June 2006

Rachel Kramer Bussel


An Interview with Hillary Carlip

Hillary Carlip has been in Bachelor Party, Xanadu and on Taxi, but you probably don’t recognize her—or know her name. With the publication of her first book, the essay collection Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories from A Life Unaccording to Plan, which was released in April by HarperCollins, perhaps the actress, juggler, fire eater, web designer, editor, publisher and author is finally ready for her closeup. She’s also celebrating the release of the debut CD by Angel and the Reruns, her “all-girl, all ex-con band,” formed in 1983, which she writes about in how-to style form in an Oddballs piece entitled “Anyone Can Be a Rock Star, or How to Be an Imposter.”

Carlip’s essays start with her quirky Los Angeles childhood, where she took on various personas, saw a therapist, befriended famous people’s children, and became starstruck on more than one occasion. But instead of joining fan clubs, Carlip and her friends formed them, often literally -- under the name “Mindy Greenfield,” she created Cindy and Mindy’s Rent-A-Fan Club, and was featured in People magazine as the fictional Mindy. Playing with her identity and crafting alter egos was not only amusing, but let Carlip become someone else, at least, until she was ready to face her own oddity head-on.

The multimedia mastermind has done everything from making websites for Jennifer Aniston to teaching Lucille Ball to juggle (by proxy), but has spent the last two years honing her eye for the essay through editing Fresh Yarn: The Online Salon for Personal Essays, where she’s published such must-read essays as Elise Miller’s “Some Great Reward,” about sleeping with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan at age 15, and others with names like “Please, Do Not Pet the Negro” and “Kenny Loggins Must Die.”

At a recent New York City reading, Carlip reprised her winning Gong Show bit, juggling oranges strategically while singing “I Really Get a Kick When He’s Around.” You can read Queen of the Oddballs for laughs like these, and you’ll get them, but you can also read it for something more -- a woman searching for herself amidst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, trying to figure out what (and who) is real. From a magical birthday picnic/treasure hunt to the death of her father, with detours throughout the stages (and backstages and closets) of Hollywood along the way, Carlip shows herself to be not just odd, but exceptional. And in a media make-nice era where authors worship at the altar of television exposure, isn’t it refreshing to read someone with the chutzpah to state, “I didn’t always want to bitch-slap Oprah.”? In the middle of her book tour, Carlip e-mailed Bookslut about the importance of chapter titles, the fleeting nature of celebrity, and why pop culture means home to her.

The premise of your book's title, and all the accumulated stories, is that you are an Oddball. Can you define the term, and when did you first realize that you were somehow different?

To me an oddball is someone who’s on the sunny side of weird. It’s someone who’s an eccentric, a trailblazer, somewhat mistrustful of the tasteful and the restrained. Has an irresistible impulse to gild lilies, act 45 when they’re 13 and 13 when they’re 45, travels off the beaten path. Anyone who’s ever been called a crackpot, an iconoclast, a cock-eyed optimist or a tin-foil-hat-wearing kook. It’s someone who’s not afraid to do things unaccording to plan.

I first realized I was different when I was eight years old and started taking on different personas the way other kids tried on clothes. I wore all black and skulked around the house and school, acting “creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky,” when I was being Wednesday from The Addams Family; hooked on Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sang and spoke only in an English accent for months. Then I was suspended from the third grade for smoking cigarettes on the school playground when I was being Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And although I was suspended from elementary school, this kind of oddball behavior was validated when shortly afterward, I was chosen out of all the students to appear on television on Art Linkletter’s House Party.

When did you start working on these essays, and how long did it take you? Was it a given from the start that it would be an autobiography in essay format?

I began writing the pieces a few years ago, and performed them live in spoken word venues throughout LA. Then I got so taken with the whole personal essay genre, I started my website Fresh Yarn: The Online Salon for Personal Essays, and that required a lot of my time and focus. So it took about two years of writing on and off to finish the book. And from the start I saw it as a collection of personal essays, but once I sold it, and my editor and publishers were treating it more like a memoir, I decided to approach it that way and tied the pieces together, creating an arc and a through line.

Many of the essays describe dark periods in your life, from failed relationships to trouble in your working life; which stories were the most difficult to relive?

I think the hardest was the chapter “Life, Death and My Soap Opera Girlfriend.” I am a perpetual optimist so I always see what good came out of things. Failed relationships and work challenges come and go, and have seemed to present even more interesting options along the way. Like “Oh, now I see why my girlfriend cheated on me, or why the movie I sold that was greenlit and being made at Columbia Studios was dropped right before filming began -- because it then led to this.” But the chapter I mentioned is about dealing with my father’s four-year battle with leukemia, and ultimate death from it, and let’s just say that’s not the most enjoyable thing to relive.

There's a sense of constant seeking and yearning in the book, of wanting, to use a cliched phrase, to "find yourself" and make peace with your oddness, or find "clarity," as you call it. You mention doing Marianne Williamson's Course in Miracles, write about going to "Madame Zola, Psychic to the Stars," and switching houses because you didn't feel inspired. Though there's a happy ending, it's not a perfect one. What would you say you were looking for all those years, and have you found it?

I think through writing my own stories and supporting others to do so -- like I’ve done in my past two books (Girl Power and Zine Scene), as well as on Fresh Yarn -- I’ve found that there are so many similar themes that people write about and almost everyone is just trying to figure out what their place is in the world. Trying to find some sense of belonging, figure out how to accept -- or at least learn to live with -- who they are. In a nutshell, that’s what I’ve been looking for. And I feel it’s an ongoing elusive search that changes all the time. I’ve certainly felt like I’ve “found it” at times; then at other times I’m right back on the hunt.

In addition to finding yourself, Queen of the Oddballs is also about finding a soul mate. You write: "We can't make someone our soul mate. If we could, it would have nothing to do with our souls." Eventually, you do find your soul mate, but I'm curious what lessons you think you had to learn about yourself first before you two could meet?

I definitely had to let go of my preconceived notions of what a soul mate was. I kept being attracted to a certain kind (dark) of person (unhealthy) that, well, sucked the life out of me. When I finally found “the one,” she was nothing like what I had been drawn to and I was so freaked, I ran the other way. So it wasn’t necessarily learning things before we could meet, but more so after we met.

Pop culture, musicians, actors and celebrities all play a major role in Queen of the Oddballs, and in your life. You intersperse each chapter with trivia factoids from the relevant era, and sometimes they go like this: "After breaking up with Elizabeth, I take some time off from relationships. MC Hammer dominates the charts with ‘U Can't Touch This’ and the top-grossing film of the year is Home Alone." Having worked in the entertainment industry, either directly or indirectly, most of your life, how has popular culture played a role in your journey?

TV, movies and music were like my family growing up. Actors, musicians, comediennes, etc. were not only who I emulated, but also found comfort in and with. And growing up in L.A. on the fringes of celebrity, it was like pop culture was in my backyard. At the corner store I’d see Nancy Kulp (who played Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies) buying meatballs, and Alfred Hitchcock picking out ice cream. When I was a teenager I saw unbelievable musicians at an intimate 100 seat club called the Troubadour -- Elton John’s first USA appearance, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, etc. I taught Jimmie J.J “Dyn-O-Mite” Walker (from the ‘70s TV show Good Times) how to juggle, and appeared in the cult classic film Xanadu. I’ve continually, to this day, been surrounded by pop culture. It’s home.

Along the same lines, the idea and meaning of celebrity are tackled throughout your essays, from your teenage obsession with Carly Simon, in which you'd bake her bread and go backstage at her shows, culminating in a letter from Carly you reprint in the book, to wandering the hills of Los Angeles in search of Carole King, and forming your own band, Angel and the Reruns. How has befriending and working with celebrities, as well as having become one as Angel, shaped your views on fame?

Celebrity is so twisted and fleeting, and has nothing to do with anything real. Especially now with the media and reality television making stars out of just about anyone. I really experienced this so clearly when I was with my “Soap Opera Girlfriend.” In the States, hardly anyone noticed her or knew who she was. Then we went to Europe and she was like a total rock star with paparazzi chasing her. So it’s all perception.

I have never been interested in celebrities per se. It was their talent, their artistry, which I took to. In fact, I always seemed to be much more attracted to the B and C list, the fringe.

In addition to pop culture, politics are woven throughout the book, but with more subtlety. You relate your efforts as a "teen libber," cover Nelson Mandela, ACT UP, and John Kerry between chapters, yet keep the stories very personal. Do you feel that there's a political message hidden in your book?

I don’t think there’s a hidden message in Queen of the Oddballs though people I’ve heard from all seem to find their own meaning in the material, and that’s great. As I wrote in the book, I took my first political stand at age nine when my parents had my brother and I boycott Sugar Daddies, Sugar Babies, and Junior Mints because the candy company that made them was run by the founders of the John Birch Society, a group of right-wing, anti-Semitic racists. I marched in anti-war demonstrations, and volunteered for Democratic presidential candidates throughout the years. So I think my politics are made pretty clear.

There couldn't be a better first sentence than the one in your final essay: "I didn't always want to bitch-slap Oprah." Is that the kind of sentence that just comes to you and you know it's perfect, or did you have to work at that? Once you get a sentence like that going, is the rest of the writing smooth sailing?

That’s a great question (and thanks for the shout-out re: the line!). Mostly opening lines like that will just come to me and, no, that doesn’t usually mean the rest of the piece follows smoothly. It’s interesting reading thousands of submissions for Fresh Yarn. Some pieces are beautifully written but begin with the most ordinary, or even clunky, first line that doesn’t draw a reader in. I even see that with established essays writers. No names mentioned, but look at some essays in published books and you’ll see what I mean. My feeling is why not grab readers as soon as possible?

Also, as I was writing Queen of the Oddballs I realized not only how important first lines are, but chapter titles too. I think they should capture the essence of the chapter while being intriguing enough to make someone want to read on to see what it is. For instance, at first I called the chapter in my book about Carly Simon “Anticipation,” because it was so much about that. Once I realized the thing about titles, I changed it to “They’re Very Loyal Fans and They Bake.” Personally I’d much prefer to read that than “Anticipation.”

You thank L.A. reading hosts such as Maggie Rowe and Jill Soloway (Sit n' Spin) and Annabelle Gurwitch (Fired!) for allowing you to hone these pieces at their events. How did the process of reading them aloud help you revise and shape them?

Hearing writing out loud is so vital. You can actually feel if a piece slows down, or if you’ve gotten too deeply into one thought, or used a lame analogy. You can also feel the general rhythm and flow. And seeing what audiences respond to, especially if it’s a humorous piece, is incredibly helpful.

When telling the story of Skirts, the screenplay you wrote that was set for Debbie Gibson to star in, with Dawn Steel producing, you write in the form of a screenplay, and one essay "Anyone Can Be a Rock Star, or How to Be an Imposter," is told in a numbered set of instructions. How did switching up the format help you tell those stories?

I felt like how could I write a book about living in unconventional ways, and keep it in a conventional format? So changing up the format helped me keep it interesting and fresh to me as a writer.

The question I feel compelled to ask any memoirist these days is: How much, if anything, did you have to change for legal reasons, especially in light of some of the public figures you discuss? Has the James Frey scandal affected the way you work or how you think about approaching your own memoir writing?

The only things I changed in my book were names of people I’m no longer in touch with, or who didn’t want their real names mentioned. Also, of course, in writing down dialogue from things that happened decades ago, there’s no way anyone’s going to remember verbatim what was said. So I recreated dialogue as best I could. The great thing about Queen of the Oddballs is that I was able to include ephemera -- I’ve kept journals every day of my life since I was thirteen years old so I had all this stuff to include, almost like proof. People have told me they’re reading a chapter, thinking, “No way could this have happened,” and then they turn the page and there’s a picture, or a news clipping, or something that shows that it indeed did happen. So the scandal didn’t personally affect the way I work or approach my own writing.

Your essay website, Fresh Yarn, just hit its two year anniversary. What has editing Fresh Yarn taught you about the first person essay format? How has your editing role with the site informed your own writing?

I’ve learned so much about this format just from reading, editing, and paying attention to what works and doesn’t. A couple of the most important things: The pieces that work best for me are so highly personal, yet totally universal. Also they start in one place and end in another with some kind of revelation or something learned. Being inundated with constantly reading personal essays absolutely has had a positive effect on my own writing.

You've posted videos on your website from some of the episodes you talk about, like your Gong Show win and one of your band's videos, along with things like newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, and a letter from Carly Simon that appear in the book. Did you keep everything because you always knew you'd want to document all of this or did you have to scurry to find these supporting materials?

As I mentioned before, I’ve always been an avid documentarian. Something possessed me to keep journals and ephemera. It was as if some depth of unconsciousness propelled me to record each moment of my life -- not that I believed the events were significant enough to warrant documentation. But I’m so glad I did. So there was no scurrying to find supporting materials.

Your career has involved everything from juggling, eating fire and acting, to writing about young women and designing websites. Where does writing fit into all these other activities? Do you access the same kind of creative energy or does it feel like it's coming from a different place?

Writing is definitely a different kind of energy for me than visual art. And I find I really need the balance. If I’m bogged down in writing, I’ll switch and focus on making some art, which is a bit more mindless to me. Each one is like a palate cleanser for the other.

On your website, you proclaim June to be "National Oddball Month." What would you suggest as the best way to celebrate?

Rebel, reinvent, creatively express. Commit random acts of oddness, and let your freak flag fly. Do things unaccording to plan.