How “Missing Reels” was Found

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Farran Smith Nehme reading an excerpt from her novel, “Missing Reels,” at Kramerbooks & Afterwards Cafe on the night of January 21. 

By Sydney Mineer

It was the British filmmaker Kevin Brownlow who gave Farran Smith Nehme the idea for her novel, Missing Reels. Nehme was at a dinner party with Brownlow  when he made a comment about film collectors that inspired Nehme to start on her novel.

“We were talking about [Raymond Rohauer] and some even weirder people,” Nehme said, “and at one point I turned to Brownlow and said, ‘I guess the collecting scene has somekind of strange personalities.’ and he leaned across the table and said, ‘you have no idea.’”

Nehme has made her career in non-fiction. She currently freelances for the New York Post and runs a prominent film blog called Self- Styled Siren where she writes about classic film. In 2008, GQ Magazine named Nehme Film Blogger of the Year.

Told by her friends that she possessed a flair for narrative, Nehme always wanted to try her hand at fiction, but it wasn’t until her  encounter with Brownlow that she found inspiration for her plot.

Set in 1986, Missing Reels follows 21-year-old Ceinwen Reilly, a Mississippi native who has moved to New York City determined to make a life for herself in a city where she feels more at home than where she came from. During her time in New York, Ceinwen, a lover of old movies much like Nehme herself, discovers that her elderly neighbor, Miriam, was the star of a forgotten and potentially lost silent film. Driven by her passion for cinema, Ceinwen and her handsome British counterpart, Mathew, begin a search for Miriam’s film, The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Fehme’s own interest in movies, particularly older films, developed when she was a child.

“If you’re part of my generation, you could absorb [movies] with very little effort because they were everywhere,” Fehme said to a small crowd at Kramerbooks. “They were such a popular way to fill out television programming.”

Fehme, an introspective child, would often stay home and occupy her time by reading or watching movies.

“I had a very loving but a very strict mother who had read a lot of Dr. Spock and was convinced that violence or sex were going to twist my little mind and the next thing you know I’d be strangling chipmunks under the porch,” Fehme said. “So if I was watching an old movie she could be assured that I was not absorbing anything that was going to warp my little psyche.”

Fehme was drawn to movies from the 1930s, and once her parents noticed her interest in film, they began to share some of their favorites with her. One of her mother’s favorite films was “Imitation of Life,” which made it into a scene in Fehme’s novel. In the scene, Ceinwen goes to a screening of the “Imitation of Life” at a theater in New York. She is excited to see the movie on the big screen, but her fellow audience members laugh at the film in all the wrong places and ruin Ceiwen’s experience. Fehme experienced something similar herself at a screening of “A Clockwork Orange.” 

Fehme, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, has lived in New York for years. In her book, she wanted to recreate the spirit of the 1980s New York that she remembered. According to Fehme, the New York of the ’80s was much more of a social melting pot than the self-segregated New York of today.

“You could go to an incredible dive bar as I did one night,” Fehme said, “[where] I found myself talking to one of [Andy] Warhal’s familiars from his old Factory days…I wanted my book to recapture that aspect of New York where an old lady that was in your building really might have been in a silent movie,” Fehme said.

The 1980s setting was also chosen for realistic purposes— it’s the last era where a silent movie star could believably be alive and well.

For Fehme, the process for writing her novel was much the same as her process for writing a review or blogging, which she has been doing since 2005.

One thing that Fehme enjoyed about writing the novel as opposed to her other writings is though she did a lot of research for the book, she got to take more creative licenses than she is able to on her blog.

“I don’t want to say [the book] was more creative because I put a lot of creativity into what I do on the blog,” Fehme said, “but I guess there was a feeling of a bit more freedom. In a novel, I’m no longer constrained by what actually went down in history– I can make my own history.”

Once Fehme started writing the novel, it took her less than two years to finish.

“I found that I liked this world, Fehme said. “I liked going back to these times and places that I knew. I enjoyed being with the people I had created, even some of the ones who were not very nice characters, and I would sort of look forward to going back to it.”

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