17 Jul Episode 220: #ComedicMemoir with Kari Lizer
Kari Lizer is best known for her work in television, as writer and co-executive producer of Will & Grace and the creator of The New Adventures of Old Christine. When her essays about parenting took the shape of a book, she found that her real life provided more than enough material for a comedic memoir. Aren’t You Forgetting Someone? has it all – chickens, Kate Middleton’s bangs, psychics, and the promise of happy endings.
Jess: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Sarina: The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Kari: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
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This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwriting for details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ Dell’Antonia 0:00
Writers it’s KJ here. Before we get to the interview, which is Jess and Sarina talking to the very funny Kari Lizer I wanted to share a little about our new sponsor, Dabble. I wrote my last book in a mad combination of Word and Scrivener and it worked fine. But putting the whole thing together in the end was hard and I accidentally left out a chapter of a draft confusing everyone. With dabble, the whole book is always just sitting there already compiled and together as a unit and easy to navigate around in as chapters or scenes. It is magical and it can’t wait to make full use of it this time around. Give it a spin at dabblewriter.com and let us know what you think. Is it recording?
Jess Lahey 0:43
Now it’s recording.
KJ Dell’Antonia 0:45
This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone trying to remember what I’m supposed to be doing.
Jess Lahey 0:49
Alright, let’s start over.
KJ Dell’Antonia 0:51
Awkward pause. I’m gonna rustle some papers. Okay, now one, two, three.
Jess Lahey 1:02
Hey, this is the #AmWriting podcast with Jess Lahey and Sarina Bowen, KJ is off this week. This is the podcast where we talk about all the things – all the writing things, the researching, the editing. I’m just about to start editing today, actually. So we’ll probably slip in and mention of that – writing romance, writing fiction, writing nonfiction, writing all the things we love to talk about. And this is definitely the podcast though, first and foremost, about getting the writing done. I’m Jessica Lahey I’m the author of The Gift of Failure and the forthcoming The Addiction Inoculation that will be out next year, April 2021. And you can find my work at the Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other lovely places like Airmail recently, actually.
Sarina Bowen 1:47
And I’m Sarina Bowen I’m the author of 35 romance novels. My most recent USA Today bestseller is called Sure Shot and you can find more about me at sarinabowen.com.
Jess Lahey 1:59
So can I just say one thing? I was I was tooling around on Facebook looking for something and all of a sudden, I noticed that you dropped like an additional thing to Sure Shot. And I simply do not understand when you write all the things. I don’t understand how you write all the things, you write everything and you write stuff that you don’t even tell us about, and launch it out into the world and it makes my head spin.
Sarina Bowen 2:22
Well, thank you, I think. Yes, I did have a couple chapter prequel that I put into an anthology that someone was putting together and it really wasn’t the world’s greatest accomplishment there, Jess, but thanks anyway.
Jess Lahey 2:39
Alright, well, we have a guest this week, and I’m really, really excited about this guest because we have found out that number one, we have some things in common that we need to talk about, but also because this book almost made me late for this interview because I was having so much fun reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It is so funny. Without further ado, I would like to introduce Kari Lizer. Her new book is called Aren’t You Forgetting Someone?: Essays From My Midlife Revenge? And, okay, we’ve talked before about getting blurbs and this woman, this book, she’s got some blurbs on this book. It’s a very funny book. She is a former executive producer and writer for Will and Grace. And that’s going to figure into a little tiny bit of the conversation today. But Kari, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Kari Lizer 3:35
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Jess Lahey 3:37
Such a delightful book. And it’s not just because a lot of the action happens in Vermont and Sarina has written an entire series that is a romance series based completely on a fictional small town in Vermont. There are chickens, there are lots of animals. And so we’ve got that angle going on, but we we also have the devotedly introverted sort of thing going on, obviously the writer thing going on as well. So we’re just really excited to talk with you today.
Kari Lizer 4:17
It’s nice to have that in common. It’s a specific thing for sure. Vermont people are a certain kind of people, I know that.
Jess Lahey 4:27
We’re reading this book at a really interesting time because most of the book is about just the thrill people get (people like us) tend to get when someone says something is canceled. And everything’s canceled right now. So how are you doing? We’re recording this at the beginning of June, on June 11. So we’ve all been on our own or at least in close proximity to very few other people. How are you doing?
Kari Lizer 5:00
Well, I spent the first few months of this lockdown shut-in period in Los Angeles, which was very different than it feels here in Vermont. It was stranger there for sure. I had one of my kids home with me. And it was a little bit harder to navigate there. It wasn’t that different lifestyle wise for me than my normal life though, because I do spend a lot of time at home. I’m an introvert, I write at home. I don’t venture out unless I absolutely have to. But it did get strange and I did start to feel the walls closing in on me for sure. I mean, just the lack of outdoor space. I mean, because the trails were closed and the parks were closed. I have four dogs. Going outside with them, it just felt like we were just on top of each other a little bit. So made the decision to hop in a car and drive across the country with the four dogs and come to Vermont. Because there’s more wide open spaces, so it’s feeling a little bit like I’ve been released from prison a little bit. But, you know, there are other challenges here in terms of of being quarantined and you know, there’s the 14 days here in Vermont that I have to isolate myself from other people and so, you know, it’s challenging. Listen, I don’t have it as bad as a lot of people have it, I have a lot to keep me occupied. And I can do my job here. I’m starting up a new TV show and I can do my writers room on Zoom. And it’s just it’s not that bad. I’ve had things to occupy me, so I’m pretty lucky as it goes, honestly.
Jess Lahey 7:06
Well, actually the fact that we’re in the middle of this. We’re in the middle of a country protesting right now over George Floyd’s death, there’s so much going on that has rendered… In fact, a couple weeks ago, we recorded a podcast where we just felt like our hearts weren’t in it. And one of the things you write really beautifully about in this book is being able to write when other things in your life are not necessarily going the way you would like. In fact, you mentioned in the book that you were writing for Will and Grace at the same time that you had a divorce and you had your sister’s death going on. So that sort of stuck out for me because at a time right now when I could be super productive, I’m finding it really, really difficult to put my heart in my work and I would love to know how you worked through some of that?
Kari Lizer 8:01
Well, I mean, I think it’s easier when you have assignments, a television writer, I think it is a little bit easier under those circumstances because you have to, I mean, you have deadlines and those kind of things, I find it a little bit harder too under these circumstances, when I can write if I want to and I’m a lot less productive now. It was very strange that I left Los Angeles just as things were sort of bubbling up. And by the time I got here, the world had sort of exploded, I mean, I just left when COVID was happening. And then the protests hadn’t really started yet. So I feel strangely isolated from all of that and it feels like things are happening so far away from me, so I feel very distracted by that too. I think it’s certainly easier for me to write, obviously, when I have people waiting for things to come to them, you know. I mean, I’m a goody two shoes always, so I will always turn things in when people need them, but left to my own devices I can’t always get it going either. I mean, sometimes it is hard to motivate myself I mean, I always have this fantasy that all I need is a cabin in the woods and then I’ll sit and I’ll churn out novels one after the other and I don’t write a word. If I’ve ever rented a beach house or something with this romantic notion that I’m going to write things, not a word comes out of me at those kind of places, I need busy, I need chaos, I need something. The more that’s going on the more I can’t seem to write so…
Jess Lahey 9:28
Yeah, I’m deadline oriented, too. And Sarina, you know, self publishes her work and she does so much of the work herself and she’s so good about self imposed deadlines. There was a great quote Shonda Rhimes at one point said, ‘Writing for television is like laying tracks while you’re actually in the train.’ Is that an experience that rings true for you?
Kari Lizer 9:51
That’s about right, yeah. There is an oncoming train at all times. It just feels like an impossible job and somehow it gets done. And I function really well under those circumstances. You know, the more pressure the better, from the book you can tell I when I had children underfoot, the younger the better, the more children the better. Throw a little cancer in there and then I I thrive. When I have less going on, and I have all the time in the world, and it’s sort of leisurely, I can maybe write a chapter or two but I think I was sort of cut out for the television world because it is just writing under the most serious duress that you can imagine.
Sarina Bowen 10:39
Can I ask – is Aren’t You Forgetting Someone? your first thing that you wrote that was intended to be a book with two covers on it at a bookstore?
Kari Lizer 10:49
It is and it didn’t really start out that way. I took a little hiatus from television when my third kid went off to college, and I just I wanted to sort of do something different creatively. And I was part of this writers group because as we’re talking about, I am deadline oriented and I found that I wasn’t writing anything when I was left to my own devices. And so I found what was really helpful for me, was sitting around a table with other writers who were working on novels and essays and various kinds of writing. And I had to show up every week at this table. And it gave me a deadline of sorts that I wanted to show up with something. And so I started writing these essays not knowing what they were or where they were going to belong or just even I thought maybe it was a pilot, maybe it was a movie I just really didn’t know I wasn’t writing it for for anything except myself, except to have a different sort of creative experience. But I did do it in a group and that really helped me with that sort of accountability piece that I need to to keep myself moving forward. And then it just sort of piled up and and you know became this book but I didn’t really know when I started what it was.
Jess Lahey 12:12
Well and it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for you if this had turned into a script because the New Adventures of Old Christine that you also wrote was based on your life, correct?
Kari Lizer 12:23
Loosely, yeah. Sort of my fantasy of what my life might have been if I was better at my life, if I were Julia Louis-Dreyfus then yeah my life would look like that, but not quite. But yeah, loosely based on my divorce and those years after my divorce.
Jess Lahey 12:42
Our listeners love to hear sort of the the nuts and bolts, like the nitty gritty stuff about the writing, and how the words get on the page. And so you’ve got this group that’s helping you get deadlines done. You’re getting some essays out there. What’s the point for you where you realize that this is a book and not a movie or a pilot?
Kari Lizer 13:01
Well, it was sort of at the encouragement of this group of people that I was with. Which I can’t express enough how helpful that was to have feedback from a supportive group of people. For me, it was really valuable. Because I didn’t know and I felt a little lost in it and I was insecure about it. It was just not a genre that I was used to writing and I didn’t know, it felt embarrassing to me to write such personal stuff. It felt like I was writing my diary a little bit and it felt a little bit like who really cares about this stuff, and is it interesting, is it braggy, what is it exactly? And it was great to have that encouragement of other people saying, just keep writing, don’t think about what people think about it, just keep moving forward, and don’t stop down to think about the reaction to it. And that was really helpful to me and worry about what it is after the fact. And so when I looked at it, and then I was able to sort of put it together and it’s like, oh, there is sort of a narrative here, there is sort of a theme. And I’m a huge fan of David Sedaris, for instance and I read a lot of essays, and I read a lot of comic essays in particular. And so I thought, Oh, well, that’s sort of what this is seeming like and I got some outside people to say, ‘Well, here’s where there are holes in this narrative, and here’s where you need to fill it in.’ And I really took some advice from people who had some sort of objective eyes on it. And then I started sort of shaping it into a book as opposed to just a pile of what felt like diary entries. You know, I needed to sort of turn it into something that was more than just musings and try to tell a story with it.
Jess Lahey 15:05
Alright, so this is a publishing industry, nitty gritty question. So our co-host, KJ Dell’Antonia, she and I have the same agent and our agent represents nonfiction she just doesn’t really do fiction. So in order to sell KJ’s novel she had to pair up with another agent in the same agency that does fiction. So my question to you is, if you have an agent who you know has been representing you for your work in Hollywood, do you need to go to a new person in order to sell a book or can you use your same agent in order to sell to a traditional publisher?
Kari Lizer 15:40
Well, fortunately I had just gone to a new television agent in Los Angeles, but it was a giant conglomerate agency that has a lot of different arms. So I went to them and I sort of brought this pile of essays to them, and it was this conference room of suited men, you know. And basically, I felt like I was bringing them my uterus on a platter. And I was like, here I have this and I’m sure they were expecting me to bring them a television show because that’s where I make the money. And that’s where they make money. And I said, ‘I have this and this is sort of what I’m really on fire about right now. Is there anything you can do with this?’ And to their credit, they read it, they loved it. They said, ‘Well, this isn’t what we do. But our agency in New York, let’s give it to the lead agency in New York, if they’re interested, and they want to take it on great, and we’ll give it our best shot. And so that worked out and the people in New York took it and gave me some advice about it. And when it went out the first time they sent it around and it didn’t get picked up by anybody. And so then I took it back, and I worked on it some more, and I filled in what I thought were the sort of holes in it, and I realized it wasn’t quite finished. And I kept writing and then I went out again with it same agents to their credit, they didn’t give up on it. And then the next time around it found its home. So it was really a process.
Jess Lahey 17:10
That’s really tough, to send something out that’s been out and then you’re gonna work on it for a little bit and send it out again, that’s kudos to your agents because that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do and something that most agents are actually pretty reluctant to do.
Kari Lizer 17:24
Yeah, I’m very grateful to them and for their sort of sustained belief in it because it was really a process and it was a business that I didn’t know anything about. So I was completely in their hands and I had to trust them and just believe that it was gonna work out the way it was supposed to. So I think I was very lucky. And also in good hands with them that they kept the faith, honestly.
Jess Lahey 17:57
So you haven’t always identified as a writer, you identified for a long time as an actor and I have to ask about the line in your book about the psychic Teresa who felt the vibrations in your keychain. You say you became a writer because of Teresa feeling the vibration in your keychain. And I have to know more, like where is that story?
Kari Lizer 18:24
Well I’ll probably write that one someday I just was an actor from when I was a kid. I started when I was 11 going on commercial auditions, I lived pretty close to Los Angeles and my mother would drive me in and I started doing commercials and that was sort of it for me. I didn’t go to college because I already knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and I just went directly into Hollywood. And I worked pretty consistently, I did television shows and pilots and I thought well this is worked out great and I made a living as an actress until I was about 30 years old and then it stopped. I mean, it came to a grinding halt in a way that was terrifying and then nothing, I mean just nothing and I slowly sold the house that I bought, the car, I mean just everything dried up, and I had nothing to fall back on. You know, as your parents tell you to have something to fall back on I had nothing, I had no skills. I couldn’t even wait tables. I mean, when I lived in New York for two years, I got fired from every waitress job I ever had. I mean, I don’t know how to do anything, honestly. And it was really scary. And I went to a psychic that somebody recommended and she said she had to hold on to my keychain. And she said that if I continued to be an actor, I would be moderately successful. But if I was a writer, I would be successful beyond my wildest dreams. I was so upset. First of all, it seemed like so much work, you know, it’s just like, no, I don’t want to be a writer that sounds horrible. But I thought, oh, okay, so you know, I didn’t have any other choices. I mean, there was no other options. I was really in bad shape. I was dead broke. So I wrote, I was earning money at the time. My only skill was I could type, my only good subject in school was typing.
Jess Lahey 20:25
That’s such a good starting place for the whole writing thing.
Kari Lizer 20:30
It is I mean, it’s a great skill. And in fact, I was earning my rent at the time typing (because we were typing at the time) scripts for a friend of mine who was a writer. I was getting 50 cents a page to type his scripts up. And so I went home and I wrote a like a spec pilot and then I wrote a play, I just had to write a play. And I gave it to this friend of mine, who I was typing his scripts for, he liked it so much that he said, You know what, I’m going to put this up in a theater, I’m going to produce it and put it up in a theater. And we’ll invite all the friends from showbiz that I know and all the ones that you know, and we’ll see if we can get you a job I said, but I’m going to star it because what I really want is an acting job. And so I starred it, and he put it in theater, and I got offers to write, an agent came and said, ‘I would like to represent you as a writer.’ I didn’t get a single acting offer, which is all I wanted, and it was devastating, but it started my writing career. Because of this person who believed in me, which is often how it starts, you know, somebody helps you out. And it was just crazy. You know, I had no business doing any of it. I didn’t know if I could write I’d never tried to, but it was just pure desperation and then ultimately, just sort of dumb luck. And it just turned out. I think I’d absorbed enough. You know, I had read enough scripts, I acted in enough things, I think I had sort of absorbed structure and those kind of things by osmosis maybe a little bit. I don’t know, who knew it could have turned out very differently, but I was very lucky.
Sarina Bowen 22:14
Well, that’s how most novelists start, right? Like they’ve read a whole lot of novels. And they’ve sort of absorbed it. But I have two questions for you. The first one is if you could just slip me that psychic’s contact information.
Kari Lizer 22:31
Yeah, I don’t know what happened to her.
Sarina Bowen 22:35
The second one is, so it’s well documented in Aren’t You Forgetting Someone that your grown children are never going to ask your opinion about anything important, but if they did, if one of your three ungrateful humans came today and said, ‘Okay, Mom, I want to be a writer. Should I write a book or should I write for TV?’ How would you handle that question? Because a lot of our listeners are thinking about all the different ways they are accomplishing the writing dream and what’s your thought about that?
Kari Lizer 23:13
Well, I don’t think I would say one or the other. I think that writing is writing. And I think I don’t think I found a big difference between writing this book and writing for television. I think the main thing that I brought to this book that I try to bring to television writing is telling my true stories, and I think that’s when I have found success in both genres. So just trying to be authentic. So I would say, wherever that story seems to find its place. And honestly, I mean, I’ve had things that have started out as plays and it’s like, oh, this isn’t sort of finding its way as a play and it turns into a short story or it turns into something else. And I think sometimes not to know what it wants to be is okay, too. I mean, that’s certainly my process a lot of times, that not sort of being too sure about what your endgame is, but sort of working your way through the process, and figuring out sort of what story it is you want to tell, and figuring out sort of what form it takes, and where you’re going to end up later, like that’s a question for later. But figure out what story you want to tell first I mean, for me that that works better. If I get all caught up in Oh, what network is it going to be on? Because I know a lot of people that do that in television, who would star in this or what network would it be on? If I start putting the cart before the horse I get completely blocked, then I can’t think about the story or then things don’t come to life for me anymore. I’m just not thinking about the right things anymore. I think I have to let the story the story speak first and then figure out those other details after the fact.
Sarina Bowen 25:27
Jess Lahey 25:28
When I first started writing for a bigger audience, I remember my father read something that (you know, I started my writing, especially when I was a teacher on just this blog) and my father read something that was for suddenly for a bigger audience and he called me and he said, ‘You know how much I love you. (and that’s when you know something big is coming) I don’t know who you’re writing for all of a sudden, but it is not you.’ And it was the best feedback I could have gotten because I suddenly had all these ideal readers clattering around in my head and like, how many comments am I gonna get. And it was one of the best bits of feedback I’ve ever gotten. Which is basically, just stop thinking about all those other people and continue to do for you. Which I have to say, before we get into the next thing I want to talk about really, really quickly one of the cool things about you and your writing – and I have to say also about Sarina because all three of us are very much people who like a lot of time by ourselves and a lot of quiet time and don’t necessarily need to interact with other people all the time – and yet you and Sarina, your real gifts, at least in my opinion with Sarina, I don’t want to speak for her obviously have to do with dialogue. And dialogue about connection. I mean, especially with Will and Grace, that entire show really was about the connection between these people and the action that happens and all of these inciting incidents and all that stuff, that’s interesting. But what’s really interesting about that show, it was the connection between the people and for Sarina, I mean, she writes romance, that’s what this comes down to in the end. So I find it very interesting that two people who are perfectly happy spending a lot of time talking only to their animals or to inanimate objects in the room are so good at that interpersonal connection. I thought about the two of you a lot when I was reading this book.
Sarina Bowen 27:30
Well, we don’t dislike interpersonal connection. We just like it in small doses.
Kari Lizer 27:37
Jess Lahey 27:40
Before we to start talking about what we’ve been reading, we need to take a quick break, and we will be right back.
KJ Dell’Antonia 27:52
Before Jess, Sarina, and Kari tell you what they’ve been reading, let me ask you, what have you been writing? How’s it coming along? We’d always love to hear about it in the #AmWriting Facebook group. But if you’re stalled on your memoir, losing direction on your nonfiction project, or keep writing the beginning of your novel over and over again, maybe you should consider working with a book coach, you could get help with an outline, a draft, or the entire drafting process. And it could be just what you need to finally write the words the end, and actually mean them. Find out more at authoraccelerator.com.
Jess Lahey 28:37
Alright, we can start talking about what we’ve been reading. Kari, do you have a book that you would like to talk about that you’ve been reading recently?
Kari Lizer 28:45
Well, I just finished and it’s not brand new, but I just finished Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout and I love those Olive Kitteridge books so much. I mean, I think I relate to that woman. I’m speaking of loners and cranky ladies. But yeah, so I just finished Olive Again and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Jess Lahey 29:08
I talk about her a lot as a person that I couldn’t believe I was continuing to read because I hated her so much. In fact, we reread Olive Kittredge before we read Olive Again because I just love those books so much. Sarina, what have you been reading?
Sarina Bowen 29:28
Well, most recently I’ve been reading Aren’t You Forgetting Someone by Kari Lizer. But the night before I read a book by a romance author named Mia Sosa with the best title ever, ever, ever. And the title of this book is The Worst Best Man. And of course, there’s a wedding cake on the cover with the bride pushing the best man off of the top of it and it’s just the cutest thing ever.
Jess Lahey 30:02
Yeah, I’ve needed cute lately. I’m still reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist and I find that I need to read that in short bits because it’s really hard because I have to think about myself and what I can do to be better. And so on the polar opposite side I’ve been reading a bunch of sort of rom-com type of stuff and we texted quite a bit about (KJ and I especially) because we were reading at the same time about Emily Henry’s Beach Read. Kari, I haven’t read any other books like this, but it was really cute. It was a rom-com with two writers the romantic interest is by two writers and in two very different genres who sort of have this animosity/rivalry kind of thing and it was just adorable. And those books I’ve been doing as audio while I’m out tending my garden so I find myself laughing a lot in my garden which is good fun.
Kari Lizer 31:16
Oh, that’s a good idea. Yes.
Jess Lahey 31:19
By the way, before we say goodbye I actually wanted to tell you that when you’re reading Kari’s wonderful book, Aren’t You Forgetting Someone and you get to the part where it says that Martha Stewart taught her about blowjobs you need to understand that you’ve misread the word Maria as Martha.
Kari Lizer 31:42
Wait, did I say that?
Jess Lahey 31:46
I read it twice and I’m like, that can’t be true.
Oh I wish it was true. That would be a good story.
That’s the other fun thing about this book is there’s so many juicy, there’s obviously your psychic story, your John Edwards story and just a lot of really fun juicy stories in here and also as an animal hoarder, I really identify with your animal stuff. Thank you so much for giving us something to read that has been just been a way to retreat a little bit from the hard stuff because I think we need a balance of those things right now even when it’s really important for us to face the hard stuff. It’s also really important for us to have an escape to a place of laughter and comfort. And so I just I’m really grateful to you for that.
Kari Lizer 32:52
Thank you. I am glad that it felt like that and and hope that hard stuff gets a little less hard shortly is my my wish.
Jess Lahey 33:16
Alright. Well thank you everyone for joining us this week. And until next week, keep your butt in the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.