April 10, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT

The phrase “Never judge a book by its cover,” while always a cliché, has never been more true than when referring to What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw. At first glance it could, potentially, be confused with Maria Semple’s popular beach read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? At second glance — possibly one that involves scanning the jacket description — it may seem like a thriller. The novel follows the titular actor Charlie Outlaw (and no, that is not a stage name) after he is kidnapped on a remote tropical island, and the ex-girlfriend (also an actor) he was trying to run from.

But don’t let that plot fool you: This is so much more than a fun page-turner. It’s actually a brutally honest look at the inner workings of fame: What makes actors tick, what it’s like to be inside Hollywood, and what happens when you’ve let the business get the best of you.

Leah Stewart is the rather unlikely novelist behind this fascinating novel — unlikely insofar as she herself has never been an actress. (That’s probably what allows her to be so insightful about the industry.) She is the author of five other tomes and has made a name for herself crafting wonderfully complex characters. Ahead, she takes us inside the making of Charlie Outlaw and tells us what makes her tick.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
LEAH STEWART: I know, because I have them, that I wrote poems as a small child, rhyming pen/hen and fun/sun, plus a great many stories about princesses. But the first thing I remember writing is the beginning of what I imagined as an epic fantasy series. It started with a poem, in imitation of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which I loved. Sadly, I wrote only a few chapters — in a Strawberry Shortcake notebook.

What is the last book that made you cry?
I cry much more easily at movies and television than books, so this is a hard one. I know I felt like crying when I got to the end of Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. And I think often of a very sad moment in Amity Gaige’s Schroder, when the first-person narrator writes over and over again to his wife, “I let you down. I let you down.”

Jason Sheldon; Penguin Random House

What is your favorite part of What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw?
Before this book, I’d never described a character running for his life or having a near-death fall, so because the action scenes were a new challenge they’re among my favorites.

Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
A Separation by Katie Kitamura.

Where do you write?
Mostly in my study on the third floor of my house, surrounded by my favorite books and pop-culture artifacts, like a cardboard cut-out of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

Which book made you a forever reader?
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you and your book:

(Because Josie, from the book, used to play a badass on TV).

What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Dark chocolate, especially Lake Champlain Peppermint Crunch bars.

What was the hardest plot point or character to write in What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw?
Without giving too much away, it was how to get my character Josie Lamar to make a big decision later in the book. I like to write interiority, so my characters do a fair amount of thinking, but I’m also a fan of big things happening, so sooner or later I have to prod them into action.

If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
Another writer advised me to change the first sentence of my first book from “Here in Memphis, this has been a summer of murders,” to “This has been a summer of murders.” I took his advice, but if I could I’d go back to the original.

Write a movie poster tagline for What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw:
Oh, wow, I’m terrible at this. I’m thinking about a Brando quote I found while doing research, essentially that we all have to be actors to survive. So maybe “We Are All Actors” or “Acting Might Save Your Life.” I’m sure if I worked as a writer of movie poster taglines I’d immediately be fired. 

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