Author Talk: January 10, 2013
With grace and wit, CHANEL BONFIRE tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age in the home of a mentally unstable mother. This remarkably powerful memoir traces the author’s journey “without a road map” from confusion and hurt to eventual forgiveness. In this interview, Wendy Lawless talks about other memoirs that have influenced her, her favorite acting roles, and of course, that difficult mother of hers.
Question: Why did you decide to write a book about your childhood experiences? Was there a “light bulb moment” when you knew you wanted to share your story?
Wendy Lawless: I had been telling the story anecdotally for years --- to make people laugh, or to shock or entertain, or to somehow pay them back for the expensive meal they were buying me! And often, people would urge me to write it down, write a book, a memoir. But I was afraid. I knew the story was so much sadder and uglier than the jokes I had told about it. And honestly, there were parts of it I wasn’t eager to relive. It’s one thing to be glib and toss out a line like “My mother tried to run me over with the car.” It’s something else to remember it in detail and the circumstances and the emotions and feelings from the actual event. So I didn’t. I was acting full time on the stage in New York and married and then had a baby. My life was busy and full and I didn’t feel the need to go back.
Then, by the time my second child had come along, we were living in Los Angeles and I’d fallen out of love with acting so I decided to stop, except for an occasional commercial, and be at home with the kids full time. And while I didn’t miss the business of acting, I did miss having a creative outlet, so I started to write. People always say you should write what you know, so I looked around the playgrounds where I spent a lot of my time, mostly alone because all the other kids seemed to be there with their nannies, and I wrote about that. They were all just short pieces, essays, about my kids, and being a mom in Hollywood, and being a mom who was raised by a mom who was nuts.
And after writing and thinking about these things for a while, I realized I couldn’t ignore the fact that everything I was doing, with my life and my kids, was to not be like my mother. I had thought that I’d completely severed that part of my life from this, the past from the present, but now I couldn’t ignore the fact that it still had a profound effect on me. It was an epiphany of sorts, and it came to me while sitting at a stop sign, and I started writing CHANEL BONFIRE that day, in the car.
Q: What would you like people who have not yet read CHANEL BONFIRE to know about the book?
WL: That it’s a horrible and horribly funny story of two girls, sisters, who survive the shipwreck of their childhood, without a road map or a how-to-manual. And that it has a happy ending.
I don’t think it ruins things to know that. The story is scary enough and perhaps, for some people, close to home, that I don’t worry that knowing things turn out for some of us will hurt their reading experience. I hope that reading the book may help some people come to terms with their own childhoods or recognize that their survival is a triumph they can cherish. And for younger people who may be struggling in similar situations that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that they can make it. And someday even laugh about it.
Q: Did you read other memoirs while you were writing your own? If so, which ones did you find particularly inspiring or memorable?
WL: I re-read RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, I love his bravery and honesty. He really puts himself out there, and you feel guilty laughing but the book is so funny and dark at the same time. I found THE GLASS CASTLE deeply moving. The opening image of that book, where the author drives in a limo past her own mother dressed in rags, rummaging through a dumpster, punched me in the stomach right away. That was always how I thought my mother would end up, on the streets.
Q: Your sister is featured prominently in the book. What was her reaction to being portrayed in print?
WL: At first, before I was finished, she was upset, and didn’t understand why I was writing the book. But she did send me pictures and some of her memories which were helpful because our mother destroyed almost all the pictures of our childhood and adolescence and actually cut us out of the ones she did keep.
When she did start reading the full manuscript, she emailed me along the way at the very beginning and told me how much she was liking it. But it was uncomfortable for her when she reached the scenes of big emotional events and had to view them from someone else’s point of view. Everything wasn’t exactly the way she had remembered it. In some cases I was able to make scenes better with details she provided. But it was still strange and disorienting for her to read about her own life through my eyes --- to be in a character in someone else’s book. That’s understandable, I think.
In the end, she told me she was glad I had written our story.
Q: One of the most compelling aspects of the book is your honesty. Were you ever tempted to hold back on revealing certain details that were painful to dredge up or that you thought might portray you or your sister in a less-than-flattering light?
WL: I actually did leave out some of the more gruesome details from my mother’s childhood. There are certain things she told me (When I was way too young to hear them, of course!) that will probably haunt me forever. I omitted them because I didn’t want the book to be too dark, or miserable. Other than that, no, I didn’t leave anything out. I really believe that the truth can’t hurt you, because it’s the truth.
Q: Why did you decide on CHANEL BONFIRE as the title? How does it reflect the book? Were any other titles ever considered?
WL: The title was originally just a chapter heading in the London section of the book, where the wild, teenage, backyard bonfire party scene was. My husband (the screenwriter David Kidd) and I were brainstorming titles in the kitchen one night, and he landed on this one. It sounded catchy, or so we thought. I wanted to, needed to pull people in right away, while I was trying to find an agent, and then sell the book. It worked; people responded to it.
What I hadn’t really thought about at the time I chose it was how much it resonates. Now I realize that it captures the idea of the dual nature of and danger of the beautiful façade my mother tried so hard to create: something that looks elegant but underneath is quite frightening and unstable. There are also the obvious parallels between our relationships and the complex nature of fire itself --- comforting, destructive, explosive and short-lived. And of course the clothes which are pervasive in the story and which meant so much to my mother as a sign of her achievement and a disguise for who she felt she had been. And they were so beautiful, too.
Q: You’ve appeared on television, in regional theater, and on Broadway. Can you identify one role you’ve played that has stayed with you over the years?
WL: It would most likely be Frankie in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson McCullers. She is a lonely, imaginative, girl who wants desperately to belong to something. She just aches all over. I always identified with Frankie’s search for her identity, and her deep desire to grow. Coincidentally, my stepfather, Oliver Rea, produced the original Broadway production in 1950, with Ethel Waters and Julie Harris as Frankie.
Q: One of your teachers in London, Mr. Jesse, advises, “Life is short, and one musn’t squander one’s talents, don’t you agree?” (pg. 76) What would you say to Mr. Jesse today if you crossed paths with him?
WL: I would thank him for his encouragement, for teaching me to love words, and for showing me so many beautiful and useful things. And that I have tried to live up to his expectations for life.
Q: What can you tell us about the process of writing CHANEL BONFIRE? Did you look through photo albums or use other methods to refresh your memory?
WL: I did look at photos, of course, the ones that I have. Unfortunately, most of the ones of my teen years were destroyed by my mother. And I listened to music from the time period I was working in. During the first section of the book, 1960s in Manhattan, it was Astrud Gilberto and Frank Sinatra. Then, in early ’70s London, it was T. Rex, David Bowie, and Elton John. Late ’70s Boston was Cheap Trick, Tom Petty, Human Sexual Response, and Madness, of course. Music can really trigger memories for me.
I think I got this method from when I was acting; I’d pick a song or an album that I felt was the soundtrack to the character I was playing.
Q: What are you working on now? Will there be a follow-up to CHANEL BONFIRE?
WL: I am working on the sequel to CHANEL BONFIRE. The girl without a roadmap for life finds herself in the gritty, dangerous, exciting nadir of downtown New York City. As in CHANEL, it’s darkly funny and terribly misguided --- an eighties party girl looking for love in all the wrong places, with a thrift store wardrobe, punk rockers, buzz cuts, drug parties, cross-dressing, birth control issues, and run-ins with the FBI. It’s the story of a young actress in New York in the early 1980s, not only searching for Mr. Right, but also for an identity, a job, and maybe a free meal. Oh, and she has a crazy mother.
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