Frisky Q&A: Kelly Oxford Talks About Her Hilarious New Memoir, Going From Stay-At-Home Mom To Breadwinner & Meeting David Copperfield’s Mermaid
Full disclosure: I am more than a little obsessed with Kelly Oxford. The Canadian blogger turned Twitter celeb turned screenwriter just released her first book, the memoir Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar, and it’s seriously one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I have to stop myself from retweeting every single one of her deadpan missives on Twitter. Her husband James looks like bearded Jon Hamm and her three children — Salinger, 11; Henry, 8; and Bea, 4 — are adorable. She owns the Isabel Marant wedge sneakers that I want but can’t afford. So when I got the opportunity to talk to Kelly about her book and her other upcoming projects, naturally I kept her on the phone for as long as possible. After the jump, Kelly talks about the process of writing all of the essays in Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar; the differences between Canadians and Americans; what it’s like to have switched roles with her husband so she’s now the “breadwinner” after 10 years of being a stay-at-home mom; what pal David Copperfield — yes, the magician — has hidden on his private island; and which celeb she totally could have dated at 17.
Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar impressed me because it doesn’t beat the reader over the head with jokes, but is hysterically funny, and at the same time, is very moving. “The Backup Plan” especially was one of my favorite chapters. You write about being a new mom and worrying that your child’s father — your now husband James — will die and you’ll have no way of supporting yourself. So you get job at at a rehab center and then at a nursing home, and your accounts of the latter, especially, were so moving. I actually teared up!
I actually cried too! I had to do the audio book and when I was reading that chapter aloud, I was like, “Oh Lord, I’m feeling the tears…” I’m talking about these people that I knew, that I had these moments with, and I was just, like, “Oh my god, now they’re probably all dead.” Just talking about them, knowing their families probably have no idea that I’ve written about them and how they affected me … and I’m thinking this as I’m saying the words in this airtight box, and the tears just welled up. I managed to get through it though. I was like, “I’m going to be steely, I’m gonna pretend I’m on Oprah, trying not to cry.” I mean, that would be ridiculous — I can’t be an author who cries at her own writing! That would be the stupidest thing ever. So my vision was seriously blurred but I could still manage to see the words so I could read them out loud.
Were there any other memoirs that were especially inspiring to you when you sat down to write yours? Were there any pitfalls you wanted to avoid?
I just wanted to make sure that they were stories that moved all over the place. The trick to being able to tell a joke in a story or a screenplay is in making sure that it’s part of the story and that it’s moving the story forward, rather than just being just a stagnant joke. That’s when I think jokes start feeling like they’re hitting you over the head. If you can get the comedy in but you’re also moving the story to another place, then people don’t even realize that, you know, they’re getting the joke the same way. So I’ve always tried to make sure that the story is always going forward.
You’ve gotten a lot of exposure for your blogging and tweets, and it’s a big leap to go from 140 characters to a book. Was your approach to writing this different?
I have been writing essays and longer pieces for a long time. The tweets were actually holding me back from how much I usually write, so it was kind of the opposite. It was more like, “Well, how am I going to tweet? Oh, I can just put the funniest line of this four page thing in here and tweet that out.” Tweeting actually feels much more restrictive to me.
So writing this book was almost like going back to what you were more comfortable doing in the first place.
Yeah! Exactly. And then being able to tell all of the stories that I would have loved to have blogged but they were just way to long. Nobody is going to sit on the computer and read anything past two or three pages on a blog. So the book was just a great way to get out all of the things that I would have loved to have blogged, but were just too long.
For people who may not know your background, what made you start a Twitter account and how quickly did it take off?
I was a stay-at-home mom, homemaker, whatever you want to call it, and writing on the side, so every medium that came up online, I just took part in because it was all self-publishing. I’ve always been a part of the internet, so whatever came up, I would just join and try and if it died, it died. Twitter is just one of those things like Facebook that’s stuck around, unlike Friendster or MySpace or the blogging communities that I was in that are still around but virtually dead. As somebody who’s always communicated online, it was just a natural progression. I’m actually way more into Instagram now than I am Twitter and have been for awhile.
You mentioned being a stay-at-home mom, which you were for a number of years, but now your husband stays at home with the kids while you’re the primary breadwinner.
That’s because we moved to LA. We actually took a pay cut because I was working, I was doing all this stuff — the screenplay, the book and everything — from Canada, and he was working as an environmental engineer and hydrogeologist, so we were both working full time. Then we decided that we should probably check out LA and that it would be a fun adventure for the family for a trial period. I had a visa to work here and I had a pretty good healthcare plan for the States and it was all set up for me. So I just thought, “Oh, here’s an opportunity where it seems quite easy to transfer for a little while and have a couple years of warm weather.” So we decided he would take a hiatus, because he’s been supporting me since I was 23; it’s only been for the last two years that I’ve made any money. So I thought, “Oh, wait a minute, now we can do a role reversal.” mean, it’s nice to have money, but we both don’t really need to be working at this point and we’ve never had a nanny. So we decided flip it and go to LA for a year or two and see if we like it.
And how’s it going? Do you like it?
Yeah, it’s been fun. it’s been insane. It’s like a totally different pace. I mean, we’d been to LA for up to two weeks before, but by month two, we were just like, “Oh this is very different from Canada.” We didn’t realize how different it was until we were in LA and immersed for two months. Now I understand so many things about Americans and Canadians that I didn’t really understand before.
For instance, Americans and how much they love whatever sports team of the college they went to. It’s really hard to do a lot of things in the States, I feel like the government doesn’t really support people, definitely not the way they do in Canada, by any means, and school is just part of that. Choosing a school, where you’re going to go, and where you’re able to go, it’s just such a part of your identity here because it really is a success to get into a school. In Canada, it’s just a given that you can go to any university you want, you’re going be able to get a loan and it’s not a big deal there. So I understand that it’s really so much harder to get anything done in the States, so when you get it done you’re really excited about it.
And the crazy thing about school here is that it used to be limited to just where you go to college, but now, like, where your kid goes to day care is a big deal.
I know, it’s so weird. And that isn’t a thing at all in Canada, but I understand it, because schools are businesses here and schools aren’t businesses in Canada. Schools are institutions. It’s very different, the whole mentality is different. I understand why people think Canadians are so nice now and so easygoing — and it’s because we are! We’re such babies, we’re so taken care of by our government, we really don’t have to worry about anything. I didn’t realize how little we had to worry about until I got here and I was like, “Oh, I have to do that? What is this?” Like, I didn’t understand any of it. In my country, everything is so organized for you! It’s so much more relaxed. Canadians are way more chill.
You can actually be lazy and not be on top of all your business there. Like, in the States, if you miss your gas bill for a month, they’re going to turn off your gas. In Canada, you could get away with three or four months of not paying your bill and they’re not going to turn off your gas. They’re just not going to do that to you! One of my friends in LA was like, “Oh crap, my bill is late, they’re going to turn off my gas!” And I was like, “They are notttt.” “No, no, no, they’re going to.” “They are not. They wouldn’t do that!” But they would!
When I was younger, I was really bad at paying bills, and I remember I went three or four months without paying electric or water or anything and it was, like, I just kept getting the red letter. “Oh yeah, I’ll get around to it…” It was just laziness! It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it, it was like, “Oh crap, right, I’m just really bad at paying bills.” And it wasn’t a big deal, they’re not going to shut anything off on you in Canada.
But does it affect your credit? Because here, everyone is so worried about their credit.
You know what’s so crazy, I thought it would. I had to get a credit check when I moved to the States — and they literally won’t use my Canadian credit here, by the way, which is insane — and apparently I have awesome credit in Canada. So not paying my bills didn’t affect anything at all. Yeah, but they won’t use my credit here. James and I have had three houses in Canada, but nobody in the States cares. So we’re basically starting out like college students here. A new credit card, everything. It’s bizarre. We can’t buy a house in the States unless we pay in cash. That’s crazy.
So where do you stand on this whole “can women have it all debate,” as someone who’s played both the stay-at-home mom role and the breadwinner role within your family?
I think you can have it all. I feel like I’m somebody who has had it all. I stayed at home, I was a stay-at-home mom, I was following my passion, and my passion turned into a career — but because of what my career is. As a writer, I work from my house, and if I have to, I can pick up my kids, my husband doesn’t have to. I can just walk away from my desk and pick them up and bring them home and we’re all still together as parents raising our own children without any outside help. And I’m still working — I’m not giving up opportunities because I’m a mom. I’m still forging ahead, I’m still selling screenplays and going to meetings and getting more offers. So I think because of what my job is, I’m able to have it all, but if I had to go into an office, I wouldn’t be able to, I would definitely have to give up a lot of the mothering that I’m able to do now. And because I’ve done both now, I honestly couldn’t imagine going to school, and starting a career and then going the other way and being a full-time caregiver without feeling a huge sense of loss about my career. I think it would be a very difficult thing as a woman to deal with that.
So by virtue of your passion being writing and the trajectory your life has taken you’ve been able to “have it all,” but you can see how the pressure on women to stay at home after they’ve had babies would be difficult.
Yeah, I think that would be much more difficult than the weird way that I went about it, which was being a homemaker by 23, until I was 33, 10 years of being at home and cooking and doing the cleaning, not having a housecleaner, not having a nanny, and doing every single little thing, and then having a career. I can’t even imagine. It is such a different feeling of power, having a career. Like, I loved being a stay-at-home mom, I was never like, “Ugh, this is awful, I want out of here,” I was never like that. But I didn’t have that power feeling until I had a career.
But I had a control feeling, definitely. I controlled my household, my children listened to me, I could whatever I wanted, I could put them in this class, I could go out at night. I had huge control over my life — no one was telling me where I had to be at a certain time, i didn’t have deadlines for anything, it was very creative and free and a great way to live. It was so much fun to be able to go to a park or go wherever, anytime I wanted. But then having a career, where people are listening to me, adults are listening to me and then giving me tons of money for my ideas, it’s a totally different game. They’re totally different worlds.
I think that’s an interesting point that you bring up, in terms of having the freedom of running your own household and having a real sense of control there and being able to do what you want to do — that sounds empowering in its own way, that’s different than going into an office and working for someone else.
Yeah, I love that! I mean, growing up, I had really shitty jobs and the one thing I didn’t like was getting a schedule. I just didn’t like losing that part of myself where I had to be somewhere at a certain time and I couldn’t leave until a certain time. That just felt so crazy to me. Being a teen, I just didn’t like that aspect of work. I didn’t mind it when I was there, and I was working — I’m a good worker — I just didn’t like the scheduling. So just having all of that time to myself and being able to plan out my days was wonderful. “Oh, I feel like going to the museum today” … guess what? I get to go to the museum today and I get to bring my kids. I get to show them what I want to show them and see what they want to see and what they want to play with. I didn’t take for granted even once that my husband was out working. Seeing him have to go in and be like, “I have to be at work at 7 and then I can’t leave until after this meeting is over,” I really knew that while he was off doing that, I really had to make the most of my time at home with the kids. I always tried to make it really special so we could tell him all of the things that we did. Just organizing my days like that was really important to me.
I think it’s really cool that the two of you have essentially switched roles and that your husband has been game for that. That’s a very important in any relationship, that willingness to be flexible and supportive of each others opportunities.
I think it’s a pretty progressive way of thinking. He and I don’t like following social norms at all, so that makes it easy — we’re very similar that way. I’m not saying it’s not super difficult, especially for him right now, giving up all the power that he had. He had so much power within the companies that he worked for and so giving that up, for him, has been very difficult. But at the same time, it’s been very liberating for him to be like, “Oh, I’m driving the kids to school and then I’m going to take Bea to the beach today.”
Back to the book! A number of the early chapters are told from the perspective of you as a kid — how did you approach writing as a child for an adult audience?
I read a lot of books that do that — essays by Sloane Crosley, David Sedaris, Chelsea Handler — and I saw that they were able to recalls things in a way that adults also can enjoy. All of my memories of my childhood that I still do have are all still fairly strong — I don’t remember a lot, but the memories I do have are very strong. As a storyteller, I find it not even an issue anymore to be able to tell those stories as an adult and with a lot of retrospect over what those moments were and how they defined me as a person and what the lesson actually was. If you think about it, the memories that you have from growing up, if you’ve saved them for this many years, they were obviously life defining moments. So writing about those memories was really about asking myself, “Why do I remember this?” “What was really important about that?” Sure, that was a funny story, but what was really important about it that I’ve decided to hold onto that memory and not what happened the next day or the next week.
So, writing the book was an investigation into all of these moments and looking at all of them and going, “Oh, this was really just me, in the early days learning that it was okay to want what I wanted when other people were saying ‘Maybe you shouldn’t want that.'” And that my wants weren’t wrong. I just wanted to put on a play with my friends [“Queen Of The World or Something,” in which six-year-old Kelly holds a casting call for “Star Wars,” the play.], or I was really worried that my friend might have AIDS. But what’s the story behind why I was doing that or worried about hat? The AIDS story [“Fuck You Forever,” in which a tween Kelly thinks her supposedly sexually active friend must have AIDS], and trying to find Leonardo DiCaprio [“Finding Leo,” in which 17-year-old Kelly travels to LA to make Leonardo DiCaprio her boyfriend, before he becomes a mega-star in “Titanic.”], those are just examples of me following what my gut wanted to do. “Try and find Leo!” And, by the way, i’m still sure that if I would have found him, it would have worked out.
Well, now that you’re living in LA, have you met Leo yet?
No, and now that I’ve written the book and he’s in it, I definitely don’t want to meet him.
Now you’re definitely going to meet him. I have a feeling more than a few people will be sending him copies of the book.
It’ll probably happen!
You come off as a pretty precocious child — were you really that precocious or are you looking at yourself from more of a comedic, adult perspective?
Oh no, I was really like that. But I try to write about it from the perspective of the director watching it. Obviously when I was six I wasn’t that self aware, but I was doing those exact things. I was wearing that backpack and I was yelling at the kids, and I was freaking out on everybody. I was worried about getting sick, and I didn’t put up with shit — I did all of the things that are in the book, but I think because I’m looking back on it now and not living in it, I’m able to guide the reader through in a much more interesting way than I would have even been able to in the moment, especially when I was six. Even the stories from when I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t have been able to write about them then, or even a year or two later, because I wouldn’t have truly been able to grasp what I was going through or wanted to share.
I mean, at the time, I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to share a lot of these things because they were still too painful. Like peeing my pants! I never thought I would tell anybody about peeing my pants at the gas station other than my mom. I never thought I would tell anybody about that because it was just so HORRIFYING to me. But then, as I got older, I was like, “Oh my god, that poor kid that I was, trying to grow up so fast…” That was just one of a few moments in my life where I was just trying to fit in and be something I wasn’t. All of the times I’ve ever felt any anxiety in my life and my body has just, like, rejected the whole situation was when I was trying to do something that wasn’t natural to me. So that story of peeing my pants, or vomiting all over a Chinese guy before going to this party [“I Peed My Pants and Threw Up On A Chinese Guy”], are just stories that demonstrate that when you’re not doing things that are natural to you, and to your personality, and to your soul, and to your being, then your body has ways of telling you that you probably shouldn’t be doing them.
One of the funniest stories in the book is when you go to Las Vegas to visit David Copperfield [“Vegas”] because he’s a fan of your tweets. Was it very bizarre? He seems like an odd guy.
It was bizarre going there! Being invited was the nicest thing ever and going there was just like so weird. Like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. But I’m so glad we’re doing this.” I feel more comfortable doing that than going on “The Today Show,” like, by a billion times. Going to Vegas to meet the most famous magician in the world to hang out in his loft and go to his private, secret museum full of Houdini stuff feels way more natural to me than going on “The Today Show” to promote my book. t was such an adventure.
And you’ve since been to his island, Musha Cay, right? Was it more or less magical than expected?
It was probably the most perfect place in the world. I am now ruined. I see any photo of any tropical beach and I’m like, “Eh.” Those islands are just perfect. The water is only knee deep for forever and it’s clear — you can’t even tell where the horizon is and where the water meets it. It’s insane. But I’m ruined now. I got to be a guest at this resort that, like $32,000 a day!
Yeah! People like Dr. Oz go there. Penelope Cruz got married there. It was insane, but the most amazing, beautiful place probably in the world.
Did you see any of the mystical, psychic monkeys you wrote about in the book?
I didn’t even go down to the monkey caves because I was just on total relaxation mode. I was so lazy. I didn’t even read a book while I was there! I just laid there like a lump of grossness on the beach. But David has actually made all of these cool excursions, so by the third day, his wife Chloe was like, “You are going to go see the mermaid today!” I knew I couldn’t be this huge asshole that sees nothing on his island while I’m there, so I’m like, “Fine, I’ll go see the mermaid today.” So David brought out this book that he wrote, fully illustrated and everything, that you’re supposed to read the book before you go out and see this mermaid. The story was really lovely; it’s all about the sailor dying and the mermaid sitting by this piano and listening to this song that he’d written for her. So after I read the story, we got on this boat and we’re taken into the middle of the ocean and I’m told to put on snorkel gear. I had the stupid fins on and I was like, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” I get in the water and David says, “You can swim down if you want to go see it. ” So I go under water and sitting there, probably 20 feet down, is this mermaid sculpture, with David’s wife’s face, sitting at this full-sized piano made out of metal. Under the water, you can hear music being piped from the piano. I came back up and David’s sitting there on a jet ski, and he’s like, “Did you hear the music? That’s a Will.i.am song. I commissioned him to write that song for the mermaid.”
Oh my god. [Seriously, I am laughing so hard at this.]
I was like, “Ohhh my god, I’m so glad I came to see the mermaid!”
Seriously, you’re probably one of, like, a dozen people who have gotten to see this, like, 8th wonder of the world.
I know! Like, Dr. Oz, Dr. Dre, me. But that’s what so amazing about David. When you have that much money, what are you doing to do with it? You’re going to invest some of it, you’re going to donate some of it, but with the rest of his fun money, he’s like his own little personal Walt Disney. He just creates whatever comes into his mind. Like, “Oh, I thought of this story, I’m going to get somebody to illustrate it and publish it and then I’m going to build an underwater sculpture.”
I wonder if there any photos of it online.
Oh, I’m sure there are. I’m sure David had it professionally photographed.
So you mentioned your kids, I’m curious how they’ve all reacted to your recent success — especially your eldest daughter Salinger, who’s 11, who came with you on your trip to New York.
She thinks it’s fun. She got to hang with people I know in New York and she’s just like that perfect age where you’re just going into middle school and nothing has really broken you down yet. You haven’t had your first real stress out yet, you’re still super innocent, but also just really intelligent. She’s this perfect age and there’s going to be few opportunities where I’m ever going to look cool to her, so I thought, instead of waiting until she’s 15 or 16 and doing a New York trip for shopping and museums, I decided to bring her with me now.
And your other two kids? Do they get that mom is sort of famous now?
Yeah, I mean, they’ve seen the book all over the house and they know it’s going to be in the bookstore. Bea not so much, because she’s 4, and she’s like, “I don’t care, my mom is here with me everyday and that’s where I want her to be.” She’s just like, “Don’t ever work in New York again!”Like an hour before we were leaving, she was like, “I don’t think New York is there anymore. I don’t even think they need you there! I think it’s gone! I think you need to stay here and work like you always do!” And I was like, “Well, it’s just going to be for a few days and then I’m going to Toronto for a few days,” and she was like, “Nope! Nope. Toronto doesn’t need you either.” So she’s just sort of pissed off that I’m not at home right now with her.
A lot of your tweets reference your kids or funny aspects of being a parent — have people been fairly respectful of your family online?
Yeah, they have, which I think is a testament to the types of people who are interested in my life or my writing. I always thought, and I don’t know that I want to provoke anyone to do this by saying it, but the quote-unquote “haters” have never attached my kids. Ever. Which blows my mind. You would think on some level that that would be the easiest way to get to me. But nobody has ever gone there.
I think that’s also a testament to the kind of material I’m also putting out there because if I was anywhere near the level of, say, Kim Kardashian, just exploiting my family, they would be all over it. They would be all over it. I think the kind of people that are interested in my writing are very smart people and are probably actually maybe socially a lot like me and interested in the same sorts of things that I’m interested in and are thus supportive. There’s been no blowback at all. I also think I’ve just been very good about curating the stuff I do share about my family and in a way that’s still real and funny.
That’s one of the things I noticed in the book — there is stuff about your kids in there, but it’s done with a very light touch. It feels personal but not exploitative at all. The reader gets a sense of your kids personalities without feeling like their privacy is being blown.
Yeah, I think that’s because I watched a lot of TV and a lot of movies and I know how to do the “flat but interesting” character child, where you don’t have to get too involved in the details. It’s not very writerly, like in a book sense or a literary way, as much as it is writing them for entertainment value. But people do have a strong sense of who my kids are, and even the people who have met Sal in the last couple of days are like, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly the way that you’ve described her. But she’s even cooler in person!” Yes, that’s because I didn’t tell you everything about her!
You seem to have taken the same approach when writing about your husband — in the chapter where your entire family goes to Disneyland [“Frogger”] and James appears rather shell-shocked by the experience, you get a real sense of who he is while keeping plenty private. It’s very clear that you’ve managed to include your family in your writing but in a way that still keeps so much of it yours.
I’ve been offered a reality series and even David Copperfield was like, after spending three days with my family, “Oh my god, that would be the easiest show to edit! Your family is insane!” I know they are, but I don’t want everybody to see that. I don’t want it to be for entertainment value out of my control. I’ve controlled my family since I gave birth to them, I don’t want them to be exploited — but at the same time, there are so many wonderful things about a family and about children that can be shared, but when they’re shared on television, everyone assumes it’s fictional. But the reality is there are writers in the room on those series that are putting their own actual experiences on the TV screen. It’s not all fictionalized. I just want people to feel like the real fun sitcom family is an actual real thing. That’s what my family is if I look at it from that point of view.
It’s so Pollyanna of me to just be like, “Look at the good side of things! Looks at the bright side of this terrible day and make it funny” but that’s what life is. It’s all your point of view. You just have to look at the great things in your day and even the terrible things — what’s funny of them? it’s not that difficult to have that point of view throughout your day, even on the worst days.
So what’s next for you? I know you already wrote one TV pilot and have a movie in development…
I’m going to write a new pilot for this season, I’m not sure what — it might be an option off of my book. I’ve already had a few offers so I’m just going to go back home and take one after the book tour. As for the movie with Warner Bros., we’re just attaching Drew Barrymore to direct right now — she’s a dream and so sweet. And she totally understands the story of the crazy, fun, outgoing party girl, who gets pregnant and goes through the process of having a baby while still staying true to herself. That’s basically what all my stories are about. And Drew understands that — I mean, she was a crazy party girl that had a baby. We’re hopefully going to start working on that very soon and start attaching people to star in it. And I’m going to write another one — another movie on spec — when I get back as well, so I’ll be doing a TV pilot and another feature and planning another book.
Are you shocked by everything that’s happened?
I’m … maybe not shocked. I just have a weird thing where I just go with everything. I mean, I was the girl that went to LA to find Leo. And I’m still 100 percent sure, I mean honestly, that if I had found him, it would have worked out for him. So all of this stuff that’s happening is really just a matter of me being able to step up and do all of this work now that I’m working in all three mediums. My main concern is how much time am I going to be able to spend with my kids and how am I going to be able to all of this without freaking myself out with deadlines. I just think about what I have to do to get through my day and spend enough time with my kids.
But I’m sure if I was single or just married I would be able to sit back and go, “Oh whoa, this is a pretty crazy arc to have been writing for myself online for 11 years and all of the sudden have a career.” But there’s just way too much other stuff that’s still a priority for me, with the kids and everything that it’s easy to to not take any of it too seriously until I see the check in the bank and then I’m like, “Oh yay, it worked, good!”
Find out more about Kelly Oxford’s Everything Is Perfect When You’re A Liar – and buy it and read it because it is amazing — here.