Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Laura Zigman talks about Annoying Conversations, her "embarrassing" writing life, tan feet, and so much more

When I first read Animal Husbandry (turned into the film, Someone Like You), I wanted Laura Zigman to be my friend. So you can imagine how thrilled I became getting to interview her for my blog (and I got to be on Hash Hags, the radio show she does with Ann Leary and Julie Klam!) Laura's also the author of Dating Big Bird, Her, and Piece of Work, and she's the hilarious creator of the Annoying Conversations videos. Thank you so, so much for this interview, Laura!

First, did you like the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, because I took it and was yelled at when instead of moving to NYC, I ran off and got married and lived in Pittsburgh for a few years--a big mistake if there ever was one.

OMG. (said with total Mall-Rat tone and big eye roll). I had no idea you took the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course too (and yes, you had to say "Procedures" even though no actual "procedures" were taught except for afternoon sherry-drinking.). As you know, it's no longer at Radcliffe, in Cambridge. It's now in New York and called something else entirely. But anyway, after having been rejected from every college I applied to except my safety school (and after being wait-listed, but then rejected, by Vassar, in a letter addressed: "Dear Ziggy"), you can imagine the ego-salve that nice thick acceptance envelope provided when I was accepted. 

Like you, I had no intention of ever moving to New York. In fact, being raised in the Boston suburbs, no one ever even mentioned New York, let alone talked about wanting to move there. And so for the entire six weeks I assumed I would complete the course and get a job at Little, Brown, along with ten of my closest new friends who also assumed they were going to stay in Boston and work at Little, Brown, too (Little, Brown was going to have to EXPAND). But about a week before the end of the course, all my new friends decided they were moving to New York, so buckling under peer pressure, I went, too. Only I went with the assumption that I'd hate it, because that's kind of how I approach any kind of big change. I sold my car and paid for a one-month sublet on the Upper West Side. One month and I'd be back, begging the Little, Brown people for a job. I was one of the last graduates to get a job -- at Random House -- in publicity -- because I typed 103 words a minute. Because I'd taken the same typing test at almost every single publisher by that point and was really good at it. When the personnel person (aptly named "Angel" -- a man) came out and told me not to go anywhere, I thought it was because of the impressive phrase "Graduate of The Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, Harvard University" blazing across my resume. But of course it wasn't. It was because of the typing. 

What was it like to have your book made into a film? Did you get to have a cameo and if not, why not?

Having a movie made out of my first novel was ridiculous. By which I mean, it was fantastic. How could it possibly have been a bad thing? I got paid, Ashley Judd played "me" (oops, I mean, the "fictional" character of "me"), and I got to meet, and drool over, Hugh Jackman. Twice (once on set; again on the red carpet where all I wanted to do was reach out and pet his white patent-leather trench coat). I can't tell you how many people asked me if I was "disappointed" in my movie. (I wasn't.) I also can't tell you how many people asked me how my movie "did." By which they meant, "I'm sorry your movie didn't do well." Years later, when people stopped asking me about my movie, I thought of the perfect comeback: "How did MY movie do? How did YOUR MOVIE DO?" By which I mean: "Stop looking for failure in success!" It was surreal, and heady, and I got to go out to Hollywood a few times to meet with the producer, Lynda Obst, and the screenwriter adapting the novel, for meetings in which nothing really happened! I got to attend the premiere with my entire family (and extended family) and tend to everyone's red-carpet needs except my own! (I don't know if I even remembered to wear underwear it was so fraught with wedding-type stress). And years later, I saw my DVD pictured on the back of box of Crispix as part of some free give-away with other DVDs no one had ever heard of! As for the cameo: Yes, I could have had a cameo. But: the movie started shooting less than a week after I gave birth to my (ten pound) son, and so when the producer called to invite me to appear as an extra in a party scene, I declined because, unlike celebrities these days, I hadn't lost my fifty pounds of baby weight in ten days. We did visit the set in Tribeca a few weeks later, on the day they were filming a scene in which the main line of dialogue was actually straight from the book. That line of dialogue was spoken by Hugh Jackman and if I hadn't been wearing elastic stretch pants and a maternity v-neck t-shirt I probably would have jumped him.

Where did the idea for your brilliant "annoying conversations" videos come from. And can you tell us about the Get Your Stupid Writer Feelings Hurt videos?

Thank you, first of all, for calling my "Annoying Conversations" -- the series of Xtranormal videos I've made -- brilliant. I started making them early last fall after having yet another circular conversation with my son about whether or not he'd done his homework (he did but he didn't but there wasn't any but there was some but he forget it because he didn't have any so he did it). I was also having some really annoying non-apology-apology conversations with a family member and I kind of felt like my head was exploding with all my "Am I crazy or is this conversation INCREDIBLY ANNOYING?" thoughts. I'd made an Xtranormal video the previous year -- "So You're Jewish But You Have a Christmas Tree?" -- the mother of all annoying conversations! -- and it was really fun. 

Last fall I was really struggling with trying to start writing again and after I made one or two of those videos I felt something inside of me unwind. It was like I'd found a way to get back into writing without actually having to really write. Writing really short tiny little scripts almost every day was a way to trick myself into writing. It was like a little warm-up thing. And because it felt like a warm-up fun thing instead of a big real thing I didn't feel blocked. I'd tried to sit down and WRITE a few times and I wanted to die because nothing came out and it felt like such a huge set-up for failure. It felt like so much was at stake to try to write something big and long and real; writing those small little scripts for the videos was very stream-of-consciousness. With instant gratification. I'd get annoyed by something, sit down, whip out a video about it in twenty minutes, then go about my business. It felt great! Cathartic AND creatively productive! And then all of sudden people started "liking" them on Facebook and Twitter, and soon the Xtranormal people found my videos and interviewed me, and then The Huffington Post started running them and a few ended up on AOL's Homepage which was great ("Driving Under The Influence of Adele"). The one I did in the spring about making beef stew with a Cook's Illustrated recipe ended up getting retweeted by the editor of Cook's Illustrated himself! 

Not to sound immodest, but I love the series of Annoying Conversations about "Getting Your Stupid Writer Feelings Hurt" because almost every single one of those conversations has happened to me and/or to writers I know. All of those videos have The Frenemy (in the Groucho Marx nose-glasses) making a writer-person ("me") feel bad about everything to do with her writing and her career. He manages to inject failure into every success. That's a huge obsession of mine, the relativity of success, especially when it comes to writing. By which I mean, you can have four published novels and a movie made from one of them and still be made to feel like -- AND make YOURSELF feel like -- a total loser. #firstworldproblems

What's your writing life like? 

My writing life is really embarrassing. As I may have mentioned, I kind of stopped writing for a while after my fourth novel came out and didn't "do" so well I got discouraged. Then life interrupted (breast cancer and domestic issues). When I thought my three-years-from-hell was over, my mother got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in five months. Not to make her suffering about me, but it totally sucked (no other word for it) and it just took me further and further away from trying to reconnect with the creative part of myself. 

For me, that "creative" part of myself got fucking smothered by all the life stress I'd experienced during most of my 40s. I ended up ghostwriting a few projects. It helped financially and it also took the pressure off writing my own stuff, since writing for someone else felt much more like a job (because it IS a job!) and less like another opportunity to stare down my writer's block. So last fall, after not having written much of anything over the past few years, I starting writing the little movie scripts. Then I wrote a piece about my mother that ran in the New York Times "Motherlode" section. And suddenly I felt that tiny little pilot light go back on. 

But what really got me writing again -- I just finished an original (spec) film script and have finally started work on a collection of funny/sad memoir-ish pieces about moving back, as an adult, to where I grew up, "Still Life With Braces", was a chance online friendship with Jennifer Weiner. She'd generously mentioned my videos during an interview she gave, and when I emailed to thank her, she asked me what I was working on. She said it, like, "So what are you working on?" as if surely I was working on something! After staring at the question for a while I realized I was shocked that someone assumed I was working on something and saw me as someone who would be working on something because I'd stopped seeing myself that way. Seeing myself as a "failed" novelist and a working ghostwriter and seeing myself as "a writer" are two very different things and I'd really lost faith in myself over the years in a really big way. Jen's (yeah, I call her "Jen") belief in me has been like CPR. Without her encouragement and generosity (I'm actually using her Cape Cod beach-house-guest-house at her insistence), I don't think I'd feel able to write. Gratitude doesn't begin to express what I feel. And I know a lot of other writers who feel the same. Just ask Jillian Medoff whose recent (amazing) novel, "I Couldn't Love You More" has been touted by Jen since its publication. I know people make fun of social media but it saved my life. (NOTE FROM CAROLINE: Jennifer Weiner is undoubtably one of the kindest, funniest, most generous writers on the planet. When I was being writer bullied, she sprang to my defense. She deserves chocolate, planets, and diamonds.)

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed with my tan feet right now. I love tan feet. And hands. I haven't had tan feet in years and my feet and hands are really tan. It's distracting me from the fact that I'm turning fifty in August. I'd been whining and bleating about turning fifty up until recently when I realized complaining about still being alive is really unseemly and in very bad taste given how many people are fighting awful diseases and terrible hardship. I think there should be a new hashtag -- much like #firstworldproblems -- #goodhealthproblems -- the kind of problems you have the luxury of complaining about because you still have your health, something none of us should ever ever take for granted. So aside from the fact that I can't fucking believe I'm going to become an AARP member, I have no complaints.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask?

Hash Hags! The radio show I co-host with Ann Leary and Julie Klam! Another example of social media saving my life since I met both of them through Facebook and Twitter. It's such a fun show to do and we've had so many amazing incredible guests (mostly authors) -- you included! We''ll be on hiatus in August but back in the fall with a fantastic line-up of brilliant writer-guests whose Stupid Writer Feelings we never hurt!!


Jillian Medoff said...

I love Laura Zigman. I love her novels, her brants, her videos, and (soon) her screenplays. It takes genuine talent and a big heart (not to mention an enormous pair of lady balls) to write honestly about your own and others' foibles, and to make them fresh, relatable, hilarious and all-too-human. Laura is the Cesar Chavez of first world issues, and I and many other fans eagerly await whatever she creates next. And by the way, in what universe is a bestselling, four-time novelist a failure? We live in a country where people don't read four books in their lifetimes (discounting porn). Savor your success, Laura. You're a hero all of us. xox Jillian

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Katharine Weber said...

"Stop looking for failure in success!" Very important. People don't ask brain surgeons if they are "disappointed" in the outcome of their work, or how their patients are "doing."

Bill Peschel said...

I obviously don't get out enough, but as someone also published in The New York Times (the blog, not the newspaper), I thought the 'self-promoting frenemy' video was especially funny. I cracked up at 'I think more people liked and commented on my negative comment than read your blog.'

Laura Zigman said...

Thanks for these great comments! Especially since they don't give The Frenemy much to work off of for insults (actually, The Frenemy can, and has, worked with much less).

Leslie Lehr said...

And so, what ARE you working on? Cuz I wanna read it now!
And don't you love Caroline?

Laura Zigman said...

Aw....thanks, Leslie! Finished a script (on spec, duh) and now starting collection of autobiographical interconnecting memoir-ish pieces. And you? xo