Woman of the Week
What magazines taught her about love, sex and starting over
-Julie Ryan Evans
In her recently released book, Up for Renewal, Cathy Alter decided to improve her life one magazine self-help article at a time. It’s an incredibly raw, insightful look at a year in which she transformed her life from an all-time low–complete with cubicle sex, vending machine meals and the aftermath of a divorce–to a happy, new life by following the guidance in women’s magazines. And she doesn’t hold back when including her friends and family in the analysis along the way. She has reviewed rave reviews and been featured everywhere from the Today Show to Allure and the New York Post. The Bettys are fans as well and highly recommend this addictive read.
We recently caught up with Alter to talk about her inspiration for the book and what happens when honest, revealing writing is suddenly made public.
1. How did you get the idea for the book?
It was such a eureka moment. I wanted to do another book. I did (my first book) Virgin Territory, and I loved writing in that longer format. My agent was aware of this spiraling out of control I was doing after I got divorced. I’d tell him funny stories and regale him with my late nights and how I was always on antibiotics and always sick. About the same time, a good friend of mine called me and said our friendship was at an all time low and I needed to figure something out.
So I wrote down this list of what I wanted–you know what my life should look like. It was a simple list: to be loved, to be successful, to look younger than my years, to stop eating my lunch out the vending machine. I realized that if you just put an exclamation point at the end of everything on my list, it looked like a women’s magazine. I was telling my agent about this, and he was like, Oh my God, this is it. I said I’m going to let women’s magazines fix me. I thought I can do this– it’s $144 to subscribe to all these magazines, and I don’t have to move to Italy, India and Indonesia. That’s what those magazines are there for. They are screaming out how to do everything–how to host the perfect dinner party, how to take 10 years off your face by tweezing your eyebrows, how to cook a meal for seven in one pot. I thought I’m going to do it and see what happens.
2. Did the experiment turn out as you expected it to?
So when I did the book proposal I couldn’t write a sample chapter because I hadn’t done it yet, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. My book proposal was like this is what I think might happen. Even though I predicted some stuff, it’s nothing like what I thought the book would be. I would have never predicted that I would go camping, really never thought I’d ever go to Hong Kong for a family reunion.
I never thought I’d get married again; I thought I would just have a string of affairs and die. My first marriage had just failed, and I wasn’t psyched to do it again. It was a real surprise from what I had proposed at the beginning of the year to what I turned in. I actually thought my editor was going to be mad and make me give back my advance. But everyone loved it; I was lucky.
3. You are so honest in this book. How do you handle writing something so raw knowing that your family and friends are going to read it?
I just don’t think about it when I’m writing. I don’t consider the audience. I just sort of wrote what I needed to get out. I didn’t edit myself. When it came down to writing about my mother or going through this divorce, I just thought I’m cheating myself and I’m cheating the reader unless I just go for it and stick myself under that microscope and put on the bright lights and get the power lens out and just go there get ugly and look ugly and swim around in that for a while because that’s really only way you can work through it. It really helped me process that miserable time by examining it. It’s like Dr. Phil says, “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” It’s true; I had to. I had to really ask myself over and over, why did I do this? Why did I let this happen?
And, until about a week before the book was released I didn’t really consider my parents reading it, my husband reading. Now I think about it. Now when I hear my mother hasn’t read past page 76, I think about what that means. I think every reader has a different relationship with the writer. It’s especially different when someone who knows that writer is reading it. I think for someone like me who is pretty open and honest and comfortable with talking about her feelings I think oh good this will open up a new dialogue with my family, but they don’t want to talk about it.
My mother was concerned that she was depicted as a monster, and I told her that wasn’t true; it was never my intention, but I needed to examine our relationship. I think if she read the book or talked to me about page 76, where she stopped reading, it would be good. But I can’t force that. I can control what’s in the telling, but I can’t control readers’ reactions, especially people who know me.
4. Is there anything you regret putting in the book?
I don’t regret putting anything in the book. It’s hard to read parts of the book, but everything in there is in there for a reason. Even the cubicle sex, I needed to put that in there, because I needed to show how reckless and I had become and how self destructive. I didn’t put it in there to be like woo-wee. I really needed to show what my life had become and how dangerous it was. Because I’d never been like that; I was the most careful person ever.
5. How have other family members reacted?
The hardest thing right now is my mother-in-law, and oh, my poor husband. He’s so proud of me and so thrilled…but I know he’s concerned with his mother reading it because she’s a really, really private person as are my parents, but at least I have some sort of right to write about them. But his mother, I don’t know that well. I’ve only known her a few years now really. And for her daughter-in-law to analyze her and sort of hold her up and come to these conclusions about her, I can see her reacting in a way that’s very unhappy–like, who am I to write this about her?
I really love his mother too; she’s funny and nice. But I needed to highlight me trying to find my place in his family since a lot of this book was about figuring out who I was and where I fit in when I never really felt like I did before. So when I saw that she sort of had trouble finding her place in her own family, I felt really connected to her and wanted to highlight that in that chapter where we all go to Hong Kong. I don’t know if she’ll read it like that though. But that’s my intention in writing about her is showing how similar we are even though she’s a 4-foot tall Chinese lady and I’m a 6-foot Jew.
6. Do you know what your sales for Up for Renewal are like?
No, I’m so scared to find out. I feel like I’m already doing the best I can do. I’ve written this book, and that was the best I could do. And I’m appearing on these radio shows; I was on The Today Show... I’m like out there, and I’m working it and I’ve got my talking points down. I’m afraid I’ll be too hard on myself once I get a number attached to my book, and I don’t want to bum myself out because I’m so sensitive. I’m the type who will go into my closet and get in the fetal position and cry for three days over a two-sentence review. And that’s so silly, because obviously not everyone is going to love me. But if I can’t weather a two-sentence review, how am I going put up with learning who actually has gone to Amazon or a store and paid money for my book? That’s too much for me. Publishing is a business too, but I almost don’t want to know about the business end of it.
7. What’s next for you?
Right now I’m teaching writing now at The Johns Hopkins University, and I love it. And I’d like to continue in this memoir format. I really want to explore the women in my family. I grew up with all these really glamorous women…I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that. It makes it really difficult to though when my mother won’t even read past page 76 of this one. Someone said if you’re going to write a memoir you have to wait until everyone is dead, but my grandmother lived into her 90’s, and I don’t really have time to sit around and wait. My family is just fascinating. The quotes I have in the book, they really said that. I can not make this stuff up.
Rapid Fire Questions
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a celebrity divorce attorney. I had a celebrity fixation, and I thought how am I going to meet them? I figured they get married and divorced all the time, and if I was a lawyer I’d get to meet them. That was my logic there.
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
The super smart ones who were not always the most popular ones. But at my first high school reunion they had become the best looking and most successful, and I felt so good about that.
3. What women from the past do you most identify with?
Maybe Jane Pratt – early, sassy Jane Pratt.
4. What’s your workout?
I actually have one now. I was obsessed with Jackie Warner’s Workout show, and I got her DVD. I only do the arms, but it’s really good.
5. Cat or dog?
6. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
Watch the Real World or take a walk and put my ipod on.
7. What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
Them by Francine du Plessix Gray.
8. If you could have dinner with any two people, who would you choose?
I’d have dinner with my grandparents. I miss them.
9. What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
Those nasty queen bees at school. That is so painful.
10. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I wish I learned how to parallel park. I can’t drive a stick shift car either.