This week’s guest for From the Front Porch: Creativity Interviews is John Grabowski. John has been following my blog since the early years (I started it in 2008!), and has been a frequent commenter. We developed an email friendship as he worked on his forthcoming novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw. On his blog he has some really interesting things to say about the phenomenon of celebrity culture, which he addresses in his novel. John is one of the smartest and well-read people I know. Please welcome him to our Creativity Interviews.
Tell us a little about yourself. Perhaps what do you do for a living and where you live?
I live in Northern California and I’ve been a copywriter, a newswriter, and a novel writer. Right now I’m on the Marketing and Development Committees of the Peninsula Symphony as we are working to attract a broader and more affluent audience to this truly excellent orchestra.
When are you the most creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
I’m a night owl. That’s when I generally get most of my ideas and do my best writing. Doesn’t matter where, really, as long as I can get my fingers to a keyboard. I tend to like the “white noise” of coffee shops, however.
When are you the least creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
Mornings. I am not a morning person and never have been. Doesn’t matter how much sleep I get or when I go to bed.
What inspires you and why does it inspire you?
Other great art. Great ideas, different ways of looking at common things.
I don’t write fantasy or escapism. Everything I write is deeply-rooted in reality—often the most mundane reality that most people don’t pay attention to. So when someone can see that reality in a fresh and new way, I am inspired and want to do the same.
Share a favorite quote:
The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. —Emerson
What creative project are you working on now or do you hope to work on?
Getting dressed. Seriously, it’s 11am and I haven’t gotten away from the computer yet today.
Share a photo of something you find beautiful:
Name one of more of your favorite books. What do you love about them? If they changed your life in any way tell us why.
Of course knowing me as you do you’d expect to see a title by Deborah Eisenberg here. But she writes short stories, though they’ve been collected into books, so we can just assume at least one of these would be one of her titles, probably one of her last two, All Around Atlantis or Twilight of the Superheroes. I think she is the most important fiction writer working today because she is doing things no one else is but at the same time she’s doing it with a vocabulary that wouldn’t stump a high school student and she has probed the fringes of consciousness without resorting to any trendy new writing styles. She shows that direct simplicity can also be complex.
I also enjoy many of Alice Munro’s stories, though I do think Eisenberg should have won the Nobel for her greater breadth and insight. And you, Susan Gabriel, have turned me on to Francine Prose!
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is probably the best novel I’ve read that’s been written in the last ten years. I also enjoyed his follow-up The Dog, though the critics were pretty luke-warm on that one, for some reason
To The Lighthouse just blew my mind the first time I read it in the way it dealt with the most ordinary events with tremendous depth.
Richard Ford’s Bascombe Trilogy impressed me in similar ways. Or the first two novels did. I thought the third sputtered. There’s now a fourth Frank Bascombe book but I’m not sure if I’m going to read it. I think I’m sort of done with Frank.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is an understated tour-de-force. And I love Milan Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and José Saramago, especially The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
Name one or more of your favorite films and tell us what you love about it/them.
In literature I am drawn to realism—you might almost say mundane realism. Robert Altman’s films, or many of them, are of a similar nature. So are Ernst Lubitsch if you want to go really far back, especially the pre-Code ones.
Yet I also love the outsized aspects of Fellini, and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita are two of my favorite films. They use fantasy to make a bigger point about realism.
So fantasy at the service of realism is fine. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake not so much, even if there’s a “moral” to the story. It’s usually a very simple moral.
Name one or more of your favorite pieces of art (painting, sculpture) and tell us what you love about it/them.
The Milk Maid by Vermeer, though to understand why you’d have to see it in person. The best prints don’t capture the impact. That’s true of any Vermeer.
Rembrandt’s self-portraits, especially the late ones. Same story. They seem to have a history that began before you entered the room to look at them and continue after you leave.
What were you like as a child?
Tell us about something you’re proud of having created, participated in, etc. (not your offspring, please!
This is going to seem ridiculously esoteric, but I intuitively figured out the “Circle of Fifths” in music without ever having it explained to me. I also distrusted a scholarly discovery that claimed a section of Beethoven’s music had been edited incorrectly all these years and had to be revised. Turns out I was right—the copyist made the “corrections” and Beethoven considered them wrong—they are!—and put back his original. But for several years some Beethoven scholars thought the “wrong” way was right and it was even recorded this way. I was never fooled, because that’s not how Beethoven thinks; it has nothing to do with taste.
What are you grateful for? (Today or in general.)
My health. A number of friends have had brushes with cancer or other disease and I have nothing to complain about. I am in good shape overall.
From JL’s Uncle Jessie Meme:
A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck & injury to turn off when it comes on the radio?
Hip hop. But really most pop.
A favorite show on television?
Don’t really have one.
If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be?
The formula for the Unified Field Theory. I’d then win a Nobel in physics and be famous.
A favorite meal?
A talent you wish you had?
What’s on your nightstand?
Isn’t this a family blog?
What’s something about you that would surprise us?
Check out John’s blog here.
Please take a moment to let John know what you appreciated about this interview. Be sure and check out the link to his blog, too. If you’re feeling too shy to comment, consider sharing this post with your friends on your favorite social media platform. Thanks! xo
P.S. A quick note about the title of this series, From the Front Porch:
Here in the South, we love our front porches. They are where we get to know our neighbors and take a load off with our friends. Ideally, I would invite John here to my house, we’d sit with a glass of iced tea, and I’d interview him while a cool breeze moved through the oaks, accompanied by the sound of two rocking chairs squeaking on the floorboards. Instead, I’ll ask you to use your imaginations. I hope you enjoy the breeze!
Susan Gabriel is the acclaimed southern author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower (named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews) and other southern novels, including Temple Secrets, Grace, Grits and Ghosts: Southern Short Stories and others. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina.
Brooke Shields. Jennifer Aniston. Lindsay Lohan. Eminem. Tori Spelling. Miranda Kerr. Drew Barrymore. Ariel Winter. What they all have in common with Welsey Shaw is mother issues. Severe mother issues. Despite making it in an incredibly difficult business where managing people is a key skill, they can’t manage their mothers. Most won’t talk about it, as in the above where Ellen DeGenerous tries awkwardly to get some “good TV” out Modern Family’s Ariel Winter. The young actress won’t bite. Moms can have a devastating effect on us.
Welsey Shaw’s mother is a conglomerate of stage moms (just as Welsey is a conglomerate of actresses) plus some original stuff (just as Welsey is some original stuff). Like many real celebrity moms, Lynne lives Welsey’s fame vicariously, enjoying the spotlight—the parties, the perks, the money—in many ways more than her daughter. It causes a rift between them, as daughter grows up faster than mother. When the novel begins, Lynne has access to Welsey solely though a phone number she’s allowed to call no more than once a day.
Some relationships are tricky. Lindsay Lohan seems both close to and antagonistic with her mom. Jennifer Aniston supposedly “made good” with her mom a couple years ago, after decades of estrangement. For Tori Spelling, mom Candy is still not a bestie, especially since withholding money because, claims the latter, “[Tori] would close a store and drop $50,000 to $60,000.” Tori doesn’t deny it: “‘It’s not my fault I’m an uptown girl stuck in a midtown life. I was raised in opulence. My standards are ridiculously high. We can’t afford that lifestyle, but when you grow up silver spoon it’s hard to go plastic…I grew up rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. I never knew anything else. Even when I try to embrace a simpler lifestyle, I can’t seem to let go of my expensive tastes.” This is sort of the inverse situation of Welsey and her mom.
More often than not, we don’t have the transparency into the mom-daughter dynamic that we do in Tori Spelling’s case. Ariel Winter has not talked about her rocky relationship with her mom, but back in 2012, when Winter was only fourteen, her older sister filed to become her guardian. She was officially emancipated from her mom at age seventeen, meaning she became an adult in the eyes of the law. While her mother has released a statement saying “the family has moved beyond the conflict,” Ariel doesn’t seem to agree.
I must say I really admire and respect these celebrities. Their professional lives are already uber-stressful, but to have parents on top of that who are non-supportive (with the exception, it seems, of Candy Spelling, who seems to be doing what’s good for her daughter) must make it all that much harder. Family support is key to success in every endeavor, and my heart goes out to those who, for whatever reason, do not have it.
Welsey Shaw’s relationship with her mother is rocky, and gets worse. But there will be a reconciliation—and a sad one—if I ever get around to write the sequel, which I’ve tentatively titled Ravishing Welsey Shaw. As for the release date of Entertaining Welsey Shaw, well…stay tuned.
I thought I was reading an interview with Welsey Shaw.
But I wasn’t. She’s Cara Delevingne, and I’m amazed I’d never heard of her before.
She’s a fashion model, and she belies all the stereotypes about such models: she’s smart, funny, curious, and a terribly articulate and searching.
And one of the things she keeps articulating is how lonely her life is, and that being famous and in the spotlight constantly doesn’t make you less alone. Just the opposite, in fact. Ms. Delevingne often says she feels terribly alone.
Like Welsey she’s had some explosive outbursts. Welsey goes off on everyone inside a Manhattan Starbucks. For Ms. Delevingne, a security search at a train station in Paris caused her to erupt and call the agents names. After being detained an hour she apologized, and was sent on her way.
No explanation why she went off. But people like her are under lots of pressure (not that that’s an excuse, but…) and often it’s the small things that do it, something Daniel Ferreira learns when he gets deeper and deeper into Welsey’s life. A casual brush could bruise a career, a slip on a late night talk show could end it. Friends become foes in the blink of an eye, people use you for who you are, and if you fail to please them you are labeled a “biiytch.” And through all this, you’re supposed to always, unfailingly smile.
Delevingne’s said she battled with depression during her school years but managed to turn her life around with the help of writing and yoga. But it hasn’t worked as well as she’d hoped, apparently. After a devastating breakup recently, she has told her family that she might end up walking away from fame. And friends say she is now depressed worse than they have ever seen before. As her mother observed, “One minute she’s surrounded by friends, the next she’s all on her own jetting across the world!”
I confess I once considered an ending for Entertaining Welsey Shaw where Welsey, miserable in her alone-ness, took her life. Just writing left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. But a number of celebrities in the spotlight—particularly, for some reason, young women—have made this decision. I truly hope Ms. Delevingne finds her way out of her darkness, and rediscovers happiness soon. Perhaps a break from fame might have a therapeutic affect. It does for Welsey, in the ending I finally opted for for the novel.
Food, glorious food!
There’s a lot of eating in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. The last third of the novel is an orgy of meals—long, expensive meals. And there are quite a few before then, too.
Fancy meals. Meals in expensive New York City restaurants. One in Welsey’s private penthouse on Park Avenue. And several pot lucks in small-town Callicoon.
Perhaps not a novel to read if you’re on a diet.
EWS is about conversation and social interaction. And in our culture, and most others, conversation and social interaction center around eating and drinking. Especially eating.
Eating says a lot about who we are. It’s one of the best ways a writer can define character, geography and social status.
I thought of this the other day after coming across a discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the context of its many feasts. Food plays a major role in that novel, and not just as background. Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals their characters. Charles’s bad table manners demonstrate his lowly class, something that repulses Emma. But Emma herself sucks her fingers and licks the bottom of a glass, betraying her pretensions of sophistication and her more base side. And when Emma goes to the ball, the table manners of the nobles and the expensive foods in the scene signify their sophistication.
But aside from social refinement, food manifests class. The types of food, of course, signify this, but the fact that, say, Rouault sends Charles a turkey every year defines his character. For the lower class, food is a form of love, as it could be argued, it is in Entertaining Welsey Shaw for Anne, who is constantly worried about how and what Joseph eats. She is constantly meddling in his nutrition, reading the labels on the frozen packages in his refrigerator. Joseph begins sneaking junk food the way a smoker sneaks cigs, tossing the wrappers in a neighbor’s can. With Welsey, he has fun eating. Although Welsey is an actress and has to worry about her weight and her appearance, she seems to be one of these women who truly can eat anything (or at least many things) and not worry too much about how it sticks to her. I hate these types—don’t you?
I searched the web extensively, planning elaborate meals, usually off the actual menus at the real restaurants, both named and unnamed in the novel, that the characters visit. Of course, I don’t know if these items were on the menus back in 2008. When I couldn’t completely visualize I went to online videos to contemplate appetizers such as Caviar and Crème Fraiche Buckwheat Cornets. Then I decided not to use them. I planned and replanned meals because, like Flaubert, I wanted to tell a story partly through food. (For reasons that probably only make sense to me, and even then only on alternate Tuesdays, I substituted savory cheese truffles with chives, pecans and goat cheese instead.)
Drinking, of course, goes with food, but there’s very little alcohol in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. There is, however, coffee, which is probably the most romantic non-alcoholic drink there is. True it’s prosaic coffee, consumed in a Starbucks, the most common place for coffee on earth, but that’s why I wanted most of the story to take place in a Starbucks: it’s the most ordinary place on earth, and here Joseph, our protagonist, encounters the world’s most elusive celebrity. There’s something extraordinary—and this is the idea that fascinated me from the first day and made me want to start writing this thing—about the idea of being able to talk to this incredibly famous person separated only by a very small round table. Two extremely different worlds that nearly, nearly touch.
But it’s as close as they’re likely to. The Internet is filled with pictures of celebrities going to Starbucks for their caffeine fix. Standing in line in one of their New York or LA stores may be the most likely way you’ll ever encounter a celebrity, though buried in their hoodies, wearing sunglasses or without their stage makeup, as with Welsey Shaw, you likely won’t recognize them. It’s amazing to me the hold Starbucks seems to have on the famous set, although perhaps we just get more photos of them coming out of that particularl coffee shop because it’s the most well-known and ubiquitous. Perhaps Robin Wright loves some small beanery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and Jonah Hill swears allegiance to an out-of-the-way spot in SoHo, but what we see in the media is countless celebs getting succor from the mermaid. Which is why I never considered setting Entertaining Welsey Shaw anywhere else.
One final aspect about all the eating in the novel. One of my favorite character-defining moments comes near the end: Joseph has actually gotten to see Welsey’s highly-private Manhattan penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. Towards evening she decides to order dinner from a fancy Italian restaurant. He, thinking he should, orders something elaborate; she gets the spaghetti and meatballs. As he sits cutting his veal and mushrooms, she slurps her pasta and gets tomato sauce all over her face. At that point he gets it: Welsey, robbed of her childhood, is having it now. That’s the key to understanding her. (They’ve also just spent the afternoon sitting on the floor playing the game of Life, with its little plastic cars and stick figure-people.) That’s one of my favorite moments in the whole novel, and food, glorious food plays a major role in defining it.
Ms. Schumer had a terrifying run-in with a “fan” last week.
The comedian was out and about when, “This guy in front of his family just ran up next to me scared the s*** out of me. Put a camera in my face. I asked him to stop and he said, ‘No it’s America and we paid for you‘ this was in front of his daughter.
“Great message to your kid,” she added. “Yes legally you are allowed to take a picture of me. But I was asking you to stop and saying no.”
She originally said she would no longer take photos with fans, but has since modified that to she’ll take pictures with “nice people.” This illustrates the co-dependent relationship between stars and their fans, who can either make their career or do them serious harm, and even murder them in cold blood. And there’s no real way a celebrity can tell the difference.
It’s long been this way. Sylvester Stallone told Roger Ebert once that every time someone [a fan or “outsider”] touched him, his hand automatically balled into a fist. And Cliff Robertson, described by famous screenwriter William Goldman as one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, said he is always wary when out in public, looking around at who’s watching him. The advantage “they” have, he told Goldman, is they know who you are, but you don’t know who they are.
The man who took the selfie with Schumer,Leslie Brewer, has his own account of what happened. He claims he pulled out his camera to Instagram the sighting of Schumer, but backed off when she asked him to. “She says I got all up in her face, and it was completely different from the video.” Brewer posted an edited clip where he grins into the camera as he says, “Sorry.” Schumer then asks, “Can you delete that?” It’s followed by a shot of him saying afterward, “Then she got mad at me.” The post is captioned, “Amy schumer just got mad at me and cussed me out lmao!!! Awesome.”
It doesn’t end there.Brewer says Schumer began walking away but then turned around and returned. She apparently wanted to turn the tables on him, saying she was going to take her own picture of him and share it with her four million followers.” And he now says, “You’re a celebrity. I understand you want to blast me but that’s petty, that’s beneath you.”
Messy, no matter which version happens to be true.
One of the reasons we’ll never really know celebrities—and one of the things Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about—is that they’re under this hyper-intense light of observation all the time, with standards that are different than the standards applied to the rest of us. To some extent this is justified: the law defines public figures—and affords them levels of protection—differently than ordinary people. They don’t have the same expectation of privacy. But they do not give up all their privacy when they choose fame, or fame chooses them.
But fans will always feel they owe us a level of devotion that’s higher than what’s expected of ordinary people. They’ve got the two things we all think we want, after all: money and fame. If a superhero has superpowers, he’s obligated to use them to save us. All the time. No matter what.
For that reason, we’ll never see them as “people,” and they’ll never be judged the same way as everyone else. So we can never really know them. What we see of them is like a hall of mirrors, distorted by what we expect, what they want to show, and what we feel they should show.
Yet their very job, with a few exceptions, is to seem relatable. That requires tons of fakery on their part. Some of them pull it off brilliantly. Some of them do not.
But every time an incident like Schumer’s happens, the line of what’s expected and what’s okay changes, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. This 24/7 social media world is making it increasingly difficult to define what’s acceptable interactions for stars and their fans—and what is not.