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Interview: Julie Klam

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Many would consider Julie Klam lucky: when she was a girl, her mother would pull her out of school to spend the day at Bloomingdale’s. However, Klam’s childhood of glamour and shopping trips did little to prepare her for the mundane challenges of the real world. Her new book, Please Excuse My Daughter (Riverhead), chronicles her journey through marriage, motherhood and employment, recording her failures and successes with self-effacing grace. Klam talks with Marian Brown about writing, dating, celebrity encounters and, of course, her family.

MB: Your book begins when you are thirty-years-old, contemplating a move to your grandfather’s gated retirement community in Southern Florida. Does that escapist fantasy still hold any appeal now that you’ve become a wife, mother and successful writer?

JK: I’m successful? I can’t wait to call my mother! No, I was back in South Florida for my book tour and like most Shangri-Las, it didn’t hold up to memory. It’s so humid there it makes Manhattan feel like Phoenix. You can’t exist in that place if you don’t have an Aquanet helmet-head, so I was like a sweaty flounder the whole time. Not to mention the greatest appeal of that place was my grandfather, without him there it’s just a bunch of pool rules.

Your brother, Matthew Klam, a fellow writer (Sam the Cat), who figures largely in your life story, was much more of a self-starter than you were. In fact, he often encouraged you to be more proactive in terms of your freelance writing career. How did two children from the same family turn out so differently? Were you sent different messages from your parents, and your mother in particular, because of your gender?

We all ask ourselves how Matthew ended up in our family for various reasons. I think when we were younger, he was clearly more ambitious than I was but now I’d say we’re about even. Basically, I think you emulate or identify with your same-gender parent and my Dad went to work and my Mom didn’t. I was so angry with Matt during the times I wasn’t doing anything, maybe because he knew I had something else in me and I didn’t want to see it. I adore him, though, we’re really close. I am with both of my brothers. We’re all very proud of each other.

Your first job was an internship with David Letterman, who, by your account, is a pretty great guy. Did that spoil you for future jobs?

It totally ruined me for future employment. The zenith of humanity to me is a funny person and Dave is in that otherworldly hilarious category. He also happened to be extremely kind and generous and a dog lover. I was at The David Letterman Show during a golden time – when Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno were just doing stand-up. It was an exceptional period in my life, too. Kind of pre-failure.

Speaking of celebrities, your description of your job interview with Barbra Streisand was pretty wild. Has anything in your recent life matched that level of surrealism?

Any encounters with celebrities fall in that category. My idea of celebrity has shifted, though. Recently I was going to a party at my agent’s apartment and I rode up in the elevator with a guy who turned to me and put out his hand and said ‘Bill Goldman’ and I said ‘Julie Klam’. It was like ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ and ‘Lou the Butcher’. Every writer’s got their WRITER. William Goldman is it for me. I am a huge movie fan and from high school on I was devouring his fiction, non-fiction and unparalleled screenplays. But when I met him all I could think was ‘I’m your number one fan’, like Kathy Bates in Misery (for which he wrote the screenplay). And so I stood there mute and staring at the buttons and put the experience into the box labeled ‘Missed Opportunities’. (It’s right next to the Cobb salad I should’ve ordered for lunch in 1997.)

You were raised by an extremely colourful, loving and glamorous mother. But in certain ways, she taught you some unrealistic lessons about the world. How did your mother’s ideas prepare for you for adult life and how did they hinder you? What messages are you passing on to your own daughter and what types of things might you choose to omit or alter?

I think my mother’s ability to laugh in all sorts of situations (like when a bat was flying around my bedroom and everyone else was flipping out) prepared me enormously for the difficulty of life. On the worst days we’ve had together my husband and I have managed to find laughs, so that’s been crucial. Obviously, my mother’s desire to protect me from discomfort made it harder for me to learn to handle the rough times. I just didn’t really get the message that women work and that’s something I’m hammering into my own daughter. Violet knows I work, even if I’m home when I’m doing it. She sees my magazine pieces and my books. Sometimes we go by a bookstore and she says, ‘Lets go visit your book, Mom’. Its fun, except when we keep visiting the same copy.

Your husband Paul sounds like an all-round great guy — talented, supportive, funny and grounded. However, during your slacker years, you met a gentleman who was recently released from prison. How did a nice, smart Jewish girl become romantically involved with a gangster?!

I should write a book called When Nice Girls Go Nuts. The answer to that is complicated, but Joe was like a character from a Martin Scorsese movie – the mafia stuff, the prison stories, the Italian Ma in Brooklyn, all the Fat Richies… I’d never met anyone like that. I didn’t plan to get involved with him, I just kept getting caught up in his stories. I took notes, too. I hoped to write about it one day.

Most memoirs published these days are by people whose lives are seriously screwed up by drugs, alcohol, poverty, abusive relationships, incest and worse. Your issues and experiences were more subtle. Are you finding a lot of readers who relate to your experiences? What has been the most gratifying aspect of publishing this book?

Oh yes. I get a lot of letters from women who say they feel like they could’ve written the book themselves. Women who are close to their mothers or daughters can’t help having a common bond. Even when the circumstances seem utterly different. I got a letter from a woman who had been raised in Tijuana, Mexico in a socially elite circle, forbidden to cook and clean with maids for her maids. She left there and went to LA to work in television and real life was a rude awakening to her. I know it’s not cancer, but whatever anyone struggles with is valid. So she was in a work slump when she read my book and then as she was reading the last chapter, she found out she was pregnant. She sent me the most amazing thank-you note for giving her hope and making her feel like she wasn’t alone. I still get verklempt when I read her letter.

You might just be one of the world’s funniest e-mailers. Clearly some of the emails that you include in the book (one in response to accepting a job at VH1’s Pop Up Video, and one before your first date with your husband and then boss) are partly hilarious and partly a defence mechanism. Do you still send such emails?

Oh, thank you! Well, I still wear my panic in my e-mails. When my husband stands over my shoulder as I type shaking his head with that pained look on his face, that’s when I know I’m on the right track.

Last question. Did your mother love the book?

There is a Yiddish word, kvell, it’s like swelling and beaming with pride. Since my book came out my mother’s taken kvelling to a new level. Every time I see her, she’s another few centimetres off the ground. By the time the paperback comes out, she’ll be airborne.

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