Saturday, October 17, 2009

"BOOK MARK" *Interview* with Author JANICE ERLBAUM by Denise Vasquez

All material on this website
©2009 by Denise Vasquez

Books always have a tendency of finding me at the most appropriate moments in my life...

I decided to browse around one day, as I LOVE to do

from time to time, when I came across a book called "GIRLBOMB"

The first thing that caught my attention was the title of the book....

"That's a GREAT, INTERESTING title" I thought to myself...

The second thing was the photo on the cover...

"Hey, that's My native New York City"...

The last & most important thing was the author's name Janice Erlbaum

"I know that name...I know that name"...

...and then it hit me...

Could this be the same Janice Erlbaum that I went to high school with?!? I did a little research & to my delight I discovered it was!

I ordered the book, and soon enough I discovered why the book had found me when it did! When "Girlbomb" found me, I was coming to terms with a difficult time I went through most of my life, but especially during high school in my early teens. Little did I know, my friend Janice Erlbaum also went through a difficult time in highschool which no one knew about! I too have a story that I have yet to tell...maybe someday...Janice Erlbaum's life is sooo inspiring & she is brave enough to write about it & share her story with the world! I'd like to thank Janice for giving me the the courage to face many secrets that I kept locked away for far too long! Another GREAT thing Janice & I have in common that I have to mention is our love & appreciation for our wonderful high school teacher Mr. Alan Fleisig who helped us get through a very difficult time! Speaking of Mr. Alan Fleisig, lets get to the interview...

What impact did Mr. Fleisig have on you?

Oh, wow. I wish Mr. Alan Fleisig, our high school drama teacher, were still alive. I miss him very much, and am angry that he didn't get to enjoy the sight of his students as successful adults. He helped so many of us on our road to becoming artists; I know he would be SO proud to see us today! When he chose to cast me in a big role in the Spring Play, it gave me so many things: Encouragement, hope, something to do to keep me out of trouble after school, a goal in life, an ego boost... He was a wonderful artist himself, and a real inspiration, not only in those years, but today, as I try to

mentor other young artists.

I enjoyed your performances in high school, How did you

get involved with the drama dept?

I got involved with the drama department because there wasn't enough drama in my personal life! (Hah! As if.) No -- the truth is that I always loved acting and performing and singing, and when I saw that our high school was putting on plays, I immediately wanted to be involved. If Mr. Fleisig had not given me such a big role, my ego probably would have been wounded, and I don't know if I would have stayed involved as devotedly as I did. I'm always grateful that he chose me -- an obnoxious, homeless teenage tramp with a half-shaved head -- instead of someone more stable and popular and cute. He knew I needed it more than they did.

Have you done any theatrical performances since?

I did some stand-up comedy from 1999-2003. It's a hard racket, but a rewarding one sometimes. I've done a lot of drugs, and none of them are as good as the high you get from doing a good stand-up set! But it's also a lot of late nights, traveling, alcoholics coming on to you, sexism and homophobia and racism, unhealthy people... In the end, I realized that I could be a comic or a writer, but not both -- I had to choose how to spend me time. Sometimes I miss stand up, but I'm glad I chose writing.

How did you make the transition from actress to author?

I was always writing, even back in high school, which is the only time of my life when I could call myself an actress. So it was easy for me to become a writer -- I'd always been one! As I said above, at a certain point I realized that there were only so many hours in a day, and that I had to choose how to spend them -- on stage, or on the page. The only way to become a writer is to write, so that's what I did.

How many books have you written to date? What are
the Titles?
I've written two books:
GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir



Working on a third right now! (Well, not right now; right now I'm working on answering these questions!)
What do you feel about the power of reading & writing? What impact have books had on your life?
Reading saved my life as a kid! The ability to leave my world and go to another, to read other people describe thoughts and feelings that I thought were mine alone -- these completely saved my sanity. (I hope that TV and the internet provide that for young people today, since that seems to be the primary delivery system of stories.) As soon as I could start putting my own experience on paper, where it could become an object I could share with others instead of a thought in my head, I started to do so. It was about looking at life and trying to understand it. I think people want to write their stories, and most people do, even if it's only in conversation -- there are catchphrases, stories, and jokes that they always tell about themselves. Putting those stories down on paper, where you can look at them, and forecast alternate futures and pasts and see how that would feel, is a potent act, one that feels great! I highly recommend the experience.
When did you start writing?
I started writing at a very early age -- I think my first book was written at age three ("Janice and the Giraf") -- I even illustrated it myself. I wrote a thinly-disguised autobiography at eight, a few short fiction and poetry pieces at ten, and started keeping an on-and-off journal when I was thirteen. The first piece that was published outside of school papers was a short story called "Just Babies" -- I was twenty, and it appeared in the New York Press.
When did you know you wanted to be a professional writer?
When I was a kid, and adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said, "A writer." The funny thing is that, when it was time for college, I suddenly doubted myself, and decided to go to business school (????), so I would at least learn a money-making skill in life. But I quickly screwed up in business school, and switched to a major in English with a concentration in Writing. Never doubted that I wanted to write for a living since.
Who/What inspired you to want to become a writer?

All the authors I read as a kid were inspiring to me. I remember looking up children's author Ellen Raskin in the phone book so I could get her address and send her a fan letter. Every book I read inspired me to write my own. I had so many stories in my head -- they had to come out somehow!

Did you have any encouragement from someone, or was it something you decided & did on your own?

Both of my parents were very supportive of my writing, for which I'm very grateful. They always told me I had talent and I should pursue it; my father even paid for graduate school. I also had a number of teachers who encouraged me, especially Molly Peacock (once my seventh grade teacher, now a famous poet), Professor David Winn at Hunter College, and Allen Ginsburg and Mona Simpson, who I was lucky enough to study with in graduate school.

Are your books based on your real life, personal experiences?
Both of my books, and most of my published essays and poems, are based on my real life. I was hoping to make the next book fiction, but it looks like my real-life events are once again so dramatic that I may have to use them in a book.
When writing your first memoir, was it difficult for you to expose your life to the public, or was it a relief?
It was both difficult and a relief. I was so ashamed of some of the things I'd done -- promiscuous sex, lying to friends, thumbsucking -- there were times around the book's publication when I'd wake up in the middle of the night wanting to yell, "Stop the presses!", because I couldn't stand the idea that people were actually going to read the thing and learn the truth. At the same time, owning up to the things I'd done that I felt badly about helped me to get over that shame. Now that all of that stuff is down on paper, I can sort of close the cover and walk away from it (to the extent that that's ever possible).
What challenges do you face as a writer when writing your own book?

The biggest challenge is getting over perfectionism. First drafts are ugly and stupid and boring and weird, and you have to write them anyway. You can't get to the second draft without going through the first. So you have to stop judging whether your project is any "good" until you're a good 100 pages into it. And then, when you realize it isn't very good, you have to muster the desire to keep going and make it better, rather than just quit and go watch TV.

Another challenge is finding time. To make time to write, you have to take time from something else. You can't write and do other things at the same time. BUT all you really need is 45 minutes to get the start of a good thought on paper -- and 45 minutes, even once or twice per week, is not that hard to find. Even five minutes a week is better than no minutes a week.

You volunteer at shelters, would you mind telling us about that?

Right now, due to some illness in the family, I am not volunteering anywhere, which sucks. I used to volunteer at the shelter where I lived briefly as a teenager -- my second book, HAVE YOU FOUND HER, is all about volunteering there, and a young woman I met there who I nearly adopted. Then I was on the board at an organization called Girls Write Now which pairs at-risk public high school girls with professional writing mentors -- they've been going for 11 years, and have a 100 percent rate of college acceptance for the girls they serve. Most recently, I was doing a weekly workshop at GEMS which helps survivors of commercial sexual exploitation -- an AMAZING organization that's changing the way people understand the issue of domestic sex trafficking in the US. I loved working at GEMS, and hope to get back to it soon.

You do live readings, I hope to make one some day, but in the meantime can you share with us what is is you do at your readings...

Almost every event is different! Sometimes I'm invited to read poetry; sometimes it's prose; sometimes it's a speech about domestic violence that my hosts want, or a class in writing, or a story about being Jewish -- it depends on the venue and the series and the host's requests. I will pretty much do anything to address a live audience, because the experience is really fun.

Any books in the works that you are at liberty to discuss?

Well, I'd hoped not to write another memoir -- I kept saying, "I hope nothing interesting enough to write about will ever happen to me again." Alas, life is getting a little too interesting these days not to write about. But I may wind up calling it fiction this time.

Do you have websites?

I do

Anything else you would like to add?

I'd like to add how happy I am that the internet has allowed me and Denise to connect in the present, after knowing each other many lifetimes ago, and how much I appreciate her art, her energy, and her desire to help others experience a fuller life through self-expression! She is goodness and love! :)

Thank you Janice! I am soooo happy to reconnect & look forward to reading many more of your fantastic memoirs, essays & more!

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PeAcE LOvE aRt & sOuL

Denise Vasquez

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