The stars align: Novelist Cathi Hanauer interviews author Julie Klam about ‘The Stars In Our Eyes’

  • Julie Klam on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

  • Author Julie Klam. Sarah Shatz

For the Bulletin
Thursday, October 05, 2017

Julie Klam is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, her latest the part-memoir, part-reported “The Stars in Our Eyes: The Famous, the Infamous, and Why We Care Way Too Much About Them,” which Newsday dubbed a “soft serve ice-cream cone of a book” and the Washington Post called  “a fast, fun look at celebrity culture that reads like a bubbly conversation at an Oscars viewing party.”

Considering the starry subject matter, we decided to give Klam the red-carpet treatment by asking Northampton writer Cathi Hanauer — New York Times bestselling author of three novels and two essay anthologies, her newest, “The Bitch is Back,” just out in paperback and the subject of her recent TED Talk — to interview her friend.

Hanauer recently met Klam in Manhattan’s Metro Diner to discuss celebrity culture, the frustration of book sales today and the thrill of appearing on The Tonight Show. This interview has been slightly edited.

Cathi Hanauer: Your new book features both thoughtful insight and your trademark hilarity. You note that we’re living in a time when “people don’t know where Canada is, but they know the circumference of Kim Kardashian’s — ” um, backside. I’m sure this is true. Still, I’m guessing there are plenty of readers out there who don’t care to keep up with the Kardashians. Should they? 

Julie Klam: We have a celebrity-reality-show president right now, and it’s useful for us to know how we got here. And we’re also in this time where people are famous for no reason. The Kardashians are great business people, but they don’t have a talent, they don’t sing or act … all they do is reveal themselves. And it just shouldn’t be that simply having no shame makes you famous. Also, because of the internet, the message is direct now — from celebrity to recipient, with no publicist to refine it. It’s the wild wild west of celebrity. To me, this feels like something we need to pay attention to.

CH: True … Still, we authors all saw the recent New Republic article about how book sales have suffered since the celebrity-in-chief took office and started dominating the 24-hour news cycle. Add to that daily hurricanes, climate change, North Korea ... When real life is something between a reality show, an international spy thriller and a horror movie, how do you get people to read a book? 

JK: Exactly. Everybody is reading about politics, all the NPR shows are filled with political stuff … and there’s something big in the news every day. So much of publishing books now is self-promotion, and you don’t want to self-promote in the dumpster-fire of this kind of news. I wrote an op-ed for the [New York] Times about why, these days, we need celebrity gossip more than ever. But I submitted it on Thursday, we worked on it Friday, and it ran on Saturday — and that ended up being the day of the Charlottesville protests. So, I mean, to be talking about my book in that kind of climate ... 

CH: And yet.

JK: And yet, that’s my job. You don’t want to normalize, of course, but you also have to live, you have to work, kids have to go to school. When Trump won, my daughter, who’s 14, called me from school, and she was falling apart. Kids today have access to so much more information — and not always the tools to process it correctly. 

CH: Right. Which is no doubt part of why they’re so stressed out. Change of subject, I know you’re a longtime New Yorker, but I believe you have some connections to the Happy Valley.

JK: Yes! I have two Northampton authors — you’re one of them, Peter Smith is the other — who have cameos in the book. And I’ve read before at the Odyssey [in South Hadley]. I loved it up there! That town was like a storybook town. Beautiful.

CH: Do you have a favorite celebrity?

JK: I admire people who deal with their celebrity gracefully. Fewer and fewer do. But, like, Meryl Streep, for example. You never see her punching paparazzi.

CH: True [laughs]. So are you obsessed with celebrities? You talk some about this in the book …

JK: When I was a kid, I grew up in this very WASP-y town [Katonah, NY], and I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I was Jewish, but also, our family was just different. Everyone who lived in town had been there forever, their parents had grown up there … and my parents were from Manhattan. When people would say they were going downtown — meaning downtown Katonah — my mother thought they meant Greenwich Village. 

Anyway, I was the youngest of three, and my two older brothers were close, and athletic. I was not athletic, I was not academic … I was not anything! So I was always trying to find an angle into popularity, and I remember thinking, “If only I was friends with, like, Charlie’s Angels, people in school would like me!” So I would write letters to these people inviting them to my parties. It worked out really well. Kidding! Nobody ever came. But I always thought of celebrities as sort of a magical thing. 

CH: Is it mostly movie actors that you respect?

JK: Probably. Griffin Dunne, and Timothy Hutton … I liked a lot of musicians too, but now that I’m old, the musicians I like are, like, 70. I once saw Bruce Springsteen in a store downtown, Trash and Vaudeville. That was when he was married to Julianne Phillips — that’s how long ago it was. But that was big. And there are different levels of celebrity sightings. There are people in my neighborhood who are B-list celebrities — the ones who, you know, have their photo up at the dry cleaner. Maybe they used to be on a series, or whatever … 

CH: Yeah. Like Jackie Mason. You always saw him tooling around New York in the early ’90s.

JK: Exactly. And for awhile it was Jerry Orbach. Once he died, though, he was harder to spot [laughs] … Also, I assign a different number of points depending on where you see the celebrity. Like, I used to cover the Grammys for Rolling Stone, and if I walked by Madonna there, that didn’t really count. But if you were in the hardware store and saw, you know, Harvey Keitel, that’s a lot of points. The more normal the place, the more points. In a doctor’s office, say … that’s A LOT. 

CH: I gave birth to my son at the same time as Uma Therman did — same hospital, same doctor. We would see her and Ethan [Hawke, who she was with at the time] in the doctor’s office waiting room all pregnant and lovey-dovey. That was the fun part. Less fun was that when I was in labor, the doctor was nonexistent, because she was with Uma the whole time. 

JK: Bummer. 

CH: That’s an understatement. So, whose side: Taylor or Kanye? [Note to puzzled but interested readers: Taylor Swift and Kanye West have a complicated history. Google for details.]

JK: I’ve gotta say Taylor. In the book, I actually have a psychiatrist who analyzes one of Kanye’s rants.

CH: Yes! When he went off for about seven straight minutes on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Talking about what you refer to as “the category of celebrity scandal I call Train Wreck,” your psychiatrist says that “a lot of artists are probably either officially bipolar or on the spectrum.” I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. The narcissism, the almost mania you’d need to perform in the ways many of them do …

JK: Yeah. I do think Kanye’s a little off his, uh, rocker. Which is not to say I have any interest in Taylor Swift. On the other hand, people who are that successful just cannot win. I mean, you ask almost anyone about Kanye or Taylor, and even if they don’t know anything, they’ll pick a side. No one’s gonna be like,  “Ah, whatever, live and let live — ”

CH: I know! My whole family was fighting about it on vacation; it was my son and me against my husband and my daughter. And I honestly couldn’t care less about any of it!

JK: If you’re a celebrity, whatever your personality is gets amplified by 9 million, because everybody talks about every little thing. A celebrity having a bad day becomes “that [bleep].” 

CH: I would hate to be a celebrity … In this book, there are little write-ups of celebrity encounters that people, mostly writers you know, have had — and I’m proud to say I’m one of them. I wrote about meeting Molly Ringwald at a party — or rather, about not meeting her there, because I didn’t want to seem like a star-chaser. Were there any of these encounters that surprised you? 

JK: It surprised me how many people had stories about the same celebrities. I only used one story per celeb, but five people had a Philip Seymour Hoffman story. And Lauren Bacall — everyone had had an experience with her. All the Philip stories were nice, and all the Lauren were horrible. 

CH: Really! So she’s just a huge diva?

JK: Huge. One friend said [Lauren] screamed at her on the street for something.

CH: What’s the best thing you’ve gotten to do for this book?

JK: Going on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It was actually like being a celebrity. The show sent a car to get me, and the driver came up and took me down — if he could have driven into the lobby of the building, he would have. And the whole time he’s driving me to the show, all of seven blocks away, he was on a walkie-talkie communicating about where I was; all, like, ‘Too much traffic, I’m taking her this way.’ When I arrived, I had two dressing rooms, and there was this huge, incredible food spread. I had brought a couple of people with me — just my agent, my boyfriend, my aunt, my editor and two publicists. Luckily they could eat, so none of them paid any attention to me. They were like, “Ooh, is this chocolate? Is this — ”

CH: Thank god! 

JK: I know! Because I needed a little space at that point! And then suddenly you’re backstage, and it’s dark, and they’re touching you up and saying, “We’re gonna open the curtain, and you have to walk out.”

CH: Isn’t that the worst part? Walking out?

JK: Yes, but it is taped …  The irony is that I was on the Thursday show with Charlize Theron and Michael Phelps, but on the Friday show was Kevin Bacon, who I wrote about in the book. But nobody’s looking at anyone else; everyone’s worrying about their own thing. Anyway, it was so much fun. I had worked for the Late Show with David Letterman years ago, and Dave would really challenge a guest. But Jimmy wants to make you look good, he wants to have fun. He’ll crack up at stuff that’s mildly funny, and then you’re like, “I’m a genius!” They practically had to drag me off the stage. I was like, “How can I quit writing and just be a Tonight Show guest?”