Star writer: Carrie Fisher shines brightest in her books

Yes she was Princess Leia, but Carrie Fisher’s sharp and witty writing on Hollywood, drug abuse and mental health should also be treasured

Carrie Fisher’s third memoir, The Princess Diarist, is not even out yet and it has already made waves thanks to the revelation that she and her Star Wars co-star Harrison Ford had an on-set affair back in 1977. Fisher is keenly aware that she’ll always be remembered as Princess Leia and with the title and content of this book, she’s leaning into the fact that most of her fans know her from a movie franchise she signed up to when she was just 19. Which is a bit of a shame, because she is now 60 and it’s far from her only accomplishment.

Most notably, she’s a brilliant writer. For years, Fisher worked as a script doctor on everything from Hook to Sister Act 2, “punching up” screenplays to make them faster, funnier, and just generally better (she can take credit for making The Wedding Singer Adam Sandler’s best movie).

But where her writing skills shine the brightest is in her books. Fisher’s written four novels, all of which zip along at a breakneck pace, filled with Hollywood encounters, relationship complications and brushes with addiction. (They’re based on her life, in other words.) Her knack for a great opening line is remarkable. Postcards from the Edge begins: “Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?” Surrender the Pink – the story of a young New Yorker trying to kickstart her career and meet the man of her dreams – opens: “Dinah Kaufman lost her virginity a total of three times.”

For all their style, her books have substance, too. Fisher’s humour isn’t an attempt to avoid sadness, but to convey it in a way people will find palatable. Her characters live by Fisher’s own edict: “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that’s unacceptable.” Some of the references are dated now – Delusions of Grandma, which follows Cora, a script doctor who is about to become a single mother (as Fisher did herself) references the LA riots and Lyle Lovett – but the feelings of fear and confusion her narrator describes still resonate, more than 20 years later. Fisher’s skill at observation leads to sharp characterisations. Cora says of her parents: “Neither smiled much in photographs, but both loved to have them taken.”

Postcards from the Edge is her most famous novel, and her best. It’s the story of Suzanne Vale, an actor who accidentally overdoses and ends up in rehab. (She tells her therapist: “I didn’t think I was a drug addict because I didn’t take any one drug.”) It starts with a section alternating Suzanne’s diary entries with those of a fellow patient who becomes obsessed with her, and then moves to a third-person chronicle of Suzanne’s attempts to get back into the movie business while dealing with her mental health. It’s ambitious and a little odd. But it’s compelling proof that Fisher is one of only a few writers who can make mental illness funny without being flippant. Its sequel, The Best Awful, isn’t quite such a satisfying read – but that’s mostly because of how painful it is to see Suzanne fall off the wagon.

In 2008, Fisher abandoned any pretence that her work wasn’t autobiographical and started writing straight-up memoirs. The first, Wishful Drinking, compares her parents – actor Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher – to Brad and Jennifer (with Elizabeth Taylor as an old-school Angelina). She describes how surreal and lonely it was to grow up in the limelight and talks about her experience of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for bipolar disorder, all in her self-deprecating, yet matter-of-fact way.

Wishful Drinking was based on Fisher’s one-woman Broadway show.
Wishful Drinking was based on Fisher’s one-woman Broadway show. Photograph: Joan Marcus/AP

Her second memoir, Shockaholic takes a similar tone. It includes anecdotes about getting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bad side and the danger of going for dinner with Ted Kennedy, as well as a moving essay about her difficult relationship with her dad and how they reconciled before he died. Harrison Ford gossip aside, we don’t yet know what Carrie Fisher might reveal in her third, The Princess Diarist. But if it’s anything like her previous books, it will be a joy to read.

Contributor

Diane Shipley

The GuardianTramp

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