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  • Cease to Blush
  • Written by Billie Livingston
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  • Cease to Blush
  • Written by Billie Livingston
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Cease to Blush

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Written by Billie LivingstonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Billie Livingston

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On Sale: January 11, 2010
Pages: 480 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37547-6
Published by : Vintage Canada RH Canadian Publishing
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Billie Livingston’s fine second novel leads us to consider the nature of our hidden lives and desires — and to question whether the sky would really fall if we admitted our true needs and ceased to blush.

As Cease to Blush opens, Vivian is late to her own mother’s funeral. Wearing a tight red suit, Vivian stands out like a pornographer’s dream amongst the West Coast intellectuals mourning the death of prominent feminist Josie Callwood. But for all of her bravado, Vivian finds herself emotionally numb and spiraling downward. Vivian and her mother were in constant conflict, with Josie disapproving of her daughter’s lifestyle; her inclination to use her body instead of her brain, and her so-called acting career, which has amounted to little more than playing prostitutes and the odd dead body. For her part Vivian has been invested in antagonizing her mother’s feminist ideology. As the story opens Vivian’s career, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Frank, is taking an unsavoury turn as she wades into the quick cash scheme of Internet porn with herself cast in the lead.

But Josie has left a big surprise for her troubled daughter: a trunk full of mementoes from her own past, all of which point to a secret life more exotic than anything Vivian has been able to pull off. Puzzling together bits and pieces, Vivian learns that her mother was at one time a burlesque performer named Celia Dare who rubbed shoulders with the flashiest celebrities of the sixties. Vivian becomes determined to uncover the true story of her mother’s life.

Chasing rumours, Vivian sets off down the Pacific coast and soon finds out that truth is a slippery snake. With only a few of her mother’s letters, some guarded anecdotes from Josie’s former confidant and a slew of books about the sixties, Vivian begins to re-create her mother’s life, placing her at the heart of some of the biggest events and scenes of the era. From the protests and beat coffeehouses of Haight-Ashbury to the frenzied nightlife of Rat Pack Vegas, from the political soirées of New York to mob meetings in glitzy Miami hotels, Celia Dare saw and did it all. Yet the glamour hid an ugly underbelly, and as Vivian peels away the layers of the past she begins to uncover her own emotional truths as well.

Cease to Blush drives the bumpy road from the burlesque stages of Rat Pack Vegas to the bedroom Internet porn business, exploring just how far women have really come. In Vivian, Livingston has created the perfect character through which to explore what it means to be an independent woman today; with Celia/Josie, it’s clear that things weren’t so cut and dry in her day either. Though Celia’s story is told vividly here, its accuracy is impossible to gauge and the ghosts are not talking. But maybe this is Celia’s gift to Vivian: the ability of the past not only to illuminate the future, but to re-imagine it.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

As we pulled up to the curb I could see them a little ways off, gathered around the grave like long black shadows. The sky was the blue of a cheap ­paint-­by-­number. Leonard tugged his door handle to get out. Sitting in the passenger side, I squinted behind sunglasses and sipped my vodka tonic from a travel ­mug.

“Viv?”

“Let me be for a minute.” I reached up and shoved the sun visor, pulled it so it blocked the ripping afternoon glare. “Wish to hell it had rained today.” Contrary to its ceiling now, the city’s floor was one big sog after an onslaught of rain falling in sheets and drizzles and sheets again. Today was the first sunny one in three weeks. Timing is everything. Len sighed, closed his ­door.

I had shown up at his apartment an hour ago so we could head out together. His building is less than a block from mine. Len liked my mother. She liked him too, as much as she was capable of liking a guy. Frank, on the other hand, didn’t care for my mother, which was appropriate because she loathed him. She had loathed my choices in lovers pretty much across the ­board.

“Wow. Bright,” Len had said at first sight of the ­stoplight-­red skirt and jacket I chose for the occasion. He was wearing his navy suit, a little beat up, shiny in spots, the only one he owned. I always thought if I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is take Len shopping. Len deserves the things he can’t ­afford.

“I need a drink. Have you got anything?” I stood in his living room, clenching and unclenching, gulping breaths and heaving them out like ­garbage.

“Ah–” he touched at his suit as if patting himself down for cigarettes “–sure. I think we’re running a little late though.”

My hands jumped to shore off demands and questions, flicked him off toward the kitchen. “We’re already too late. It’s a funeral.”

Unscrewing a bottle from the cupboard over his stove, he stopped on the verge of pouring. “Scotch or vodka?”

“Vodka.”

He rescrewed the cap and grabbed another bottle, poured. “What the hell,” he muttered and poured a shot in a second glass. Dumped tonic in both. I sat on the couch and gawked straight ahead at the blank wall. He’d painted over the mural that had been there ­before.

“Hair of a mongrel, madam?” He handed me the drink and I looked some more at the nothing in front of me. Yesterday there was ­floor-­to-­ceiling rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Now it was blank with eggshell white. He must’ve done it after I left last ­night.

“What’s with the blank wall?”

His brows hopped. Off my blank stare he said, “Come on, you’ve been drunker. Last night. You kept bitching about it.” He swapped his tone for a whiny shrewish imitation of mine. “I hate that ugly ­Spider-­Man with his dink hanging out.” He shrugged. “I want to do something else there anyway–You sat right there while I painted over it.”

I nodded. Last night I had wanted to drink myself to tears as though the tangibility of drunken rivulets might shove me past the gauzy void, up against some nice flinty edge. But it was more like anaesthetizing a corpse. Part of me had an urge to turn the stove on high and slap my hand on the burner and part of me thought, Christ, millions are doping themselves up with antidepressants every day to get this sensation, maybe I got a good thing ­going.

“Frank never showed up this morning,” I ­said.

He looked at his watch. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know. Probably still in bed, jerking off to porn.”

“Ach . . .” Leonard raised his hand against the image. “Please.”

Len’s a bit precious when it comes to things too raw in the sex department. When we were eighteen, out of curiosity we rented Deep Throat. I was no virgin but still sat with my face screwed up in skepticism: “Gross, he can’t stick it in there.” “Girls don’t have clits in their throats either.” Len, meanwhile, clutched his head like a Vietnam vet experiencing flashback, shock searing its way though his frontal lobe. I suggested we ­fast-­forward to the story part. There was no story part. We pressed eject. Len rolled a joint and sketched my feet the rest of the ­afternoon.

“Don’t you think it’s just this side of obscene not to accompany your girlfriend to her mother’s fucking funeral?” I ­asked.

“You told him you didn’t want him there. At least that’s what you said last night. They didn’t like each other, you said, so why put on a big phony show.”

I stared into my glass and sloshed the fizz around. “He should want to be there for me.”

“What?”

Taking a gulp, I looked past him to the blank wall again. “So, what are you going to paint there. Did we decide?”

“How ’bout I paint you?”

“You’re done then. It’s a masterpiece of ­photo-­realism.”

Leonard slid the pads of his fingertips up and down the steering wheel. When he finally spoke again it was to remind me, “She never liked this car.” I’d tossed my keys to Len feeling too shaky to drive. He tapped at the ­push-­button ­transmission.

“She thought it looked like some old Valiant she sold when she first moved here,” I said. “And she didn’t like the colour.”

My car is black. Like the guy I bought it off. Though he had a kind of ­pimped-­out affectation he was actually a student/actor I’d met on set. He was about to drive back home to New Orleans, when he decided to sell the car and fly instead. I hadn’t made up my mind whether the car was my style or not and met up with him on campus to have lunch and another look. He was flirtatious but I wasn’t much interested. Then, outside the Student Union Building, we ran into my mother. Between the guy and the car – the look on her face.


From the Hardcover edition.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

I didn’t call myself one until I was close to thirty. I had published quite a bit of poetry in magazines and about that time I met another writer, Rhea Tregebov, who insisted that I had to call myself a writer if I was going to be one. But in truth I’ve been scribbling down whatever flitted through my head since I was a child. There was never a time that I didn’t write.

What inspired you to write Cease to Blush? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?

The year Lili St. Cyr died my editor gave me the obit page from The Globe and Mail and said that she thought St. Cyr’s life would make a great biography. I started to read about this woman who not only ran with other strippers but also in a kind of rarified crowd of politicians and celebrities. Later I came across a few stories in which a former strip-teaser transformed herself and then lived in terror that her children might one day find out. I thought, what if a burlesque queen had been performing more in the sixties when there was such an obvious interconnectedness between showbiz, politics and organized crime? What if she found herself treated like just another disposable commodity and got scared that she might end up dead, as so many insiders did in that decade? She might disappear, only to re-emerge “radicalized,” as they called it in the seventies — a time when some feminists (having come out of the soul-sucking fifties and sixties) believed that sleeping with men was sleeping with the enemy. What sort of daughter might she end up with? The old “Prude is Father to the Pervert” adage is a strong aspect in Cease to Blush.

More generally, what is it that you’re exploring in this novel?

As I started to immerse myself in the mind of Vivian, the narrator, I began to consider the way we view one another, if we can ever quite see a person in any way but through our own filters — and especially our parents. The stories I believe to be true about my family — much of this stuff is fabrication based on a mix of what I’ve heard and what is going on in my own psyche. This is why I decided to have Vivian concoct her mother’s history. What we are left with when our parents die is just our own private fiction. I think that is true even when they are alive.

Was it difficult to weave real-life celebrities of yore, such as Frank Sinatra and Bobby Kennedy, into your fiction?

Researching Cease to Blush, I found out that I love reading biographies. Part of what I found so interesting about them is how wildly different one bio can be from another even though they both profess to be writing about the same person. With Bobby Kennedy for instance, pick up two biographies and you’ll find a crusading angel in one and a self-indulgent demon in the other. I enjoyed both possibilities, and that helped flesh out the notion that the stories we tell about others are subjective. The biographies, it seemed to me, said as much about the biographer as they did the subject.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of Cease to Blush?

I am loath to tell a person how to approach something I’ve written. I find the things a reader might see to be just as important as what I believe is on the page. I suppose a recurring point of discussion for me as I wrote Blush and as I write the novel I’m working on now is whether or not there is any such thing as objective truth.

Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your writing?

When Going Down Swinging came out there was the interview I did for a cable television show. Cable talk shows are often live and there is usually very little in the way of a commercial break between segments. I was nervous. One of the hosts had come into the makeup room early to give me an idea of how the interview would go. She was a regular drill sergeant: “I WILL ASK YOU: WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK? I WILL ASK: DO YOU THINK THERE IS ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND PERSPECTIVE? I HAPPEN TO THINK THERE IS! MAYBE YOU DO NOT. I WILL ASK YOU…” Just before my interview was a cooking segment. When it was done they cut to a fifteen-second station ID and the co-hosts ran from the peanut-butter chocolate cheesecake segment to me on the couch with my book. When the lights came up, they breathlessly grinned to camera, announced my name, the novel, and that the cheesecake was for me.

“Oh I couldn’t.”

They insisted. The smiling drill-sergeant told me they would not go on with the interview if I did not try the cake. I picked up the peanut-butter chocolate cheesecake and dutifully stuck a forkful in my mouth. The cake lodged in my throat. I started to choke. The hosts were alarmed. Panic ensued. A crewmember’s arm slowly reached in beside me with a teacup of cold water. I downed it best I could as the hosts held my novel up to the camera and danced it around saying, “Oh look at the cute little kitty on the cover. Isn’t this adorable?” It became apparent no one had actually read the book and the “tough questions” weren’t going to happen. I guess the moral of the story is: when faced with a cranky TV host, choke for mercy.

Do you have a favourite story to tell about anyone you interviewed for your writing?

While researching Cease to Blush I went to a broad cross-section of interviewees. Vivian is a wilder creature than I ever was so I had to go and find people who had the straight goods on how a person who is not technologically proficient might make Internet pornography easily from home. About the same time I needed to find some Charismatic Christians because I had never witnessed a person speak in tongues. One Sunday a friend took me out to a Pentecostal church where I got a real eyeful — all around me people were speaking in tongues, then dropping on the floor as they were moved to. The following day, I had an appointment to interview the pornographers. Their office was located at street number 666. I had to laugh.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?

I try not to get myself invested in what reviewers say. Good or bad it makes me self-conscious. Even other authors’ reviews make me self-conscious. Later, when I’m alone at the keyboard, a vicious editor appears over either shoulder and I can’t get much done.

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

I’m not aware of a real influence, per se. There are definitely writers I admire. I like early Truman Capote, Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Barbara Gowdy, to name a few. It needn’t necessarily be literary though — I like Liz Smith’s columns in the New York Post and her autobiography, Natural Blonde, was aces.

If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?

I don’t know. I can’t dance. Can’t sing. I sure do enjoy talking to strangers though. I might have been an investigative reporter of some kind.

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

Oh good lord. Do other authors have an answer for that? Roget’s Thesaurus. 1st Edition.

Praise

Praise

“Provocative and wildly fun. Cease to Blush is proof that issue fiction is still being written, and very well too. A great read. You won’t be able to put it down.”
The Globe and Mail

Cease to Blush is a well-crafted, thought-provoking novel about where women’s beauty and vanity can take them and how a person’s exterior can hide an unknown story.”
The Vancouver Sun

"Brazen, fast and wickedly smart, Billie Livingston knocks every gender stereotype you've ever held dear on its ass. Suspenseful and knowing, this novel unveils all the painful bits, the hard knocks and sacrifices between mothers and daughters - how we make each other strong."
–Lisa Moore, author of Alligator

Praise for Going Down Swinging:

“Poignant. . .her flailing, failing, eternally optimistic characters are so wonderful that it’s a joy to stick with them even as they tread water, hardly going anywhere. . . Livingston succeeds gorgeously in capturing the messiness and unresolvable ambiguities of familial love.”
National Post

“Livingston kicks the novel up to another level, mastering multiple points of view, deftly switching narrative voices in alternating chapters. . . Her insight into the emotional life of a mother, and her exploration of the love and understanding a child feels for even the most under-qualified parent, reveals a formidable grasp of the mysteries of the human heart.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Livingston is a compelling new voice – one that should be welcomed and watched.”
The Globe and Mail

“Billie Livingston vividly captures the heady romance of mother-daughter love, so strengthening in its unconditional acceptance and support, and so wretchedly debilitating in its blindness.”
The Hamilton Spectator
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why did Sally give the trunk to Vivian after Josie’s death?

2. The novel opens with Vivian’s story, but then Livingston weaves in the story of Celia’s life (as written by Vivian). How does the one inform the other? Which narrative did you find more compelling?

3. Other than Vivian’s close friend Len, the men is this novel are pretty awful: misogynists, cheaters, exploiters and so on. Even Celia’s father figures are notorious criminals. Does this just reflect the worlds Celia and Vivian live in, or is Livingston doing something more here?

4. Talk about the ways in which many different characters are trapped, and the importance of reinventing oneself.

5. What is Vivian really looking for as she tries to piece together her mother’s past? And even if the truth is elusive, does she find the answers she needs?

6. The novel opens with, and takes its title from, a Marquis de Sade quote: “Women without principles are never more dangerous than at the age when they have ceased to blush.” Vivian thinks about what it means in Chapter 4. How would you interpret the quote, both in general and in terms of this book?

7. Why is Annie West so reluctant to tell Vivian about the past?

8. Many scenes in the novel highlight how feminism has changed over the generations, and the struggles real women have with meeting its expectations (e.g. Josie bleaching her leg hair). Compare the experiences of women like Vivian, Celia/Josie, Annie West, Erin and Sally in this light.

9. When seen through the lens of nostalgia, the burlesques and stripteases of the Rat Pack heyday seem exciting and glamorous. How does Livingston both play up and question that view? Compare such acts of the past with today’s strip shows and Internet porn.

10. Does the Celia Dare of the letters Annie gives to Vivian sound like the Celia Dare imagined by Vivian?

11. Vivian’s arrival at her mom’s funeral, the evangelist scene at the motel, Vivian’s bizarre gig as a corpse, even the chat on porn sites… Livingston uses a lot of humour throughout the novel, especially in scenes that turn out to be darker than we may expect. Discuss the role of humour in the novel overall.

12. Discuss the blurry line between biography and fiction, when it comes to using real people from the past as characters. Do you feel Livingston did a good job of bringing the Rat Pack era to life on the page? Did your opinion of various celebrities from the past change when reading this novel?

13. Why was Vivian with Frank for so long?

14. How has Vivian’s view of her own life changed by the end of the novel? What parallels can you draw between her transformation and Celia’s reinvention as Josie?

15. Josie had always criticized Vivian for not living up to her potential. Why couldn’t Josie just open up about her own past, and use her experiences as a cautionary example?

16. Of all the characters, who did you relate to (or like) the best? On the other hand, who was the least likable, and why?


  • Cease to Blush by Billie Livingston
  • June 05, 2007
  • Fiction
  • Vintage Canada
  • $21.00
  • 9780679313236

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