July 2003

Jessa Crispin

features

An Interview with Pamela Ribon

Pamela Ribon became the "Pop Culture Princess" with her wildly popular online journal Pamie.com in 1998. A year ago she found infamy in the gossip pages with her stage production of Anne Heche's memoirs, Call Me Crazy. Between writing screenplays, continuing her website, and her work with Televisionwithoutpity.com, she found the time to write her first novel, Why Girls Are Weird, released July 1st. She talked to Bookslut by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

How is L.A.? How long have you been living there?

I moved here November 1st of 2000? 2001? 2000. Things move faster in L.A. Suddenly almost three years have past.

Was it a career move?

Austin has sort of changed with all the jobs going away. I was working for a dotcom. Every week fifty more people were getting laid off, and I knew it was only a matter of time. Every time I did something, people would tell me, "Well, as soon as you get to L.A., I can help you out." It's just where the work is, especially in comedy.

You're written screenplays, right?

Yeah, I won the Hollywood Gateway. Basically, they're optioning the script and they're going to try to get it made this year.

You're doing kind of everything. A stage production of the Anne Heche memoir…

We closed that at the end of February. We'd been doing that a year and a half, though.

How did that get started?

I was reading the autobiography after the Barbara Walters special. I bought it used on eBay. It was right around September 11th which is why nobody read the book. She had the interview and the next week was September 11th. I was going to a Madonna concert actually. It was the first time we had gotten out of the house. And I asked, "Is this funny?" This was at the time when everyone was saying nothing will ever be funny again, and I said, "I don't know, this is pretty funny writing." It was so self important. I heard one of my friend's voices in my head when I was reading it, and I have to tell her this would make a great monologue. So we formed it out of that. My friend Ray said he would get me a space and he produced it. We thought we would do it once, and they kept asking us back. The Knitting Factory asked us to close for Sandra Bernhardt. There was always someone who wanted to see it that didn't get to see it. It was kind of cabaret style at the beginning, but we turned it into a play.

I read that Anne Heche showed up herself.

Her husband came for one week. He took notes. He was mad. So we thought, "Well, now we're gonna to get shut down." But then nothing happened. The next week he burst in with her during the closing monologue. Nobody knew she was there. She just sort of pushed her way into the theater. She didn't talk to any of us. They drove off in their limo. I don't know how the story leaked really. Once it hit the gossip columns, then it was on Page Six and in People Magazine. The most famous thing about the show was the show itself. A lot of people had forgotten about her running around topless in Fresno. We had to remind them.

Now you have your first novel. You're on a new imprint, Downtown Press. Is it devoted to chick lit, or whatever you want to call it?

There's a book called The Song Reader, which is more like Ellen Foster than chick lit, maybe a little more Oprah book-y? I think they're all for women, but not necessarily all in that chick lit formula, girl-gets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy-again. I don’t know how I feel about it. People get so upset with the term chick lit. Whatever. It's a chick movie, it's a chick book. It is! I wrote it, I know that guys will read it. How do you feel about the words chick lit?

We actually coined a phrase around your book, my boyfriend and I. Kylie fiction. Because we both listen to Kylie Minogue, but we don't feel bad about ourselves for it. There's this sub-genre of chick lit that is Kylie fiction. It's happy and friendly, but you don't hide it from your friends as much.

You said my book is one of those? Reading your book is how we came up with it.

I know, my book has all those elements, but it's not terminally perky and I'm not trying to coin a new phrase, I'm not pretending to be Carrie Bradshaw. With many of them, you feel the author trying.

That's why I appreciated it, it didn't have a quirky obsession with shoes or something very Sex in the City obvious that I could totally not relate to on any level. This being your first book, how much say did you have as far as the cover and marketing?

Quite a bit, actually. The cover originally… I guess there was a cover that came in originally that was a loopy kind of drawing, a girl with her legs crossed and a laptop. My editor was like, "No! Don't you show this to her! She'll hate this!" I never even saw it. So they went back and came up with this cover. Originally, there wasn't a bag on her head, it was just stock footage of this girl. I feel bad for the model. And I thought, well, this book is about anonymity, and trying to be someone you're not, this girl not only doesn't look like Anna, she doesn't look like me at all. She was sort of sour, like one of those wiener-dog kind of girl. So I thought, let's put a "fashion don't" bar over her eyes. My boyfriend actually came up with the bag over her head. We wanted a bag over the cat's head, too, but then it didn't look like a cat anymore. I thought that would be so damn funny.

With the tour, we're really going to places who give a shit who I am. There aren't that many. That was them asking me where would be good. I kind of come with more of a fan base than most first time fiction writers, so they've been pretty happy with anything that I can add to the marketing campaign?

How many places are you going on your book tour?

I'm going to Austin, Katy (suburb of Houston), then L.A., Oakland, and Torrance, which is really L.A., but they had to have them separate. It's far enough away that competing bookstores… I guess it works that way. One bookstore lays claim on you. And then Oakland, I'm going to be in San Francisco for a week anyway, and with the library stuff, they asked if I was going to be somewhere.

How did the library drive get started? I read about that everywhere.

I was just reading Publisher's Weekly, and they did a quick little article about the libraries losing their funding and they were posting wishlists on Amazon. My boyfriend was born in Oakland, so I just searched for the wishlists. They only had 20-30 books on each one. It was May Day, and I just wrote a little article, "A nice little thing to do today would be to buy a book for Oakland. It will take you a minute, it costs five bucks, and the city needs your help." I wrote that silly thing about everything we learn from the library that our parents don't teach us. I really thought 30 books, I had no idea it would get to where it is now, well over 500. And Michael Moore… Every minute is another crazy thing. It's very rewarding. Pamie.com used to be a portal on Chickclick. When I first asked them to sign me on, they didn't know what my demographic would be. How to run ads, about films or fashion or whatever. The one thing they wanted me to figure out was what was the common denominator with all my readers. It was all different ages, male and female. I wish I had known then was that they all enjoy reading, obviously.

You have a pretty loyal following with your website. You had a forum on your first version of Pamie.com. How many hits were you getting on a regular basis?

It was getting around a million a month because people would spend their day on that forum. It was a very active forum. They would just use it like a chat room, so it was a full time job to moderate. When I was a part of Chickclick, it was a good thing they paid enough to pay my rent because all I did was write an entry and then moderate that forum. That and Televisionwithoutpity.com. It was a pretty busy time as an admin, which is not exactly what you want to do as a writer. Moderate other people's writing all day.

People used to have meet-ups.

There were two girls on the forum late one night, talking about what school they went to. Turns out they went to the same school. They were like, "Well, where do you live?" They both lived on campus, so they asked what dorm. They both looked out their window and they saw each other across the quad and saw each other. They went outside and met and now they're best friends. You could see it all happening on the forum. "What window are you?"

In your book, you have the weird stalker for Anna K. With such a devoted audience, did you ever have weird problems with that?

Yeah, you have your share of people who… when people are in this one-on-one relationship with you with the journal, they really feel that that's an entitlement. You're there when you make all of your life's decisions. And pair it with the forum, you give your opinion and everyone agrees with you, and it's this little community. Or even if I e-mail back to you. Sometimes they fill the void with people online. But they're in your house! But it's like people who get invested in American Idol. It's easy to lose sight that I'm just your average whatever, because I don't talk about the mundane parts of my day. And you don't see every time I fuck up. Particularly with my last relationship. I wrote a lot about Eric in the first version of Pamie.com, and when we broke up people sent me letters, "You've made a horrible mistake. Go back and get him." They don't know why we broke up or anything that happened. They certainly didn't know any of our fights. People see what they want to see. I haven't ever really been scared by anyone. You can certainly see some people aren't able to… I suppose it's the smallest level of celebrity I've experienced. There are a couple thousand people who know who I am, and two of them kind of freak out.

The website entries from the book, they're from Pamie.com.

Some of them are, yeah.

How did you decide which ones to include, or which ones not to include?

Basically, I had to find a way to make it look like the story was stopping and going somewhere else. It was really hard. Some of the stuff I really wanted to keep just didn't fit in this story. As I wrote it people would say, "I really like the Anna story more than the entries." I didn't know if it was because they had read the entries before, so they skimmed them, or if there really was a big difference between the two. I had to pick the entries that went with the story arc of Anna getting confident in herself and taking risks in her writing and her life. "Tae-Bo" was the one where I was most, "I don't know if this should go in." There were other things I wish I had kept but only made the story longer. The first draft was 100,000 words. For chick lit, you can't have a book that big. I always hoped that the book would do well enough that I could print up Pamie.com essays. When I was first approached by publishing houses, the one thing they all agreed on was that I wasn't big enough to publish a book of short stories. I had to turn it into a work of fiction to get it made.

In the back of the book, you talk how the book isn't as autobiographical as people would first think. Do you worry at all that people are going to assume it's more autobiographical than it really is?

People do that. My sister was like, "You didn't write the sister part very much like me." Because it wasn't her. But you assume because there are parts of the book that did happen to me, I guess people's first novels tend to be autobiographical. But I'm not writing a tell all. I have nothing to expose. It's not like I'm scandalously actually talking about someone else. Even if there is something people would falsely assume happened to me, it's not too different from the truth. My new book that I just wrote, people still think I'm writing about something that happened to me. It's writing. People assume. I guess if I was writing science fiction, it wouldn't happen as often. But I'm taking a casual first-person tone.

Maybe you should put robots in your next book.

That's what it needs. Robots and monkeys.

You had your first book signing at the Book Expo. How did it go?

Well, it was fun. You never know, because you're dealing with a combination of librarians and booksellers and people who just go to the Book Expo. I don't think that's representative of what a signing will be like, they're just coming through for a free book. Then there were people who were sent there by a friend who had read my site, or I would assume they knew me from my site, and they didn't. That was always, foot in my mouth. It was fun. I could do it all day. Meeting people and talking about books.

That's where you met Michael Moore, right?

You know Book TV has these interviews. He was doing one, and I just happened to be standing there as he was getting ready for it. I thought, "I'll just stand here and watch his interview." I really wasn't going to talk to him either, because I didn't want to be one of those guys. But after so many people complaining that the book drive was ultimately bad for the libraries, I thought, well, if I could put his opinion on here, maybe that would help all of the Plastic and Metafilter bah humbug.

I didn't really read much of the dissenting opinion, but I didn't understand…

Basically, if the private sector fills a void of the government then the government can say, "If we don't fund the libraries then you will. So we can keep those budgets cut because you're not helping the homeless if we don't. Or you're not helping health care if we don't." So if they keep those budgets cut we'll still supply the money. But then you're just in a stand-off, and the library still doesn't get any books. It's not like I was saying all libraries need our donations. In Oakland, they were having to decide between a firehouse and the library. And they were going to close many libraries completely. They got to keep them open, but they're on a reduced budget.

And on Metafilter someone said, "Well, I know a library where you can get a cup of coffee and sit all day. It's called Barnes and Noble." That just seemed so elitist to assume that everyone can walk into Barnes and Noble and sit there and write a report. You can't. You can't go in there, get a bunch of kids books and read them to your kids. My mom used to go in there and get me fifteen kids books. There was no way she could afford to buy as many kids books as I was reading in a week.

You're book that opens on the dirty Barbie scene. Do you think parents who bought kids Barbies, do you think they have any idea that all we used them for as to experiment with kinky sex?

My mom has not read the book yet. She said she wanted to wait until it was a real book, until she could go to the bookstore, buy it, and tell the guy that I wrote it. But when the excerpts were coming in, I had to proof them, and I told my mom I could fax them to her if she wanted to read the first two chapters. She was deciding whether or not to, and then I realized that probably she shouldn't, because if someone at work saw them, it looked a little like porn. I had to explain to her that the first chapter was really about this. I said it's about how the Barbies you gave me, I just did dirty things with them. She got really quiet and then said, "I guess everybody did that with Barbies." My mom: very straight and narrow, but even in the 60's, Barbie was a dirty whore.

After being involved in web writing and theater and screenplays, what made you decide to write this story in novel form?

I actually hadn't written a screenplay yet when I wrote this novel. But I wrote this story in novel form because someone from Putnam (a reader) asked if I'd be interested in doing just that. Her boss was looking for books like that and she thought it would be a good fit. Your book isn't really chick-lit, but kind of falls into that relationship fiction, how do you feel about critics and reviewers general dismissal of this genre?

Is it not chick lit? I donšt know. The book is pretty girl-meets-boy, girl-gets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy, which I think is a staple of chick lit. And there are daddy issues. I could trash my own book, if you'd just let me. What elevates this book above "chick lit?" Is it because it's funnier? Or because I'm not trying to come up with cutesy terms like "singleton" or write about women who just want to get laid?

Does "Chick Lit" just mean "Books that girls would pick up in a store?" Because if it does, then I wrote Chick Lit, and I'm proud of it, just as I'm proud of any girl-oriented material that makes it into the mainstream. Should I take offense with the word "Chick?" At least it isn't called "Bitch Books" or "Vagina Babble."

But if "Chick Lit" means "Crappy Excuse for a Romance Novel," then I hope I wrote "Dick Lit." I hope my book is famous with the boys who want to understand girls, and it's boys who pass the book around like a dirty little secret.

Dick Lit is just Chick Lit with a male protagonist. I know very few men who read Nick Hornby without a woman having pressed it into their hands, upset that it was going to resonate so deeply with those men who broke her heart. Dick Lit is written for women, isn't it?

Critics tend to dismiss what's popular. I say this as a television critic who has never seen an episode of Survivor, The Amazing Race, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The West Wing. I'm probably the one missing out on at least one of those shows, right?

I see both sides of the Chick Lit argument. On one hand, I don't mind a label if that label gets people to buy books and read. I do mind the label if it means my book gets kicked off the adults table and I'm sent to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the kids. I didn't write "A Girl's First Reader." It's not a primer for literary fiction. It's a story. It's fiction. It's a book, just like any other book.

My readers at pamie.com have always been pretty evenly male and female. I'm not apologetic about my female protagonist. What's keeping this from being an (old-school) Oprah book? The protagonist isn't raped by a relative? Nobody's trying to solve a small town's dirty secret? I understand the need for people to label and organize. But maybe Chick Lit has become too broad of a term. If Chick Lit is supposed to stand for crappy candy books you read at the beach and then toss over your shoulder, then maybe they should be renamed Beach Books and we use Chick Lit to stand for a novel about a girl that means something, that says something, or at least is a little different from an extended Sweet Valley High.

But I've never been indignant, shouting, "I didn't write Chick Lit!" because I don't see anything wrong with the term. I don't associate it with bad writing. Maybe I'm being naīve. Maybe I should be angry with it. Does it make me less of a feminist to embrace the moniker?

Amazon and Simon & Schuster have pegged my book as comic fiction and contemporary romance. Romance! I never thought of my book as a romance novel. But that's what they think chick lit is. And that's where a majority of the readers are, searching romance sections. Do I mind the title if it means more people will find my book than they would if it was only sitting next to Amy Sedaris' Wigfield? No. I love my Sedaris company, but I also like the thought that I'm not pinned down to one label. I think this means that Chick Lit isn't that easy to define. And it means that not only more people will be exposed to my novel, more readers will be exposed to different genres. And, you know, anything to help Amy Sedaris out with new fans. Heh.

In my head, chick lit has a pair of strappy high heels on the cover, there's a lot of shopping therapy, there are characters talking about their biological clocks, and everyone lives happily ever after at the end. And chick lit tends to be based around the idea of the relationship itself while your book seemed to revolve around the characters. Or maybe I'm just being dismissive of the entire genre. ("It can't be 'fantasy', it's too good. We'll call it... 'magical realism'.")

One difference between dick lit and chick lit is that dick lit authors get a higher degree of respect, or at least attention. Nick Hornby is considered a great author, Rick Marin got a ton of press for Cad. Do you think chick lit is more dismissible because it's written by women, even though it is pretty much the same?

Of course Chick Lit is dismissible because it's written by women. When men show a feeling it's lauded as brave and bold and revolutionary. But I feel like I'm also making a blanket statement, like an 80's comic. "Men are like this. Women are like THIS!" I don't wanna be that guy.

And yes, I'm tired of a pair of crossed legs on the cover. I don't know anything about shopping, and I've been hitting the snooze button on my biological clock for years now. Am I not Chick Lit just because I'm not one of those girls? Or am I anti-Chick Lit because I don't understand those girls? Am I not sassy because my credit card debt is from having to buy groceries and pay off student loans?

Maybe if Nick Hornby blurbed my book it wouldn't be considered Chick Lit anymore. Is that all it takes? Recognition from the boys?

Actually, I think the Pagan Kennedy blurb keeps you from being Chick Lit. Now you're all indie rock chick, getting a blurb from a zine superstar. Most characters in chick lit don't read zines. By the way, I think you should title your next book "Vagina Babble."

Vagina Babble is so the name of my next book.

From "Chick Lit" to "Mommy Porn" -- It's all a way of going, "You wrote a book! That's nice, dear." I can see that. But if it gets me a spot at the front of the bookstore, should I complain?

It is so hard to get people to read books these days, that anything that makes them sound more accessible is a good idea. I'm all about having books be the new fad.

"Jessa Crispin has too many books! What will she do? She's going to have to move in with a boy who has lots of bookshelves. But which bookworm has burrowed into her heart? There's a guy who loves her for her literary classics side, who wants to woo her in a horse drawn carriage, brings her flowers and writes her poetry. But then there's the boy who loves Jessa's sexy, bold Chick Lit side. He buys her shoes, lets her program his TiVo, goes down on her without asking for a blowjob in return, and always cuddles in the morning! Jessa's life has become a real page-turner as she chooses the love interest in the next chapter of her life! Will she live happily-ever-after, or will she find her heart in the used bargain bin once again? Don't miss FREE SHIPPING, coming this summer from Vagina Babble Books."

Hold on, I gotta call my agent...

Why Girls Are Weird by Pamela Ribon
Downtown Press
ISBN: 0743469801
320 Pages