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Alan Shayne

Alan Shayne

by Kathryn Boughton

The concepts for Alan Shayne’s books come from the most human of impulses—the desire to comfort a child, the need to celebrate love in all its manifestations and a longing to answer questions about lost relationships.

The former Warner Brothers Television president has addressed each of these emotions in his three books, the charming children’s book, The Minstrel Tree, reprinted in Good Housekeeping after 9/11; Double Life: A Love Story, the nonfiction account of his life with his partner, Norman Sunshine; and now, Finding Sylvia, a novel about a man trying to unravel the mystery of a lost love.

Shayne, who has long had a home in Washington, will sign copies of Finding Sylvia at The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Saturday, October 14th, at 3PM. The event is free and open to the public.

The novel springs from the sense of emptiness and the lingering questions that result from the unexplained loss of a relationship. “I had a friend I was very close to,” Shayne explained. “It was not a romance, but we were together all the time over a period of years—then, suddenly, she left. She went out of my life. It always bothered me a great deal—how can someone suddenly leave you?”

But out of loss came inspiration. “That gave me the idea to sit down and write a novel, perhaps as a way of getting it out of my system,” he said.

Shayne recast the situation to fit his novel. In it, a movie producer searches obsessively for a titled British woman who has mysteriously disappeared. The search takes him from a small New England town to Hollywood, New York, London, Israel, Spain and Marrakech. Along the way he is confounded by the many answers to “Who is Sylvia?”

“I chose a [plot line] that is nowhere near [what happened to me]” he said. “This is a romantic mystery—why did she leave this guy? I think this is something that happens to a lot of people for whatever the reason—and it’s not always some big, dramatic reason. In the book, it comes after a very happy thing between them.”

Did writing the book, answer Shayne’s own questions about his lost friendship? “I have never understood it and I never will,” he said.

Although the book is grounded in personal experience, Shayne said the lead character is not him. “[The hero] has been a sitcom actor and, in the book, he is trying to find himself as well as Sylvia. There is a lot of Hollywood life in it. Kirkus said I nailed the ‘franticness’ of Hollywood.”

He said the book has garnered good reviews and he credited Kate Medina, a former Random House editor, with helping him to shape it. She looked at his manuscript and said it was not a Random House book but that she would love to help him with it. “She read it and gave me incredible notes,” Shayne said. “She told me the things that were missing and gave me ideas of things that might happen. She was amazing.”

Shayne’s own agent had died and others told him that they were not accepting new authors. “I’m too old to go begging—after all these years, I am hardly ‘new,’” said Shayne, who in his years at Warner Bros. shepherded such hit shows such as Alice, Night Court, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Wonder Woman and Growing Pains to success. “I decided to self-publish and that is going very well. I think it looks good.”

He had plenty of help there—his life partner and noted magazine illustrator, artist and sculptor Norman Sunshine created the cover.

Sunshine and Shayne have lived in Washington, off and on, for decades. “We lived here for many years and then went to Hollywood,” he recounted. “I only expected to be in Hollywood for a few weeks and ended up staying 20 years, but when I decided to leave Warner Bros, we looked all over the world for a place to stay and decided to come back here.”

He explained that the welcoming environment of Washington lured them back. “We love living in Washington—it is so beautiful and the people are terribly welcoming and nice. There are so many writers and artists. It all came down to being back in Washington. Coming back here just seemed like being home again.”

Sunshine and Shayne, who met in 1958, co-authored his second book, Double Life: A Love Story, the concept of which was born in Washington. “We were great friends with Joan Rivers,” he said. “She had a dinner party for New Year’s and was going around the table asking what each guest was thankful for that year. I said without thinking, ‘Norman and I are grateful to have lived together so long.’ One man said, ‘You are an inspiration’ at a time when young gay people did not have much hope. I guess we were responsible for telling about this.”

Shayne first hit upon the conceit of having a fictional interviewer talk to them about their lives. His agent quickly nixed this, saying everything else in the book was real. So, they decided to tell their own story, alternating chapters. The book was an immediate success.

Shayne’s first book was aimed at an entirely different audience, one too young to be worried much about relationships. He said he had had an itch to write and was mulling over ideas. “I was going to have a huge Christmas tree for the holidays when I heard a woman—someone like Martha Stewart—saying that you should get rid of all your ugly old Christmas decorations and create an entirely new tree.”

A little appalled at the idea of getting rid of decorations that had been collected over the years—with all the memories associated with them—he sat down to write The Minstrel Tree. “In it, all the little people [ornaments] are waiting in the cellar for their chance to come upstairs and be on the tree,” he said. The Minstrel overhears the mother saying they are not going to be on the tree that year. He tells the others and, one by one, they manage to make their way through the house to the tree. It shows how much you can accomplish if you work together. Norman did the illustrations and Good Housekeeping thought it was good enough that they republished it after 9/11.”

Those who are unable to attend the book signing may reserve a signed copy of Finding Sylvia by calling The Hickory Stick Bookshop at 860-868-0525 or e-mailing books@hickorystickbookshop.com. For further information visit the link below.



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