This reading group guide for Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Victoria Rowell. 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 Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
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tells the story of Calysta Jeffries, an actress who plays onscreen soap diva Ruby Stargazer on television’s popular soap opera, The Rich and the Ruthless
. The story begins at the Sudsy Awards, the fictional version of the Daytime Emmy Awards. Calysta is up for best actress and after fifteen years of hard work and good acting, she deserves it. The drama unfolds when the award goes to Calysta’s onscreen/offscreen rival Emmy Abernathy. What follows is a dramatic, passionate, emotional and hilarious story of one woman’s journey to make amends with the past and discover what it means to be happy and fulfilled. Questions and Topics for Discussion
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
- The story opens at the Sudsy Awards with Augustus Barringer whispering predictions to Calysta: “The night belongs to you, kid . . . I can feel it” (p. 3). Did this opening scene assure you of Calysta’s win, or did you get the sense she would lose? In light of the ending, do you think Mr. Barringer’s words provide a foreshadowing for the end of the story? How so?
- What did you make of Emmy and Randall’s relationship? Did it surprise you? Do you think Emmy had feelings for Randall, or was it simply a power play? Do you think Randall had feelings for Emmy? Turn to page 64 and discuss.
- After losing the Sudsy to Emmy, Calysta is understandably very upset: “Damn right it was my year, Mitch! But considering how certain vicious bubble-troublemakers who call themselves peers vote for whoever campaigns with Starbucks and Krispy Kremes as opposed to actors who turn in solid performances, I’ll never win, ’cause honey, I don’t do doughnuts . . .” (p. 13). Do you think Calysta’s comment rings true in the real soap world? Did it surprise you that the votes were presented as political moves? Do you think that is the reason Calysta didn’t win the Sudsy? Was there another reason?
- Consider the structure of the novel: part first person narrative, part gossip blog, and part screenplay. What effect do you think the structure has on the story overall? What part did you like best?
- Revisit Ruby’s last scene on The Rich and the Ruthless (p. 148–160). What did you think of Ruby’s last performance? About the fight scene? Was it necessary, or over-the-top? Did Emmy deserve a fight? Did Calysta?
- A topic that comes up frequently in the novel is racism, particularly on the set of The Rich and the Ruthless. Calysta points out there has never been an African American writer or storyline, that very few minorities are hired for onscreen/offscreen roles, and that the executives cater to the white audience even though the show is more popular in black households. What are other examples of racism in the novel? In media in general? What do you think the author is trying to say about television today?
- Consider the title of the novel. What secrets do you think the title references? Whose secrets? Why do you think the author chose this title? Do you think the secrets could be the author’s real stories about her soap opera experience? How much do you think is fiction and how much fact? Where do you think the author stopped using her imagination and started telling the truth about soaps?
- A possible theme of the novel emerges on page 159 when Derrick tells Calysta: “Listen, babe, sometimes you think things are bein’ done to ya when they’re bein’ done for ya. Try to look at this as an opportunity to spread them lovely velvet wings of yours and fly.” How is Calysta’s experience a positive one? Does she “spread them lovely velvet wings” and fly? How so?
- Reread Calysta’s car accident, beginning on page 173. Was she guilty? Do you think she needed to go to rehab?
- “To start my life over, I had to learn how to live it right, revisiting my past, and making amends, the first steps to a full recovery” (p. 363). Were you surprised by Calysta’s transformation? By the ending? Do you think Calysta is blackmailed again, or do you think she lives happily ever after?
1. Victoria Rowell, the author of Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
, is a real-life soap star who played Drucilla Winters on CBS’s popular daytime series, The Young and the Restless
for more than two decades. Watch old episodes of The Young and the Restless
with your book club and try to find similarities between Drucilla and Ruby. In light of the show, discuss how much of this book you think is fiction and how much you think is based on real-life soap drama.
2. “The Diva” gossip blog, featured at the beginning of many chapters, is reminiscent of all the gossip magazines and blogs that exist today. Pick up a few copies of Soap Opera Digest
and watch a few episodes of Gossip Girl.
Find similarities and differences between the “real” soap dramas, the TV spoof, and the novel. Why is gossip such an important part of popular culture? How did gossip help shape the novel?
3. The line between fiction and biography is blurred in this novel. Spend some more time with Victoria Rowell; have your book club read Victoria’s memoir, The Women Who Raised Me.
Is Victoria’s life similar to her characters’? Different? What message do you think Victoria is sending to her audience? A Conversation with Victoria Rowell
1. You were born in Portland, Maine and you were raised in foster care for eighteen years. Did your memoir of that experience—The Women Who Raised Me—influence this book? Describe how your childhood experiences have helped shape you into the star you are today.
Absolutely. The women who raised me were all independent, successful, and intrepid. They were out-of-box thinkers, whether a farmer in Maine or a ballet teacher in New York. Without question, I was shaped by the discipline of farming, which requires acute scheduling and order—from the planting to the harvest. It’s labor intensive while at the same time the physicality earns you a hard-won result that is gratifying. That said, discipline is at the heart of all my success and my first discipline is being a farmer. 2. How much of this story is “fiction” and how much is “true”? Would you classify this story as fiction based on personal experiences, or personal experiences peppered with fiction?
I believe the best writing is informed by actual experiences. Though Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
is entirely fiction, I’ve starred on three different soap operas over a span of twenty years and would conclude my personal experiences layer and inspire all of my writing. 3. Why did you decide to write this story? Describe the journey from conception to publication.
I had the extraordinary privilege to work under the daytime drama scribe William J. Bell. Bill Bell was the kind of person who inspired me to do more than act. Where I’d been writing since a child, I was further motivated to put pen to paper for a soap opera novel in the late 90s because I believed there was a part of daytime drama that remained shrouded in secrecy to its fans, and an opportunity to engage people who’d never watched soap operas at all.
I began toying with a film script but decided I needed to write the book first. Where I’d accumulated considerable amounts of material for Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
over the years, it was writing my memoir that gave me the momentum to finish my novel. Interestingly enough, as demanding as it was being on a New York Times
bestselling book tour, I was fueled by how Secrets
took on a life of its own. I knew I was onto something when the book began waking me up in the morning and I worked on it sometimes thirteen hours a day, completing it while on the road. It took two years to shape and get it published. 4. Were any of the characters based on people you have known in your life? On yourself? Do you relate most to Calysta? Why or why not?
I will simply say that, much in the way that I fashion my characters on myself when I act I, too, use that technique in my novel. For instance, the legendary character Drucilla Winters on The Young and the Restless
is a compilation of multiple people I grew up with. So my characters may not necessarily be informed by one person, but rather a composite of individuals.
Naturally, I relate to Calysta Jeffries on many levels, first and foremost her survivor spirit, indefatigable energy, and zeal for fashion. 5. How did you make the move from acting to writing? Are the two similar? Do you give more of yourself when you act or write, or are the two equal?
I don’t look at it as a move as I never stopped writing. I was a writer before an actor and used that skill in editing countless scripts. In fact, I believe my writing skills enhanced my performances.
In my world they’re synonymous. They’re equal because I pour just as much energy into the words while sitting in a chair, as I would acting them physically. Both acting and writing come from the soul, and I have a physiological reaction whether I’m dancing, acting, or writing. It’s a spiritual encounter. 6. Your novel depicts a part of stardom that we don’t often see in popular culture; that is, those who are victimized by racism in their careers, such as Calysta. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view?
I actually don’t see Calysta as a victim. As is the case with many individuals who are courageous enough to attempt to change something that’s antiquated, it’s never popular and always met with pushback. It’s easier to minimize Calysta’s contributions than to recognize them because to recognize them would force change. Sadly, change costs money and forces an upending of one’s comfort zone. Therefore, Calysta is emblematic of countless people around the world. Whether you’re prejudiced against as a woman, handicapped, gay, black, or for creed, she represents the pursuit of closing the disparity therein. I hope my readers will come away from reading my tome, Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
with more than daytime drama. 7. Why did you decide to structure the story as part first person narrative, part gossip blog, and part screenplay? What effect do you think the structure has on the story overall?
I felt it was imperative for me to write in first person. Being one of the top fifty actresses in daytime television, my fans would have expected no less, as it’s a staple in soap operas. I personally love reading books in first person. I’m immediately drawn into the story and instantly absorbed in what the narrator is sharing with me.
Given the virtual nature of the world today with twitter, facebook, blogs, etc. and their global reach of hundreds of millions daily, it goes without saying how instrumental anything viral is to the success of whatever you’re advertising, be it clothes, music, TV/film, and namely books. It’s where media is at today. As I’m a huge fan of twitter and facebook and am giving my novel its own twitter and website, www.secretsofasoapoperadiva.com, having a blog incorporated in the novel made all the sense in the world.
Over the past twenty years, in answering oodles of fan mail, one of the most sought after items from me is a signed script. With that in mind, knowing the fans love the idea of owning a script, feeling a script, and reading the intricacies of stage direction that’s encapsulated in a script, I incorporated that element into my novel. I think the fans will really enjoy seeing the script pages . . . with my actual changes.
All that said, the rules of the literary game have changed for the most part. Meaning, as writers we have to, without compromising our story, consider all of the modern tools available to us to further connect with the world that wakes up to the Internet and goes to sleep to it. 8. What would you name as the major theme(s) of the novel? What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
Behind-the-scenes soap biz politics. Family. And love conquers all.
I hope my readers will come away from reading my tome, Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva,
with more than daytime drama. 9. Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this novel?
In a perfect world, yes. But I won’t hold my breath. I’ll just say, it won’t be color television in my eyes until there’s more diversification in front of the lens as well as behind it. In every area, directing, writing, producing, and all creative endeavors. There’s an ocean of rich talent out there and I know how hard I’ve worked to attain success and be counted. What’s tantamount in order to bring about change or make a difference; you have to stay in the race. That’s why I’m a long-distance runner. 10. Who are you reading now? Who is your favorite author? What is next for you as a writer? As an actress?
I’m reading Victoire: My Mother’s Mother
by Maryse Condé, a book chock full of imperishable magic and beauty.
It’s hard to limit it to one for I have many, but I will say Barbara Kingsolver’s in my top ten.
Next I have the sequel to Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
and a screenplay. Also, the Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva
One Woman Show at the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia, June 4–6.