Recently, I was delighted to be granted an interview by humor writer, Wade Rouse, who has been selected to be on the faculty of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop at the University of Dayton on April 15-17, 2010.
Wade is the critically acclaimed author of three memoirs, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, and America’s Boy. He is a journalist and essayist whose articles have appeared in numerous regional and national publications. He contributed to the humorous essay collection about working in the retail industry, The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles. This book was featured prominently on NPR and in The Wall Street Journal and includes pieces from other noted authors.
The Washington Post describes Wade as “An original writer and impressive new voice.”
Wade is a graduate of Drury University and has a master’s from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
I am looking forward to attending his class at the University of Dayton, where I hope to learn more about finding my writer's inner voice.
He lives near the coast of Lake Michigan with his partner, Gary, and their beloved mutts: "Marge, a 12-year-old Husky-Ridgeback-Scooby-Doo’ish sort of dame; and Mable, a 2-year-old Labradoodle-beagle inbred who looks like an insane bat."
Following is my interview with Wade:
Rosie: What did you do for a living before becoming a writer?
Wade: I was a super model and scientist. Just kidding! I can’t even put a TV tray together, and the closest I came to modeling was being a Winnie-the-Pooh children’s clothing model at Sears. I worked as a writer and reporter after receiving my master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School Of Journalism, freelancing for various Chicago publications (like the Chicago Reader), before working as a business reporter. It was then I sold out, as we said in J-school, and went to the “dark side,” where I went into educational PR, working for nearly the next two decades as public relations director for some of the nation’s most prestigious private colleges, universities and prep schools.
Rosie: What made you change career paths?
Wade: Ummm, the above. I always wanted to be a writer, specifically a memoirist just like Erma Bombeck, who was and still is my idol. I journaled as a kid, about my life in rural America, but I felt I shouldn’t or couldn’t write, due to fear (fear that I would fail, not make enough money), so I went into a field that I thought would make me happy. And it didn’t. In fact, it was my final job – as PR director at an elite prep school, a job I chronicle in my second memoir Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, where I realize my real duties were to cater to a wealthy Lilly Pulitzer-clad clique of “Mean Mommies” and keep them out of the school’s hair – that made me start writing again. It was the only thing – just like as a kid – that helped me make sense of the world. And I realized when I was writing that I was truly, achingly happy.
Rosie: What part of your book, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, did you enjoy writing most?
Wade: It meant a lot for me to revisit the memories of my grandmother, who was an early Walden and Thoreau devotee (which serve as the inspiration of the memoir). I spent my childhood summers at a log cabin in the Ozarks that my grandma and grandpa had built on a beautiful bluff overlooking Sugar Creek. On many Summer Sundays, I would join my grandma on a barn-red glider that sat beside the cabin on the bluff, and she would read to me from her two favorite books: The Bible and Walden. My grandma, one of God’s true foot soldiers, used to tell me in our Creek Coffee Chats that she felt that the Bible was more for her after-life but that Walden was for her here-life. Now, in the Ozarks, that was a courageous thing to say out loud … considering, as she used to tell me, such an admission would earn her the cuckoo whistle at the IGA. Now, my grandma was a very wise woman, but, as a woman born in the early 1900s, she was never in a position to follow her dream of being a fashion designer. Rather, she was worked as a seamstress out of her church’s basement. Which is why my grandma, I believe, always told me – both as a child and as an adult – “to pursue my passion and to not” – as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “fall into a particular route,” meaning once we became adults and got our tires firmly entrenched in the mud, they usually refused to ever go off track. It took me a while, but I learned she was 100 percent right. We need to be driven by passion in this world, by a love of what we’re doing.
That said, I also loved writing about my urban take on rural America, and my transition to a simpler life without cable and consumerism and Starbucks, and, well, all the things I need to survive.
Rosie: How did you develop the idea for your book, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler?
Wade: Worst job ever!
I mean it was hard not to write about my job at the prep school. In fact, I started writing the memoir as all these insane things were being done to me by all these crazy, wealthy matrons (being asked to dress as Cupid for Valentines, or Ronald Reagan on Halloween, crashing a Botox party where I’m pushed into a chair for a “little-pick-me-up”). Again, it was the only way I could take a step back and get some perspective. That’s when I thought, “What am I doing with my life? Am I happy? What would I do if I could not fail? What would my grandma think?”
I also wanted to write a deeper book about the pressures that kids face in today’s society, especially on privileged children to succeed. There is so much pressure on these kids to be perfect; their parents start planning for the right college when the kids are three, starting with the perfect pre-school, that will lead to the perfect prep school. I witnessed firsthand that kids don’t have time to be kids any more, they don’t have a chance to fail. And that’s such a shame. That’s what being a kid should be all about. I went to a rural high school, and when I first started working at the prep school, I thought these kids had it all, that I had been cheated: And then I realized I’d had control of my future, that my parents let me experiment with my life, do what I wanted. I wasn’t forced into being a doctor, or lawyer, or engineer; I saw lots of unhappy kids. And I saw even more unhappy adults. It’s the juxtaposition of the humor and horror that I always like to write about in my memoirs, the laughter through the tears, and, in this instance, finding myself in one of the oddest places possible.
Rosie: What were some of the funniest moments that you spent with your grandmother that inspired your book, America's Boy?
Wade: My childhood was surreal. I mean, I grew up a little gay boy in rural America (the Ozarks) who had a fondness for ascots and dreamed of being a writer: Hello! I always said me growing up there must be akin to working as an overweight Vegas showgirl: There’s really nowhere to hide. But, thankfully, I had an unconventional family who loved me unconditionally. I grew up with all of my grandparents within spitting distance of me. And I spent weekends and summers with my grandparents at a log cabin. We had no TV, or indoor shower, a radio that was as big as a Buick, so we only had games, the creek, and each other. Their stories were our entertainment. But that’s how and when I got to know my grandparents as people – real people – and not just as grandparents. And, looking back – despite how difficult it was for me at times – I realized how blessed I was, how loved I was.
My entire family was and is funny; wickedly funny. You have to be funny in our family to survive. The funniest person I ever knew was my late great aunt Blanche, this sort of bigger-than-life Bret Somers/stand-up comic personality who ran from the Ozarks to California and would return dripping in gold lame and jewelry and make-up, and she used to emcee mock Miss America pageants for our family, dressing people up in seashells bikinis, and pineapple tiaras. The two of us used to try and make each other laugh in this cave that sat beside our log cabin, telling jokes (many dirty, even though I was young), and she used to tell me, “You’re special. Don’t ever forget that. The world here is black and white, and you see everything in vibrant colors.” She made me see the world beyond my world.
America’s Boy is still my baby, my firstborn, and I still cherish it deeply.
Rosie: What is the topic of the screenplay that you are writing?
Wade: I’m adapting At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream into a sitcom, and am completing the TV pilot now. And I’m working on a screenplay that I just love (I’m not really talking about it right now, because I’m insane, and don’t want to jinx it. Sometimes, when I babble about something I’m in the midst of writing, I think I might jinx it. Yes, I’m really an eight-year-old girl.)
Rosie: Do you plan to release your next memoir, about your family holidays, during this coming holiday season?
Wade: We just finalized the pub date for the next memoir: February 2011. Though the memoir is organized around the holidays, we (my publisher, Harmony/Random House, and I) all feel that the book is bigger than that: It’s really a memoir about family, family dysfunction, mothers and fathers, love and loss, and American obsession with the holidays. So, we’ll tie it into Valentine’s and the “over-it” holiday feeling people have, and, since the book starts with the New Year, we think it will resonate all year long.
Title-wise, we’re still brainstorming, but want to keep it funny and phrase-y like At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream. I like I’m Sorry, But You Can’t Exchange Your Family without A Gift Receipt; my editor likes The Gift That Keeps on Giving: A Memoir of Family Dysfunction, but I’ll let you know once it (and the cover) are finalized.
Rosie: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you at the Wisconsin Book Festival?
Wade: Probably the fact that Gary was able to find a kimono for Halloween. Madison had this amazing resale shop – huge! –that had everything, including about 200 kimonos. Gary was going as a geisha for Halloween, so he was in heaven to stumble into the store.
I really liked the energy of their Book Festival. It was a great environment for authors and readers, and I had a packed house, of all ages, and those who came were enthused not only about me and my work, but about writing, and living and learning. Madison seemed to embody all that is great about a college town: An enthusiasm for life and learning.
Oh, and we ate at this fabulous, old-school restaurant (The Old Fashioned) that served all things Wisconsin: We ate fried cheese curds, which were simultaneously fabulous and disgusting, and they served Old Fashions, which I hadn’t had since my grandpa made me one decades ago. It was to die! So, basically, I got drunk and ate fried cheese.
Rosie: How did you like the Fall Book & Author Luncheon that you addressed in November?
Wade: OMG! Loved it! Favorite event I’ve ever done! A thousand Southern women and me! It was like an episode of Designing Women.
The Post & Courier Book and Author Luncheon is the largest book event in the Southeast: Nearly 1,000 women (including 80 book clubs), all avid readers and book enthusiasts. I sat on a panel with four other women, including legends like Rita Mae Brown and Dorothea Benton Frank (a native daughter), Jill McCorkle (the best short story writer in America!) and bestselling mystery writer J.A. Jance. I spoke about the influence that my mom, my grandma and Erma Bombeck had on my life – to be able to laugh through tragedy and be true to yourself – and it really resonated. I ended up selling more books than any other author. Charleston is just gorgeous, too, and the event and its director (Robie Scott) treat authors like royalty. I hope they invite me back!
Rosie: What is the topic of your session at the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop in April 2010?
Wade: I will be talking about “The Three H's: Humor, Heartbreak and Honesty,” specifically, why those three are intimately intertwined, and how writers can and must overcome their fears about life and writing to unleash their true voice and funny wit. Only then can they be successful. I’ll also give writers tips on how to ground their humor in deep, meaningful storylines that makes their humor resonate and not simply serve as a punch-line. I’ll also talk about finding one’s real voice. As you know, voice is the only thing that separates authors, and fear is the only thing that prevents them from being honest. Can’t wait. I love to teach and inspire writers. And to talk about humor … I’m thrilled!
Rosie: Where you surprised to be asked to be on the faculty?
Wade: I actually feel like it was destiny. Craig Wilson, who is a longtime Bombeck faculty member, reviewed At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, in USA TODAY, and just loved it (he called the book and me a “wise, witty, wicked voice”), and we ended up becoming Facebook friends, and exchanging e-mails. I was telling him about the memoir I’m currently writing (Me, My Mom & Erma: How I Learned to Live with Passion and Laugh through Tragedy from Two Great Women), and he e-mailed me the contact info for the Bombeck Workshop and said I needed to write and tell them he had sent me. Matt Dewald responded immediately and invited me to participate. I’m thrilled. I truly feel like I’ve come full circle in life.
Rosie: Where you inspired by Erma Bombeck’s writing?
Wade: Completely. Totally. She is my idol. I used to hang pictures of her on my corkboard wall. I love to tell how this came to be via a personal story, so here she blows:
As a kid, and largely thanks to my grandma, I used to journal about everything going on around me in my tiny Ozarks town: Whether I was forced to go cowtippin’ with the country boys or watch my brother nail rabbit pelts to our giant oak tree, it seemed to be only the only way I could make sense of the world.
For a while when I was young, I called my mom, who was a nurse, “Digit,” because she became infamous in our little town for being the go-to gal whenever a local cut off a toe with a lawnmower, or whacked off a finger with a chainsaw.
My mother would answer our giant red, rotary phone, the kind presidents use in comedy skits when they are about to launch a nuclear bomb, and calmly say, “Do you have your big toe? Well, can you locate it? Good!”
And then she would rush out of the house, often barefoot, in a nightgown, with a little Igloo cooler filled with ice. She would retrieve the detached digit, and personally rush the injured idiot to the ER of the neighboring hospital where she worked.
While cleaning my room one morning, she, of course, stumbled upon these journal entries about her, and – one morning when I was inhaling a bowl of Quisp cereal for breakfast – simply shoved our little weekly newspaper in front of my nose and said:
“You need to read Erma!”
From that point on, I was devoted to Erma Bombeck’s column, “At Wit’s End,” in our small-town newspaper, and even clipped a few of my favorites to adorn my corkboard wall, need I say not something many boys in the Ozarks did.
Though I was very young, maybe 11 or 12 at the time, Erma connected deeply with me.
She was a humorist and human who made the mundane memorable.
She wrote about family and food, laundry and life.
She wrote about everyday stuff with which I could relate.
And for a chubby little boy in the middle of nowhere who had a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer, I found a role model in a middle-aged suburban mother who seemed to be dealing with just as many self-esteem issues as I was.
Actually, make that two middle-aged mothers.
From that day my mom led me to Erma, I wrote and journaled more earnestly about my life, yet I always tried to do it with a fairly outrageous sense of humor, just like Erma did. I found laughter softened the pain, made life seem so much more bearable, even through incredible tragedy.
And that would be a fortuitous lesson. The summer my older brother graduated from high school, he was killed. That was followed in subsequent years by the deaths of my mom’s father and sister, something I document in my first memoir, America’s Boy .
When my mother seemed no longer able to laugh, or joke, or to dream, I made it my sole goal to bring her back to life. I read to her from Erma Bombeck. I read to her from my journals. I held her hand as we floated in innertubes in the creek in front of my grandparents’ log cabin. We became more than mother-son, we became friends.
And, slowly, my mom began to laugh again … to come to life.
Flash forward to New Year’s Day 2005, where I vividly remember standing in front of my mailbox clutching a fistful of query letters to literary agents after I’d spent two years completing my first memoir, America’s Boy It was cold, and I was shivering, but not because of the temperature. I was nearly 40. As I mentioned, I hated my job. And my mom was tired, after having lost a son too early, of her only remaining child being unhappy, unfulfilled, not living his dream.
“Here’s to dreams coming true!” my mom had said.
She forced my hand into the mailbox, made me drop the letters, and then promptly slammed the slot on my fingers.
“Thanks, Digit!” I said to her. “I’m glad you’re here, so you can save my fingers.”
“This is meant to be,” she said, laughing.
Two weeks later, I had seven formal offers of representation from literary agents.
“People are going to read about you now, mom,” I told her soon after, since my first book was largely about her and my entire, insane but loving Ozarks family. “And some of it’s not pretty.”
“Good!” she roared. “Life isn’t pretty, sweetie. That’s why it’s called life. That’s why you better have a damn good sense of humor.”
My mother passed away of cancer this June, holding on long enough to see my current memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, featured on NBC’s The Today Show as a Summer Must-Read, and after reading my first-ever rave review in USA TODAY.
At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream is not only about trying to simplify my life in today’s consumer society – a lesson I honestly failed, considering I still equate Kenneth Cole to Gandhi for his contributions to the world – but it’s also about surviving raccoon attacks, lake-effect snow, and nosy neighbors with night-vision goggles. All of the insane stuff that just tends to happen to me – and to all of us – in life. But most of all, it’s a book about believing in myself, pursuing my passion, following my dreams, and asking myself – as I do in the book – What Would I Do If I Could Not Fail?
It’s a question we all, sadly, rarely ask ourselves.
“You didn’t fail!” my mom said proudly from her hospital bed. “You did it! And I’ll make sure tell Erma and your grandma you did it, although I think they already know!”
And, just as I was about to cry, a preacher with a ukulele walked into her room. My mom stared at him, and then at me, smiling, trying not to laugh.
Because it is moments like this that not only summed up our life but sum up all of our lives. It is why, really, I became a memoirist, a humorist, just like Erma Bombeck.
So, I simply turned to the preacher with the ukulele and said, “Do you know tiny bubbles?”
And, of course, he did.
My mom broke into hysterics, grabbed my hand, and said, “You keep the world laughing … even through the tears, deal?”
Though my mom, grandma, and Erma are all gone from my life much too soon, they remain with me: They continue to make me laugh, think, dream, and appreciate the fragility and foibles of people and life.
Because those are things that are most beautiful: The imperfections in each of us.
And that’s what I still try and remember every day, focus on in each and every memoir: I write about everyday life from a unique perspective – with a whopping dose of humor and cynicism – touching upon those themes that touch us all, be it unconditional love, loss, family, sex, relationships, jobs, self-esteem, neuroses, dreams. I believe that the very best books force us to hold a mirror up to our collective faces and take a good long hard look at what’s reflected back. And that image always looks so much better if we somehow manage to smile, even through all those damn tears.
Rosie: Will you ever write a serious novel?
Wade: I have to say that I feel like all of my memoirs – though hilarious and humorous at heart – are serious and take on highly personal and emotional issues. But, aaah, yes, that serious novel every writer wants to write.
Honestly? Tried it. Know it needs work. Lots of work. So, it’s sitting right now in a folder on my laptop titled, seriously, “This Sucks for Now.” I love the concept and know I will get back around to it, but I’m driven right now by writing memoirs, about life, about all those weird, wonderful things that unite us all, and can only happen in real life.
And, to be honest, I have two memoirs – after the one about my mom and Erma – that I have to write. They are calling me.
Rosie: How did you become an exercise addict?
Wade: I write in my first memoir, America’s Boy, about my older brother dying when he graduated high school and when I graduated junior high. It was just when I was beginning to understand who I was, really. I witnessed the incredible pain my parents experienced, and it was at that moment I decided I didn’t want to cause my parents another moment of pain or strife, I decided – out of pain and shame – to bury myself along with my brother, just to spare my family from any future trauma. And by doing that, I hid my pain by eating, by gaining weight, and, eventually peaked in the mid-200’s (though my family is very thin; my mom had a 19-inch waist when she married). It was only when I became honest with myself, about who I was, who I wanted to be, that I started to lose the weight. More importantly, I learned to exercise, to take of my body, to love myself. The mental and spiritual is intimately intertwined with the physical, one supports the other, and you have to get them all aligned. Then you will be happy, healthy.
Exercise is what keeps me balanced now. My life is centered around writing, the creative, the mental, and going out for a 10-mile run, or working out hard at the gym, brings everything back to center. I would be lost without exercise. When I get too in my head, exercise brings me back into the moment.
I love to run. I write a lot when I run; I start to get tired, and that’s when I’ve learned the ideas really start to flow. Usually, after a long run, I’ll have to get right back to my laptop to get all my ideas down. It’s just a great feeling.
Rosie: Do you live on Lake Michigan?
Wade: Yes, we live roughly a mile from Lake Michigan, which truly resembles the ocean in beauty and grandeur. It’s just gorgeous, and the beaches and dunesland are protected and undeveloped. It very much has the feel of Cape Cod. We literally live on the beach in the summer and fall.
Our home is a knotty pine cottage on almost four acres of woods, filled with sugar maples and pines. I write in At Least in the City about how we stumbled into this resort-y area of Michigan and this cottage quite by accident and just fell in love with it. It resonated with us so deeply, personally and creatively. And the cottage reminds me, in a way, of the log cabin my family used to have when I was a kid. It was a huge transition going from city boys to rural men, quitting our jobs and moving, and I learned that the simple life ain’t so simple. But I also learned that there’s never a wrong time to believe in your dream, take a deep breath and leap off a bridge without a parachute. I feel you have to get lost in the woods before you can really find yourself.
Rosie: I understand that you and Gary have two family pets, Marge and Mable. What breeds are they and what games or tricks have they mastered?
Wade: Yes, we have two beloved mutts, Marge (a 12-1/2-year-old, 85-pound, Husky-Ridgeback-Scooby-Doo’ish sort of dame) and Mable (a 2-year-old, 32-pound-but-supposed-to-weigh-about 26-pounds Labradoodle-beagle inbred who looks like an insane bat). Both are rescue dogs, and the loves of our lives.
Marge is the master of manipulation. She can open any door with her snout, including pocket doors. She also loves to unwrap gifts. If you have a birthday or Christmas, Marge better have a few presents of her own, or she’s coming after yours. I love to watch her gingerly unwrap the paper and then open the box with her mouth and paws. Mable really has no discernable skills, except unless you count eating and licking herself, which I do, since they are basically the same skills I have.
By the way, animal rescue (local humane shelters) are a big passion of ours. We have seen, living in the city and the country, the incredible cruelty with how many animals are treated, and we do our best to help animals and animal causes. In fact, I am currently in the midst of assembling and editing a collection of essays from well-known American humorists (writers, comics and actors) about their pets, specifically their dogs. The anthology is tentatively titled, I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship: Hilarious, Heartwarming Tails from Man's Best Friends and America's Favorite Humorists, and part of the book’s proceeds will benefit the national chapter of Humane Society (which is thrilled to be a part of this project, and is currently wooing some of their big-name celebrities to take part). I already have New York Times bestselling memoirists Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro signed on, along with the aforementioned and fabulous Craig Wilson, as well as New York Times bestselling novelist, and Cosmopolitan and The Today Show books editor John Searles. There are loads of more great people to announce soon.
At the end of the interview, Wade said “Thanks, Rose, for the wonderful interview. Here’s to laughter! “
Wade, I believe that there are three great women in heaven, including your grandma, who are extremely proud of you. Who wouldn't be proud of a writer who can label a concept “This Sucks for Now.”