Robert Matzen Season of the Gods

Miracle Baby

I’ve written a novel. I didn’t plan on writing a novel and didn’t have any ambition to write one. It’s like out of the blue I learned I was pregnant and out popped this historical novel. If you ever read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, this novel is like that. Except instead of being about real-life characters fighting the battle of Gettysburg, it’s about Warner Bros. in 1942…and features all real-life characters fighting studio battles while they live their lives at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II.

It’s called Season of the Gods, which is an allusion to the power held by Hal Wallis as the Zeus of his Burbank Olympos, and all the lesser gods who schemed and feuded in the name of art on the one hand, and commerce on the other. Reactions to date from Hollywood experts who had read the manuscript are positive. All systems are go.

I’ve learned plenty about the craft of fiction in the last year courtesy of this experience. My knuckles are black and blue from being rapped by my editor for using nonfiction techniques instead of fiction techniques. I’d write a biographical paragraph and, WHAP! Right across the knuckles. I’d summarize some episode or other and, WHAP! Another one across the knuckles. Don’t summarize, she’d say. Live the moments. It’s almost like I wrote the novel twice, once the wrong way, and then again the right way.

I knew what I wanted the story to be about, but I didn’t know that once characters come to life, they have minds of their own and suddenly what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen the way you figured it would. And that led to the most fun I’ve ever had writing, finding out what these people would say or do next.

Season of the Gods concerns how a woman executive named Irene Lee (yes, a woman executive at Warner Bros.) had a funny feeling about an unproduced stage play and approached Hal Wallis about buying it. He had just bought rights to The Man Who Came to Dinner and was negotiating for Watch on the Rhine, so when Wallis hears it’s a stage play out of New York, he asks Lee, “Which theater? Who’s starring?” She confesses it’s unproduced and he says, “No track record? No stars? No press? Pass.” But Lee’s a sharp cookie and develops her own game plan to work the system and get the property in the door. Then she’s involved every step of the way through all the twists and turns and politics and serendipity and genius day by day as the unproduced stage play becomes an ever-more-important component in the Warner Bros. production schedule for 1942.

Irene Lee had served as story editor at Warner Bros. for eight years at this time. She stood five-foot-nothing and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, but by age 31 was going toe to toe with Wallis and with the chief himself, Jack Warner. Irene sought to become a producer—which was unheard of at the time, a woman producer—and even after Wallis shot the idea down, she became the de facto producer of her pet project, proving you shouldn’t get in Irene Lee’s way.

Her unproduced stage play arrived at the studio on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, and within two months, Hal Wallis had changed his mind about moving forward with it, despite the fact the play had no track record, or stars, or press, and its plot about all manner of illicit sex couldn’t be filmed because of censorship restrictions. The idea and setting were too good to pass up, and the concept could be adapted as a war picture, which was key because the day after Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at war, and a couple of days later came a U.S. declaration of war against Germany.

As the novel unfolds, everyone in Hollywood worries about a Japanese invasion every moment. Were the carriers that had taken out Pearl Harbor going to steam east and flatten Los Angeles? Nobody knew. And, in fact, Japanese submarines did shell the coast in January, so Californians had reason to worry.

Throughout pre-production of Irene’s picture, the Allies were losing the war. It wasn’t until after cameras rolled, after a very long stretch of script development, that the U.S. fleet kicked Yamamoto’s ass at the battle of Midway, and so up until that moment in June 1942, nobody from Hal Wallis and Irene Lee on down knew if their movie would make it to release, or if America would already be beaten. All they knew for sure was that the world needed this story she had found. As the passage of time proved, the world did indeed need it, and continues to need it. Season of the Gods shows how it all happened. I guess it’s sort of one miracle baby describing another miracle baby. Cool.

Season of the Gods will be published by GoodKnight Books, with release on October 3, 2023.