What did you do for a living before becoming a writer?
I was a supermodel 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.
What made you want to be a fulltime writer?
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.
Why do you write memoirs that are this mix of hilarity and heartbreak, humor and pathos?
It’s truly how I make sense of the world. It’s the voice that springs forth. And I think we all try to limp yet laugh our way through this world. I love the insanity and fragility of life, the foibles and flaws of people, and think the strongest are those who can laugh, especially at themselves.
Long story, but I think why I write what I write is best told in story-form.
As I mentioned, I was born in the Ozarks, which is not the best place to grow up for a chubby little gay boy with a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer. But, largely thanks to my grandma, an early Walden/Thoreau devotee who I write about in my current memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, and who always dreamed I’d follow my destiny to be a writer, 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 where I lived.
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 best 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. 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 Today Show as a Summer Must-Read, after reading my first-ever review in USA Today, after seeing her son – time and time again – compared to his idol, and hers, Erma Bombeck.
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.
Tell us about your third memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life (June/Harmony Books-Random House)
It’s a memoir (shocker!) that chronicles the misadventures of my partner, Gary, and I, a highly neurotic urban gay couple who uprooted our lives, quit our jobs and left the city, cable, culture and consumerism behind in order to move to the woods of Michigan in order to recreate a modern-day Walden (to hilarious, disastrous but life-changing results). My move was prompted by the memories of my late grandmother, whose two favorite books were the Bible and Walden. I grew up going to my grandparents’ old log cabin on the water, and my grandma read to me, always telling me that the Bible was for her after-life but that Walden was for her “here-life.” Those words remained with me forever, and challenged me — when I hit 40 with a resounding “THUD!” and was in a job I despised (which I chronicle in my second memoir, “Confessions of A Prep School Mommy Handler”) — to make a better life, no matter the risk. So, we uprooted our lives and moved to a knotty-pine cabin in the woods near Lake Michigan, where we gave up People and Starbucks and malls, and committed ourselves, like Thoreau had done some 160 years earlier, “to survive…living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions.” The result, considering the fact I consider Kenneth Cole, Kathy Griffin and Saved by the Bell to be on par with Gandhi for their contributions to the world, and Kashi to be a fundamental food staple, was not pretty. And to say that this transition to a more rural world tested me deeply would be a massive understatement.
The memoir was a Spotlight pick by B&N, whose signature review summed up the memoir perfectly:
Wade Rouse is an unlikely modern-day Thoreau. Sure, he’s quit his high-powered job in St. Louis and struck out for the territory on the sparsely populated shores of Lake Michigan, with nothing more than his partner, their dog, a healthy dose of hope, and Walden in hand as a guidebook. But the self-professed neurotic urbanite’s attempts to renounce big-city addictions — Kenneth Cole shoes, Starbucks triple-shot-no-fat-no-whip white mochas, among others — are not always successful. Take the first chapter of this chronicle on adjusting to life in the woods, in which he fends off a wily raccoon’s assault on his trash can, and then his head, with the only two things he never leaves home without: lip shimmer and breath spray. Turns out the latter serves double duty as pepper spray, thwarting the beast long enough to release its toothy grip on Rouse. From there, Rouse ticks off the ten lessons he’s determined to glean from his new life, such as “eschewing the latest entertainment and fashion for simpler pursuits” and “participating in country customs,” both of which he tries desperately to embrace (the ice fishing scene is truly laugh-out-loud funny) and decidedly fails to achieve. His attempts to rediscover religion and redefine the meaning of life and love, however, produce poignant epiphanies. The true success in the book is how Rouse manages to toe the line (feet encased in stylish slides) between hilarity and philosophy, proving that enlightenment can be found in as unlikely a place as a karaoke contest, where he’s reminded of his mother’s teaching, “It’s not where you choose to live; it’s how you choose to live.”
How did the concept and title for this book come about?
I actually set out to write a very earnest memoir, ala Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Perry, about living in the country, like Thoreau, living off the land and without culture, but then things began to happen like that raccoon attack. I missed cable. I missed restaurants. I missed “me.” I realized I needed “Saved by the Bell” and Paula Deen and shopping trips to malls. I learned that didn’t make me a bad person, just a real one. And I realized that it’s OK to fail, to understand your flaws, that it’s not about reinventing yourself, it’s more about – flaws and all – becoming the person you always dreamed you could be. And I’ve accomplished that; I’ve slowed down, reconnected to my partner, enjoy nature and the beauty that surrounds us. I followed my passion. So, the book unfolds around my humorous adjustment to rural life and these 10 Life Lessons I set out to accomplish in order to have a “simpler life” at Wade’s Walden. In many ways, it’s sort of a Sex and the City Goes Country, if you will.
And the title is actually a line Gary uttered to me the very first night we moved to rural Michigan. We were awoken by something scampering around our woods, and then in our yard. We went to the window to watch, and Gary became convinced it was, at first, a “Melon Head,” these mythical creatures we’d read about in a gag book before we moved that supposedly have giant noggins from being tortured in a mental facility that closed down. They were then released into the woods, angry, to feed on “normal-sized headed” people. After I calmed Gary down, he then became convinced that there were “country killers” in our woods, killers who stood in our woods and sharpened sticks into death-knives. I tried to tell Gary that we used to live in the city, in a neighborhood that once had a murder and car-jacking, and that the odds of us being hurt there were statistically much higher than being harmed here, since no one was around. And he just looked at me and said, very seriously, “At least in the city, someone would hear me scream!” And, you know what? He was right. My editor read that line, immediately e-mailed and said, “We have the title.” It works perfectly, I think, especially with the great cover art.
How did you develop the idea for your second memoir, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler?
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.
What inspired your first memoir, America’s Boy?
My childhood was surreal. I mean, as I said, 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.
What are you working on now?
My next book, a holiday memoir tentatively titled, Why Is Santa Taking Daddy’s Lipitor?: And Other Heartwarming Holiday Tales (a title which will most likely change … maybe to How Come the Only Thing My Family Tree Ever Grows Is Nuts?) will be out in February 2011. It’s about my and my partner’s loving but highly dysfunctional family holidays (Christmas, Easter, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day), and America’s fascination with holidays. Nothing sums up the love, dysfunction and evolution of family more than the holidays. The book also explores the eccentricities of American holidays, the unorthodox manners in which my family celebrates the holidays, and the fact that it is those eccentricities which unite all families and yet make each family’s holidays wholly unique. I am also working on a memoir about my mom and Erma Bombeck, paralleling their lives, their impact on me, and how humor buoyed us all through the tragedies in life.
What inspires you as a writer?
Everyday life. People. I think there is nothing more fascinating than what each of us go through each and everyday just to make it through this thing called life. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and maddening and hilarious. I mean, you can’t make this crap up. And I think it’s how I stay sane, and try to understand the world, and help others make sense of their lives and this world, too. You can only find your voice by writing what inspires you. If you try to write a version of Twlight or the Da Vinci Code just because you think it’s hot and will sell, you’re doomed.
What do you want to accomplish through your writing?
I want to make readers laugh and think. I want them to spit out their water one minute, cry the next, and then think, “Hmmm.” My goal with every memoir is to write about the universal themes that unite us all – work, family, culture, relationships, self-esteem, self-acceptance, unconditional love, discrimination, sex – but to do it from my unique experiences and viewpoint. Every memoir I write deals with these issues, and I try to write as honestly about my experiences as I can. I try not to hide behind a shield of cynicism, or view life from a distance, like many memoirists. I feel deeply. I laugh a lot. At others. But especially at myself. I want my writing to be heart wrenching and humorous, poignant yet funny. I think that’s what sets me apart … that laughter through the tears thing, which is what we all do, in order to survive.
Describe a typical day in your life?
I treat writing as if it were the job I always wanted and finally got. I get up every morning at 6:30 a.m. and write for six hours. I typically am working on two “big ideas,” two memoirs, at the same time. Within that context, I write each day about what hits me, what inspires me. I do not write chronologically. I am what I term in the writing seminars I teach a “puzzle piecer,” meaning I know that I can go back once I have a core amount of material and make it flow narratively. If I felt I had to go page by page, 1 to 2, 10 to 11, every day, I’d be creatively paralyzed. I never have writers’ block. I break for lunch and to work out and then return to do the business of the day, such as media, interviews, web site, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, outreach, fan and reader e-mails, and I typically end each day going over what I wrote earlier, taking that time to tweak, to edit, to refine.
In today’s publishing world, every author must be his or her biggest advocate, cheerleader, PR person, spokesman, marketing machine and viral outreach-er. You must wear your writing cap and your business cap. And you must never forget that. Write what inspires you, what drives you, what aches to come out, and then promote with that same spirit. I tell every aspiring writer that I was picked from the slush pile, that I had no connections in publishing, and that if you have heart, talent, drive, determination, a stomach for rejection and a belief that if are not writing, well, then you might as well just curl up and die, then you can make it in the literary world.
Do you live on Lake Michigan?
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. My partner and I 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. 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 only skills I have.
What are your hobbies?
Running (best marathon time was 3:28:38), working out, hitting the beach, hiking, going to movies and the theatre, cooking and grilling, reading, spending time with Gary and our friends and family, and trying to get my teeth as white as possible without looking like the Cheshire Cat.
Who are your heroes?
Personally, my mother, who just passed away in June of cancer. She taught me the meaning of unconditional love, and – as a lifelong nurse and hospice nurse – that life is precious and that you must follow your passion. Professionally, my writing hero has long been Erma Bombeck, She was able to write about everyday life – from laundry to dinner, from her family to her neighbors – with incredible humor and poignancy. She was, I often think, one of her first true memoirists, before that genre became en vogue.
Don’t ever use Sun-In? Honestly, that life is short and that you must follow your passion. Life must have some calculated risk in it, that you sometimes have to get lost in your own woods before you can really get a clear sense of where you’re going in life. I have learned that there is never a wrong time to do something meaningful and courageous in life, like Gary and I did … something that makes you deeply and achingly happy. There is only a right time: a moment to hold your breath, close your eyes, and jump. I hope everyone will take a jump once in their lives, without parachutes. I guarantee: It will be OK.