What inspired you to write this second memoir?
I hadn't intended to write this book at all. The first hint of it arose in the summer of 2005. My career took a leap forward when Riding the Bus With My Sister was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie and after the fanfare died down, I felt at a loss about what to do next with my life. I began contemplating what I call in the book my “Search for Life Purpose 2.0”, the kind of introspective journey many people undertake when faced with life changes.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to make Search 2.0 my priority. My husband Hal, who is an architect, had convinced me to undertake a major renovation on our house and that summer, as we were preparing to move out so the contractor could start the work, I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect of packing. I say overwhelmed because the house was bursting with stuff that we didn't have the room to keep—but since most of my possessions were mementoes of friendships, some of which had ended but still mattered to me, I couldn't bring myself to throw them away.
Shortly before our move-out date, I went see a friend in Washington, DC, and spent the two hour train ride writing. The moment my pen touched the page, I found myself examining my struggles with the packing process. To my surprise, I found I wasn't writing about packing as much as my internal conflict; I'd had a hard time sorting and parting with possessions because these things were more than photo albums or bits of stained glass or old containers; they were pieces of my internal world. I came to a new understanding about friendship, and this essay wrote itself.
So you decided to turn that essay into a memoir?
No, I actually thought that the piece would be an isolated essay. But when we moved a few days later, I had another experience that twined together the inner and outer worlds. I wrote about that, though this time I focused on family more than friends. A few days later, I had another bump in the renovation road, and it forced me to focus on myself and examine some of my personal issues.
Suddenly I realized that our renovation had put me on a journey that was both physical and emotional. My concrete world was intimately tying into my thoughts and feelings about all the relationships that really matter in life: family, friends, and self. I also began to see the renovation process as a metaphor for love. When you think about it, love is always in a phase of construction, demolition, or repair.
At that point I just had to keep writing about this double journey. I chronicled the whole story as I lived it, having no idea where it would go or how it would end. Amazingly, the day the renovation finished and we moved back in, I figured out my Life Purpose 2.0. In a moment of clarity, I knew the end of my memoir and my life's purpose.
This book is about home renovation, but it's also a deeply personal story. Do you think that the renovation process is an emotional undertaking for a lot of people?
I kept wondering about that as I was living through and writing about the experience. Then, just before we finished the house, I saw an article in Newsweek about a family therapist in California named Rachel Cox who, incredibly, specialized in people going through renovation. I contacted her and asked if we could meet and she generously agreed.
What did you learn about the emotional side of renovation?
“With a lot of people,” Rachel Cox told me, “all this deep psychological stuff starts happening during renovation but they don't realize why they're so stirred up. They just think it's about property value or a growing family, not their dynamics and fears and family histories. And most homeowners think of building going more smoothly than it does anyway. So when they come to me I see overwhelming anger or grief or depression. But then many of them come to see that it's also a paradigm-shifting time, when they can come to terms with loss, or find hidden creativity and strength. That it's a life-changing event.”
“But why,” I asked, “doesn't anyone ever talk about the deeper side of this experience?”
“People in the industry,” she answered—and she is married to a contractor—“notice clients' emotional rises and falls, but since they work with the tangibles of wood and hammers and nails, they rarely know how to deal with psychology. Psychologists notice the occasional patient's struggle, but since renovation isn't their area of concentration, and they're rarely married to people who know the building industry, like you and me, they're less likely to possess knowledge of the construction process.”
“Therefore I'm not off the wall?” I asked her.
“Not at all,” she said. “It's a melding of two worlds that needs to happen.”
Is your house completely done?
Everything that was within the scope of the job was indeed completed, but there are many little projects outside the scope that are works in progress. This includes the new cabinetry and shelving that Hal has begun to build, and the staircase railing and fireplace surround he'll eventually design. There are also many details we haven't begun to tackle, such as selecting window treatments, or the art we want on our walls. Eventually we'll get everything done, but for now we're taking our time. The fact is that we went from a house that was frustratingly dark, cramped, ugly, broken down, and energy-inefficient to one that's bright, spacious, attractive, operational, and environmentally friendly. We live in the kind of home I only could have dared to imagine before this, so it's easy to be patient with the rest.
You mention in the book that you were going to refinance the house to help cover the cost of renovation. Please tell me you didn't get sucked into one of those bad mortgage deals that have caused so much trouble.
Not to worry. We refinanced the house with a traditional mortgage at a reasonable rate.
In the book, you talk about a few close relationships that you hadn't yet repaired, and when the book ends, I wasn't sure whether you had.
I'm happy to report that little miracles have happened that have brought me a few steps closer to mending ties. Like the house, there is still more work to be done, but I'm feeling very hopeful about the ultimate outcome.
There is a line in the book that's paraphrases Emmanuel Swedenborg: “There is nothing that happens out of which good cannot occur.” What is the exact quote, and where can I find it?
In his book Secrets of Heaven, translated by my friend Lisa Hyatt Cooper, the sentence reads: "Nothing is therefore allowed to happen except to the end that something good may come out of it." This can be found in Arcana Caelestia (Secrets of Heaven) §6489.
How is your mother doing? Has her dementia gotten worse?
She seems to have stabilized. That is a great relief.
How is Hal? Does music continue to be a big part of his life?
Hal is very well. After I finished the book, he completed a CD which he shared with friends, and has since been composing new work.
How can I find out more about your contractor?
Go to http://www.edgeconstruction.net.
Is Beth still riding the bus?
Yes. In fact, most of Beth's life has remained the same since we rode together. She's still living in the same apartment, she's still with Jesse, and she's still friends with many of the same drivers, along with some new ones. There are some changes, though. Some of Beth's friendships with drivers, especially a few she's made since the book came out, have faded. Her city now has a transit center, so she doesn't have to wait outside at bus shelters nearly as much as we did. She's also begun to run errands from some of the elderly residents in her building, and has taken up some new activities like bowling. But the buses are still the center of her life.
How's her health? She had eye surgery in the book. Has her vision improved?
Beth had to have that same eye surgery twice more before it really worked out, but ever since her eye condition has been under control. She had a few other health issues, which I address in The House on Teacher's Lane. As of now, she seems healthy in every way.
How did Beth feel about the book?
Beth doesn't tend to think abstractly, so initially the book wasn't real to her until I put a copy in her hands. Then she felt a great sense of pride. She read the book right away (the first non-picture book she had ever read), and then re-read it to Jesse. She set up a book signing for me in the drivers' room. She carried the book around for months, drawing pictures on the Table of Contents, showing it to everyone she met, and memorizing the pages about Jesse – and Donny Osmond. If she met you, she'd ask if you'd read it.
What kind of reaction did Riding the Bus evoke from the public?
The book was very helpful to many people. I heard from thousands of people with disabilities, their families, and the people who work with them. Beth's story gave them hope that people with disabilities can live independent, self-determined lives, with friends in the community. My story gave siblings the reassurance that their own mix of feelings was not unique. I also heard from thousands of folks in the public and community transit industry, who told me, to my surprise, that my book was the first positive portrayal they'd seen of themselves in literature. In addition, I heard from people in the clergy and medical professions, who said the book helped them understand people with disabilities and their family members much better.
Were you surprised at all that happened with this book?
Completely. I wrote it hoping to tell a moving story. I never dreamed I would end up traveling around the country talking to huge groups of people, nor that there would be a movie. I still can't believe it.
Where does the book take place?
I'm sure you understand that I want Beth's life to stay quiet and private. If you have an idea about the location of the book, I hope you'll keep it to yourself.
"Riding the Bus With My Sister: The Movie," The Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of 'Riding The Bus With My Sister' aired on CBS on May 1, 2005. Rosie O'Donnell starred as Beth, Andie MacDowell starred as Rachel, and Anjelica Huston directed. Larry Sanitsky and Rosie O'Donnell were the executive producers, and Joyce Eliason was the screenwriter.
To order the movie, call 1-800-HALLMARK or go to a Hallmark Gold Crown store near you.
How did you feel about a movie being made from your book?
I felt incredibly lucky, and very appreciative. Most writers never have their work adapted for the screen, and fewer still have the adaptation done by people willing to take on such emotional and rarely discussed material. It seems miraculous that Rosie found the material so important, and that she made the movie happen.
How did Rosie discover the book?
My agent sent the editors of Rosie's magazine Rosie my book in manuscript form, to consider for excerpt purposes. Unbeknownst to me, they passed the book along to her, and that's how she saw it. I got a message on my phone at home: “Hi, Rachel Simon. This is Rosie O'Donnell. I read your book, I love your book, I want to make a movie of your book and play your sister. Call me.” At first I wondered if it was a friend playing a joke. I met Rosie the day after that call, made sure Beth was okay with everything, and things started to move forward.
How did Beth feel about the movie being made? Was she excited about the process?
Initially, she agreed to the idea of a movie, but was fairly indifferent as things started to progress. Part of the reason is that she was already very happy in her life, so the movie wasn't too high on her priority list. Another part of the reason is, until the movie was a real thing that she could watch, it was too abstract of an idea to have much meaning to her. The same had occurred with the book. She was not too interested in my writing a memoir about us until the book was a physical reality that she could hold in her hands.
However, we did meet Larry Sanitsky, the Executive Producer, and Joyce Eliason, the screenwriter, when CBS and Rosie started moving forward with the project, about a year and a half before the airdate. Larry and Joyce rode around with us for a day – a snowy, freezing winter day, which was all the more impressive because they're Californians. They treated Beth with respect and dignity, and she was very fond of them by the time they went home. She's even corresponded with Joyce since then.
Did Beth ever meet Rosie?
Beth was a little hesitant about meeting Rosie. Beth felt self-conscious about meeting a movie star, and Rosie's schedule was packed, making it hard for her to set up a visit. Eventually, everyone decided that the best way to handle things was for Beth to keep living her own life, and for Rosie to work off a videotape of Beth to understand her character better. In addition, Rosie spent time with a friend who has developmental disabilities, so some of the mannerisms in the movie are the result of that relationship, and not her observations from the videotape.
What was it like to visit the set?
It was so emotionally overwhelming to watch other people reenacting my memories that I actually kept breaking down and crying during the filming of the scenes. Fortunately, the crew was so busy with their own tasks that no one noticed. I suppose there's some irony in this: I was crying away all on my own, in the midst of a crowd of a hundred that was filming my life for millions.
But there was also much that impressed me during the filming. One was how much Rosie inhabited the character of Beth, and how she brought a sense of humor to the role that deepened the portrayal all the more. Another was how well Andie and Rosie came off as sisters - sometimes arguing, sometimes sharing memories, sometimes being tender with each other. I also loved the great chemistry between the Rachel character and Driver Rick.
In addition to all this, I loved learning just how scenes get set up and shot, and what kinds of tricks they use - sometimes very simple ones - to pull off certain effects. For instance, there was a moment when the Rachel character is driving down the road, sees Jessie on his bike, and stops to have a talk. (This also happened in the book, and of course real life.) There was concern that her car's engine would overwhelm the sound of their dialogue, so four guys from the crew actually stood behind the car to push it at the end of the scene! That way, Andie didn't have to have the motor running.
Perhaps my favorite moment was when I was asked to be an extra in a scene. It's the last scene with Rachel, near the end of the movie. We're in an art gallery, and I'm one of the patrons in the crowd, pantomiming conversation with the man I was paired with. I'm wearing an orange-red blazer and am seen only for a split second, in profile. So be alert! On our first viewing, my own sister missed it.
How did Beth feel when she saw the movie? How did you feel?
The first time we saw the movie was in Driver Jacob's living room, along with his family and Jesse. None of us could resist making a lot of comparisons at first, with Beth being the loudest: "I don't do that. I don't do that. I do that." But then she stopped verbalizing the comparisons, and we all just watched, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. Afterwards, Beth said she liked it a lot, and that she thought Rosie was really good. "But she's not really me," she emphasized, and we agreed. By the next day she was excited about the movie, which was now real to her.
I think it's a poignant, moving, and powerful film that showcases Rosie's astounding acting abilities. It also portrays both characters, as well as the struggles of the special sibling relationship in a more realistic way than we usually get to see in film, and presents bus drivers as the everyday heroes that I now know them to be.
In addition, the movie highlights some of the main themes from my book: Beth's right to live her life by her own choices, the importance of public transportation for a fully independent life, the essential need for friendships in the community, and the challenges and rewards of the sibling bond. The fact that the filmmakers kept these themes amazes and thrills me.
There were some changes from the book. How did you feel about the idea that anything might be changed?
People assume that I'd be angry about any changes, but I haven't been. For one thing, when you get involved with filmmakers, you know they'll make some changes, so I was prepared for alterations. Larry Sanitsky also explained the major changes to me before I saw the script, and explained the reasons behind each change. Most of the reasons involved the fact that we were now in a visual medium, so certain things like Rachel's character development, or her motivation to enter Beth's world, needed to be handled in a more visually dramatic way. All the reasons made sense to me. Plus, Larry asked me to read and comment on the script, and when I did, he took every one of my suggestions. I felt very well-treated.
In addition, for me the big lesson of my year on the buses was that I needed to learn how to love my sister without trying to control her. After all, truly accepting someone, as self-determination helped me learn to do, means stepping back and not trying to control. When the movie entered development, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to control the outcome – so I just applied the very same lesson. After all, if I can't control Beth, why should I think I could control Hollywood? The process was easy and painless once I made that connection.
What were the major changes from the book? (Caution: spoilers!)
In terms of the story, the biggest change is that our father passes away in the movie, whereas in real life he's very much alive. The moviemakers did this so that the character of Rachel would be forced back into her sister's life through something more obviously emotional than an editor assigning her to ride with her sister, or Beth's asking Rachel to continue riding for a year. My father took the news of his fictional departure in stride. "But how will they make a sequel?" he asked.
Another major change in the story is that Rachel is still living with Sam at the start of the movie. In the book and real life, the relationship was already over four years before the ride began. Also, in the movie, Rachel has never told Sam about her sister, but that was not the case in the book. Neither Sam nor I was troubled by this artistic liberty.
In addition, a major point in the story was left out of the movie. When the movie Rachel and her brother leave their mother's house, and Beth stays behind, the flashbacks stop. In the book, some very hard experiences ensued which were traumatic for Beth and Rachel, but the filmmakers decided to omit that material. It was thought that the family would have a hard time watching that part of the story on TV. The family was pleased with this omission.
Other changes in the story involve the drivers. Rick in the movie is actually a combination of Rick and Jacob. Pradlip is a made-up character, but one who is very much like some drivers I've met. Most of the other drivers are referred to in the book.
There are also four siblings in my family, not three, as there are in the movie.
As for the characters, Beth in the movie has some mannerisms that are not like Beth in real life. Some of these are grand gestures, such as the movie Beth pushing in front of other passengers to get on the bus. (Beth would not do that.) Some of these are smaller gestures. In real life, Beth holds her mouth somewhat differently than the movie Beth. Movie Beth also drinks Coke, whereas Real Beth would only drink diet Pepsi.
Rachel is a fashion photographer in the movie, but was, at that time, a writer and professor in real life. Most of her reactions mirror mine, but I tend to be a lot more outgoing and lively than the Rachel in the movie. Andie MacDowell also looks a lot better than I do in the morning (not to mention throughout the day!).
How do you write? Do you use a computer? Do you write every day? Do you use outlines?
I started writing in the era of typewriters—in fact, manual typewriters—so my writing process is the same one I used when I was a kid. I write my first draft by hand, chapter by chapter, using a Parker pen and a spiral bound, college-lined notebook. (Depending on the circumstances of my life at the time, I write in libraries, in bookstores, on planes, in hotels, or in my wicker rocking chair at home.) When I complete a chapter, I type it onto my computer, making a lot of changes. I then proceed to the next handwritten chapter. Once I have a full draft, I do revisions on my computer. I also have two computers in the house, one that's connected to the internet and one that's not, thus making it easier to remain disciplined.
For the most part I write for several hours every day. When I'm in first drafts, I might write only three or four hours before I burn out, but in revisions I can easily go for eight to ten hours, assuming I can maintain the energy.
Some writers write detailed outlines, but I tend not to be one of them. My nonfiction has mostly been set in the present, so without a crystal ball it would have been impossible to have used an outline anyway. For fiction, I sketch out a very general progression for the story, though I can't say it rises to the level of an outline since scenes and details remain elusive until the writing presents them to me.
Do you show your work to other people as you're writing it?
When I was a teenager, I would show my first drafts to anyone who wanted to read them, sometimes even allowing friends to read over my shoulder as I was writing. These days, I write in complete privacy for a long time, perhaps over a year, before I feel I've worked a book enough to show it to my first readers, and then only one or two per draft. I've just found that the world I'm creating feels much richer and absorbing to me if no one else is in the book except me. I think of this as being in a bubble, or a tent, and what I find is that, by being in it alone, it just grows bigger and bigger to me. So I don't even tell people, including my husband, what I'm writing, or maybe that I'm writing at all. If anyone asks, I jokingly tell them, "Sorry, I can't say. Management has me under a gag order."
When do you know that a book is done?
First, I take the book through many revisions, addressing every one of my concerns and perfecting the language until the manuscript has gone as far as I can possibly take it. Only then do I show it to my agent. Usually she'll make suggestions for more revision before she submits it to a publisher. Once it's with a publisher, the editor will ask for more changes, sometimes significant, and I'll take it through yet more revision. If this seems like a lengthy process, you're right. All of my published books have taken four years from inception to publication. Writing requires patience.
You used to write fiction, though your last few books have been nonfiction. Will you write fiction again?
I'm working on fiction right now.
How did you break in as a writer? You must have had connections, right?
Actually, I didn't. But I was prepared when the opportunity arose. For the whole story, see the article in Tips on Writing: How I Became And Stayed A Writer.
I have a great idea for a book, but I'm not a writer. Would you write it for me?
I get asked this question with great frequency, and although I love hearing people's stories, I'm not a journalist, co-writer, or ghostwriter, which means I'm not the kind of writer who'd be attracted to such an undertaking. I am a memoirist whose nonfiction comes from my own life, and I am a novelist whose fiction comes from my imagination. If you want to find someone to write your story, I recommend that you either approach a journalist who writes about the topic that's at the heart of your story, or do a search on publishing websites for co-writers and ghostwriters.
I don't know anything about the business. Can you explain the basics of the publishing industry to me?
Fortunately, there are millions of online and in-print resources that will tell you everything you need to know about how the business of publishing works. You can start here: www.videojug.com/interview/publishing-industry-basics, www.videojug.com/tag/finding-a-literary-agent, www.videojug.com/tag/how-to-find-a-publisher
I know a decent amount about the business. I even have a completed manuscript or nonfiction proposal. But I'm not sure whether they're at the point where I should start looking for an agent. What should I do?
When I was at a career crossroads after my first few books, I was introduced to a former literary agent, Anne Dubuisson Anderson, who'd become a publishing and writing consultant. She met with me and, because she was able to speak from the perspective of an industry insider, she was able to provide just the career guidance I needed. If you're a serious, dedicated writer who thinks you might benefit from showing your current project to someone with the eyes of an insider, if might be worth looking at her website, www.anneconsults.com.