Archive for April, 2012

April 30, 2012 at7:04 PM

Nicolle Wallace: The Comforter in a Suitcase Years

Photo by Amy Vitale

I’m fascinated by people’s career stories. In particular, the early years of careers. No one, except, like, Prince William and maybe Drew Barrymore, started out as a bigwig. For everyone else, first there are the years (or even decades) of figuring it out. There’s this whole span of time when you have to believe you can do great things even though pretty much everyone else believes your abilities are limited to making copies and coffee. It can be hard. Also funny. In large part, that’s what my novel, Ten Girls to Watch, is all about. That’s what today’s interview is all about too.

Nicolle Wallace is the author of the best selling novel Eighteen Acres and the recently published sequel It’s Classified. She’s also a political commentator who served as communications chief for George W. Bush’s White House and re-election campaign and senior advisor for the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. Pretty bigwig! But before all that, she worked the graveyard shift and lived off canned soup. Here, her answers to all my “how did you get started?” questions.

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?

I desperately wanted to be a broadcast journalist.

What kind of job did you actually end up getting? 

My first job was working the overnight shift (3 am – noon) at KPIX as a production assistant. I rolled the teleprompter and wrote some scripts–it was awesome in that I was living my dream of working in television news, but it was awful because I slept when the rest of the world was awake, and I was awake when the rest of the world slept.

What was your first real apartment like?

My first apartment was fabulous – it was in Pacific Heights in San Francisco. But my roommate was a little nutty. She became my last roommate ever!

Are there any experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?

I remember living on canned soup, slimfast shakes (for protein) and Ben and Jerry’s frozen yogurt as a grad student at Northwestern. Its amazing that I didn’t develop scurvy. I also used to fly the super cheap discount airlines (think ValueJet). Looking back, it’s a miracle that all of the shady planes I flew on made it without incident.

Is there a job or a moment you think of as your first “big break”?

My first big break in politics was getting hired as governor Jeb Bush’s press secretary. I was 25 and I moved to Tallahassee with my down comforter in my suitcase. The job was incredible, but I was so homesick, I didn’t last six months.

Was there a moment when you finally felt like you’d “made it”?

I felt like I’d really “made it” when, as a White House staffer, I had a pass that let me into the White House complex 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I would swipe it through the high tech entry system and hold my breath until my name came up in the system. I couldn’t believe that they let me just walk in every day.

Is there anyone who has been a real role model or mentor for you?

My mom and dad are the reason I was able to march off to Tallahassee, FL, and Washington DC, and all of the other places I traveled for professional opportunities. They were adventurous themselves and they never doubted my ability to pull off whatever I set my mind to.

Thanks, Nicolle!

April 24, 2012 at4:04 PM

Wendy Bryn Harmer: The Corset Patrol Years

When you write fiction, you make up stuff. I mean, obviously, that being the definition of fiction. But some stuff is imagined based on real knowledge, and other stuff is more imagined based on…imagination.

One of the themes of TEN GIRLS TO WATCH is mentorship. Egads, that sounds like a sentence from a terrible term paper! Still, it’s true. And among the mentors and proteges in the novel are a pair of opera singers: one an up-and-coming young soprano, the other a well-established star. In real life, I took voice lessons for years, have sung in plenty of choirs, and have maybe even performed an aria or two, but the stage? Real opera? The careers of real opera singers? Imagination based on imagination.

Which is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to interview Wendy Bryn Harmer about the early years of her opera career. She’s the real deal. No more imagination based on imagination! A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Wendy has appeared in their productions of Le nozze di Figaro, War and Peace, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Die Agyptische Helena, and Jenufa. You can see her right now (tonight, in fact!) as Gutrune in the Met’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Here’s the skinny on how she got her start.

Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?

My first big break was being accepted to study at the Music Academy of the West. It is a summer school in Santa Barbara for musicians. I attended after both my junior and senior years of college. The singers all study with Marilyn Horne, the fairy godmother of young classical singers. She was, and still is, my idol. I was totally in awe of her career and her artistic choices when I was starting out, so to be taken under her wing changed everything for me. I am certain that my career path has everything to do with her.

What was your first real apartment like?

My first apartment was at Broadway and 68th street [in New York City]. The Metropolitan Opera helped me arrange this sublet when I started my contract there. I have never left The Met, but I left that apartment pretty quickly. I didn’t like living that close to work. I didn’t like that I couldn’t go to yoga without running into the artistic director of Opera Company A, or a designer from Opera Company B that is hoping you trim down a but more before your next corset fitting. I HATED that a super famous manager (who made no secret of planning to sign me some day) eyed my guac at Rosa Mexicana as if to say “Remember that corset fitting coming up?” My husband lived in DC where he was going to law school, so as soon as we both lived in the same city, we found a bigger, happier apartment that wasn’t spitting distance from the stage door.

Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?

When I think of my early 20’s, I think of adventure. I spent a summer studying in Florence, two summers working and studying in Vienna, a large part of “in between” at The Metropolitan Opera. I was a “young artist” at The Met, meaning I was paid to show up every day and have someone teach me everything I needed to know. If they decided I needed to learn something they couldn’t teach me, they would ship me off to someone who could. Micah [my husband] and I lived apart (law school…blech) so I spent a lot of weekends taking the train to DC. It was actually a great way to start a marriage…everyone does their own laundry, no discussions about who cleans the bathroom this week, plus the added adventure of Amtrak!

Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?

Mentors! First, Marilyn Horne. I would be nowhere without her. I was so casual about this whole thing when I started out. I was so genuinely naive that it wasn’t obnoxious, just kind of sweet and dopey. I really didn’t know enough to be scared or nervous or shy. I just showed up places and sang. She nurtured me without putting any pressure on me. Also, James Levine, the music director of The Met. He is a legend, and I have been blessed to work with him. I am not sure I showed a lot of promise when I first showed up at his door, but he always made me feel like I was going to be someone. When there are three or four things to fix about a certain phrase or passage, he has the uncanny ability to fix them ALL with one comment. I have never felt “less than” around Maestro Levine. And EVERYONE is “less than” Maestro Levine.

Thanks so much to Wendy for revisiting her early years, and three cheers for great mentors!

April 18, 2012 at8:04 PM

The Fug Girls: Before They Had Home Computers

Starting out in this world of ours can be TOUGH. That’s a big part of what my novel, Ten Girls to Watch, is about. But another big part of what it’s about is finding comfort and inspiration (and laughs) in the stories of folks who’ve gone before you.

In real life, same thing is true — there’s nothing quite like stories from other people’s early 20s to make you feel better about your own youthful travails. Especially if those other people grew up to be awesome.

Today’s awesome grown-ups: The Fug Girls. Heather Cocks (left) and Jessica Morgan (right). They’re the women behind the highly entertaining website (I literally click over to their site, like, eight times a day, everyday. If I haven’t replied to your email, it’s because I’m reading their site. I really hope you’ll forgive me). They’re also the authors of two novels, Spoiled and Messy (which hits stores in June. Exciting!) 

A big thanks to them for bravely revisiting the old days!

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?

JESSICA: I thought I was going to be an English professor! But then I didn’t get into the graduate schools I’d applied to, and…never got around to reapplying to them.

HEATHER: I was all set to be a reporter — Notre Dame has a great independent, student-run daily paper, so I worked my way up and then ran it my senior year. Interestingly, I only felt fully qualified to run it after my tenure was over.

What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? 

JESSICA: My first job out of college was working for a very fancy fabric and furniture store and I was not particularly happy there, not the least because there was no internet access and I wasn’t allowed to wear pants.

HEATHER: I got hired at the daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, covering high-tech companies. Well, technically I was hired as the personal finance reporter, which is hilarious when you consider I was 21 and had no personal finances, but I think that was just the only opening they technically had. I did more general-assignment stuff until they could scoot me over to the tech side. I loved that city, most of my co-workers were so awesome, and Austin was a hotbed of tech companies who were all living the excesses that the late ’90s were famous for, like five-figure lunches on Fridays flown in from other states. So that part of it was really interesting, and I also met people who opened freelancing doors for me that essentially led me to where I am today.

But in my second year there, my immediate bosses left and one of their replacements was a complete condescending jerk to me, even going so far as to call my sources, re-interview them, and replace my quotes with virtually identical ones he’d gotten from the same person. So he undermined me for no reason, and then used his quote just to stoke his own ego. He sealed my desire to leave, but I also realized that the reporting part was not my cup of tea.

We all had to spend a week or so at a time doing “plunger duty,” which was basically taking on whatever crappy daily stories cropped up in between our regular beat reporting. I got the holiday retail story, and it is NO FUN accosting people at the mall, identifying your purpose, chatting to them about the economy, and then having them say, “You don’t want to USE any of this in the PAPER, though, do you? I don’t want that.” To be a reporter you have to report, and that ended up being the part of my job I didn’t like.

What was your first real apartment like? 

JESSICA: Mine was cute, actually! It was in Westwood, while I was attending UCLA. Now, 3 girls in a large one-bedroom apartment sounds like insanity, but we had fun. That apartment, to this date, had the most storage of any apartment I’ve ever lived in.

HEATHER: Mine was a tiny one-bedroom just off South Congress, between Oltorf and Live Oak, if you know the area. It got a ton of natural light, and I adored it, and it had a teeny washer-dryer in a closet and a dishwasher that I would swear was a repurposed trash compactor, and my landlord paid for cable. Love.

But the very best thing in the WORLD about it was the sticker on the underside of the toilet seat. It was there when I moved in, and I discovered it the first night. Basically, it was a two-panel cartoon. You know the little stick-man shape they use on the doors of men’s rooms and such? Well, in the first panel, he was standing up at a toilet, peeing with little cartoon junk, and it was splashing back everywhere, and there was a red Universal No symbol printed over him. In the second frame, he was sitting down, junk tucked into the bowl, peeing cleanly, and I think there was a green checkmark at the bottom right to indicate that this was the desired behavior. Someone had clearly tried to scrape it off before and failed. It was so heinously hilarious that I couldn’t do it, so I left it and loved it. And when my parents came to visit, I bought a furry toilet-seat cover and turned it around and claimed I thought it was more comfortable with the fuzz against your back. Oh, and for a period of time I had to rig the toilet so that you flushed it by pulling on a coathanger, but then I rebuilt the inside of the tank with some bits from Home Depot and felt like a complete champion.

April 17, 2012 at7:04 PM

Eliot Schrefer: The “Roman Grotto” Years

Eliot Schrefer is the author of a whole bunch of awesome books, including Glamorous Disasters, The Deadly Sister, and coming this November, Endangered (I can’t wait to read it. A girl in the Congo, hiding from violent revolutionaries with a group of bonobo apes in the jungle… Yes!)

Before he was the author of a whole bunch of awesome books, though, he was a sad guy who kept getting rejected from grad school. Phew! The narrator of my novel and I weren’t the only ones who found being 23 agonizing! Thankfully, Eliot was willing to revisit his early 20s with me, at least for a few minutes.

Tell me about your first couple of years out of school.

Well, the backdrop to everything was that I was applying for grad school PhD programs.  The first year, I only applied to my top schools. I picked three, and they all rejected me. The second year I cast a much wider net, and still didn’t get in anywhere. You get your letters back at the darkest time of the year, in February. I’d go to the mailbox and get a new rejection every day. Finally when even my safety schools said no… It was the pure darkness of rejection.

I thought I’d wanted to write, but it always seemed like a dream that didn’t happen for actual people. When my pragmatic dream didn’t happen I had to turn to the more fanciful one.

What were you doing for work? 

The first part of my time, I was temping. I was working at Morgan Stanley, and I was the only male assistant on the entire floor. The guys would come in to work and say, “Normally I give Darlene receipts, but I won’t bother you…” I really milked the sexist system to my benefit. I started writing a novel, and I’d sit there typing at my desk all day.

What was your apartment like? 

I moved every year for my first few years in New York. With one of my roommates, we just called phone numbers in windows in Chinatown, and we ended up moving into this building that was all Chinese families and then us. My room was 6 feet wide but 15 feet long. It was like you were living in a really long hunting lodge. Below us there was this deli that became an illegal disco at night. It was a race to fall asleep before the Latin music started at 1 a.m., otherwise you’d never fall asleep.

Would you say there was a moment or experience when things changed for you?  

I took a writing class the year before I started the book. I wrote short stories that I was proud enough of that I saw this could become an identity. It was at that moment that I saw where to put my thoughts or ambitions. College, the one thing it provides so strongly is feedback, constant feedback. You lose that totally when you leave. After college, I found myself playing a lot of video games. Looking back, I realize that I was so into them because exactly what they provide is feedback: your strength, your power… You’re on level 3.2. I really needed that feedback. That course was the first time I had that again.

Did you have any mentors who were important to you in those years?

This is really sad, but I was kind of desperate for a mentor in a way that made me unappleaing as a mentoree. I would write to writers I really liked, and say I really liked your book and could I buy you coffee. None of them ever wrote back. So I guess my first mentors were books about writing. It was a one-way conversation, but it was still really helpful.

Is there an experience that sort of sums up your early 20s? 

The standards of care that we’ve come to expect in housing, they really weren’t the same in the Chinese culture in Chinatown. A lot of things in our apartment didn’t work. We’d get these nipples on the ceiling from leaks in the building, and we’d call, and the landlord would tell us just to pierce them and put a pot under the leak. The paint on our ceiling looked like a Roman grotto.

And then there was that really bad snowstorm in 2003. We could just barely get out to get some food and come back. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I ate a tuna sub in Times Square. It was food poisoning in a tidy little package. Back at our apartment, the pipes froze, the heating wasn’t working, and the toilet froze. I would have to puke and I would run in there, and the puke would just sit there on the ice.


Oh man, Eliot, I’m very sorry I made you return to the snow storm of 2003, but I’m very glad things have improved considerably for you since then!


April 12, 2012 at2:04 PM

Ann Patchett: The Line Cook Years

Being young is hard! In large part, Ten Girls to Watch is all about just how hard (and sometimes funny) it can really be, but here’s something I find very reassuring — pick pretty much anyone you admire and ask them what they were doing at 23, and chances are they’ll tell you some pretty terrible stories. Case in point, Ann Patchett, best selling author of Bel Canto, and most recently State of Wonder. I ADORE her books. You probably do too. But before we all adored them, she was getting fired from her job as a line cook in a restaurant.

And that’s just the start of her “glamorous” beginning. I asked her a whole bunch of questions about her early years, and she was gracious enough to share some of the highs and lows.

Charity: What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?

Ann: I wanted to be a short story writer. I thought that was actually a job.

Charity: What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?

Ann: I was a line cook in a health food restaurant. I thought that if I made a living doing something mindless I would have all this energy to write. That wasn’t the case. I hurt myself a lot (cuts, burns) and the owner hated me because the cook she was in love with had a crush on me. Or maybe I was bleeding on things. Anyway, she said I was a good worker but she had to fire me for my own safety.

Charity: What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it? 

Ann: I rented a room in a woman’s apartment in the LaGuardia Artists’ Housing in New York. The room belonged to her daughter who was away at school. It was tiny and stuffed full of the daughter’s stuff. Every inch closet space, every drawer, the top of the dresser, the mirror, and the rent I was paying was more than the entire rent on the huge apartment which she had had for thirty years. I think I lasted two nights.

Charity: Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?

Ann: I smoked in my twenties, and I couldn’t afford it, so I thought how many cigarettes I could afford to smoke a day, which I think was something like five. I was always quitting, not because of the cancer, but because of the expense. I never did get particularly hooked on cigarettes for this reason.

Charity: Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?

Ann: I sold a story to The Paris Review when I was nineteen, a fact that I still find pretty amazing.

Charity: How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”? 

Ann: When I was 26 I was accepted to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I was a waitress at Friday’s at the time. It was a really serious step forward in my life.

Charity: Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?

Ann: Allan Gurganus was my teacher in college. I always wanted to be Allan Gurganus.

A big thank you to the lovely and amazing Ann Patchett for being willing to revisit the sketchy apartment years. I’m guessing you, dear reader of this post, have some stories yourself. I’ve got a story about Sad Furniture this week. I’d love to hear YOUR stories about your own Sad Furniture history. If you’re game, post a tale in the comments, and we’ll all share in the joy of commiseration, plus I just might send you an advanced copy of the book.

April 10, 2012 at4:04 PM

Sarah Pekkanen: The Mouse Head Years

Photo by Hilary Schwab

Ten Girls to Watch is all about getting started in the world. Once you’re comfortably on your way, it’s easy to gloss over the early years. They were hard! Who wants to remember the hard stuff! But that’s a shame, because those of us still mucking through could use the commiseration and inspiration. Plus, stories from “the early years” are almost always sort of funny. Or almost always sort of funny if you’re willing to laugh at painful tragi-comedy, which I am.

If you are too, let the tragi-comic inspiration begin! Over the coming months I’m going to be interviewing all sorts of fabulous people about how they got their start. And to kick things off, I talked with the wonderful Sarah Pekkanen, whose third novel, These Girls, hits bookstores TOMORROW. Turns out, before her life was filled with best sellers, it was filled with severed mouse heads.

CHARITY: What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?

SARAH: I knew I had to write — it’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. I never really considered doing anything else!

CHARITY: What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?

SARAH: I began to work as a journalist in Washington, D.C. I think I secretly wanted to write fiction, but I had to earn a living, and newspaper reporting offered a steady paycheck. But it turned out to be terrific training, as I learned to write about a wide range of subjects on deadline. For a while I covered Capitol Hill, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’m much more interested in the lives of real, average people than in covering budget hearings (admit it – you dozed off when you read the words “budet hearings,” didn’t you?) But then I moved to the Baltimore Sun newspaper, and had the chance to write long narrative stories – feature stories that defy the traditional inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting, and instead strive toward riveting storytelling. That was such a great bridge into writing novels!

CHARITY: What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it? (Mine, for example, involved bunkbeds. Nothing says success like business casual days and bunkbed nights).

SARAH: I lived in a house with a group of girls, and I took the basement because it was the cheapest room — for good reason. It was kind of scary and dark down there, with a cement floor. One of the girls had a cat, and the cat liked to kill mice and leave them on my pillow. I guess that’s the feline equivalent of the little chocolates you get on your pillow in fine hotels — severed mice heads! Also, the apparent abundance of nearby mice kept me up at night as I lay in bed. Sometimes I also imagined I could hear a serial killer breathing in the darkness just steps away. I really didn’t get a lot of sleep.

CHARITY: Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?

SARAH: I worked for a small wire service that has since gone out of business, and it was an insane, but fantastic experience. Here we were, a group of reporters in our early 20s, and we were doing things like going to the White House for press conferences and nabbing U.S. Senators for impromptu interviews in the hallways of the Capitol. But the owner of the wire service was struggling financially, and our paychecks often bounced. So every Friday, when our paychecks were distributed, I’d look at mine and decide whether I should race to the bank – ahead of the pack of like-minded reporters who were desperate to cash their checks before the money ran out – or wait until Monday. If you waited until Monday, your check would sometimes bounce, and you’d get a $100 bonus the next week. So it really depended on whether or not I had enough in my bank account to make it through the weekend.

CHARITY: Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?

SARAH: I was sitting in the train station in New York, on a holiday weekend, waiting to wedge my way onto a packed train, when my cell phone rang. It was my agent calling to say that Greer Hendricks — the woman who edits Jennifer Weiner and Lauren Weisberger — wanted to publish my first novel. I just clutched the phone and closed my eyes and screamed as loud as I could,  but on the inside. It was too crowded to let loose with a real yell.

CHARITY: How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?

SARAH: A friend of mine was on vacation in Italy, and she posted a photo to my Facebook wall. It was a picture of my second novel, translated into Italian and displayed in the window of a bookstore in Venice. It felt surreal! I’d just learned that my books were officially bestsellers internationally, and the moment was so sweet. Now I need to go to Italy to see those bookstore displays myself!

CHARITY: Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?

SARAH: I think Jennifer Weiner is incredibly generous to other authors, and she always promotes new female novelists. She inspires me to do the same.

A huge thank you to Sarah Pekkanen! Check back tomorrow for the amazing Ann Patchett’s tales of kitchen burns and cigarette rationing.