outside, in reality they had the market cornered on dysfunction” (119). What did she learn that changed her mind about the Dixsons? Do you agree with her? How did your feelings about the Dixsons change throughout the book?
8. Compare Ben and Vaughn. How are they similar? How are they different? Whose feelings for Holly seem more genuine? Are you on Team Vaughn or Team Ben?
9. How different would this book be if Holly could actually
write about Daisy’s reality? Would you maintain Daisy’s good-girl image, or reveal her true self?
10. When Holly confessed to Ben that she was having trouble capturing Daisy’s voice for the book since Daisy’s real life is not the same as the one she portrays, Ben said, “That’s part of Hollywood life, though. We’re selling a celluloid dream, not reality. People don’t want reality” (180). What does Ben mean? Do you agree with him that people don’t want to be sold reality? Do you think anything in Hollywood is real, or is it all manufactured for public perception?
11. When Holly is making her many wishes at the Trevi Fountain, she muses, “I know the popular wisdom is that voicing your wishes cancels them out, but I don’t believe that. I think that all too often, we don’t get what we want because we’re too afraid to put it out there” (183). Do you agree? Do you think Holly puts herself out there, or is she being hypocritical?
12. When Daisy disappears, Holly thinks to herself, “I know it sounds terrible, but [Daisy] was the architect of her own destruction and part of me truly felt like she needed to hit some kind of bottom if she had any hope of developing into a decent human being” (201-202). Why does Holly think that Daisy needs a fall from grace in order to learn from her mistakes? Do you agree? Are there any celebrities who’ve had public breakdowns, and then ultimately made triumphant comebacks?
13. Jamie immediately turned his back on Daisy once she went to jail and her reputation in the public eye was at stake. When Jamie reaches out to Holly asking for more money, he offers a warning about the Dixsons, saying, “They act like they care about you, but they don’t. They’ll use you and just throw you away. They do it to everyone” (272). Were you surprised by Jamie’s betrayal? Do you agree with his assessment of the Dixsons?
14. Were you surprised to learn of Vaughn’s real
intentions for dating Holly? Did you fall for his charm, too?
15. Describe what you learn about Daisy by the end of the book. Is she smarter than anyone gives her credit for? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Holly hated being followed by the paparazzi. Look through issues of US Weekly
magazine, or browse your favorite gossip blogs/websites. What kinds of celebrity pictures are published the most in the media? Would you want to be a celebrity? Could you handle the paparazzi following your every move?
2. Absolutely True Lies
gives an insider look at the underbelly of fame and fortune. Read a tell-all celebrity memoir with your book club. Was it scandalous? Did you learn any juicy gossip? Anything about celebrity culture? Did the book capture “the voice” of the star? Try Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World
by Lynne Spears or Facing the Music and Living to Talk About It
by Nick Carter.
3. Plan a European getaway to Rome! Visit the Trevi Fountain and make a wish. Like Holly, maybe yours will come true, too! If staying close to home is more your style, throw a Roman holiday–themed book club meeting with your favorite Italian foods, tiramisu, and lots of Italian wine. A Conversation with Rachel Stuhler Like Holly, you made a career out of ghostwriting a few celebrity memoirs. Are any of Holly’s scandalous experiences based on your own from your ghostwriting days? Absolutely True Lies
is fiction, but a number of the crazy experiences Holly has are based on things I went through either as a writer or working on film sets. I’ve been forgotten about, and I’ve gone unfed and unpaid for long periods of time. I actually started writing the book as a form of catharsis after a particularly bad day, just needing to get out my frustration in some more positive way than drinking my way through a bottle of ready-made margaritas. Absolutely True Lies is your first novel. How does writing a novel differ from ghostwriting a memoir?
One is pure fiction and the other is a novel! I’m just kidding. Both have their own unique difficulties, but one of the bigger challenges with a memoir is that life doesn’t happen as cleanly as it does in fiction. In a novel, I can come up with transitions and find plot points that work the best, but in a memoir, you have to smooth out a person’s real experiences. And let’s face it, life is bumpy and frequently doesn’t make as much sense. Besides Holly, are there any characters in the book that you can particularly relate to? Are any characters based on people you know or have interacted with in your own life?
Vaughn and Ben both have elements of my husband; the fun, talkative, funny guy I first met (Vaughn) and the smart, sweet, and insanely talented guy I came to know (Ben).
I also wrote in Axel and Sharla because I have a particular soft spot for the men and women of the “glam squad.” I worked on film sets from nineteen to twenty-seven years old and grew to love the makeup and hair department. Those guys and girls get to set earlier than 90 percent of the crew and have the greatest energy. Most of my haircuts in my twenties came from a set hair stylist, in exchange for a bottle of wine! What was your favorite scene to write in the novel?
That would have to be the two scenes where you really get a glimpse behind the facade of Daisy, first in the jail in Porta Maggiore and again at the party in New York. Daisy was a bit of a revelation to me as I wrote her. I had these ideas of who I wanted her to be and then she took on a life of her own, and both of those scenes are some of my favorite writing. Hollywood seems to thrive on salacious, superficial stories that manipulate the truth. Do you find the portrayal of Hollywood in the book to be true to life or an exaggeration?
Hollywood IS an exaggeration. Actors are paid millions of dollars to tell big stories and that carries over into their real lives; to a lesser extent, this also happens to the people working with them. It’s easy to get lost in the world of make-believe. Yes, salacious things happen here. But it’s also true that just as often the gossip is false and used to either gain or deflect attention away from what you don’t want people to talk about. Let’s talk about Daisy. Different layers of her character are uncovered throughout the book. Was she the most fun character to develop? Is she based on a specific celebrity?
Daisy is not based on a single person, or even a couple of people. Elements of Daisy come from quite a few performers I’ve worked with either as a writer or as a script supervisor. Of course it’s fun to write a person who can literally say anything, but it’s also a delicate balance. Daisy may be a little bananas, but it was important to me that she also be real. One of the major themes in the book is seeing beyond the facade, so I had to be careful to never dehumanize her. Why do you think America is so fascinated with fame and celebrity life?
Part of it is innate, biological. I’ve read studies about how other species fawn over the alpha in their groups the way we do over movie stars.
I think that our current state of celeb worship has taken things to a different level. Reality TV has created a new sort of aspiration where you don’t need to be an amazing actor or win an Olympic gold medal to become famous. So there’s a level of personal identification we’ve never had before. What I have yet to understand is the desire to watch both the rise and fall of celebs. I know people who’ve been addicted to a show and nearly worshipped the stars only to giggle with glee when those same idols are arrested or cheated on. You referenced The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills when describing Holly’s introduction to the Dixsons’ lifestyle. Do you watch reality television? What are your favorite shows? What do you think reality television reveals about America’s celebrity culture?
Have you seen RHOBH?
But seriously, I do watch a few reality shows. I’ll be the first to admit I can’t turn off RHOBH
, and I was a devotee of Dance Moms
until the end of season four (those kids are just too cute and talented). And the only two shows I have to watch live (as opposed to on DVR) are Top Chef
and Project Runway
, because I love food, fashion, and crazy talent (and I can’t handle spoilers!).
I have a lot of industry friends who hate reality TV for changing the landscape of entertainment, but like anything else in life, I think it’s both good and bad. Yes, we’ve made quite a few people famous for absolutely nothing, but I love that talented people from so many different disciplines are getting the attention they deserve. And sometimes it’s educational; I’m a much better cook since I started watching Top Chef
! Was it intentional to name your main character Holly, as a play on words of “Hollywood”?
I’m particular about what I name my characters and I’ve always found “Holly” pretty. In terms of the Hollywood connection, I liked it only because I knew that it would drive someone like Holly crazy. Holly constantly feels frustrated with Vaughn for failing to make concrete plans with her. “This is one of the many, many things I hate about men” (p. 172), she thinks to herself. Do you think women are more direct than men when it comes to relationships and their feelings?
I don’t, in fact. I think what Holly’s responding to isn’t men in general, but “the rules” we’re expected to play by in relationships. Wait three days to call, play hard to get . . . I’ve always hated any sort of pretense and Holly gave me an outlet for that frustration. She wants (as I always did, before I was married) a level of honesty that doesn’t exist much in the dating game. Hell, we even call it a game! Can readers expect a new book starring Holly Gracin in the future? Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
I loved every second I spent with Holly Gracin, and before I was even halfway through the book, I was already inventing new adventures for her in the future. So we’ll see!
As for what I’m working on now, I’m mentally back in Italy, though this time it’s a period piece, which is all I can say for now!