INTERVIEW: Kristen Buckley, author of Tramps Like Us

Monday, June 11th, 2007

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Kristen Buckley’s Tramps Like Us is like a rollercoaster ride through a New JerseyA Surburban Confession amusement park, except here, the funhouse mirrors manage to distort almost everything that happens to her zany family, turning what could be extremely sad, dark circumstances into ones that are worthy of reading aloud to anyone who’ll listen. Rather than mocking her circumstances or distancing herself from them, Buckley, who now lives in L.A., looks back on both her desire to escape (which she eventually does, at book’s end, to New York), and the comfort she got from her family as they banded together to fight rats, nuclear arms, and school bullies. (Read an excerpt here.)

From her parents’ divorce to her mom’s adoption of siblings from Korea to Buckley’s stint as a wannabe Mafioso, she chronicles a youth spent lying, getting into (and out of) trouble, learning tae kwon do and jazz, dealing with crazy neighbors, and much more Buckley, also the author of the novel The Parker Grey Show and screenwriter for How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and 102 Dalmations, spins hilarious tales that would read as over-the-top if she didn’t maintain a very clear voice of a girl who’s wise beyond her years, one who delights in books, looks out for her siblings, and goes after exactly what she wants, no matter how unusual. Her memoir isn’t so much about escape New Jersey as coming to terms with it, the good, the bad, and the absolutely ridiculous.

by Rachel Kramer Bussel

How long was this memoir in the works, and how long did it actually take you to write it? Had you attempted to write this story previously?

I had written a few short stories about my family that I was going to submit to This American Life about three years ago. At the same time, I was working on a novel. I was in what I like to call my “I want to be Don DeLillo” phase and after I finished my novel (which was brooding and dark and sort of confusing) my agent basically said the writing wasn’t me. Crushing as it was to hear this, I realized he was right but I didn’t know what to do next. I spent a few months just doing screenwriting (which I do a great deal of) and then one day it occurred to me that I should turn the short stories into a book. Once I made that decision, and I found a theme to hang the stories on (emotional nomad searches for home in a vast foreboding suburban dystopia) the writing was fast. I think I had a rough first draft in about three months. Then I did about four more passes and I guess the total time until it was sold for publishing was about a year.

Were you thinking at all about who your audience would be as you wrote? Do you think your fellow Jersey girls (and guys) will find it more meaningful?

That’s a hard question to answer in some ways. For starters, I don’t really think about my audience when I write. It’s only when the story is done that I consider the audience. I wish I could be more calculating in that respect, but to me the story always has to come first. However, the notion of my “audience” is in fact a complicated one. In my mind’s eye, I see myself being read by people who enjoy Salinger, Klosterman, Burroughs, Sedaris, Bourdain, et al. Like me, these writers are informed by a blunt, unrepentant, worldview. Yet it has been my experience that as a woman writer I’m often criticized and in some cases marginalized for this same approach. For instance, one reviewer actually asked me why I was so “mean.” Another asked, why I had to be “so honest.” My response in both instances was to ask, why when men are honest they are “unflinching’ but when women are honest they are “mean?” Neither reviewer (both of whom were men in their thirties) had an answer. Another male reviewer said, “It’s hilarious . . . for a chick book,” which was sort of a crushing thing to hear. I even had a twentysomething female reviewer accuse me of being “vulgar” because of my brother’s constant use of the “f” word. When I pointed out that Sedaris’ brother “The Rooster” cursed like a truck driver, she said, “That’s different.”

I mention all this because I think it’s time to start a dialogue about the double standards that exist for female writers. This reductive thinking has to be confronted because it marginalizes women writers and in effect silences their voices. And to me, this is dangerous.

Now, having said that I will get back to your question regarding my audience (that I’m currently trying to assemble!). My story is for anyone—male or female—who has ever felt like an outsider. I speak for the misfits, the misunderstood, the disconnected. If you happen to be from New Jersey, there are certain things about the shared local experience that will resonate strongly, but if you grew up in any other suburb, or for that matter any place where you felt like a stranger in a strange land, then my story will have just as much meaning.

You talk about the “escaped people of New Jersey” and the Butterfly Effect, so I want to ask what makes someone a true New Jerseyite? Is it growing up there, hating it, loving it, or both at once?

You hit it perfectly! Being from Jersey means hating it and love it all at the same time. It’s the yin and yang of the Jersey experience.

What struck me about Tramps Like Us is how many dramatic and traumatic things happened to you, but in your hands they come out really humorous. Were you ever tempted to go in a different direction or was humor the most natural way of telling the story for you?

I think when bad things just keep happening over and over and over, it’s very easy to assume that there is some sort of dark cloud hanging over your life. I felt this way—in fact, my entire family often felt this way. Ours was not an easy existence but what made it bearable was our ability to laugh at was going on. That didn’t mean that there weren’t a lot of nights filled with tears, but I chose not to tell the story from that point of view. Actually writing it was sometimes upsetting for me because in writing the “humorous take” I was left to process the “grim reality” on my own (though I like to think that this is the subtext of the story). It’s not fun being forsaken by a parent. It’s not fun being hated by a stepparent. It’s not fun going deaf, or watching your sibling nearly die from Small Pox. It’s not fun having no money for medicine or food. It’s awful. But how many times can you say that? In fact, how many times can you acknowledge that? My family survived because we had the ability to laugh. So, yes this was the most natural way to tell the story for me.

Taken as a whole, your story seems completely outrageous; overseas adoptions, your mom teaching in the Bronx, the Mafia. Did your publisher ever question any of these tales? Did you have to give them any proof or have someone else verify them?

It’s always funny to me because people meet my family and they immediately have the same reaction which is always, “They are exactly like you described them,” because my family didn’t change or become the Cleavers; they’re still as loopy as ever. That said, my editor has known me for nearly fifteen years. In addition, she had written a book called The Love They Lost, which was about children of divorce and had interviewed me extensively, so she knew a lot about my family and the aspects that shaped me as an adult. Because of this, she was comfortable vouching for my story. Still, I’ve never worried about proof of any sort. My siblings were adopted from Korea, I have the paperwork. My mom did work in the South Bronx, I’m sure there are tax forms with the school’s name on it somewhere. There were mobsters all over my town, the mob hit did occur on Saddle River Road, and I did hurt my ankle at one of their parties, which sent me to the emergency room and I‘m sure if you look up Valley Hospital and go through their records you’ll find my x-rays somewhere. We did have the worst rat infestation on record—I would show everyone the damage but my family house was sold and torn down (which was sort of metaphorical) to build a Mcmansion. Funnily enoughon the day my dad’s second marriage to “Ming” ended, lightening struck the tree under which they were married, prompting one of our neighbors to say to my mother, “Everything is strangely metaphoric with your family”which I thought was hilarious.

Lying is a theme running throughout the book, both in your ability and propensity to lie (and your pride in doing so) and in the index you state that “the lie is losing much of its taboo power.” You freely admit this as you tell stories of various boasts, but how do we, as readers, know you aren’t lying to us? Were you ever tempted to recast a story to make yourself look better?

This is a strange question, but it’s not the first time I’ve been asked and I sort of wonder if it somehow related to the James Frey of it all. Maybe too many years of people writing about their less than ordinary lives have made people weary to buy into another zany story. But my story is very real. It all happened. And the reason why I mention lying in my book has nothing to do with me admitting to telling tall tales and everything to do with me wanting to get to the truth of my own experience. When you grow up with a certain degree of constant pain in your life, it’s very hard to hear someone tell you that your experience was not as you recall it. The reality, or maybe the irony is that most people, who grew up the way I did, would lie about it. They would be too ashamed to admit half the stuff I freely admit to. They would gloss over troubled times, or say it wasn’t so bad. I chose to not do that.

I would also like mention that I’ve gotten questioned about my “voice” as a young girl. I had dinner with one of my cousins recently and he said, “What people don’t realize, or won’t realize, is that this is how you actually spoke.” It made me laugh because I’ve had to explain to people that I did in fact speak like an adult as a child. I was opinionated, I cursed, I was ironic. This was the way I was. Funnily enough, I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter and she is exactly the same. So I suppose the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Did you keep diaries that you use to jog your memory, or did all of the stories come back to you? Did you run them by other people in your family?

The reality is the diary is in my head and it was born out of necessity. From an early age I came to think that I had to be on guard so at the very least, when the next bad thing happened, I could be prepared. Of course it never really worked, but the end result is that I learned to be hyper aware of what was being said or done around me. It’s like my brain turned into a giant filing cabinet filled with information that I kept so that later—when something bad happened—I could go back and reference the origin of it. This was my way of making sense—I was like an ethnographer of my own life, and still am in some respects.

What were the easiest and toughest parts of the book to write?

It’s not that there are particular chapters that were easy and others were hard. It was a mixture of the two, I suppose. I think I had a harder time once I finished in that very thing was so real once again and I had to confront some painful realities about my childhood that I had tucked away.

Have you heard from anyone that you grew up with or write about in the book since it’s come out?

I’ve actually heard from tons of people, some of them complete strangers who have causal relations to places or people I’ve written about! In fact, I was in Jersey doing some readings and one guy showed up and told me that his mom was the head coach of the swim team I had been on, and that he remembered the junior coach, and the day I showed up for tryouts. I’ve heard from classmates, and their siblings and even some of their mothers, all of them recalling the events that I’ve written about and adding to the storytelling me all sorts of things that had happened after I had leftor giving me their take on things. It’s been pretty amazing and it’s made me realize that I wasn’t as invisible as I thought I was. Other people had connections or were influenced by things that had happened to me, and because of this there was (and is) a larger connective tissue between myself, and the people in my community. Basically, my story didn’t just belong to me.

How was the writing process different from working on your novel, The Parker Grey Show, or the screenwriting process?

My process for all writing is always the same. I set fairly stringent deadlines for myself and then I work daily to complete pages. I think screenwriting helped me be focused because I usually have very strict deadlines (typically eight weeks for a completed draft). Once I know what I want to write, I decide a length. From there I divide up the pages to meet the deadline I set. If it’s 300 pages, I figure on five pages a daywhich mean sixty working days I should have a rough draft. The tricky part is that I’m often working on more than one thing at a time. So, for example I will do screenwriting in the morning with the idea being ten pages or three hourswhichever comes first. Typically with a book—fiction or non-fiction—I will say five pages or two hours and I can do those two hours whenever I can fit them in. Could be in the afternoon or it could be ten at night. I can’t labor at the computer for hours on end because I find that I get nothing done. But if I’m succinct I’m very productive. The rest of the time I’m thinking about what has to happen next, or jotting stuff down in a little notebook that I keep with me. I’m very disciplined when it comes to my writing but I’m not precious about when I write. This developed because for a long time I had “day jobs.” Later when I became a full time screenwriter, I had kids, so in order to “have it all,” I’ve had to learn to be flexible.

You include indexes for each chapter explaining terms from the book and directing people where they can go for more information, and that made me realize just how much you’ve packed into this memoir: Bruce Springsteen, romanticism, frizzy hair, Son of Sam, Korean names, kung fu. So I’m curious if anything was left out of the book. Were there any great stories you didn’t have room for or chose not to include?

The index was actually my friend Gaby’s idea. She read an early draft of the book and wanted to know more about things I’d mentioned. I thought it was a great idea and it’s something I’m planning on including in all future books. What I like about the index is that it allowed me to illustrate the way in which I integrate all these varied topics into my life without being rarified. Foer says that “Everything is Illuminated,” but I’d like people to see that “Everything is Accessible.” I love that my mom applied the lessons of the Romantics to lawn care. I love that she argued that we were middle class because she knew about Japanese poetry. I love that we took history and religion and poetry, and wove it into the daily tapestry of our life—these weren’t exalted subjects that were only for classrooms—they were subjects that were directly relatable to our every day existence. I wanted to try and express that to my readers.

You say that Womrath’s is your favorite bookstore ever, and when you describe it in the book, it’s with a sense of pure delight in being able to indulge in reading and picking out the books you’ll then go home and tear through, a familiar feeling for any bookworm. What made it so great when you were a child, and what makes it so great now?

When I was a kid I think there was one Barnes & Noble and it was in Manhattan. You didn’t buy books really, you just got them at the library. Or maybe it was just that we were broke so buying books for me was such pure delight. But going to Womrath’s and just being able to spend literally hours searching for books that were going to be mine to keep was the greatest feeling. Of course, I had to bring these books with me to my father’s during the summer and they were my only form of escape and because of that they were important. Actually they were beyond important, they saved me from hours of misery and monotony. The more books filled my bookshelves, the more hours I had survived. They were a testament to my resilience.

I guess for me now, my love of books stems from my need to have a life of the mind. More often than not, life becomes complicated and static and filled with the mundane, but I know through reading there’s always the potential to be transformed. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, it’s the greatest feeling. You become a part of the story, experiencing a world you would never otherwise know, and this in turn allows you to grow. It’s a form of participatory escape and I can’t imagine life without it! Seriously, if I could eat words I would (actually I think Gertrude Stein might have said that!).

What do you look for in a bookstore, and which is your favorite in your current home of L.A.?

My favorite bookstore in LA is BookSoup everyone there cares about books. They read the books they sell and take the time to know their customers’ tastes. I had my launch for Tramps Like Us there and it was greatit felt like being part of a community. When you ask what I look for in a bookstore—I guess more than anything it’s for people who know your tastes and point you in the direction of books you might not know about. It’s funny, I had a great librarian in the 7th and 8th grade named Mrs. Dursema. Every Friday I’d race to the library just to find out what she was going to suggest I read for the next week. She made reading fun and rewarding and she always seemed to know what I was going to like. I was depressed when I went to high school and the librarians were like pod people.

As for the chains… All too often I’ll be at Borders or B&N and I just feel overwhelmed by the selection. I don’t know where to start. The other complaint I have is that the “staff picks” are typically the stuff that’s been reviewed in the Times—you never really find a sleeper or something off the beaten path. Oh, and I have to say that I’m always a little creeped out at the big chains because I know that looming somewhere in the back is the “pulper.” I’m not sure if most people realize that these big chains have literary crematoriums in the back. Basically, if the books don’t sell, the covers get ripped off and sent back to the publisher (who have to refund the money to the store) and the books go through the pulper and are destroyed. I’m sorry but I find that to be hideous and here are my two alternatives to the problem:

1 - Perhaps publishers should stop overprinting!

2 - Chuck Palahniuk and a team of his space monkeys (secretly led by me) run nightly raids and lay waste to those pulpers! Note: I’m excited by the thought of this. I’d bet money Chuck would be too.

What advice would you have to someone thinking about writing a memoir?

Sometimes the very act of writing a memoir is in itself a healing process. But if you want to write a memoir and you want to sell it, and you want people to read it, you have to be sure your story is framed within a larger context that publishers can hang their marketing hat on. That said, don’t be daunted by the market. Despite what the powers that be say, you don’t have to be famous to have an interesting story. The reality is that history springs from microhistory, and microhistory is really the prosopography of ordinary people. I suspect that deep down most people are more interested in the story of the quiet old guy perched at the end of the bar than they are of the leader who killed a zillion people in his rise to power. The stories of our lives connect us to each other, and this desire to connect is a basic impulse that’s been with us since we were drawing pictures in caves. The problem is that there is no place for people to connect—all the caves are gone! But this is why SMITH/Memoirville is so great—because it has created a forum for populist storytelling. I think the more people can do that, the more authors can bring readers into their story, the better. For instance, I have just started a Suburban Confession blog on my MySpace page where people can write in their suburban confessions. Hopefully this will start a dialogue and my story can become interwoven with that of others.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on another memoir only this one will be larger in scope. It’s going to include time travel, several historical figures, and a very famous English chef. I explained it all to my cousin Charlesworth over a bottle of wine and his response was, “I like the premise . . . You’re a weird cat.”

4 responses

  1. Julia says:

    Kristen Buckley is my hero. I love both her books! I was lucky enough to get Parker Grey stickers and put them everywhere. No, I am not in eighth grade!

  2. joan says:

    Dear Kristen,

    I’ve been trying to find a way to send you a private email that others won’t see, but couldn’t. As a fellow former resident of Bergen County who escaped to California, writer, and professional musician, I devoured your book with delight, but I wish you’d had me proofread it first. The names of Frankie Valli, John Forsythe, Lisa Birnbach, Jim McKay, and several others are misspelled, and there are a number of grammatical errors that I, in my anal-retentive-proofreader way, have flagged in case you should choose to contact me. I hope I haven’t insulted you–I enjoyed the memoir, but whoever was in charge of the editing was asleep at the wheel. I have a steel-trap mind for this sort of thing, so if you ever want the top English student at River Dell High School to help you on one of your projects, I’d be honored.. I also write custom songs and parodies, if you know anyone who needs that service.

    Sincerely, Joan Kurland (I’m in San Diego)

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