Stephanie Lehmann, author of The Art of Undressing, Thoughts While having Sex Are You in the Mood? and the just-released You Could do Better recently took time out of her hectic schedule to submit herself to our 20 burning questions, finally answering the one that keeps me up at night: If you write about sex, do your kids think you’re a pervert?
1. Your latest book, You Could Do Better, has the main character Daphne working at Museum of Television and Radio. Are you as sad as Amy is that that there isn’t cool stuff in NY MTR like they do in the LA MTR (ex. The impressive William Paley Festival offerings)?
From what I understand, the tone of the two MTRs is different, with the LA one being a bit more glitzy and glam, by virtue of its location. But New York City is where Television broadcasting began, and so I can think of no better place to sit in the dark and watch old episodes of Texaco Star Theatre, See It Now, Burns and Allen, Ernie Kovacs, What’s My Line, The Honeymoonersï¿½
2. If you were curator of the MTR, what kind of exhibits would you have?
I would do a festival honoring women sitcom stars. Television (as opposed to the movie industry) has been quite hospitable to women, who have been able to produce and star in their own shows and wield quite a bit of power. You can go all the way back to The Goldbergs in 1949. It was the first successful sitcom ever, and it was written and directed by its star Gertrude Berg. Many people may think of Lucille Ball as a whiny clown, but her popularity, influence and power during the early years of television cannot be underestimated.
The history of women in society has been thoroughly documented in sitcoms, and the stars are not just funny, they’re also role models. Think of That Girl (single girl in the city before Sarah Jessica Parker was out of diapers), Mary and Rhoda (best friend single girls) Samantha Stevens (witchy-suburban wife), Maude (the first pop culture feminist), Roseanne Barr (working class mom), Kate and Allie (divorced moms), The Golden Girls (“mature” women) and, well, if they could figure out how to make a successful sitcom these days, the list could go on. (We’ll see if Julia Louis-Dreyfus can pull her weight this Fall…)
3. Daphne is full of random TV factoids. How full is your brain of random factoids? And will you be my partner at the next quiz night?
As I discovered while watching The World Series of Pop Culture, I wouldn’t have done well on my SATs even if the questions had all been on 70s sitcoms. I read all the time — I love researching my novels and delving into the non-fiction section ï¿½ but I just don’t retain information very well. So you probably don’t actually want to be my partner on quiz night. That’s part of why it was so satisfying to endow Daphne with the top notch memory I never had.
4. You used The Nanny to define the 90s in television, which kind of surprised me. I, a TVaholic, have never made it through an episode of The Nanny. Am I missing out? Is a vital piece of television history missing in that special part of my brain devoted to mindless pastimes? And how does one get past Fran Drescher’s voice and enjoy?
Fran’s voice doesn’t bother me ï¿½ maybe because I live in New York and romanticize the city to a ridiculous degree. Anyway, I picked The Nanny for a few reasons. First of all, it was one of the most successful sitcoms of the 90s. Secondly, it was created by and starred a woman (rah). Like many of the women in sitcoms I mentioned already, Fran Drescher really had control over The Nanny. She came up with the idea, produced the show with her then-husband, picked the writers.
Also, it just so happened that the storyline had some interesting parallels to Daphne’s story. Fran is also flirting with someone who is richer and more successful while taking care of his children. And, finally, the show was important to Daphne when she grew up. The plane crash episode resonated with the death of her parents having died in a plane crash. And the idea of a surrogate mother was appealing to her, so she was attracted to this nasal voiced nanny who was available to her on the TV.
5. In You Can Do Better, you go over shows that defined eras. But what TV show defines your youth? Your teens? Your 20s? Now?
Okay, how am I going to answer this question without giving away my age? Sigh. Okay, well a few shows stand out in my mind.
Getting serious for a momentï¿½ I was a traumatized teen. My sister had Hodgkins Disease, and while she was in and out of hospitals, I totally escaped into the world within the small black and white General Electric TV I had in my room. I wanted to be a member of the Brady family and live in that house where the worst physical threat that could happen was that Marcia would get a pimple.
But I have to say Seinfeld defines me more than most shows. I have Daphne living in the Upper West Side building they use for the exterior shot of Tom’s Restaurant, and I live near there myself. And I used to live in the Manhattan Plaza, which is the apartment building in New York where Larry David once lived and where “the real Kramer” still lives, and yes, there always was something odd about the guy. I recently saw the pilot for the show, and the cast did not include Elaine. Just the three guys! Thank god someone figured that one out.
I am also a lifetimer All My Children fan and intend to spend my last days in a nursing home watching Susan Lucci give people hell.
6. Charlie, Daphne’s kind yet clueless fiancï¿½, does not enjoy giving oral sex. This is probably common — what should a girl do if her beau won’t go beneath the covers? Sending him to a website with tips didn’t seem to work in your novel. What else can a girl do? Leave your book around for her significant other to read, in the hopes that they’ll realize they’re about to be dumped for a hot tv producer if they don’t start ponying up?
Yes, I like your solution, especially because I could finally feel like my writing is contributing something positive to society.
7. Recently, while trying to pretend I was still young and cool enough to sleep on the ground while camping sans pillow or air mattress, I discovered that I was no longer cool enough to camp sans pillow and air mattress, at least if the tossing and turning and crick in my neck was anything to go by. When was the last time you had this “fuck. I’m getting older” feeling?
Actually, I get that feeling about a hundred times a day, especially since I’ve lost my 20/20 vision. It’s so annoying to need your reading glasses to operate the remote, but not to watch the screen, if you know what I mean.
I also feel old when my daughter watches Laguna Beach, which I just can’t get into to. Even worse, when I watch Gilmore Girls my daughter thinks I’m idiotically naive. What can I say? I want Lorelai to be my mom. (I may be getting older, but at heart I’m still trying to get into an Ivy League school, dang itï¿½)
8. A girl after our own heart, you have a great and long-lasting love for television. What do you think about people who make it a point to tell you that they have no TV, that basically they think they are far more superior than their TV-watching counterparts?
I think they are snobs, and there’s just nothing you can do about it.
9. Your blog asks writers about their TV habits — have any answers surprised you?
There are definitely those writers who watch ï¿½ and those writers who don’t watch. I don’t get the ones who say they don’t have time. How is that possible? It’s not like the old days when they stopped showing shows after midnight and God Bless America came on.
I do think it’s funny how Alison Pace’s main character in Pug Hill repeatedly watches a Zoloft commercial instead of actually taking Zoloft. Virtual medication?
10. What TV character do you most relate to?
My first thought was Ann Marie (That Girl), Elaine (Seinfeld), or perhaps Carrie (Sex and the City). But you know what? I’m going to go with Larry David! I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. My husband is from Long Island and definitely must be related to him somewhere back in the gene pool, and he likes to think I’m Cheryl, the long-suffering wife, and to some extent this is true, but I actually have a lot of Larry David in me too.
I always think the first scene of You Could Do Better is very Larry Davidesque. Daphne is having a hard time paying attention to her boyfriend’s marriage proposal because there’s a marriage proposal happening that very moment on one of her favorite shows and she doesn’t want to miss it.
11. You’re teaching a class on ChickLit, we have our own little go-to guide for writing ChickLit. Is there anything you think we’ve missed?
Wow, that’s hilarious. I’m going to use that the next time I teach! I think the only thing you left out is “Mary Sue desperately tries to get boyfriend to give her oral sexï¿½”
12. If you could start one business, and it was guaranteed to be a raging success, even if it was something insane like bedazzling gerbils (don’t laugh, you know that’s the next big thing) what would it be?
Oh, god, well, my favorite food is scones. And if I had my choice, I would just live off them. So maybe I should open up a restaurant that just serves scones. There could be blueberry scones for breakfast, cheese scones for lunch, and chicken scones for dinner.
13. Read any good books lately, or been too busy writing them?
I am reading every book I can about life in the 1910s because the novel I’m working on now takes place in 1913. Yes, this is a departure for me, but I’m totally into nostalgia, which, like TV, is a great way to escape. One of the fascinating things about this time period is how electricity is changing everyone’s lives. Just imagine the miracle of being able to stare at a light bulb all evening.
14. I see from your blog that you’re a Project Runway fan. Out of all three seasons, who’s your favorite? And whose clothes do you think should never, ever have seen the light of day?
Let’s see. I have to think back here. I liked Kara Janx and was rooting for her, especially because her accent was just so cute. And I did enjoy Wendy Pepper ï¿½ it must be the Larry David in me. I think Vincent consistently designs ridiculous clothes and it’s ironic that his Twiggy dress was such a failure seeing as he seems to be somewhat stuck in the 60s.
15. In your bio on your website, you mention that as a 12 year-old, your great ambition was to be published in American Girl Magazine. Ever accomplish this?
No. I got so many rejections from them and so many others over the years. It took me a long time to have any outward “success” in my writing, and I tried everything. Magazines, novels, film, television, theaterï¿½ I have drawers full of rejections from magazine editors, book publishers, Hollywood agents, theater producersï¿½ You name it, I got it.
16. It seems for a period of time, while trying to establish yourself as a writer, you were TVless. My god, woman, how did you survive?
It’s weird. It just happened. I can’t really explain it. I was lost. I think it was having babies that brought me back. All that time spent breastfeeding ï¿½ you really need to watch The Love Connection to get you through.
17. You give some intriguing child-rearing advice in a 2004 interview up on your site (TV on, babysitters, cereal cereal cereal, playstation). Two years later, do you have any further pearls of wisdom to add?
I am so glad my kids have grown up so that our television tastes are more aligned and we can actually watch stuff together. One of our favorites has been Wifeswap. My household is always more like the wacky, messy, dysfunctional family that eats dinner with the TV on (surprise, surprise). I never understand why the uptight neat families think you have to eat dinner around a table with no electronic devices providing any distraction from looking at each other and having to relate. It’s important to be able to spend time in the same room together without actually having to carry on a conversation. I mean, my god, you live under the same roof as these people. How can you be expected to come up with something to say day in and day out? And when the anti-drug and anti-smoking ads come on, I’m grateful that the “bad cop” side of parenting is being done for me.
18. On the subject of rearing children with TVs, there is some mild controversy over whether or not young minds are being destroyed at tender ages due to being parked in front of Nickelodeon and Noggin all day. Don’t you think this crackpot theory was probably started by a crazy man who never stayed home all day with his kids?
Definitely. We all know that our televisions are much more patient and giving and intelligent than our parents are. If my children had to spend their days staring at me, they would definitely crack up.
19. What’s your favorite thing to do with potatoes?
Well, since I try not to cook, the best thing to do is to order them off a menu. Preferably with cheddar cheese all over them and sour cream on the side. Hmmmm… Maybe I should have a Potato and Scone restaurant.
20. Ever not written something, be it a sex scene or a particular scenario, because, “dear lord, what if my children read it? How will I explain it? What if they think I’m writing about me or their father? Eeek!”?
My son (to my knowledge) has never read my books — I think the titles have pretty much scared him away. But he does like to ask why my books don’t sell as well as The DaVinci Code, and let’s face it, that is the real question, isn’t it? (All they do care about, in the end, is not what I have to say about sex, but how much money they will inherit, true?)
My daughter read my first novel Thoughts While Having Sex, and so did a lot of her friends, and she tells me I got the reputation of being a “pervert,” which is ironic, because that novel is about a character who is so repressed she can’t have an orgasm and can’t even bring herself to masturbate. (Did they just skim?) She tried reading The Art of Undressing but gave up because she said the main character sounded too much like me.
My mother, who is an artist and always encouraged me to express myself, gives me the advice not to worry about this stuff, so I don’t. After all, she’s my mother, so she must know best.