Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Temptation includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After eleven years of failure, would-be screenwriter David Armitage lands a big break: his script is bought for television production. The show is a runaway hit and he is an instant success. In a whirlwind of events he finds himself at the top of the Hollywood heap, being lauded as the creator of the hit series, Selling You. This newfound success brings about major lifestyle changes; David walks out on his wife and daughter for a young producer who worships only at the altar of ambition, yet he believes that nothing could ruin such a successful time in his life.
Enter Philip Fleck, billionaire film buff. Fleck whisks David away to his private island and makes him a bizarre offer to transform one of David’s original movie scripts into a Caligula-like remake that highlights the power of control. David balks at the proposition but with some goading, changes his mind and agrees.
Upon David’s return to Los Angeles, his life takes a bizarre turn. Accused of plagiarism by a Hollywood gossip reporter, David quickly finds himself with no job, money, or girlfriend. Even worse, his ex-wife deprives him of the ability to see his daughter. David finds an unlikely ally, however, in Fleck’s wife, Martha, and begins to climb back out of the hole that his temptation dug for him.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. David’s first words to the reader are: “I always wanted to be rich. I know that probably sounds crass, but it’s the truth. A true confession.” What were your initial impressions of David after reading this statement? Does this confession make him a shallow person? How did he change throughout the course of the book? Does “new” David still want to be rich?
2. David and Lucy make amends after their big fight, but David comments “…once things are said, they are said.” Do you think David could have salvaged his marriage with Lucy, or were they destined to split? Why does David long for Lucy once bad times befall him?
3. Lucy confronts David about his infidelities and David realizes that it is the perfect way out so he can be with Sally. Yet, he comments, “I was getting exactly what I wanted…and it scared the hell out of me.” Why do you think he was so scared? What other troubles does David’s new-found success bring?
4. Allison Elroy establishes herself as David Armitage’s voice of reason. Can we count her as a “true” friend to David? Why or why not? Do you think she sticks with him during his tough times for financial sake or because she cares for him?
5. David finds himself stuck in the same day-to-day ennui with Sally that plagued his time with Lucy. Is David destined to live his romantic life like this? Do you think this is why Martha Fleck chose not to pursue a permanent romance with him?
6. Sally comments that Bobby Barra is a “people collector.” What do you think she means by this? Who else in Temptation is a “people collector”?
7. David comments that Bobby “filled the time with his own turbo-charged ambition and worries, in an attempt to believe that, somehow, what we do during that momentary spasm called life actually counts for something.” Discuss this quote in relation to David, Allison, Sally and Martha. What do they do that counts for something?
8. David refuses the initial offer to fly to Saffron Island, but is persuaded by Bobby, Allison and Sally. Do they believe this could advance David’s career or are they just seeing dollar signs? What would you have told David to do?
9. Bobby Barra “didn’t mind letting the world see how—when it came to his obsessions – he was positively naked in his stupidity.” What does the author mean by this? Who else is naked in their stupidity?
10. Temptation focuses on the highs and lows that success brings. Discuss this in the context of the following quotes: “there’s something deeply skewed about having everything you want” and “Success is supposed to simplify your life. Inevitably, it complicates it further…”
11. Discuss Philip Fleck. What does his love for Salo say about his character? Is he someone who desires total control at all times? Will he always have control over David?
12. Does David have a meaningful relationship with anyone or are they all based on his success?
13. David concludes that Philip Fleck is using him to do the ultimate creative act: play God. Why do you think Philip chose David? How has Fleck’s success been his ultimate downfall?
14. Were you surprised to learn that Martha Fleck had an ulterior motive to helping David? What was her motivation? Did her plan work? How does David feel about the end result?
15. Philip Fleck tells David “you simply became a victim of your own choices.” Do you agree with Philip? What choices could David have made differently throughout Temptation? Would he have found himself in such tough times if Philip Fleck had never entered his life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Each character in Temptation has a talent: David’s is writing, Buddy’s is finance, etc. Do you have a unique talent or skill? Share with your book club.
2. Philip Fleck is a film buff. What is your favorite classic movie? Invite your book club over for a screening.
3. David creates the hit TV series Selling You. Did you ever have a great idea for a TV show? Draw up a script, cast the characters and share with your book club.
A Conversation with Douglas Kennedy
What was the inspiration for Temptation?
In 1996 I wrote a novel called The Big Picture, which received a huge publishing advance, phenomenal pre-publication hype, and was the subject of great commercial expectations. The novel got wonderful reviews, received a W.H. Smith Prize in the United Kingdom and was translated into over twenty-two languages, selling over three million copies since its first publication. It’s also been turned into a superb French film, which will be seen in the US in 2011. Despite all this accumulative success, when the novel was first published the sales figures, though good, were not anything near to the mega-hit hope for the novel. And when my subsequent novel, The Job, was a lesser commercial success, I found myself shut out of New York publishing for over a decade... until Atria happily decided to re-launch me in my own country. During those ten years I went on to have great success in Europe and the rest of the world. But the fact that I had been once celebrated as the hot new American writer, and then quickly discarded like a faulty tire, was, shall we say, an interesting lesson in the transient nature of success. And so I decided to write Temptation: a dark, funny riff on the fragility of writerly fame.
Alison Ellroy advises David that “if you want to scratch a living writing…remember that you have to write generic…” Do you find that authors need to do the same? Can they only meet with success if they “write generic” for the masses?
I have just published my tenth novel. And - hand on heart - I have never written anything with the marketplace in mind. Having said that I am that strange duck - a serious popular writer (or a writer of popular serious fiction), which means I rather like the reader to turn the page. Yet I also believe in talking up to the reader at the same time. So I suppose what I am saying here is that, if a novelist thinks simply about the marketplace, he is selling himself short. But he also needs to remember that he has an obligation to engage his readers in his narrative. Or, to put it another way, you can be popular and intelligent and non-generic simultaneously.
Philip Fleck claims to have seen over ten thousand movies. Are you a movie buff as well? How many do you think you have seen? Can you tell us your top five favorite movies and why they make the list?
I spent much of a rather difficult adolescence in a movie (the virtues of a Manhattan childhood—there were so many cinemas nearby) and must still watch at least five films a week. One of the reasons I maintain an apartment in Paris is because there are two dozen cinemas within ten minutes walk of my place. There is a great line in Walker Percy’s great novel, The Moviegoer: “I am happiest in a movie, even a bad movie.” And though I hate lists, here are five of my favorite films: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”—five films which all deal with isolated men who are the architects of their own despair... as we all are.
During his revision of We Three Grunts David notes that screenwriters “let the pictures do the talking…when you have pictures, who needs a lot of words?” Do you think screenwriters have it easier than authors do? How do you create such vivid visual imagery when you do not have the advantage of pictures?
I have a very visual imagination - but I work in words, not pictures. So many people tell me that my novels are very filmic, but I always think myself a literary storyteller first-and-foremost. I suppose the fact that, prior to my novels, I wrote three narrative travel books has meant that I have always had a strong imaginative sense of time and place and life on the street (so to speak). I am endlessly interested in life’s manifold nuances. The devil is, verily, in the details.
David is very critical of himself while he edits his first screenplay, We Three Grunts. Temptation is your ninth book; do you ever find yourself going back to your first or second novel and being critical of how you wrote it? What is your writing process like?
I rarely re-read my previous novels. Of course, writing is a learning curve without end. I will (I hope!) keep perfecting and improving my craft until the end of my life. As such I’m certain that, twenty years from now, I will (all going well) still be telling myself: you must up your game. Because writing is a craft that you never totally master. Nor should you. You always have to keep learning as a writer and, for that matter, as a sentient being. Life, for me, is about maintaining an active curiosity and never resting on your laurels. I always want to do better.
Your novel is a commentary on both the opportunities and the dangers that success brings. Do you feel that people need to keep a level head as they achieve success in their professional and personal lives? What do you think is the danger in getting everything that we want?
To paraphrase a great quote from Aesop (which I used as an epigraph in The Big Picture): beware lest you overlook the substance by grasping at the shadow. Or, in plainer American English: never fall in love with the aroma of your own perfume. One of the great ongoing dilemmas of modern life is the fact that we are endlessly told we can master ourselves. The fact is, the moment we think we have arrived is the moment that life sends us a reminder that the proverbial goalposts have been moved. Or that the success we thought was a now-permanent state-of-being is but a fragile veneer. What’s most interesting about success—and this is a central idea running through Temptation—is whether you can hold on to it. If you begin with the basic premise that the biggest argument we have in life is with ourselves, then the question arises: once we achieve that professional breakthrough we’ve always craved, how do we sustain it? This is a particularly tricky question in creative life, where you really are only as good as your last play/book/screenplay etc. This is why, as I have discovered over a writing career of nearly thirty years (the first eight of which comprised a period when I was a produced, but rather so-so playwright), you must retain a certain fragility, a belief that it all can be taken away from you, in order to keeping growing as a novelist. Writing is a confidence trick you endlessly play on yourself.
Martha Fleck makes the offhanded comment: “the one thing I know about writers is that they’re normally a mixture of doubt and arrogance.” Are these just Martha’s feelings or do you tend to share her view?
Well, arrogance always hides doubt, doesn’t it?
Philip Fleck makes very poignant comments about the world we live in and the human impulse to dominate another individual. Do you believe this to be true? Do you think everyone tries to impose their own world view on everyone else?
Look at every desperate, dysfunctional dystopia of the past century, from Stalinism to Nazism to the horrors of the Khymer Rouge to the insane cult of personality that is North Korea to the theocratic nightmare that is Iran. All of these systems are about the imposition of a world-view on the masses. I am desperately unsettled by anyone who tells me they have answers to life’s larger questions. No one has answers—just disparate points-of-view. The thing is, there is a great human need to impose order and control on life’s more unruly, happenstantial forces. Just as there is a fearful need to control other people as a way of masking one’s own fears and insecurities. Bullies are always scared people who have learned that intimidation is a modus vivendi, which masks their own self-loathing and cowardice.
Gossip columnist Theo McCall sets out to destroy David’s star status. Do gossips like McCall ruin celebrity lives? Or just keep the public informed of their transgressions? Do you agree with McCall that “Hollywood is an industry that will overlook any venal or mortal sin committed by one of its own…”?
In Hollywood, the comeback, the resurrection, the rehabilitation are all treasured events, especially if the individual in question has just spent six months in the Betty Ford Clinic or has regained control of their destiny after marrying an eighteen year old croupier from Vegas while on a crack cocaine binge (I’m riffing here!). Hollywood is a profoundly Darwinian place. Only the fittest survive, and failure is considered the ultimate mortal sin. But I have always admired the fact that Hollywood is so nakedly, unapologetically ruthless. You know exactly the game they are playing—and which you yourself must also play to make it there. You know what the table stakes are—and the fact that (to borrow a line my grandfather was fond of using), “only the winner goes to dinner.”
You provide detailed descriptions of the California coast, Antigua and Saphron Island. What research, if any, did you do for this book?
I’ve been to California at least a dozen times—and am always seduced by it... even if the Easterner in me still finds it somewhat foreign in temperament. And I have made around three journeys to the Caribbean, which has always struck me as an unsettling combination of Third World realities crossed with five-star glitz. I live to travel, and, as such, foreign places always inform my fiction. To travel is to always test yourself in a world outside your own comfort zone.
Nine books later, what advice would you give to a budding writer?
In two words: keep writing. And learn how to cope with disappointment, as there will be plenty of it. But a real writer always keeps going. As David says at the end of Temptation: there is only one solution—go back to work.
What’s next for you? Will we be hearing from David Armitage again?
When a novel is finished, I tend to move on and not return to past characters. But, yes, a new novel—my eleventh—is underway. And as I never talk much about what I’m working on at any given moment, all I can say is: watch this space.