The origin of this story is slightly complicated, while the rest of it is pretty straightforward, so let’s get the slalom course out of the way first in this combined Alpine event.
In this internet world, it’s a constant wonder how many people we know that we don’t actually ‘know’, you know? As life has happened to turn out, my dearest friend in the world is the wonderfully talented actress and equally talented writer Lydia Cornell, best known as the face and body that launched a thousand (Snip! – Ed.) amongst teenage boys during her years on Too Close for Comfort. Yes, my best friend, even though we have never actually been in the same room.
Among Lydia’s Facebook friends is one Vicki Abelson, who I assume has her settings set so that her status updates can be seen by friends of friends. (By the way, is just me, or doesn’t all this friends and friends of friends business make you feel that we’re all a bunch of Quakers? Pass the oat bowl!) So I sat back on the couch late one night the other week enjoying the evening’s fourth martini – ha ha! I kid! It was the fifth – when I see an update from Vicki thanking everyone who had come out to her latest meeting of Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write gathering.
‘Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write?’, I said, ‘What’s that?’ And after I quieted the dog from barking because Daddy is talking to The Invisible People again, I started Googling. Eventually I found some YouTube clips of Vicki’s past Women Who Write events, and I was equally engaged, intrigued, and delighted.
While it is demonstrably true that there has never been an entertainment or media industry more adaptable to challenges than book publishing, it has, after all, thrived in the face of theatre, vaudeville, daily newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, television, and now the Internet, It is always a business under challenge and seeking an audience for its product. Once one actually starts reading for pleasure, of course one is hooked; but that is a hard hook to bait after the joy of words has been drummed out of the soul by undertaker–like school teachers who rip the living breath out of Keats, Dickens and Fitzgerald in the quest for test-able questions. Ugh. Read? I’d rather you tear my lips off.
So Vicki’s series of authors invited into her home, and speaking to an audience of 50 or 60 women (it’s a very nice house and I am, indeed, sucking up for an invite) struck me as an excellent way of getting writers over with the public. A little food, a little wine, a little chat, a little more wine and these 60 women are going to tell at least 10 friends each about the wonderful time they had with, say, Fred Willard reading from his screenplay, and that, in turn, creates a buzz. Well, so did the wine, but that’s not my point. And actually, there is no wine at Vicki’s events. The intoxication is cerebral, not physical.
What? Oh you noticed that Fred Willard isn’t a woman? Well aren’t we the observant one! We’ll get back to that, trust. Now stop interrupting, I’m on a roll here.
I messaged Vicki and said effectively that, ‘You know you’re doing an incredible service to publishing and authors–having people into your home to personally interact with writers is worth a thousand Barnes and Noble book signings, and as a professional book reviewer, thank you for continuing my employment.’ Those may not have been the exact words, but you weren’t there so what the hell do you know, buster?
Anyway, I was flattered and touched that Vicki Abelson was flattered and touched, so after we had each confirmed each other’s wisdom and perspicacity, I decided that Women Who Write deserved a column. Which you are reading. In case you hadn’t noticed. Hi there!
I asked Vicki ten questions, as transcribed below:
Hubert O’Hearn: When did Women Who Write get started?
Vicki Abelson: Tuesday September 23, 2008.
HO: Why did you start it?
VA: I had just started the second draft of what I was calling my first novel, Don’ t Jump (I’ve since altered that to fictionalized memoir, which is more factual), I wanted to hear it, to read it aloud, and workshop it into a play. I was fairly new in LA and had no idea how to get stage time to do so. At 413 pages, doing a few random minutes here and there would have taken decades. My wise editor, David Tabatsky, suggested I find a restaurant with a private room, invite other writers and local mommies, eat lunch and read.
HO: Why did you decide to hold it in your home?
VA: At first I sought a venue. It was problematic for a number of reasons. Noise and distractions for one. Or is that two? Plus, I was going to have to guarantee approx 25 women who would pay $25 for lunch each month. That felt like an awful lot of pressure. I was in a book club that met at a friend’s home periodically… she had a comfortable living room with lots of seating. I asked if she’d be willing to host my mid-day soirees. She generously agreed. I’m not sure I ever would’ve gotten started otherwise. I had a big empty living room that sat four. Almost all of our furniture is still in New York. The first three salons were held at her home. The last of three was almost canceled the night before the event when our hostess wasn’t sure she’d be home. I considered bagging the whole thing after that. Asking someone to be available for my thing every month was too much to ask, and having to depend upon someone else’s schedule was too much stress for me. I asked a local church if I could borrow some chairs and moved it to my house in January of 2009. That’s when the magic started.
HO: Who was the first writer to appear? How’d that go?
VA: Erika Schickel and Kathleen Wilhoite were scheduled. I found out the day before the salon that Kathleen was on hold for an acting gig, I’d been planning it for a couple of months and was kind of panicked, but it was great. We had a potluck brunch, food is a major element to Women Who Write. Breaking bread breaks barriers. Ericka read from her You’re Not The Boss of Me, and I read the prologue and first chapter of Don’t Jump. Twenty-five women attended (ironically). We had a fantastic, provocative discussion following the readings. That became a mainstay, topics borne from the art…shared, unplanned “coincidences.” On a whim, I wrote a recap that evening and sent it off to those that attended and those that couldn’t make it. They also became a mainstay.
HO: It’s Women Who Write, but it’s not just women. When did you decide to let the boys play too and why?
VA: Soon after moving it to my house, Facebook friend, Tom Bergeron, announced his upcoming book, I’m Hosting as Fast as I Can!: Zen and the Art of Staying Sane in Hollywood. I sent him a note wishing he could read for us. He said he’d wear a dress. On the spot, I decided that because I’d made the rules, I could break them. Tom was willing, there was no way I wasn’t going to seize that opportunity. Because we were having a man, I decided why not two or three? I reached out to Evan Handler, red hot with Sex and The City and Californication and his memoir, It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive, he agreed. And then TV writer and comedian, Ron ZImmerman reached out to me. Tom read his book for the first time to us the day it dropped. And, we got the “R” rated version. It was a brilliant day. I thought at the time that I’d have men once or twice a year. Little did I know that incredible male authors and performers would avail themselves to us often and in abundance. The audience, however, has remained women only, until this past August, when we ventured north to The Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, at the invitation of Michael Nesmith. At his urging to take some risks and grow the thing, we did it in the expansive great outdoors, with boys in attendance, and it felt still, remarkably like home.
HO: You’ve also had ‘non-traditional’ writers like songwriters and screenwriters appear. What was your thinking behind expanding the tent as it were?
VA: Just shy of two years in, Lori Lieberman wrote to me to inquire if I’d consider her reading her poetry or song lyrics. When I realized that she’d penned Killing Me Softly, I asked her to sing it and another song of her choice. She did, in New York in July 2009. (For the first three years, I held the salon twice a year in Manhattan.) Lori’s performance was thrilling. Opening with music set a new tone. When I returned to LA in the fall, Lori came to the salon to be a woman amongst the women. I wanted the LA women to experience what we had in New York. With her permission, I asked a neighbor if we could borrow a guitar. Lori opened and killed again. We haven’t had a Women Who Write without opening with music, since.
Angelica Page Torn was the first to read from a screenplay of a film that she had written and starred in that was about to premier. Academy Award Nominee, Michael O”Keefe, another Facebook friend, had a book of poetry about to drop, when he agreed to read. Women Who Write is not just great writing, it’s also great performances, and that factors greatly into who I book. Great writing stands on its own when read, reading aloud requires another skill set, to do it effectively. Personality is also essential. Following the musical performance and readings we have discussion, on topics that are borne from the art. It’s provocative, profound and transformative for the audience and the writers.
HO: I doubt if you’re making a nickel off this. Why do you keep doing it?
VA: It cost me money for the first three years. And, I gave out swag every month, courtesy of WWW guardian angel, Rick Smolke of Quick Impressions in Chicago. Out of necessity, in the last few months, I started to pre-sell tickets. I’d much rather have the money come from sponsors or grants.
HO: I’ll never ask you who was the ‘best’ guest, because you won’t answer that, nor should you. That demeans everyone else. But who surprised you? Who made you think, “Holy sh!t, I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you were THAT good.”
VA: My mind’s been blown more times than I can say. Across the board, the talent has been stunning. Every month, we say “this was the best,” and every month we mean it. There’s always an element of magic. I think the women bring out the best in everyone. Carl Reiner did more than two hours for us and said it was one of the greatest shows of his career. It was an absolute Love Fest. Harry Hamlin was a huge surprise. He is the sexiest man alive. Breathtaking. He was such a good sport, a brilliant, forward-thinking activist. Steven Weber was amongst our most gifted readers. His piece on his date with Ann Colter was a finely crafted tour de force not soon to be forgotten. MacKenzie Phillips had the room in empathetic tears. She was vulnerable and generous with her heart. We had so much fun with Robert Morse, one of the sweetest men ever. Not to mention, one of the most talented. Phil Rosenthal killed us. Hysterical! Taylor Negron was a revelation…I had no idea the depth of his talent as a writer and a performer. Michael Nesmith, performing for the first time in a long time, previewed his then upcoming UK solo tour for us, with his band, in full production, and treated us to spoken word intros for each song, written specifically for the occasion. It was a completely unexpected, mind-blowing treat.
Now I want to go through the list and tell you what was special and wonderful about every one of our readers. Because they all were. Every single one of them. Except for… never mind. KIDDING!
HO: Who would you love to get for Women Who Write that you haven’t got so far?
VA: Anne Lamont is a dream. Traveling Mercies is one of my favorite books. Stephen King. His On Writing is my bible. I just connected with Da Chen. I’m thrilled that he’s agreed to read. Tina Fey. I’m reading Bossypants now, laughing out loud at every other line. I’ve been working on Micky Dolenz for two years to sing and read. Janis Ian. Marianne Williamson. Dr. Drew. Keith Richards, what a book! What a life. I lean to those who tell a personal story. Gifted writing is a thrill to read, but not necessarily to have read. I seek those who reveal themselves and who know how to do so effectively. Women Who Write is a grand entertainment and sharing of deep truths. The grand trilogy of dreams: Garry Shandling, Albert Brooks, and Steve Martin. I shan’t rest until I get them to my living room. And then there’s Larry David. Sigh.
HO: Last – and I want to get YOU over too kid – tell me about your writing, what you’ve done, what you’re working on. Don’t get modest on me!
VA: I started out as an actress, segued to comedian, and then became a rock promoter and publicist. I left the business to have children. While pregnant, I started writing;a screenplay first. Buried in a drawer somewhere. Post-911, in the midst of personal trauma, I began writing Don’t Jump. Initially, I called it a novel. I now own that it’s a fictionalized memoir. It was never my intention to take anyone down. I had a journey I was burning to document. A women’s quest to find her place and purpose amidst sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and celebrity. An inside look from an outsider. No one will know where I took liberties. I intend that as a protection for all my characters. I took no such liberties with Andi’s internal journey. Every thought, every feeling is genuine.
I had a publishing contract with a small publisher that came and went, twice, from neglect. Another publisher is reading it now. We’ll see where that leads. I’ve been sitting on a completed manuscript for too long. After four years of reading it aloud, I’m ready to let go. I can’t wait to get it out there.
I write for Huffington Post, although I’ve yet to submit the last piece I had approved ages ago. It’s hard for me to justify writing without financial compensation, but the benefits of having my pieces as the lead stories in their sections, making the Huff Po front page each time have been enormous. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
I optioned a music reality show to Telepictures a few years ago and shot a pilot pitch for a half-hour comedy where Women Who Write is the show within the show. It chronicles my ongoing quest to get guests and find love while parenting two teenagers. I constantly embarrass them, and myself, personally and professionally. I co-wrote a dramedy, about pot addiction and the road to recovery, that I still have faith in. And then, of course, there’s Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write. Shortlisted for Oprah’s OWN; I’m still not sure why we’re not on there.
As whack as it sounds, I do much of my daily writing on The Facebook. I found my voice there, and continue to cultivate it on a daily basis. Almost all of the readers that have graced my living room, I approached on FB. It’s a powerful networking vehicle, as well as an extraordinary connector of humanity. I’ve made innumerable friendships that have come off the wall and enrich my life, daily. I documented, and was comforted through, the passing of my father, share the exploits of my amazing kids, promote my work and that of those I admire and respect, give voice to just about every thought and feeling I have, and through daily practice, have learned to say it my way. I’m an acquired taste, uncensored and snarky. I love The Facebook. I love LA. I’m as shallow as a puddle.
And that is Vicki Abelson. Now, all you kids out there who read my stuff know that I’m not afraid to make The Big Calls because that’s the way I roll. I sincerely believe that the Pulitzers, American Book Awards, etc., miss out on something. All the big award banquets concentrate on the authors because, you know, it’s amusing watching them get drunk in public. But the readers get left out and without readers all we writers may as well be Emily Dickinson and sew our works tight shut in little silk throw pillows.
Now I’m no Pulitzer committee, but I’m not exactly Johnny Blogspot either. When I put out my Books of the Year list in another weeks or two, I’m naming my New Author of the Year category for Vicki Abelson. She deserves much more, but that’s the least I can do.
Be seeing you.