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Hillary Carlip, Queen of the Oddballs

by Susan Henderson on January 3, 2007

My mom and I dish about Hillary Carlip’s memoir.

I was only on page 7 of Hillary Carlip’s QUEEN OF THE ODDBALLS when I called my mom and told her she had to go buy it that very day. I love reading books at the same time as my mom so we can talk about them.

My mom, of course, will read the last chapter first. I wonder why she does this? I should ask her. And then, because – like me – she can’t keep a secret, she’ll tell me how the book ends.

Well, so my mom and I emailed each other about Hillary’s book, and I’ve decided to post our notes in their entirety.

My mom is in yellow. I am the nurse.

Hi Susie, I’ve been reading Hillary Carlip’s amazing story in “Queen of the Oddballs.” I keep thinking how my childhood would have really been energized and greatly improved if I had had a friend like Hillary! The combination of having that dynamic energy, sense of humor, and a real knack for creating adventure would have been loads of fun. The fact that the adventures would involved getting close to all my favorite performers like Carly Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and so many more – well that would just have been a fantasy come true. She even had a mom that would give her a ride up to Laurel Canyon so she and her friend could stake out Carole King’s house. What are the chances that these days, someone like Carole King would invite a couple of teenage strangers into her house, while she did Lamaze exercises on the kitchen floor? Things have changed so much that now it would be unlikely that things would turn out so well. MOM

Hi Mom,

I think you’re right that that kind of fun couldn’t happen today. People are too afraid to let strangers in for lemonade anymore. Isn’t it great how all the people in her neighborhood had lemonade on-hand?

Another thing I have wondered about was how she happened to be plopped down, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, into the midst of a celebrity fiesta like that? I thought she said her father sold baby furniture, and yet the rest of the place seemed to be bustling with movie stars. In any case, do you suppose growing up in that environment was a catalyst toward filling her life with creative adventures and a zest for getting herself into celebrity-related activities? Had she grown up where I did, in a little town in Northern California, where no celebrities lived, would she have still found a way into Hollywood, acting, singing, writing, and juggling?

I’m really interested in your question about whether her environment was a catalyst for her desire to have creative adventures. Maybe. I always wonder if the artist’s soul is something we’re born with, and we either fight or follow that calling. Or maybe it’s born of the experience of feeling like an outsider. I was talking to [Mr. Henderson] about this recently, and about why struggling writers and painters and actors won’t give up despite all the rejection and the long odds – and he said, it’s because the soul won’t be told no.

Feelings of alienation seem to be associated with many artists who develop a great soul that insists on being expressed. Hillary developed a Technicolor interior life, and it was soon matched by her outer experience as her fantasies were put into action. She differs from many people in that she possesses tremendous energy and chutzpa to barrel through obstacles. In reading her story and her various victories, especially those in her teenage years, you can see how focused she was on one thing at a time that had to be achieved. She would come up with every possible way of getting to that goal, and eventually she would get there. She was never timid or self-limiting in her actions. What a lesson for us all!

Another thing I have noted is that many times in life, one “oddball” impulsive choice, like sending in for a book on juggling, can be a major turning point in one’s life. For example, Johnny Carson learning magic tricks as a child, or Joseph Campbell being taken to an American Indian exhibit by his father when he was a boy. It makes me cast about in my own mind as to what things came up in my own life, like singing along with my parent’s collection of Italian opera librettos as a child, and then studying Italian for the rest of my life.

I love the stories about Johnny Carson and Joe Campbell.

What stopped you from pursuing opera?

I did pursue opera in a way. I still go to the opera all the time – I’m going again this Saturday night. I also continue to love Italian, and just came home from grocery shopping listening to Italian tapes in preparation for our trip to Sicily next Sunday. I’m not sure the accidental introduction to something that grabs you needs to always lead to a profession in that field. I did mention this idea a couple of nights ago to a writer I met named Ann Gibbons, whose new non-fiction book just came out entitled “The First Human: The Race to Discover our Earliest Ancestors.” She jumped to tell me her own story. During her university studies, a friend of hers wanted her to go along to a lecture about human evolution. She was immediately intrigued by the subject and the hook was set. She had majored in Journalism, but always took a lot of science courses because they interested her. As it turned out, she ended up using both. She became a writer for Science Magazine, and has pursued the thing that she loves. Later, she went to Africa with a colleague and talked to the Frenchman, Michel Brunet who had discovered a fascinating human skull in Chad. She was off and running, following her bliss, and eventually wrote her book.

That’s a fun thing to trace – how a person’s passions merge with what’s around them and their own strengths and shortcomings and so on over a lifetime.

So I wonder, in the case of Hillary, what the passion was?

In this book, it seems as though she’s always on the periphery of celebrity – an extra in a movie but not a star, a singing telegram in a house of celebrities, a fan at a concert who wants to be considered a friend. It’s almost like she’s willing to try on any costume or job that might move her from the periphery to a sense of feeling a part of things. You know, finally recognized or valued.

I was so intrigued by the stacks of detailed journals she described keeping. That was so poignant to me. It seems like the theme of the book is this idea of trying to be noticed and hoping you matter.

Maybe it’s that determination to matter and be someone that led to her “cross-pollination” of so many different talents, but it seems to have worked for her. Maybe her special gift is to be able to write about her experiences in a way that shows others what fierce tenacity looks like.

One last thing I’ve been wondering: What does a reader gain in reading the last chapter first? : )

Nothing is gained by reading the last chapter first except that you get to read right away why she wanted to “bitch-slap” Oprah. I had unfortunately flipped the pages of the book to see what kind of titles and pictures were in there and accidentally saw that irresistible line in the last chapter. It was, actually, one of my favorite chapters. Every once in a while I read a book backwards (well, usually it’s more like a book review or magazine article) because I have started it from the beginning 2-3 times and I need to try something different. Try it on a book review, you’ll see it works quite well. Just read each paragraph or section starting with the last one, and work your way up. MOM

*

I think my mom didn’t fully own up to her reading habit. That’s all right. As someone who occasionally does this, as well, I can give my own reasons. Do you remember when you were a kid and an hour felt like a day and a week felt like a year? Now think back to when your parents said, “Kids, get in the car!” You said, ”
Where are we going?” It didn’t make a difference in the truest sense; you were in for the duration no matter what. But as soon as they said, “California!” Or “Kings Dominion!” Or “Funeral of a relative you’ve never met!” Or “Safeway! Now, buckle up,” you knew how to settle yourself. Because it helps to know your destination before you start looking out the window and taking in the scenery.

That said, I recommend to all of you who have the willpower for it, to read a book in its proper order, first chapter first, last chapter last. That’s my advice for the day.

My pal, Hillary Carlip. And our childhood photos!

Yesterday I posted some emails my mom and I sent to each other regarding Hillary Carlip and her memoir, QUEEN OF THE ODDBALLS: AND OTHER TRUE STORIES FROM A LIFE UNACCORDING TO PLAN (HarperCollins, 2006). Today I’m going to share my private thoughts.

I had an unusual reaction reading this book. First of all, I connected so fiercely with young Hillary in chapter 1, it almost hurt to read it. Let me include a few passages here:

What do you do when you feel so invisible you can’t sleep without a light on, afraid that in the dark you just might vanish entirely? Simple. Become someone interesting enough to be noticed. And that’s exactly what I did when I was eight years old.

She goes on to describe the various characters and costumes and accents she took on after finding television and movie characters more interesting than herself. But this was the scene that brought me to tears and made me laugh and hurt and feel so affectionate toward this little girl. This is the scene where Hillary’s parents have been called to school and learn that she’s been suspended from third grade for smoking on the playground:

“Hill, why were you smoking?” Mom asked.

I shrugged. My dad excused himself, opened the office door, stomped out his cigarette on the sidewalk right outside, then hurried back in. “Answer your mother,” he said.

I slowly pulled my arms from behind my back, revealing my mom’s black, elbow-length gloves that, on me, went up to my shoulders. “I was being Holly Golightly.”

This child seemed like someone I knew as well as I know myself. And while I grew up in the shadow of the Pentagon and DARPA, she grew up in the shadow of Hollywood. I don’t know if what I started to feel as I continued to read the book was comradery [contest alert: a mystery prize to the first person who can teach me how to properly spell “comradery”] or jealousy but it was a powerful belief that we should have been friends growing up.

When I was a kid, I played soccer with girls who had last names like Schlesinger. I watched but wasn’t invited to play when Amy Carter visited my neighbor. I pet Sam Donaldson’s dog, spoke French with President Mitterand, watched movies at Vint Cerf’s house, sat on Jim Brady’s couch, and all the while thought, “I am so stupid and insignificant compared to everyone around me.”

Hillary took cotillion with kids who had last names like Curtis. She sat in Carly Simon’s dressing room, talked to the Manson girls, was paired with Valerie Harper at an EST training workshop, and kissed Chuck Barris of The Gong Show after beating out Cheryl “Got to Be Real” Lynn. It seemed like we had mirror existences – we were the quirky kids on the periphery of important people – only different coasts, and to be honest, The Gong Show must have been way more fun than The White House.

What a different childhood I might have had if Hillary had been my pal growing up.

So Hillary doesn’t know this, but when I asked her for some photos to use this week on my blog, what I really wanted to do was right this wrong. I wanted to pretend that the goofy little girl in elbow-length gloves had grown up on the east coast, where – if we had been childhood pals – I would have been perfectly happy being an oddball on the periphery.

Here’s where you have to hope your guest has a sense of humor.

Because it’s time to share my imaginary childhood scrapbook, featuring my pal Hillary:

Remember when we wore identical dresses? My mom couldn’t get a picture without you making a funny face. I was still shy.

Here we are at the Ramblin’ Raft Race, laughing as our raft sinks into the Potomac. Afterwards we planned to stake out Nobel Prize winners to see if they’d invite us in for lemonade. Too bad we chickened out!

Those were some long afternoons we spent at DARPA. Look at us in our very 80’s outfits, and Vint kept talking about bigger uses for ARPANET and I wanted to look like I was listening? Remember how you blacked out your tooth to try to get me to crack up?

*

Thanks to David Niall Wilson, who helped me doctor the photos. They came out a little gruesome, but not for lack of effort.

Tomorrow is Pasha Malla day.

And after that: Hillary will be here! (If she’s still talking to me.)

Queen of the Oddballs – an interview.

Hillary Carlip has been a comic juggler, a flame eater, a singing telegram, a web designer and screenwriter. She is also the editor of Fresh Yarn, author of GIRL POWER: YOUNG WOMEN SPEAK OUT (Warner Books, 1995), and an NPR commentator for shows like ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

But today we’re talking about her memoir, QUEEN OF THE ODDBALLS. Welcome Hillary! And what a relief she had a great sense of humor about the childhood photos I shared on Tuesday. Phew!

I’m fascinated by your career arc. It seemed like you started to find success in a number of areas. You juggled and ate fire and tap danced and sang and did comedy and sang in a rock band and wrote screenplays. What kept you from pursuing any one of those paths?

I’ve always let myself be guided, though possibly by some demented higher power. I’ve tried to never limit myself. So when something occurred to me, or came up as the next thing to do, like, ” Hmm, now I feel like making art from trash and showing in galleries,” I just went for it.

And can you talk about the feeling, at the time – how you experienced your career and your professional identity?

Until I wrote Queen of the Oddballs, I was constantly questioning what I was doing. I am grateful that I had success with many of the things I did, but not the kind of big, phat success that maybe I could have had if I stuck to one thing and gave it my all rather than splitting my focus in 20 different places at once. So there was definitely frustration through the years.

I pretty much haven’t watched TV since the O.J. Simpson trial, but my husband told me about a show he loves called EXTRAS. It’s about people who are extras in movies but are never able to step into major roles. Have you seen it? Does that show speak to you at all?

I watched the show maybe once. It doesn’t really speak to me because I never felt like an extra. I feel like in my life I always stepped into major roles – even though they were all in B and C movies! (And that’s literally as well, having appeared in cult B and C classics Xanadu, Grease II, Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks, etc.)

Do you feel like you’ve settled on a path now? And looking back, does it feel like you were meant to do all of those things or do you see with more clarity a different route you could have taken if you’d had the courage/support?

Since I fully believed I was on the right path, following my guidance every step o’ the way on each path, I believe I was absolutely supposed to be doing all those things. In hindsight all those paths now seem like they were actually just one, with a lot of crazy tentacles, leading me to ultimately writing about them all.

Talk to me about what the ironically-named Serenity taught you about writing?

I had been volunteering teaching creative writing at a Residential Treatment Center. My class was made up of eight teenage girls who represented four races, five gangs, and nine felonies. Uncommunicative at best, they were guarded, hostile, defensive and defiant. One girl in particular stood out. Raging and rebellious, she constantly wrote of morbidity, destruction and death. Her name was Serenity. I met her at a time when I was writing screenplays for major studios. I had sold a script to Columbia that I felt really fulfilled my vison. But by the time my partner and I had to rewrite it (about 20 drafts), getting notes from everyone from the president of Columbia Studios to her maid, it got so diluted along the way. And then we were basically fired from our own project. Serenity just reminded me to go back to writing what was important to me. And books were a place where I could do that, and maintain my vision.

Having dabbled in so many of the arts, what do you see that artists have in common? [That’s terribly worded, but maybe it will spark a response anyway.]

I think artists in any form see things differently. They take what might be standard or ordinary to anyone else, and transform it into something evocative, hopefully inspiring whoever witnesses it to feel something they might not have otherwise felt.

Tomorrow I’ll have part 2 with Hillary, and we’ll talk about self-worth, celebrities and share some real photos. Stay tuned!

Queen of the Oddballs, part 2 – w/celeb photos and Space Food Sticks!

A little announcement before I get to today’s interview. On Sunday, June 4, the Hendersons will be at the Brooklyn International Film Festival, where our kids will be doing a q & a about the kung fu spoof they made in China two summers ago. If you’re interested in going, all the information you need is here.

And now, welcome back to Hillary Carlip for part 2 of our interview regarding her memoir, QUEEN OF THE ODDBALLS.

I’ve written two books now (both unpublished, of course) that deal with people who are afraid to be themselves or are afraid they’re not worthy unless they do something extraordinary. Obviously, I relate to the themes of your book and immediately warmed to the little eight-year-old you I met on page one. What do you suppose gave you this sense that you weren’t worthy or necessary?

Unlike so many memoirs that are rife with abuse, my family dysfunction was totally different. My parents were lovely, generous and warm – but to EVERYONE. I was treated the same way they treated the mailman, the grocery store clerk, and everyone else in the entire nation (or at least Los Angeles!) And whatever remained of my parents’ energy was sucked up by my hyperactive, trouble-making older brother (who did things like getting expelled from high school for starting a revolutionary underground newspaper, and leading the police on a high-speed chase when he was 17). So I felt pretty invisible. In attempts to become someone more interesting, I took on different personas the way other kids tried on clothes.

That’s basically what the first chapter in Queen of the Oddballs is about – me being suspended from third grade for smoking on the school playground when I was being Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s – then that behavior being validated when, shortly after, I was chosen out of all the kids in my school to appear on television on Art Linkletter’s House Party.

Tell me about your all-con band. Did you come up with these brilliant lyrics (I laughed hysterically when I read them): Buffy, Buffy come back to me, why’d you have to go and OD, who will watch over Mrs. Beasley?

Yes, I wrote the lyrics to our cult hit song, ” Buffy Come Back.” I had created this character named Angel, who landed in County Jail for a ” minor offense.” While in the slammer, Angel watched a lot of TV and became obsessed with reruns. She saw the light in the old shows, and became dedicated to spreading the word of a return to a time when life was simpler and people were kinder. Angel picked three other inmates to be her backup singers and the jailbirds turned songbirds forming Angel and the Reruns, the All Girl, all Ex-Con band.

Everyone believed the story I had made up, and we received a lot of press where they talked all about us being ” ex-cons.” The song ” Buffy Come Back,” was a tribute to Anissa Jones, the actress who portrayed the sweet and innocent Buffy on the ’60s TV show Family Affair. She sadly OD’d when she was 15. So it was a twisted anti-drug anthem.

You beat out Cheryl (“Got to Be Real”) Lynn on the Gong Show. I’m curious about your impressions of B- and C-list Hollywood and how that show changed you. And did you read Chuck Barris’ autobiography?

When I taped the show, I spent the day surrounded by oddballs – like an overweight woman dressed like a chicken, and an old toothless fiddler. At first I got freaked out wondering if millions of viewers would think I was as crazy (and delusional!) as the others. But by the end of the day I saw how comfortable these guys were with who they were, and it was a turning point in starting to fess up to, and embrace, my own oddballness.

I didn’t read Chuck’s book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I did see the movie. Ya know there he was, a professed CIA assassin, kissing me on the lips when he could have just returned from offing someone.

Years ago, I was having a conversation with Mr. Henderson (who grew up in England) and I tried to describe to him these special snacks we used to eat that were shaped like Slim Jims and were chewy and sweet and awful but filling. And for years, I’ve used up a whole corner of my memory trying to think of what those snacks were called. I wanted to thank you for mentioning Space Food Sticks in your book because it really freed up some head-space. What was your favorite flavor? I remember the orange ones as being particularly bad and the peanut butter as being the best in comparison.

Chocolate always ruled my life in any and all forms. It’s so surprising to me – my Space Sticks shout-out in Queen of the Oddballs hit a nerve with a lot of people! When I first turned in my manuscript, my agent flipped over the reference and said how much she used to love them (Chocolate was also her fave). At the time, I TRACKED SOME DOWN and sent them to her. Now many people have mentioned it after reading my book (including an Amazon review) and I tried to get the tasty snacks again but everyone’s out of stock. Apparently sometime in the future they’ll be releasing a new version. So keep an eye out – when they reappear, you’ll be receiving a case of Peanut Butter Space Sticks from me!

Ooh, I could give those away to my contest winners. Although that might be considered a punishment.

The girl on the book cover is never explained in your book. Is that you? And what is that outfit all about?

It’s not me on the cover, though I have danced with a wooden spoon before! It’s a pic from the ’60s that I found that captured the oddball essence and spirit of the book. And with the blue and white checked motif, along with the poufy hat, I’m feelin’ some Pillsbury connection. Don’t ya think? I’m just waiting for some random older lady to come up to me and say, ” Hey, that’s ME!”

We’ve talked of the many jobs you’ve had from juggler to fire-eater to Xanadu dancer to author. Would you say that you are a writer now? Do you have another book planned?

YES and YES. I’m definitely continuing to write about more oddball adventures. I’m also doing an anthology of personal essays from my website FRESH YARN. I’d like to have FRESH YARN become sort of like a McSweeney’s, where I can continue to support and develop other writers, and help get their work out there.

Could you tell me who are some of your favorite writers?

Growing up (like 13-16) I was obsessed with Richard Brautigan. Now, especially the past couple of years, all I’ve been reading are memoirs. So I enjoy your basic Sedaris and Burroughs. And of course my fellow Memoirists Collective peeps, brilliant authors Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Maria Headley and Danielle Trussoni. And I have many friends who have written KICK-ASS books that rock my world – Tania Katan (My One Night Stand with Cancer); Jill Soloway (Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants); Annabelle Gurwitch (FIRED! ); Paul Feig (Superstud), and anything by fellow L.A. gal pal Francesca Lia Block.

And when are you coming to NY?

I JUST came back from NY. Next stops on the tour are L.A. (June 7th) and S.F. (June 8-10). My readings are fun-filled and different than your average reading. Rumor has it that I’ve been reenacting my winning Gong Show comedy juggling song!
And I’ve been having contests where people share their own oddball stories and win fabulous prizes. You’d be surprised by how many oddballs there are out there!

In fact, I’ve proclaimed July to be National Oddball Month, and I’m having online Odd-itions where people share their oddball-ity by submitting artwork, photos, written descriptions, videos, audio clips, animated pieces, etc. Anyone can vote for their fave, then finalists will be chosen from the open voting, and a panel of celeb judges will pick a winner who will represent National Oddball Month as the Ambassador of Odd. More info on that comin’ soon on www.queenoftheoddballs.com.

Thanks for taking the time to hang out with me on my blog, Hillary. And thanks for being such a good sport!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee January 3, 2007 at 12:59 pm

If the book is nearly as great as this interview, well, I can’t imagine thatit wouldn’t be. I’m so back logged right now on my reading, but I definitely will put this on my 40 must reads for 2007.
Of course I have to also plug some other Lit Parkers who are also on the list and have been very kind and open to me so far:
N. Frank Daniles- I should be ordering that one soon
Juliet deWal- I can’t wait to find out how to order that one
And thanks to Susan and everyone else who keeps this forum going and worth reading!

Reply

Lee January 3, 2007 at 1:01 pm

Sorry, I never can seem to type “Daniels” without appearing lysdexic.

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Carolyn Burns Bass January 3, 2007 at 6:12 pm

Whoa now. There is so much in these two interviews I am brain-tied.

Camaraderie.

Invisibility. Me.

When your father is a swordswallower-turned-encyclopedia-salesman and your mother is a repressed operatic soprano, you want to be something special. But when you’re a middle sister born in between the live-out-loud sassy one and the darling dear whose blue eyes and freckles captivate everyone, you are invisible.

I wasn’t odd enough to be an oddball and not ordinary enough to be normal. I fell through the cracks and am only now climbing out.

Thank you Susan for another fabulous interview. Thank you Hillary for sharing your oddball exploits. I have a lot to learn from you.

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Gail Siegel January 5, 2007 at 7:14 pm

Oh, I love Fresh Yarn. (I just got a very kindly rejection from them.)

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Hillary Carlip January 12, 2007 at 1:58 am

THANKS for the rerun shout-out, Susan! And thanks to everyone for their kind comments!! Be odd and proud! XO Hillary

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Oronte Churm August 16, 2007 at 11:21 pm

Susan and Hillary, I’m a little late to the comment party, but I hope you’ll still let me in the door.

Thanks, Susan, for acquainting me with, first off, your mom, who’s totally hot with the “Technicolor interior life” and the Italian opera, and second, Hillary and her life and work.

Would it be okay, in your thought-experiment of growing up with East Coast Hillary, if the two of you came to visit the Midwest (of the mind) of my childhood? We’ll pretend Welch’s grape juice is fine wine and drink it until we’re sick. Then we’ll ride horses.

Fresh Yarn is terrific too!

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Susan Henderson August 17, 2007 at 7:02 am

Great to see you here, Oronte! I’ll let Hillary know you left a message.

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Hillary Carlip August 19, 2007 at 6:27 pm

THANKS for the shout-out, Oronte! We’re SO there with you, visiting your midwest childhood, and toasting with Welch’s! And so glad you dig FRESH YARN, too!

XO Hillary

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