Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Jill Soloway

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A single mother and an executive producer on HBO's Six Feet Under, Jill Soloway is also the author of the memoir Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants, published this past fall. Soloway is also active in theatre and performance art and has created programs known for supporting the work of female entertainers, such as the Sit 'n Spin storytelling series in Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles with her son and "husfriend," whom she calls Dink in her book. A few weeks after her 40th birthday, Soloway sat down with Associate Profiles Editor Helaine Olen to discuss feminism, sex, which character she identified with most on Six Feet Under and how "family has become the new fucking" in the United States.

Helaine Olen: Do you think women are encouraged to lose their voices or gain them as they get older?

Jill Soloway: Women generally lose their voices when they turn 12. I am just reclaiming mine now. Motherhood is a very interesting place for that. When you have kids, you revisit that feeling of having to be silent like you did when you were a girl, but now you are not going to be silent because you are a mom.

HO: Where does the silence come from?

JS: For me, it came from suddenly being looked at so much. Older men, who would never look at you or would never let you tell them what to do, are suddenly asking you where you want to go. You are 14, 15, 16, 17 and suddenly you have all this power that you don't have from being bossy little Helaine or Jill who knows everything in this world. You have it from shutting up and you have it from sitting and looking a certain way and being a perfect object that arouses men. So you do shut up. I'm sure you've heard it: "You talk to much. Why do you think so much? Why do you worry so much?"

HO: Why do you think women's voices return when they become mothers?

JS: As a mother, you are sort of an object again in the way of the perfect mom. You want playdates, you want to be invited to the parties. You don't want people to talk behind your back. It's very much like high school in a way -- are you asked to the right party? Are you sitting at the right lunch table? -- but when we enter it at this age, we can do it in a new way.

HO: You've worked collaboratively with your sister on both theatre pieces and television pilots. What was that like?

JS: That was the best thing. I love, love, love her. She's my best friend; we are like two halves of the same person. We rarely disagree. It is like having another self there, which is kind of unique. So much of writing is confidence, especially good writing where you take a risk. Am going to put this in a script even though people will think I am insane? She is there to tell me to just go do it. It gives you the extra push you need, which is the thing that I do think makes writing great.

HO: You write in Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants about your parents' decision to send you to a public school where you and your sister were one of the few non African-American students. Yet you've decided to send your son to a private Jewish day school. Why?

JS: It wasn't really the plan. Part of it was that my son is allergic to peanuts and the school is a peanut free environment. Also, I wasn't in a good public school district, otherwise I would have used the public school.

I felt very unseen in my childhood. We went to an all black school up to the sixth grade, which was interesting and complicated and probably made me who I am, but I was not among people like me. I was the only white girl in an all black school besides my sister. I have no idea what that did to me except make me feel like an outsider.

One year I did go to a private school. The kids were a little haughty in a way I've never been. I'm hoping that my son will have the ability to say, "No, I don't want to do that," and that the experience imparts a little confidence and self-esteem. I was never that way. I never worked hard in school, or ever pushed myself to work hard. I was always the person just hanging onto the waves of whatever was going on and just going with it.

Even though we were Jewish, we were never really around a lot of other Jews so we never had the kind of community stuff I see going on at temple. I never felt like a Jew. My parents were very much in their own "Ice Storm" kind of parenthood. It was all about whatever was going on in the 70s. They were trying to discover selfhood as opposed to familyhood.

HO: Do you feel your parents didn't take care of you in some basic way?

JS: I feel they were doing the thing everyone in their generation was doing. They came of age in the early 1960s so they sort of missed being hippies, but they got the result of it, which was to find yourself, love yourself -- self as opposed to family or community. They were doing the things that people did: going to therapy, exploring whether or not monogamy was the right thing. They were so caught up in reacting to the 50s ideals, I guess.

We are so away from that now. My partner and I -- 85 percent of our conversations are about how to make Isaac's life great; we are constantly thinking about how to make his life better. I lay in bed freaking out about whether I created the right trick-or-treat day schedule for him. They never thought about that.

My partner comes from the same thing, parents who did not take care of him, so we just lavish all of our attention on the idea of the three of us. We are so focused on making our families right, the best family, family of families, filled with love. It's all we think about. On Six Feet Under, I used to come in [to the staffroom] and say, "Family is the new fucking."

HO: In Tiny Ladies, you write about your significant other, who is, as you put it, "below the line." You're a writer, he's a key grip. He's blue collar, you are not. Why did you choose to be with him? Do you think there are still powerful societal messages that tell women not to be with that type?

JS: I didn't make a conscious choice to make a life with him. I definitely had an awareness all my life that when I actually felt turned on like a woman it was when those types of men would look at me. Maybe because I am so loud and bossy and a-know-it-all that whoever made me feel feminine had to have a certain edge. Yet, I never considered having a relationship with those kinds of guys. I thought I needed to find a guy like me, who thinks like me, who talks like me, who has the same sense of humor as me.

But what happened with Dink? We started spending more and more time together hanging out and found we had a very easy time getting along. We don't trigger each other. We fight for sure and I despise him three or four times a week for sure but we never get to that place of hysterical, angry sobbing and insanity. I don't go there, he doesn't go there, I don't know why. We fight, but it never goes to a place of ugliness.

We are also very good at different things. He is southern and has the sort of social cloaks that people wear down there. Even when they are mad they say, "Care for some banana?" I need that that in my house. Every night, no matter what is happening he makes dinner. He is like a wife actually.

HO: You've done a bit of reversal. You're the one with the high profile career.

JS: Right, he makes money, but I definitely make more of the money so I have more of the control, but he has a lot of control too. If you walk into the house, the best room with the best view is his office. I still know that whatever happens you need to let the man be in position of power in the house. At least I have to.

HO: How come?

JS: I think to want to have sex. I guess that is our biology. We are receptive; we are built to be on the receiving end, to be entered. You have to enjoy that feeling of someone being stronger than you. It just doesn't work that a vagina can vacuum a penis into erectness. Life would be a lot easier. We would have that room at the top of the house, we would be in charge of everything and I could tell everyone to do what I want all of the time.

HO: You said in a recent interview with The Black Table something that intrigued me: "I want to engage young women in questions about whether we own or give away our power through the scantily-clad ass and the French manicure." But you didn't answer your own question either there or in your book, where you also deal with that subject.

JS: I don't know the answer. There is this trend toward thinking of burlesque, which is stripping, as empowering. I know that when you are dressed up in a very feminine way with a lot of makeup and tight clothing and you look sexy, your power by its very definition, will come from somebody else -- You are arousing a man's interest; it involves another party. To me, that is a different kind of power than the power we have right here. You are telling me what you think, I am telling you what I think, we're very excited we're talking about what we think. I'm not sitting here thinking, "I wonder if Helaine wants to have sex with me," or "I'm having something other than an interview by making Helaine want to have sex with me." No, I'm just doing an interview.

The subterfuge that goes with trying to make men have sex with you, such as dressing up, feels to me like it may not be the best use of our time. I just don't like it. I can do it and I've done it, but I don't like it. It doesn't seem fair to me because the men get to act and react whereas we have to manipulate. We're not getting to be the audience.

HO: So you've never answered that question?

JS: No. I'm trying to right now. I ask these questions, but I don't have the answers. I don't know myself. I would love to get some help.

HO: You began Sit 'n Spin -- a twice monthly reading series you run with writer/actress Maggie Rowe -- as a women's reading series called Box. Then you opened it up to men. Why?

JS: I got bored; we had guy friends who wanted to be in it.

HO: How long was it just all women?

JS: Once. A lot of times it still ends up being all women. They are always great to watch. These all women shows are thematic, but I think the shows take on a different quality when men are around.

HO: How?

JS: Maybe the show doesn't take on a different quality, but the after party does. It is more fun when we go out to the bar afterwards and the men who performed come along as well. Ultimately, what I wish for isn't an all womenland, but a balance. I just feel like we have to do the all women's stuff to create a balance.

For example, there just isn't much balance in film right now. I can't fucking stand watching a preview of a movie with two guys just talking and there is a woman in the background in lingerie laying on the bed. I want to say, "Shut up. Stop making movies about yourself." I do not want to go to a movie that's about all men and what they think. It is unthinkable to me that this is once again acceptable.

HO: The figures for women writers in Hollywood are terrible. According the Writers Guild, only 25 percent of employed writers in television and film were female in 2004.

JS: I don't think that people are trying to keep women down. We are out of the story for the most important years of our careers. If you want to have kids, which I think women want to do if we're human at all, you get taken out just as you're peaking.

HO: So you think it is less overt sexism than structural issues? What about the fact that comedy rooms are pretty raucous and crude places? You say in your book that you are capable of being the girl in the room with a group of foul-mouthed guys.

JS: I think women have to be able to play that game if they want to be comedy writers. But I don't think guys are consciously saying we don't want any women in here. I think it is just the technique. The brushes and the paint to make a sitcom involve a certain kind of personality that many women don't have. You have to never be offended; you have to be able to hear jokes about people fucking babies.

HO: Do you think it keeps women out or not really? Even if something is there and isn't designed to keep women away but does, it's systemic bias. Realistically a lot of women just aren't going to be comfortable with the level of crudity, vulgarity, and sheer incorrectness that goes on in these staff rooms.

JS: It is the kind of shows that are on television, the kinds of shows are people watching. I think the culture is changing and more women will write for television and talk about what we want to watch.

HO: But "Desperate Housewives" is written by a man . . .

JS: Here is the thing about good writing: it can be written by men or women, but it's got to be ambiguous. You don't know who the hero is; you don't know what you are supposed to feel. It's complicated; it's ambiguous, like Jews. There is a question but there is no answer.

When you watch "Desperate Housewives," it is very black and white, very clear. This is the protagonist, this is the good guy, this is the bitch, this is the murderer. Very simple. With Six Feet Under, for example, no one in the writers' room ever decided or knew for sure if George was a good partner for Ruth or, for that matter, if Brenda and Nate were soul mates or if there is such a thing as soul mates. On most TV shows, when you are cracking a story, you are saying, "This is Nate's soul mate, he just doesn't see it."

HO: You think Americans want that?

JS: I think they do. Not the Six Feet Under thing, but the clear thing, which men have a much easier time writing.

HO: Why?

JS: The same way a man will say we are going here and we are doing this. My theory is that men are the line and women are the circle. Men stay still, women go in a circle. We multi-task emotionally and we don't stand still.

HO: Do you think this hurts women career-wise? You see a lot of men who say "I want to be a TV comedy writer" and that's it. Sometimes it seems like there are more women who will say, "I want to be a TV comedy writer and I want to open up a B&B one day."

JS: I don't have a huge drive to be a successful writer; I have a huge drive to be a successful person. I'm totally driven to figure out everything all the time. I need to know why people hate Jews; I need to understand the TV and movie writing business. I need to make my movie to tell the world that the Jewish girl who is trying to show the difference between sex and love, and seeing and being seen, is not a villain, she is a hero. I have these things I need to do but I am never driven by success. I'm driven by my internal urges.

HO: You are a single mom. You separated from your son's father -- who said before you got pregnant he would not financially support you -- and you are not married to Dink. Some might say you didn't have the luxury of being exhausted and taking a few months off. Do you think that factor was something that kept you going?

JS: Maybe. Probably. I never wanted to be the person on the other side of the money. I knew I was going to make my own money not because I want to live in Malibu but because I never wanted any part of the negotiations that go on with people over money in relationships, where the person who works is able to make more of those decisions. I need to be that person.

I also took in the situation of my parents' marriage and quickly decided this sadness is happening because my dad is working and he doesn't want to. This household is toxic because my dad comes home at the end of the day exhausted trying to support the three of us. I can't let someone make me feel like shit because he went to work.

HO: Which character do you identify with most on Six Feet Under?

JS: Well, I identify with Brenda because everything is so hard for her -- living, loving, letting go of all the little things that come naturally to other people, but didn't come naturally to her. I think all that stuff where she was living to write and writing to live and doing things in life she knew would make for good writing and trying to figure out where she began and her writing started, that was all stuff that I had experienced. But Claire was so me, too. When I would go out on the road and read from Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants people would say, "I keep hearing Claire talk, I hear Claire's voice," I think because of the rants in the book.

HO: What are you working on now?

JS: I am writing a pilot for ABC about a woman who has a comedy club that is becoming a burlesque club.

Then there is my screenplay, Tricycle, which is at Universal. They are letting me direct. It's about the age-old story of women triangulating themselves around men. It is about the other woman, the wife and the teenage daughter all watching an affair happen through their own lenses. The movie is based on when Dink and I first met. He was married and I didn't care. My parents got divorced and I didn't believe in marriage and his wife was in another state and they had an arrangement. As I thought about why marriage meant nothing to me, I had to look back at myself as the teenage girl who watched her parents' marriage disintegrate.

In this movie, it is about a Jewish woman watching her parents kill each other. They hate each other but continue to live together, not bothering to find a way to love each other, not bothering to make the household beautiful, happy, light and joyful, but instead complaining and eating each other alive. It is about a young Jewish woman who watched that happen as a child and grew up not loving herself and not feeling like she was seen. Finally, she is seen by this man and begins to fall in love with him and needs to begin to understand who his wife and daughter are and what this is doing to their lives.

Tricycle came out of my need. Dink and I have been together four years now. When we first met he had a teenage daughter in high school, and was married. I love teenage girls; I couldn't stand the fact that I was hurting her. I wrote this movie to know them.


Helaine Olen’s journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, AlterNet.org, Cookie, Time Out New York Kids, Variety, and Literary Mama, where she is an associate profiles editor. She lives in New York and has two boys, ages seven and three.


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