Pop culture addicts who loved the original incarnation of VH-1′s Pop-Up Video prized the show for its irreverent, half-serious running commentary balloons. While, say, a hair metal ballad blared away onscreen, you might have read a comment on the vintage price of Aqua Net, or statistics on Spandex. The concept proved so beloved, in fact, that after nine years off the air, VH-1 revived Pop-Up Video in 2011, this time taking aim at a newer crop of pop artists.
For the original version’s trend-setting tone and humor, fans can thank author Julie Klam, who scored an Emmy for her work on the show. Though those episodes have now entered the annals of vintage VH-1, luckily, that kind of half-serious, gently fun-poking style carries over into her four books to date. Klam has so far specialized in essay-like memoirs, heavy on self-deprecation and wit, but not light on emotional insight, either.
Her first effort, Please Excuse My Daughter, recounted her early life and sometimes eccentric upbringing. Meanwhile, her next two books, Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself and You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secret of Happiness, centered more on her relationships with four-legged friends.
Now, her latest book, Friendkeeping: a Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without, returns to the human world, and signals a new direction in her writing. A thematic exploration of her most significant friendships, Klam combines the usual mining of her personal life with analysis and advice. As she put it in an interview with Salty Eggs, there’s a “self-help-ish” streak throughout, one that helps with the transition to her next work, one that, she tells us, won’t be about her life.
We caught up with Klam by phone in advance of her appearance at the Miami Book Fair this Saturday to chat about the memoir process, her new book, and her upcoming thematic departure. Here’s what she had to say.
12 p.m. Saturday, November 17 at Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus, Batten, Building 2, 1st Floor, Room 2106. Visit miamibookfair.com/events/erin_mchugh_on_em365_days_of_trying_to_b.aspx
For this book, why did you decide to come back to focusing on your human relationships?
Julie Klam: I was at a dinner with a bunch of friends of mine, and I looked around and thought that none of them had ever peed on my floor — so they were really worthy of a book written about them. A lot had to do with the fact that I was at this place where my friendships were becoming more and more important. I felt that there was an absence of material about adult friendships out there. There are a lot of little Hallmark-y books, but none of them felt like they actually addressed the things I was concerned about in my friendships.
As a lot of people progress through adulthood, they start neglecting their friendships. What was going on with you that made you want to focus more on yours?
It was a lot of things. The last couple of years, there were just a lot of changes, a lot of things happening in my family. My family is not that close by, so my friends are really the people who I count on. I had felt like our priorities are our families and our jobs, and you have to take care of your kid and your spouse or your boyfriend or girlfriend, then your parents, and you have to work. So this other branch of relationships gets neglected. It’s like, if there’s something I have to do, I end up canceling friends, but I’m not going to not pick up my kid from school or not take care of work.
You also do magazine writing and other slightly more journalistic material. For this book, what made you want to go back to a super-personal, memoir-type format?
I felt like it was actually talking about personal things, but it’s also more about stories that are backing up the things that I’m going through. I didn’t feel like I was writing anything that was intensely different from what I’ve written before. I wrote very intensely about myself in my first book, and also a lot about my personal life in my dog books. So it’s always been in there anyways, and it’s just a matter of where I’m going with it. I kind of felt that this would be the last time I would write about myself and my own life though, because, enough already. I really just wanted to honor the friendships and see what would happen with that.
You touched on this a little bit, but the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, say, going from childhood to adult friendships. Why did you decide to structure it this way?
When we were first talking about it, my editor and I discussed things like friendship breakups, and sort of a list of other aspects like that. I felt like there was a lot of material about those things in women’s magazines — there are a million articles on breaking up with friends.
I also felt like what I was trying to say here is that there are opportunities to work things out in friendships; I wasn’t talking about getting rid of friends. So everything I chose to write about was something that had to do with straining friendships, or getting through a hard time, with some tools. In terms of the way the book was organized, I wrote chapters and they were all in different places, so I just moved them around according to when I felt the book needed them.
Dealing with so much possible personal material, how did the book start to take shape? Did you outline first, or did you just start writing?
I did an outline, and then a chapter breakdown. I knew everywhere I was going. The order frequently changes for me. There are some things that feel natural to start and end with, but a lot of the other parts could go anywhere. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing here; this was a very difficult book for me to write for a variety of reasons.
One of the main ones is that it’s a memoir, but it has kind of a self-help-ish element to it, something where I basically can’t really write this book without saying, “And here’s what worked for me, or what I would have done differently.” Frequently during this I was unsure of what that should be, what the message would be. At one point I was thinking, the answer to any question in this book can always be, “Don’t be friends with them any more.” So the through line for me was considering how, instead, to keep friendships strong through these challenges. Usually it takes me about until the second half of the book to say, “Okay, now I know what I’m doing,” and then I have to go back and fix the first half.
When you’re writing about personal material, or events or challenges that are unfolding in real time in your life, how do you compartmentalize and focus on the writing?
There’s a ton of stuff that is happening in my real life that doesn’t go into my books. I do find it extremely fortuitous when I’m working on a chapter about, say, three people in a friendship, and my daughter comes home and gives me a monologue about the problems of having two friends together. So sometimes it comes up and it’s relevant, and a lot of times it’s very different.
The chapters about dealing with illnesses — that was hard because a lot of those people, when I did the book proposal, were doing really well, but when I was writing the book, they were not doing really well, so it gave it a different feeling. But that’s the life of memoir. You’re always sort of in there no matter what you’re doing. I try very hard to just respect the people I’m writing about.
Did you tell these specific friends they were going to be discussed in the book, or do the people in your life now just assume they’ll wind up in your material at some point anyways?
I’ve never had anyone come to me and say they didn’t like what I wrote about them. The people I love, I write about in a loving way, and the people I don’t love, I change their names.
I was going to ask you about that, because in the book, you switch between very obvious pseudonyms and real names. With the real names and some of the identifiers, it’s really easy to figure out who they are in real life. How does that affect your process and your quest to be truthful, when you have to worry about a real-life person’s feelings, or strangers looking them up on Google?
I’m not writing a biography of somebody; I’m not writing a historic, researched paper. I’m writing my interpretation of a situation that happened between us. Everybody reads it before it’s published. I have pretty great friends.
My friend Barbara, when she read part of it, she said, “I don’t remember feeling this way then.” I said, “You definitely did act however, but if you don’t want me to put it in, I won’t.” It was something about how she felt about my husband when she first met him. So we talked about it, and she then said, “Okay, I’ll go with your memory.” But anything I think someone would be uncomfortable with, I don’t write about it. I’m not writing an expose.
In writing, you have to deal with an inner editor, but then here you are, contenting with all this other possible outside input, too, from these real people. How do you deal with all of that?
The way I write is very much how I speak. So when I’m writing, I’m imagining in my head that I’m talking to the people I’m writing about, and they’re all sitting around listening. It’s not a problem, because it’s the same way I treat them in life — I don’t want to ever say anything that would be hurtful or not helpful, or bring up something that is difficult or embarrassing. So it doesn’t really interfere with my process.
In writing this book, were you motivated to then go back and reconnect with some of the people you mentioned from your past?
Pretty much everybody that I wrote about is still a close friend, or we had a breakup and got back together.
What’s the appeal for you in continuing to put all this stuff out there for the public? Furthermore, what’s the appeal of then reading it in public, and doing these events like the Miami Book Fair?
I’ve always felt like if I can put something out there that people can relate to, and it makes them feel better to know that someone else feels that way, then that’s what I want to do. I want to connect with people and have people feel like there’s something there for them.
As far as the events, I really like to meet people. This is a very solitary line of work, so it’s nice to go meet people who are fans of something you’ve done. I’ve never had a negative experience doing anything like that. It’s just sort of part of the process, to get a little chance to talk.
In the book you talk abut meeting friends from Twitter and such at your readings. Do you have any plans to meet anyone like that in Miami?
You know, I have a bunch of friends, Twitter writer friends, who are going to be at the fair who I’m excited to see. Some of them live in New York City, and we never manage to get together, so that’s kind of exciting. I’ll be away from my child and my dogs, and I can actually make plans with people.
At the very beginning of this interview, you said you told yourself this would be the last book where you’d talk about yourself. Do you still feel that way, and if so, what are you working on next?
My next book is not about me or my life. It’s different. That’s another step in another direction. It’s always going to be my voice, and essay-ish. But my daughter is nine now, but it gets to a point where it’s not cool to keep writing about her. She’s got her private life. I also feel like I’ve told every story about myself in every aspect. Maybe in a few years if I have some dramatic experience, if I go to outer space or something, I’ll consider doing another book about myself. But in the meantime, I think I’m done with me.
So the next book is about celebrities, and what it’s really like to be famous, and talking to people who work with celebrities and academics who study them. It’s a kind of Jon Ronson-feeling book, I hope. It could be out next fall or maybe the following spring. I’ve been on a kind of book a year schedule, but I’m not sure it’s going to work for this, because I have a lot of stuff I have to actually go do. But it’s due in March, so we’ll see!