Hollis Gillespie is a syndicated humor columnist for Atlanta magazine, NPR commentator, and guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Her writing has been described as "Riotous, raunchy and surprisingly touching," (Miami Herald), and she's at it again with her latest collection of essays: Trailer Trashed; My Dubious Attempts at Upward Mobility (Globe-Pequot, 2008).
Her two previous books, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch; Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (ReganBooks, 2003) and Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories (ReganBooks, 2005), have been optioned for television and are currently in pre-production. Hollis also hosts a popular memoir-writing seminar titled, "The Shocking Real-Life Memoir-Publishing Seminar."
We are thrilled that Hollis could answer our questions in the midst of her busy schedule.
The book itself looks like a piece of art—they did a lovely job putting it together with the interior artwork and embossed cover. So, I love the thought the publisher put into it. Regarding the content, it was my editor's idea that I focus more on my relationships with my sisters this time. I think my favorite chapter is the one called "The Crazy Sister," about my older sister who left her job as a Las Vegas cocktail waitress and moved to Nicaragua. She just hopped into her truck one day, pointed it south and kept driving until she reached Granada.
2.You've written two other memoirs. What kind of journey are you taking your readers on this time?
For one, I take the readers with me to Hollywood and reflect on what it's like to pitch and sell (and pitch and not sell) the film rights to your story and those of the collection of human barnacles that make up my friends. In the story "L.A. Lary," my friend's third personality emerges as he was talking on the phone to a movie star. Then he stole my rental car, ditched my other friend Daniel in San Diego on his way south to buy Tijuana pharmaceuticals, then ended up outside a Mexican vasectomy clinic holding hands with a transvestite.
3.Sounds like an exciting time! When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I'm not a writer because I want to be—I’m a writer because I'm cursed and can't help it.
4.Previously, you worked as a flight attendant. In what way did that experience provide good writing habits or material?
I'm terrified to fly, and it turns out that, for me, fear is a really good catalyst for creativity. Also, I would always fly to foreign-language countries where there'd be no accessible internet or American TV, so there was nothing for me to do but sit in a café with a glass of wine, fret about the flight home, and write.
5.How did you land your first book deal?
No lie; I emailed a publisher at HarperCollins a funny pitch letter with links to some of my published clips and told her I'd be in NYC the following week. She emailed me right back and told me to be in her office at 4 p.m. the day I arrived. When I got there, I did not have to say a word. Her first sentence was, "We love it. We'll have a contract to you by tomorrow." The next day I had a two-book deal.
“I'll tell you of a particular moment I am proud; it was the day I realized I didn't need to wait for someone to proclaim me a writer.”
6.Wow! That's incredible. You've been a Writer's Digest "Breakout Author of the Year," and have also won a number of best columnist and local author awards. Which of your accolades has given you the most satisfaction?
Hahaha! Whenever I win an award I always assume someone got duped. For the longest time, I kept a photograph of myself on the Jay Leno show in a drawer because I thought that, you know, if people saw that photo they'd think I was on the Leno show and I'd have to explain. But the explanation is that I was on Jay Leno! Finally, I took it out of the drawer because I should be as proud of that as I am of any other photograph I have.
I'll tell you of a particular moment I am proud; it was the day I realized I didn't need to wait for someone to proclaim me a writer. I could just proclaim it myself. I had business cards printed, the kind that cost two bucks per billion, and under my name it simply read, "Writer." I sat in my car in the Office Depot parking lot and stared at that card for like an hour, I was so giddy.
This is the second time the film rights have been optioned. This time we closed a deal with Sony, and we are still, a year later, ironing out the ministrations of the contract.
8.What did you learn from writing your first two books that was helpful to you as you worked on Trailer Trashed?
It's not so much what I learned, but what I recognized, and that is the first paragraph of a story has to engage the reader, otherwise they won't bother to read the rest of it.
(Photo by Matt Schafer)
9.Your writing has been described as both hilarious and blisteringly honest. Has it ever been hard for you to write so openly about your personal experiences?
Today, I make sure to impart to my seminar students that creativity has a process, and mine was to think no one would ever read a word of what I was writing. My subconscious evidently knew it had to fool me into thinking I was secure in my nobody-ness in order for me to write with abandon. I still cultivate that bubble, but creativity is also mercurial.
There comes a point when I need to cop to the fact that I'm a successful writer. For example, in my humor column, there is only so many times I can write about passing out in the parking lot of a strip club before it becomes obvious I'm mining the ’90s for material, which is okay, but I also need to come clean about the fact that today I'm a responsible mother and businesswoman. A lot people seriously think that because I wrote a story about how I got drunk and passed out in the parking lot of the Clermont Lounge 10 years ago, that they can go there this afternoon and find me.
It's one of the bizarre consequences of having won acclaim writing stories that are based on my experience; people believe these experiences, which are isolated in their depictions and happened in the past, represent me to this day, like today as a single mom I'm really gonna spend my nights horking cocaine and having sex with Australian soccer players. No, today as a single mom, I'm going to spend my nights writing about when I used to hork cocaine and have sex with Australian soccer players. There's a difference; the most important being that the former would make me an irresponsible mother; whereas, the latter makes me an ingenious businesswoman who has figured out how to translate her past into income so she can support her child.
10.Your family and friends feature predominantly in your work. What has been their reaction to your writing, particularly your latest book?
Unconditional support, stunned silence, and grave disapproval, depending on which branch of the family tree you're swinging at me.
11.You a write a "humorous financial column" for BeE WOMAN magazine. Finances aren't usually funny—what sorts of things do you talk about?
My own mishaps. I don't know how it happened, but I am a responsible provider and homeowner, and the steps I took to arrive here are not conventional. I will take three lefts where most take a right. I end up arriving at the same place, though I bet my journey is a lot more colorful.
12.What was it like to like to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno? Can you tell us any interesting tidbits?
My friends, Daniel, Grant and Lary, were in the audience and I told the producers they better tie them to their chairs, 'cause "this ain't no Price is Right. No stormin' the stage!"
“Writing is my job. If I don't do it, I don't get paid. If I don't get paid, I'll eventually end up sleeping in an abandoned truck on a bed of old shredded bathrobes.”
13.Aspiring authors would love to know more about your writing routines. For example, where do you write? How many hours (or words) a day do you write?
I aim for 1500 words a week. I write in bed (I'm doing that right now), but only because I have a huge bed and it's the biggest expanse of unused space in my tiny house. I also have a vintage camper in my driveway; I go in there sometimes, but lately a homeless guy named Slappy keeps knocking on the door when he sees I'm in there. I used to write until 4 a.m., but now I have a kid, so I get up at 4 a.m. to start writing.
14.Have you ever faced writer's block or burnout? If so, how do you deal with it?
Gah! Hell yes! I summon fear to break through it. Writing is my job. If I don't do it, I don't get paid. If I don't get paid, I'll eventually end up sleeping in an abandoned truck on a bed of old shredded bathrobes. Enough thoughts like that and sooner or later there's fire under my feet.
15.What prompted you to start teaching seminars?
This business is brutal, so I promised the Cosmic Card Dealer that if I ever became a successful writer I'd help other writers. Then I got on Leno and had to make good. I was way busted.
16.What are the most common mistakes that you see with beginning writers in your classes?
I don't think the writers in my classes make mistakes. They are there, that erases any mistakes they made up until they walked through the door. From that point on, the biggest mistake they could make is the fear to press "send," because by the end of the seminar, they'll have everything they need to get an agent's attention, including the agent's contact info. Plus, they'll know how to format a perfect pitch letter. I've had a lot of people nab book deals after taking my seminar.
17.You do seem to have a lot of satisfied students offering testimonials. So, if we can't make it to Atlanta to attend your seminars, but want to learn the difference between an illuminating essay and a journal entry, would you be willing to share your thoughts on that topic?
Soon you won't have to be in Atlanta, because I'm formatting online courses as we speak. I always tell this to my memoir students: what separates an effective memoir from a clump of journal entries is that, with memoirs, there is no room for self-pity or bitterness. Bitterness and self-pity amount to memoir kryptonite.
18.You've been referred to as a rule-breaker with some interesting ideas for getting your work into print. What advice do you offer for getting an agent's attention?
Make sure you target an agent who specializes in your type of material. I've traveled all over the country attending literary seminars myself, gathering agent information and learning which agent is looking for what specific material, so I can impart that information to my students. You're ahead of fifty percent of the other queries the agent receives that day if she knows you know her market.
19.Good advice. Hollis, you've achieved great success as a top-selling author. Have you had any mentors who have helped you carve the path into authoring?
Hell yes. Suzanne Van Atten, my former editor at Creative Loafing; Rebecca Burns, my present editor at Atlanta Magazine; Liz Lapidus, Lynn Lamousin, Doug Monroe, Charles McNair, Jim Hackler, Mike Alvear… All these people did their part in helping me press "send" when I thought the last thing in the world a publisher would want to see is one of my stories. Not to mention my three nutball friends—Grant, Daniel and Lary—who let me write about their escapades unconditionally.
20.Do you have any final words of wisdom for our women readers/writers?
Yes. Follow your heart, because when you follow your heart, you are doing what you can to keep the world from devolving into a big wad of wasted potential.
For more information about Hollis, visit her website: www.hollisgillespie.com
Get a copy of her latest book: Trailer Trashed; My Dubious Attempts at Upward Mobility:
Marcia Peterson is a columnist for WOW! Women on Writing and Premium-Green (The Women's Guide to Freelance Writing and Markets).
See her recent article for WOW!, "How to Successfully Repurpose Your Articles."