Courtney Thorne-Smith is best known for playing Allison on Melrose Place and Georgia on Ally McBeal, but anyone who attended Tam High in the mid-eighties remembers her as the girl who made it. Plucked from a general casting call and plopped into her first movie, Lucas, at age 17, she became our local girl makes good, an embodiment of the someday-I’ll-be- a-famous-actress fantasy held by so many high school girls.
Of course, as we all know, such fantasies of stardom tend to ignore the more difficult aspects of a life in the spotlight. And so, after more than two decades in front of the camera, Courtney Thorne-Smith has written Outside In, a novel that helps disabuse us of the idea that getting it all makes you happy.
Her main character, Kate Keyes-Morgan, is living the Hollywood dream. She has a starring role on a popular nighttime drama; she’s married to a successful and handsome man; and at 30, she’s back from a weight-related career slide documented relentlessly in the tabloids. But the dream is not all it seems to be.
Like Thorne-Smith, Kate struggles under the constant scrutiny of her industry, obsessing about every peanut she eats and starving herself with the goal of reaching the coveted size zero. Thorne-Smith, who has been public with her eating disorder and body issues and credits her extremely close-knit family and group of girlfriends with providing her the support she needs to stay on track in that regard, turned to fiction as a means of expressing what this struggle is like. “I thought about writing an autobiography but it felt so limited—therapy and nutritionists don’t make a good story—so I thought I could write about someone who is still struggling, whose whole world is created for her. Kate, at 30, is much younger than I was at that age. She starts out with no perspective on reality.”
The novel is a breezy guilty pleasure, peopled with love-to-hate-them actresses throwing fits in their trailers, along with the down-to-earth makeup artist Paige (“just heavy enough to be nonthreatening to women, but fit enough to be attractive to men”), and Hamilton, who may be the best-looking but most controlling husband character ever created. Outside In is a peek into the same world that draws us into Us Weekly and E! television, but Thorne-Smith has enough distance from Hollywood craziness to render it with sensitivity and insight: “Kate loved that part of being an actor,” she writes, “being surrounded by imaginative, interesting people all working in tandem to piece together an entire world out of the combined energy of their collective pain, wisdom and joy. The creative process was magical, spiritual. When had she made the shift from working to feed her soul to working for a paycheck, for the approval of the capricious press, for the validation of the masses?”
Thorne-Smith worked on Outside In in the mornings, before she had to be on the According to Jim set each day (she has played Jim Belushi’s wife on the show for seven seasons). “Sitcom work is so great because it’s like a 10-to-4 job,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “There are some long days, but it really allows you to have a life.” And having a life is what Thorne-Smith values most.
“The reason I have been able to stay sane is that I’ve always had a full life,” she says. “I have a really tight group of girlfriends. I cook almost every day. I knit. I read a lot. I do a lot of crafts.” She is also expecting her first child in January. “I keep saying I hope I have a girl or a really crafty boy,” she says with a laugh.
Courtney Thorne-Smith will be reading and signing Outside In on Monday, September 24, at Book Passage at 7 p.m. and at Stacey’s in San Francisco on Tuesday, September 25, at 12:30 p.m.
The Local Type
Glass Tiger by Joe Gores (Harcourt, $14) A fast-paced thriller set in the intelligence world of the FBI and the CIA from the author of the DKA Files series. Glass Tiger is a complicated and fascinating web of lies, ambition, and double-crosses.
Cheers to Muses (The Asian American Women Artists Association, $25) A beautifully done full-color anthology of contemporary visual and literary art by Asian-American women, including dedications to an Asian-American woman of note by each contributor, many of whom are from the Bay Area.
Jesus Freaks by Don Lattin (Harper, $25) In the same vein as John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Jesus Freaks tells the true story of the 2005 murder/suicide inside the Children of God/Family International religious cult.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (Graywolf, $22) “It’s a deceptively quiet novel about a man returning to the rural area in Norway where he spent summers as a child. The chapters flip-flop between the present and the past and it’s just absolutely beautiful—but not in a sleepy,
writerly way. There is plot here.”
—Pete Mulvihill, Green Apple Books, SF
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead, $26) Two female protagonists are married to the same man. And over the course of this big, sweeping story, you become very close to them both. It’s an amazing, haunting, wonderful story that brings you up to speed on what’s going on in Afghanistan.”
—Janel Feierabend, Book Passage
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, $27)“Chabon is just a wonderful writer. The novel is set in Alaska and includes a very unlikely combination of cultures. If you want to pick up a book that has a great story, this is it, but it’s also exquisitely written.”
—Debra Hammond, Book Depot