When Persistence Pays: PW Talks with Shannon Bradley-Colleary
A screenwriter, author, and wittily confessional writer reaches “to the stars."Every novel travels its unpredictable road to readers, but Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s journey to crafting her novel, To the Stars, is especially unusual. The story of an impassioned friendship in hardscrabble 1960s Kansas, To the Stars started as a screenplay in 1998. It then came to life as a well-received film that premiered at Sundance in 2019 and won distribution from Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Now, Bradley-Colleary has self-published To the Stars through He Writes, She Writes Inc., which she runs with her husband, the producer Michael Colleary. Bradley-Colleary’s other books include the frank, comic memoirs Into the Child, an account of a pregnancy, and Smash, Crash, Burn, about her experiences in Hollywood, as well as Married Sex, a collection of fact and fiction. BookLife spoke with Bradley-Colleary about revisiting To the Stars, the healing power of friendship, and why writers keep at it.
What drew you back to this material once the script had been made into a striking, sensitive film?
I’d begun writing the adaptation in 2017 because I didn’t think the film would ever get made. It came close several times—around 2012 Emma Watson was verbally attached to play the Maggie Richmond role that Liana Liberato ended up playing.
When that fell through, I thought I should adapt the script. I really loved the story and didn’t want it just sitting in my computer. When the film went into production, I retained book rights. I’d already written a great deal of the novel with a narrator not in the film and felt I should follow through as it had become its own animal. I’m very proud of both the film and the book.
The film’s cinematography really captures the feeling of life in the rural U.S., both the weight and possibility of living under all that sky. Your prose matches that. Was it daunting to try to live up to the filmmakers’ realization of your original idea?
Actually, a lot of that language was in the screenplay. So, I was blown away when I saw director Martha Stephens’s and cinematographer Andrew Reed’s interpretation of that language on the screen. I think they captured the stultifying sameness and even the claustrophobic feeling of those wide-open spaces.
You’ve noted that this story was inspired, at first, by your grandmother’s youth in WaKeeney, Kans., which is the setting of the novel, and that the place helped shape her “into the nurturing, empathetic, grounded woman who was my angel on earth.” Yet the novel and film both are unstinting about abuse and bullying.
The story of Iris and Maggie and the abuse they suffer in their homes and in their community really aren’t about Kansas or my grandmother. I grew up in homes where I was loved and wanted, but, through many marriages and divorces, I did see alcohol abuse. I witnessed domestic violence in one of my mom’s marriages, and there were times I was stuck with labels that didn’t ultimately serve me. I think most writers pull from personal experience and amplify those themes in their work.
During a particularly painful period in my life, when I’d moved to my fourth school in three years, and was being bullied there, I became friends with two other girls who were being bullied by the same kids and struggling with traumatic situations in their homes. Our friendship healed us. And we’re still friends to this day, 46 years later. I think Kelly and Viv were my Maggie and Iris.
Your title comes from the state motto of Kansas, which translates from Latin as “to the stars through difficulties,” so I was surprised that the movie was set in Oklahoma.
The film was supposed to shoot in Kansas, but the tax break in Oklahoma was too good to pass up. Most filmmakers would have just cheated Oklahoma for Kansas, but Martha Stephens is a stickler for authenticity.
That motto suggests a hearty persistence in the face of whatever life throws at you. That kind of persistence seems a hallmark of your career—and it reminds me of the title of your book She Dated the Asshats, but Married the Good Guy and your refreshingly frank blog posts about, say, pitching to agents.I love the motto, and I do think it reflects on my grandmother and her life living on a farm in WaKeeney during the Dust Bowl and the Depression and overcoming both. I certainly hope I inherited my persistence from her and her Kansan roots. I will say, choosing the life of a professional writer is an uphill climb. Constant rejection. Self-doubt. Lulls in earning. “Lull” might not be a strong enough word!
But the reward is when people connect to the work. When they tell you it helped them. Made them laugh. Brightened their day. Made them cry. That’s when the persistence pays off.
You’ve written five books, including funny, straight-talking, revealing titles drawn from your life. A common thread in all of them seems to be not just finding the humor in pain, but searching for what matters most.
I am a confessional writer, which isn’t always easy for my family. People can’t believe my husband allowed me to write about our sex life. I sometimes can’t believe it either. But he’s a writer, too, so he’s far more generous than a nonwriter spouse. Or maybe it’s the Seconal I slip into his coffee?
For me, especially during this era of social media, which is often about posturing and promoting seemingly perfect lives, it’s so important to be transparent. To share our real, imperfect, struggling selves. That’s what I’ve tried to do on my blog and in my memoirs in the hopes of making readers know they’re not alone in the howling wilderness. That we’re all dancing as fast as we can. And that, yes, that struggle can be funny if we can let go of the shame around it. We’re all just tiny little humans doing the best we can.
You’ve self-published these titles. What have you learned from that process?
I keep waiting for HarperCollins to call and say, “Why have we waited so long to publish you when you’re obviously brilliant?” I mean, it hasn’t happened. Not yet. I think someone should call them. Or Penguin. I’m not picky. In the meantime, self-publishing has been my route. I am still learning about how to make my books more visible and connect to a larger audience, and I think it’s fantastic that it’s possible for writers to get their work out there without an agent or publishing house, which wasn’t possible just two decades ago.