Monday, November 24, 2014

Grantland, girls, and geeks

You haven’t noticed (because why would you) that I rarely post about sports. (Tangential exception.)

However, to my surprise, sports posted about me. Or rather sports posted about my post about girls. The site Grantland, which is apparently huge (“apparently” because I wouldn’t know), gave one of my interviews a much-appreciated shout-out.

This is where that hyperlink goes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Dynamite” Magazine (1974-1992)

If you grew up in the 1970s, you remember this magazine. I remember ordering an issue with Superman on the cover through the Scholastic Book Club, or maybe I had a subscription. I thought the image on that cover was this:

But no such cover exists. So I have either the image wrong or the image right but the magazine wrong. This was the Superman cover at the time (1981) that I remember getting it:

(Yay, Greatest American Hero. No, the other one.)

What I did not know till now is that Dynamite outlasted my childhood. The second-to-last cover featured Beverly Hills, 90210, a show that hit big during my college years.

Dynamite came back into my mind (and my possession) because I bought a few back issues for research for a project. One issue had an interesting line in an article about Robin Williams (RIP stranger-friend)—interesting in that you can’t imagine that line running in any children’s periodical today. I’m sure it will pop out at you:

“…pretended to put a hamster into a microwave oven!”

I also noticed several covers featured performers from shows not aimed at kids, notably Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live.

Lastly, one of the issues I got was practically nonstop with references to disco—another topic that would’ve meant little to most elementary school kids.

But then that was also the era of spotty parental supervision in the neighborhood, no bike helmets, Fluff-stuffed white sandwiches and Twinkies for lunch, and other defunct dangers for kids. What’s a little sexually charged dancing, racy humor, and animal cruelty between bites of your trans fats?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Picture books vs. children’s books

“…I have come to realise over time that I call them just that. Picture books. Not children’s books…I don’t believe they are just for children. I have met countless adults that collect picture books for themselves, and they are growing in confidence about openly admitting this in a book-signing queue. It’s not for my daughter, or a friend’s nephew. It’s for me…people who have discovered the joy of a story unfolding visually over a few dozen pages.”

—Oliver Jeffers in The Guardian, via This Picture Book Life

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My first-ever book signing

Not to be confused with my first-ever bookstore signing

The first time I signed books in public was on 11/9/96 at the Rizzoli Book Fair held at the World Trade Center. The book: The Felix Activity Book. I was with my co-author Leslie Moseley (in pink) and others from the publisher, Abbeville Press…including one (in black, looking at camera) who would become my wife.

Apologies for the goatee. And the tie.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ally Sheedy wrote a children’s book…as a child

In 1975, Ally Sheedy’s first novel came out.

She was 13 years old.

The name on the cover is “Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy”…but yes, it’s the Ally Sheedy who later acted in memorable films including The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire (both 1985).

The title of her story makes it seem like a cuddly picture book, but the subtitle reveals (as if it weren’t already clear) that something rather sophisticated is going on: She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I’s Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians.

Apparently, the book was published on the McGraw Hill adult list. And became a bestseller.

This uncommon accomplishment landed Ally on the game show To Tell the Truth:

Here’s Ally’s priceless expression when one of the celebrity panelists said that Ally already looked like a writer:

In January 2014, I contacted Ally’s management. I expected that if I heard back at all, it would be to turn down my request for an interview about a book that goes back decades and doesn’t directly tie in to the career that made her famous. Plus I’m not exactly Rolling Stone.

But as often happens, I was wrong…and thankfully so. Ally not only agreed but was honored someone was taking an interest. And not only that.

Because the book is so personal to her, she suggested we talk on the phone or meet. She asked if I lived in New York. I don’t but if that seemed like the only way to get the interview, I probably would’ve said I did and figured it out afterward.

By chance, however, I was planning to be in New York two weeks from then, so we arranged to meet—not to do the interview itself but rather so she could get a better sense of what I was about.

On 2/13/14, we had a long, lovely afternoon chat over hot drinks while the aftermath of a snowstorm had its slushy way with the city outside. We talked a little about the book, but more about other aspects of her life—her film career, her family, her work with students, what’s next
and life in general. Not long into it, I felt we’d been friends for a while.

I considered holding off on posting this till 2015, which is the 40th anniversary of the book (as well as the 30th anniversary of the two iconic films mentioned above), but you don’t hold off on Ally Sheedy.

I sent Ally what is, for me, a typical number and range of interview questions. Like many interviewees before her, she responded “That’s a lot of questions.” She asked me to narrow it down to four, which was far fewer than what I wanted to capture the process, but I was grateful for whatever she was willing to contribute:

What inspired you to write this book?

I was writing short stories all the time when I was a kid. I also acted them out as little plays for my family. I had an obsession with novels such as Stuart Little that used animals as major characters. I had also seen the movie Anne of the Thousand Days and was swept up in reading about the history of Henry the VIII and the Tudors. This story marries those two interests.

How did you get it published?

My mother, Charlotte Sheedy, was a writer at the time and is now a literary agent. She often had writers and editors over as they were a part of her circle. Her great friend, Joyce Johnson, was with us when I read and acted out the characters for the story I was writing about a mouse and a historical document. It was Joyce’s idea to bring it to McGraw Hill as a possible project.

What did your parents think of you publishing at a young age? What about your friends?

My parents were happy for my success but also wary about the fallout. Having a level of recognition was a double-edged sword. It was wonderful but it also set me apart from friends and caused me a bit of trouble there. It’s all fine. I think it gave me a blueprint for dealing with fame later on as an actor.

Did you write—or plan to write—a sequel, or another book entirely? If so, what happened?

I did not write a sequel. I had no plans for one. I did publish some articles in different publications and also wrote a book of poetry called Yesterday I Saw the Sun, which came out in 1989. [MTN: Looks like it was actually 1991.] I love to write and perhaps will do so in the near future!

I encouraged Ally to answer more questions if ever time and mood permit.

I also tried to find Jessica Ann Levy, the illustrator of the book; Ally is no longer in touch with her and I was unsuccessful. If you have any leads, please email me!

And on a lark, I searched the names of the two Ally impersonators from To Tell the Truth—and, astonishingly, found both with one click. Both now teach at universities. And one, Priscilla Craven, kindly shared her recollection of her game show experience:

How did you get onto To Tell the Truth?

My father, Richard Craven, was a writer on the show. He wrote the affidavits which were read at the beginning of the program and did the briefings of the contestants before each show. I had actually been on before, playing a 9-year-old water skiing champion. My mom was on as well, as was my younger brother. My dad would often call us in at the last minute. Cynthia Nixon’s mother, Ann, also wrote for the show and Cynthia was also on at a young age. So I knew both Cynthia and Ally before they became famous actresses.

You seemed perfectly comfortable. Were you nervous?

I was definitely a little nervous. I still get butterflies when I hear the opening music for the show, and I remember what it felt like to be standing behind the curtain when it was about to open. I settled down once the questions started…until I got the tough one from Bill Cullen—“What was the opening line of the book”?  I really had to think on the fly for that one!

Did you get paid, and if so, how much?

The stakes were $50 for each wrong vote, $500 if you stump the panel completely. So since Maria and I each got a vote, we got $100—split three ways! So it wasn’t a big payoff. (smiley)

How did your friends react?

It was exciting! I remember when the show aired and everyone was talking about it at school. My parents were divorced by then and we were living in Jacksonville, Florida, so it was a pretty big deal down there. I never thought I’d see the episode again, and then it appeared on You Tube a few years ago. It is just wonderful to be able to see it again and to share it with my friends and family. I’m a college teacher now, so my students think it’s pretty cool.

A decade later, when The Breakfast Club came out, did you make the connection to the Ally you were with on TTTT? If so, how?

I actually made the connection when I saw WarGames. Even though she and I didn’t keep in touch after TTTT, I recognized her right away. I didn’t know she had become an actress but she turned out to be in some of my favorite movies. The Breakfast Club came out when I was in college. The movie that was the most impactful for me was High Art. I was just out of graduate school in Boulder and struggling with my own coming out. Her performance in that movie was so strong and so moving to me. I’ll always be grateful to her on some level for playing that part, and it’s amazing that we had that small window of time together so many years prior to that.

Any other anecdotes?

I think what I remember the most was how much I loved Ally’s book. I was a huge reader of young adult fiction at the time—Elaine Konigsburg, Madeleine L’Engle, and the like. To prep for the show, I read Ally’s book—in one sitting. So I had a lot of respect for her before I even met her. I remember how friendly and funny the panel was—especially Kitty Carlisle and Peggy Cass. I don’t
at all remember Ally giving me the signed copy of her book in 1975—but it is still on my bookshelf!

Thank you again, Ally (and Priscilla) for revisiting this sweet overlap in children’s literature and pop culture.