Caissie St. Onge is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer (she’s worked for David Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, The Grammy Awards) but more recently she’s the author of a shiny new YA novel entitled “Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever.” (Slated to be released May 10th by Random House and now available for pre-order through Amazon.com).
I met Caissie on Twitter when she offered me a shoulder to cry on during my Snooki meltdown. That led me to be charmed by her rarely updated blog and prolific Twitter stream, where I found her to be humble, funny, and almost obnoxiously happy with her life in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, author Matt Debenham, and their two sons, Eli and Lincoln.
So okay, Caissie—where’s the dark side? We all know that writers, especially comedy writers, have one. Spill it.
HA! It’s true that most people in comedy do harbor a dark side. I guess I’m no exception. The upshot is that my upbringing was kind of tough. I was raised by a single, hardworking mom, my father struggled with addiction and with a lot of things – facts, dates, finances, the truth – and a lot of times, I was a very, very lonely kid. We didn’t have enough money and we lived in a rural area with not many other kids around. I was sexually abused by a family member, outside of the home, over a period of time in a child-care situation gone wrong. And in my own house, we had only one tiny pass-thru closet that was shared by two bedrooms! And one year, mice infested my dresser and ate and pooped all over my favorite Yvonne Goolagong polo shirt from Sears!
It was bad, but at the time, I’m not sure that I put it together that those things shouldn’t necessarily be, and it wasn’t until I was in college, or maybe moved away to New York even, that I realized that my childhood was actually a little weird and not so terrific in many ways. Maybe even a bit gothic.
For the longest time I didn’t talk about any of it at all, ever. And, if I did trust someone enough to reveal a secret to, it was always with the qualifier that it was no big deal and that other people had it much worse than I ever did. Well, you know, nobody ever said it was a terrible-life contest, right? I was kind of missing the point about acknowledging things that may have had an impact on me, for better or worse. And my life wasn’t all terrible, there were many good things, but there were clearly some issues that I needed to address, which I’ve finally started to do on my “rarely updated” blog. Instead of with a professional therapist like I probably should. But blogging doesn’t require appointments or insurance. Or clothes that aren’t pajamas!
Let me ask you the questions my mother used to ask me: What the heck’s so special about writing? Why would anybody choose to do that for a living?
I just always wanted to be a writer. I was obsessed with The Muppet Show when I was little and from the first time it dawned on me that somebody was making up the jokes and stories those Muppets were performing, I was pretty determined to do that. Then of course, there was Rose Marie on reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I wanted to be her. Laura Petrie was lovely and looked good in a pair of pedal pushers, but if I had my druthers, I’d choose to be the loud, cat lady Sally Rogers who couldn’t land a husband, but managed to land a gig as one-third of the comedy writing team on a popular fictional television show! I think I even went through a period of time where I cribbed the bow she wore in her hair.
Of course, I’m making it sound like all I ever cared about was hair bows and cats. Not so. I think I love to entertain, but I’m not necessarily an entertainer. I think that making someone laugh is the best feeling in the world. And I think, to some extent, I’m a fighter, so I’ve, perhaps subconsciously, set myself up in this kind of not altogether-stable career that puts me in a position to compete to make a living. Sometimes I wish I would have considered how often I would emerge from these competitions non-victorious, but I didn’t have your mother around to tell me what a crackpot idea I had!
You’ve had a successful career in television. What prompted you to delve into the field of young adult fiction and why Jane Jones in particular?
I would call my career semi-successful. I’ve worked on a few really big-deal shows, and then I’ve filled out the rest of my years working on whatever I could to help support my family. I never graduated to that upper-echelon of TV writers who have a lifetime gig on a long-term show or who move up to become executive producer of a show. Not yet anyway, and realistically, that may never happen. I’m not sure why. I think I’m good at what I do, but it just hasn’t happened the way that I think I originally envisioned it. Maybe someone out there knows?
Writing this YA book was a totally unexpected development and one that I’m so grateful for. The idea was born on Twitter, actually. Twitter, for me, has been such a blessing and I could probably write a thesis on the whys and wherefores of that, but suffice it to say for now that Twitter has changed my life in many positive ways. Really. One way was this book. I was goofing around on Twitter, joking about the popularity of the vampire genre in fiction and all of these movies and TV shows, and I threw out the notion that becoming a vampire would be the least sexy and most awkward thing that could ever happen to a teenager. I said that with my luck, I would be blood intolerant. And people responded positively to that idea. Which was a great feeling, but one that I probably wouldn’t have thought much more about. Then I got this DM from this fella, @arjunbasu, who writes these beautiful little short stories all in the space of a tweet, and I admire his talents very much. He said, “I actually think this is a good idea. I’ve published a book. If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.”
That’s where it all began, and I was impossibly lucky with everything every single step of the way with the book. I don’t expect the stars to align for me quite like that ever again, but I can’t tell you how grateful I am that they did just this once.
Let’s set back the clock 15 years or so and say I’m the mother of a twelve year-old girl who loves to read. What sets Jane Jones apart from other novels in the same genre?
My husband was a huge help to me when I was writing this book. I wanted the manuscript that I handed in to be perfect and I wasn’t confident in my own eyeballs, so he spent a lot of time reading it over for me. I would always apologize, because he’s a writer of literary fiction with talent just bubbling out of him, and here I was asking him to read and re-read this book, aimed at young adults, particularly young women, in a genre that hasn’t traditionally been his cup of tea. After a while, he said, “Stop apologizing!” He made the point to me that even though this book was packaged in a certain way, that it was really about this girl, Jane, who feels very stuck in a complicated situation and is trying to work her way through it, Jane isn’t passive. She’s smart and she’s funny and she’s rash, and my hope is that girls will say, “Obviously I’m not a vampire, but other than that, this is me.”
Are you planning on making a series of Jane Jones novels, or are there others in the works?
I was extremely fortunate to be offered a two-book deal with Random House. That means that they’re publishing this book, as well as another book I have yet to write. I’m not sure what will happen just yet. I feel like we leave Jane in a place where a second book is possible, if that’s what people want. In the meantime, I’m working on something new and different that I’m really excited about. I wish I could tell you more, but I probably shouldn’t…
Besides meeting Matt and the births of your children—which all parents know is the most magic thing ever—what’s one of the best things that’s ever happened in your life?
Oh, that’s a hard question. I have had a lot of bests in my life and I’m looking forward to at least a few more. I might have a skewed sense of what is a “best thing”. Okay, I’ll try to articulate a multi-fold event. I once did a blind writing submission to work on a TV pilot with Joan Rivers, and the producers told me that she indicated my submission and said, “I want to hire this guy.” And they were like, “Okay, that’s a girl. But, sure.” Later, when I met her she was like, “Sorry, I thought you were a man!” She said she had no idea why she thought that, but I chose to take it as a huge compliment. We didn’t get to work closely together on the pilot because I had to go back to my other job, but after the show had been shot using some of the material I contributed, she threw a party for everyone at Sardi’s. I wanted to reintroduce myself to her because I hadn’t seen her since our initial meeting, but she was swarmed with well-wishers and I couldn’t get near her. So, I was at the bar having a soda, and suddenly she’s tapping me on the shoulder. She said, “I’ve been looking for you all night! I just wanted to tell you that I think you have real talent. I think you could do anything you want to do in this business. Sitcoms, movies, I think you could do it. Every time you work on something, I want you to ask yourself, ‘Is this good enough for me to be a part of.’ Promise me you will, okay?” I will never forget it, especially since I burst out crying right there as she was speaking to me. To have someone I admire so much, say such a kind thing to me made a gigantic difference in my life. Of course, the pilot wasn’t picked up, so that was an anticlimactic ending. However, I have maintained a relationship with Joan. I’ve gotten to write for her and visit a few places with her and she’s been so good to me. I’m not sure if I can say she’s my friend. Can I say that? I feel like she’s too much of a big deal for me to say we’re besties. But, I’ve learned so much from her and she is truly one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. And I’m not talking money or goods here, either, though I know her to be generous to many people in that area, too. I mean generous with her experience and her time and her love. I was so happy with the success of her documentary, because I know she’s a controversial figure for a lot of folks, but I think the film showed just a fraction of the person she truly is, and that person is someone I can’t help but admire with both barrels.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the story of Amanda Hocking, the independent writer who was in the news recently for selling over 900,000 copies of her young adult novels on the Internet. Hocking’s is a rare story and writers might take different lessons from her success. I’m beginning to believe that, somewhat sadly, writers can’t be hermits anymore. That we have to be out there making noise about our own work, regardless of our publishing opportunities. What’s your take?
I have heard of Amanda Hocking, though I haven’t had a chance to read one of her books yet. I am excited for her! And maybe a teensy bit envious of her untold riches. She’s so young! Listen, I’m sure for every great book that is published traditionally, there’s at least one great book that’s languishing in someone’s drawer for whatever reason. How fascinating is it that now a writer has the ability to go in this new direction and let the readers decide? And her readers have certainly decided, haven’t they? That’s pretty cool. At the same time, let me point out that I’ve met some published authors who have decided to explore the self-publishing route and tell me they’ve sold maybe twenty copies at .99 each. So, it’s not a sure path to millions of adoring fans.
And I think you’re right. I believe regardless of the way in which your work comes to life, whether it is an eBook you’re putting up yourself, or whether you land a five-book six-figure deal and your debut is coming out in hard cover with deckle edge pages, you have to get out there and bang the drum for it. Sure, some things catch on and snowball in terms of popularity and success, but you have a better chance of getting that initial word-of-mouth spark if you’re not just letting it lie there.
Do I expect that between my Twitter community and my Facebook fan page and my GoodReads author page that I’ll get to go on Oprah with my YA novel? Probably not. I hear she’s kind of busy this year. But do I hope that I can walk a tightrope of getting the word out about my book with the help of these relationships that I value deeply without alienating and annoying people? Of course.
In the end, though, what it really comes down to is people liking the story. If kids like the story, and they tell their friends, I think I’ll be okay. So I wait, and tinker with my shiny new author blog, and hope for good things.