Continuing our conversation with journalist Sheila Weller, we talk a bit more about her most recent book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation, learn more about her career, and find out about her love of spicy tuna rolls. Don’t forget to check out the first part of her interview.
Was there anything that surprised you during your research? Anything about any of these women that you completely didn’t expect to learn?
Getting to know them as I did through the intense interviewing process with people who knew them well all through their lives, they were so counter to our stereotypes of each of them.
Carole, thought to be the sensible, down to earth Brooklyn girl, made an adventurous — even heedless — leap: moving to a culture so far from her childhood (deep mountain Idaho in the ’70s — kind of what Sarah Palin’s Alaska is to us now!), embracing life there (with a great sense of adventure), and marrying two men — a redneck hippie and a neo-survivalist — who could not be more different than men she knew. She spent a winter in a completely remote, snowed-in cabin with no running water or electricity, home schooling her children and milking a goat at 5 am. She made a grand leap, and I applaud her for it, but that’s far from the Carole we think we know when we see her interviewed on TV as a member of the NY-based Brill Building group or think of her as a Laurel Canyon urban earth mother.
Joni is fixed in people’s minds as the ethereal gossamer lady of the canyon, sensitively strumming her guitar or dulcimer in her high-pitched voice. She’s really a (I use this term admiringly) tough dame. Her voice now of course is gravelly — almost 50 years of chain smoking — and she has done some quirkily assertive, funny-dame things all her life: donning a red wig and a false name and driving an old car across the country…paying unannounced visits to all sorts of people (from Georgia O’Keefe — which eventuated in a friendship, to a gnarly Indian silversmith, who shooed her away; to Beale St. “Furry,” who dissed her when she showed up with smokes and whiskey). And of course the lyrics in her new album SHINE are tough, blunt and confrontational about the environment and religion. Joni is a pool-playing, chain-smoking, tell-it-like-it-is dame. You don’t want to mess with her.
And Carly. We think of her as the privileged, polished, social woman — the friend of the literary and social elite, from Jackie Onassis to Mike Nichols to the Styrons….all of which is true. Bred and raised in culture and sophistication. Yet she is the most head-forward woman — a delightful (as we call it now) over-sharer, someone who has what her friend Mia Farrow calls an almost guileless indiscretion. Consequently she gets hurt a lot…much more than you’d expect such a polished sophisticate to get hurt.
So the real Carole, Joni and Carly are very different from the images we’ve fostered of them all these years.
What impact did their music have on you? Do you have memories and experiences that you feel are tied up with certain songs or albums?
I was as aware of them as “fellow travelers” on/glamorous guides to a journey from being a boring middle class girl to an adventurer, all the way through, though when I was younger I wouldn’t have quite put it so consciously.
Some of their songs were incredibly important to me. I moved to New York from LA — for my whole adult life, permanently, as it turns out — because of the Drifters’ version of Carole’s “Up On The Roof.” I heard “Chelsea Morning” and felt it was written for my first piquant apartment in Summer of Love, New York.
Judy Collins’ version of Joni’s “Both Sides, Now” was the anthem of girls-who-had-difficult-boyfriends in 1968. I would play it over and over again; it expressed our whole situation — it made you feel you were learning from life and gaining wisdom (while getting two-timed by the guy you gave up your safe college boyfriend for).
I remember reading every word in the Carly-James Rolling Stone interview and then hearing “You’re So Vain” and understanding we were on this journey together: sexy (ha!) women, moving from one idea of being a girlfriend to being critical of men’s chauvinism, and her song expressed it in the most empowering way.
Going back and listening to all the albums all these years later gave me a keener appreciation of their transcendent talent.
It’s obvious that the music of these three women had an effect not just on you, but on other women of your generation. Do you think their music is relevant to young women coming of age today? Can you think of anyone in today’s music scene whose music resonates the same way that Carole’s, Joni’s and Carly’s did?
I have been amazed and gratified to discover, from the reviews and e-mails and blog posts and people who come up to me at readings — and parties, and everywhere — how enormously, enormously, these three women are loved by women of all ages (and guys).
Young women who were babies when they were in their prime — some not born yet: love them. 25-year-olds play Blue when they’ve experienced a breakup. 34-year-olds know every single word of every song of Tapestry because their parents played it nonstop when they were toddlers. Women in their mid-40s say, “I remember that picture [on the cover of Girls Like Us, from Secrets] of Carly in her hat…being a young girl and seeing it and thinking, that’s who I want to be. The music has penetrated their psyches and souls…people of all ages. It’s amazing the power that music has, and the power that music sung by people who’ve also written it has. It’s a power of a far higher order than movies. It gets in the bloodstream, in the heart.
I am frequently asked who I think their counterparts are today. I dutifully say that I personally like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys and (the deeply troubled but fantastically talented) Amy Winehouse. (Here we’re talking about singer-songwriters, excepting people like Beyonce, who I don’t think writes he own songs, but who is terrific.) But I just don’t think you can compare the field today with the world of the late ’60s and early ’70s. There is so much media today — and everyone communicates, from Facebook to blogging. Un-countable cable channels and indie films. In the days when my women wrote and sang their earliest and greatest hits, it was only them. You’d go home and put their records on your record player or listen to them on one of the few FM radio stations. They were a pipeline to the soul. There was so little else in the culture and media that spoke to a like-minded and aged-woman; it was a powerful connection. I think the media world is simply too diverse and interactive and multi-loci’d for that to be the case today.
Also, there were so many personal barriers for women to break, and now they’ve been broken. The world was less dangerous in the ’60s and early ’70s but women’s lives were tougher. Now women have a plethora of options, but the world, alas, is so much more dangerous. We had the luxury, back then, of wanting to free ourselves in a relatively safe world. Now we are free in a world rife with the possibility of terrorist nuclear holocaust, imminent global warning…and very bad people winning elections because they use proven smear techniques and milk resentments.
Your bio lists such diverse publications as Ms., Rolling Stone, and Glamour among your credits. How does someone go from writing for Ms. to writing for Glamour? Briefly trace the path of your career for us, please?
Long career! Okay…Became a free lance writer early on, and wrote lots of profiles for magazines like McCall’s (now defunct) and Self, and human interest stories. Wrote a novel Hansel & Gretel in Beverly Hills, in 1980 that was a little cult book — optioned by many, made by none. Never got back into the novel groove.
My writing life changed in 1987 when the friend of a friend was murdered by her husband and the husband confessed to the murder but, despite that and his history of violence and erraticism, got temporary custody of the two small children while awaiting trial. My friend and another friend and I swung into gear and became advocates for the children and I discovered huge loopholes in the legal system, enabling wife killers to get custody (from feminist female ACLU-ish judges!). That was the basis for my first real journalistic book, Marrying the Hangman.
I spent the late ’80s and mid to late ’90s writing female-focused books and articles for many publications. It was a good time to be a feminist journalist — domestic violence, rape, custody: all these things still needed changing; there were egregious injustices that needed to be sleuthed out and exposed. I was proud to be able to do so — for The Village Voice (horrible anti-woman custody rulings using the bogus Parental Alienation Syndrome), for Redbook (my “America’s Most Sexist Judges” got three judges removed for their atrocious and illegal misappropriations of power), etc.
In June 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered I got tapped by Bill Groce, then publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, to go to LA and, amid the enormous media circus, write the REAL story of what led to those murders. It’s one of my proudest achievements that I did so: I was able to meet and gain the trust of almost all of the close friends of OJ and Nicole (back in the summer of ’94 everyone was still bonded — the friends were devastated, hounded by the media they were avoiding, and they had a big hidden story to tell about who this couple really was). The result was my huge bestseller Raging Heart (I’ll never again have a book that sells 230,000 copies!), which came out when the trial was starting (I gave my trial seat to someone else so I could stay in my hotel room and write the book rather than sit and watch a trial everyone could see on TV).
The book broke a lot of real news, I am proud to say, and through it a main prosecution witness, Ron Shipp, was developed. (He would give devastating testimony, and then be pilloried by the defense.) Of all the OJ books, that was the one that is not about the trial or the lawyers but about who OJ and Nicole really were as a couple, who their friends were, how they lived an idyllic life in a community of friends…and yet it could all end in this.
After that, I wrote about a case that was a phenomenon on the East Coast but not too well known elsewhere — the Alex Kelly rape case – the “preppy rapist.” My book, Saint of Circumstance , uncovered several more victims that not even the case’s longtime prosecutor knew about. It was the cover story of New York magazine and Alex Kelly’s lawyer wanted my neck.
I began writing for Vanity Fair — an article about the Hollywood nightclub my family owned, which was the site of, and provided a parallel story of, my family’s tumultuous denouement. It was called “Life Begins at 8:30″ and was a centerpiece of the March ’98 Hollywood issue. This piece, and earlier pieces I’d written about my movie magazine editor mother , neurosurgeon father, Broadway-producer-turned-nightclub owning uncle — all colorful characters, hubristic and vulnerable — led me to write the book that I knew I’d have to write at some point, and am so glad I did: my family memoir Dancing at Ciros. It came out in 2003.
Was writing Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation a personal journey? How did you decide to write it?
In 2002 I got the idea for Girls Like Us — I had always wanted to write the history of the women of the ’60s and it came to me like a thunderbolt that these women were the way to tell the stories.
[It was] a totally personal journey. I had been wanting to write, from a longer view than Sara Davidson’s Loose Change, a history of the women of the ’60s generation. Wanting to for years, and then decades. I saved things for this reason — crumbling old issues of Eye magazine, etc. I wanted to go back and re-feel everything.
People didn’t take many pictures in those days. So I relied on sense-memory, and on playing the music. Re-playing Crosby Stills and Nash’s “Wooden Ships” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” was like a sugar rush — a cocaine injection — of memory. I strove to remember the little things — that we wanted to look like Julie Christie; that we tried to talk slow and act airy and spiritual, even if we were cerebral and verbal and impatient; that Stephen Stills and Robbie Robertson were sexy.
It was a grand leap — a triple intertwined, novelistic-feeling unauthorized biography…was I crazy? I’m glad I was crazy! It worked. Nothing has meant as much to me as this book. Despite some regrets (I should have been more disciplined with those overlong sentences and overuse of parentheses that my Amazon critics have noted), I am enormously proud of this book. Being a writer is very hard, unstable, insecurity-making, financially dicey. You give up a lot doing it (and you gain a lot). Having this book out, which I felt in my heart and I believe made work, makes it worth it.
You’ve written other books, mainly narrative non-fiction, as this one could be classified also. Will you ever again dip your toe in the water of pure fiction?
Fiction is not for me…I can’t even read fiction. I like reality too much. It’s terrible to say, “I can’t read fiction,” but it’s true. I try to read neo-realistic fiction but whether it’s Richard Price’s Lush Life, or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the minute it starts feeling made up, I’ve lost interest and I put it down.
How about blogging? You blog for the Huffington Post. What are your thoughts on blogging in general? Do you have your own blog (other than the one tied to Girls Like Us)? Do you write your HuffPo pieces in a different voice than the rest of your work, or is the voice you use dictated solely by the material you’re working with?
Blogging does not come naturally to me. I’ve blogged on Huff Po to raise my internet street cred and sometimes cringed at the result. Sometimes not. The blog post I do think works is my comparison chart of the Sex and the City women and my Girls Like Us generation women. You can find it on HuffPo under my name or on my website.
A lot of us who do journalism and write and rewrite have tried to blog because everyone is supposed to do it now, but, frankly, who cares? Who cares about my opinions? Only if the blog is well crafted and has a point is it worth it. When my OJ book came out I did a lot of pundit-TV and I felt the same way: You had to go on with over-strong opinions and talk in self-promoting TV sound bites and it was icky to me. I shrunk away from it (a mistake, probably — it would have been smart to have a TVQ) because it seemed tacky. I feel the same way about blogging, for me anyway….unless there’s a real reason for the blog. Many people are good at it, the rest of us try and think, “Eh?”
Googling your name comes back with pages of results. Clearly you’re a busy person. Give us an idea of a typical day in the life of Sheila Weller? How do you balance it with holding a marriage together?
Wake up, coffee, go online. Ridiculous amount of time surfing the same old news sites via the Drudge Report. Husband downstairs working (he writes historical catastrophes — the brilliant The Great Mortality, about the Black Death, came out in 2005; his The Graves are Walking, about the Irish Famine, coming out in a couple of years — his name is John Kelly). I [am] upstairs.
Maybe I go into my Glamour office (I’m Senior Contributing Ed), maybe I work from home.
Lots of work. Hang out next door at the neighborhood hangout Bonsignour (gourmet coffee place), back to work. Spicy tuna rolls from Sakura Hana, my personal Japanese restaurant (I’m a regular) four nights a week.
Holding a marriage together? We’re both obsessed, self-absorbed, intensely independent, low-maintenance people with senses of humor and, I think, decency. So it just works. We’re as comfortable with each other’s neurosis (who wants a mate who is less neurotic than you? then, you feel insecure!) as with each other’s strengths.
[We] watch TV at night — husband watches political shows and indie movies, I watch Mad Men and Weeds. We’re productive and boring.
We go to our weekend house in the Berkshires as much as we can. We clear land there and go for walks in the woods and watch more TV. We have a wonderful son Jonathan Kelly, 26, who is associate editor at Vanity Fair. Either we did something right that he turned out so terrific, or he learned from his two obsessed writer parents what to do and what NOT to do. You should always have kids who are better than you…and our son is!
What advice do you have for women who want to try their hand at writing a book?
Consider, as realistically as you can, whether you really have talent as a writer. (To this end, solicit qualified people’s opinion, unflinchingly — but make sure they’re not jealous or agenda-harboring qualified people.)
Enter a writing workshop, and a good one. Learn the structure of narrative writing, the way you would learn chord progressions on a piano or algebra tables. Take criticism without defensiveness. Take four books off your shelf that you really love and admire and re-read them continually. Ask, “Does the world really need this book?” Understand it is a very tough business and it’s getting tougher every day (see under-current US total economic meltdown, happening as we speak).
If you’ve published before, get an agent, and learn from the ones who turn you down. If you haven’t published before, understand that, that will make it harder. Know (sigh) that every other person on this planet wants to write a book. Something has to make yours special — special and commercially viable. And: don’t quit your day job.
What’s next for you? Another book? Something else? What can we look forward to?
Anyone who comes up with an idea I can love as much as this book gets a present from me…some whispered gossip that I kept out of my book. Or a spicy tuna roll. :-) Their choice.