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q&a: jill davis

THE EX-LETTERMAN WRITER DISHES ON HER NEW NOVEL, ZSA ZSA'S SENSE OF HUMOR, AND HER VERY POPULAR CAT.

BY RON HOGAN | You'd think that after seven years of writing for Beatrice.com, I'd remember to bring my tape recorder along with me to each and every interview, but somehow, when I was leaving the apartment to meet Jill Davis, the author of Girls' Poker Night, I picked the recorder up and put it someplace besides my messenger bag. So we wound up spending an hour hanging out at the café at Soho's Housing Works bookstore and talking about how she wrote her debut novel, which traces the romantic misadventures of newspaper columnist Ruby Capote and a set of girlfriends who, you guessed it, get together every week to play poker.

Afterwards, I went back home and emailed Davis a set of "official interview questions." This gave her a chance to throw in some punchy one-liners. When I asked how she became a writer for the David Letterman show, for example, she wisecracked, "I won a radio contest, so I packed up the Winnebago and moved to New York." The real story is that she was writing a humorous column for a paper in Lynn, Massachusetts, when she saw Letterman complaining about a writer's strike one night and mailed a bunch of her columns to the show. Her submission caught the attention of then–head writer Steve O'Donnell, she was invited to send in a more formal submission, and was eventually told she had a new career in TV comedy writing if she wanted it. Only then did she pack the Winnebago.

By her recollection, she was perhaps the second female staff writer for the show after Merrill Markoe; she was present for the last two years of Letterman's run on NBC and stayed with the team for approximately four years when they moved to CBS. Since leaving the Late Show, Davis has written television pilots and (as yet unproduced) screenplays, in addition to what looks like a promising career as a comic novelist.

 

What were your favorite bits from your time writing for Letterman?

First, let me say, it was the greatest job. I spent a lot of time working on remotes that took Dave out of the studio. I wrote the ideas involving Dave and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the first one, Dave and Zsa Zsa went to a small neighborhood in New Jersey and started knocking on doors and asking if anyone had a question for Zsa Zsa. They didn't. And they were confused about who Dave was. But one thing they knew was that Zsa Zsa was the most beautiful and glamorous woman they'd ever seen, so the piece became "Everybody Loves Zsa Zsa." It featured lots of montages of very nice people from the Garden State letting Zsa Zsa try on their shoes and stuff.

We did remotes with her in London and L.A. too. In L.A., she and Dave spent the day driving through fast food drive-thrus eating fast food. Pounding french fries on camera — Zsa Zsa has to be the best sport in the world. In London, her sportsmanship was tested once again and she rose to the occasion by saying yes to eel pie and bangers and mash.

If you saw any remotes with psychics in them, I wrote those too. One of my favorites was a piece that featured a psychic and Dave going to various New York delis. They had a competition seeing who could most closely predict the expiration dates on dairy products. I think Dave won that one — I was also responsible for the first few "Dave Talks to Kids" remotes.

When did you start writing short stories? How did that lead to Girls' Poker Night?

I had been writing for the Late Show for about four years when I started writing short stories. I had a blast writing the stories because I was writing in a voice more my own, as opposed to a man's. HBO ended up buying four of them. I think that had a direct impact on my decision to write a book. I'd always wanted to write a novel, and I think selling the short stories made me think it was possible. So if you want to blame someone, start with HBO. It's all their fault.

How did you settle on the plot of the novel?

I've been fascinated with the subject of loss for a long time. In particular, I'm interested in how people, consciously or unconsciously, spend their lives replacing the things they lost when they were children. I was exploring issues that are personal but that are also universal in a divorce-happy culture. Loss is loss.

What did you bring from your experience as a journalist and a comedy writer to writing the novel?

Certainly I brought aspects of both to this book. First, Ruby is a columnist, and I was a columnist. I liked the experience so much that I wrote the book in the first person and organized it into small chapters that are about the length of the columns I used to write. I thought about including actual columns written by Ruby, but it seemed to me that Ruby was already speaking in the first person in a way that is so much more intimate than she'd ever be in a column. So you'd never really learn more about her in a column, then you would in the chapters where she's confiding in you so much already. I think, in this case, that columns seemed like a great tool for a character who is so far away from herself. In the beginning of the book even her name feels foreign. So I think the columns reveal the changes she undergoes in subtle ways — she's vastly less hyper and fearful as the book progresses. When I re-read the book it seems to me it moves along at a pretty good clip. I'm sure this is the television writing influence. When you're writing for television, the economy of words is crucial.

Maybe the most interesting part of the process came from balancing comedy with some more serious moments. I was hoping the comedy would feel like relief for Ruby in the way that it does in life when you're facing tough situations. The laughs seem so much more valuable and helpful when they're pulling you out of something negative. I think it's an interesting way to show comedy as an incredibly useful defense.

Is the real Girls' Poker Night as raucous and freewheeling as the one in the book? And how is your personality like Ruby's... or not like her?

Raucous? Freewheeling? Yes! Yes! And if you'd included another adjective, my guess is that the response to that would be "Yes!" as well. Our games are fast-paced, hilarious and competitive. But maybe the best thing that happens when you're sitting around a card table playing poker is that everyone at the table begins to feel entitled to know what's happening in everyone else's life — it's an amazing phenomenon. A kind of social sodium pentathol. From what I gather this doesn't happen when men play poker.

How is my personality like Ruby's? I don't actually keep the dresses I've worn during other friends weddings. Closets are small in New York City — I can't be squandering space on bridesmaid dresses.

Who are some of your favorite writers? What have you read recently that you've enjoyed?

I just read Chang-Rae Lee's A Gesture Life, which I really, really enjoyed. Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace was wonderful. Elizabeth Gilbert and Laura Zigman are two other writers I admire. I love John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I'm a Michael Frayn freak — I'll read anything he writes — and I also like Mark Leyner.

I'm from Shillington, Pennsylvania, birthplace of Mr. John Barbara Updike — so I've enjoyed his work for as long as I can remember, which probably really means since ninth grade. Okay, okay! I confess. His middle name isn't really Barbara. At least I don't think it is! I'm so sorry. I just couldn't resist starting such a zesty rumor.

Growing up my two favorite books were Woody Allen's Side Effects and Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints. I carried that Phyllis Diller book with me everywhere when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Eventually it just fell apart. My favorite joke involved Fang [Diller's fictional husband] telling Phyllis she spent so much time talking on the phone that she had a tan from the light on her Princess phone.

What's next for you? Another novel? A sequel? Or do you have other projects going on?

Sequel? I suppose that would depend largely on how America's love affair with Girls' Poker Night develops — though I do have ideas about what happens to Ruby and her friends next.

I'm writing a play and a novel right now. I've also agreed to write a serialized piece of short fiction for usatoday.com which will run for six to eight weeks starting in June so I'll need to get to work on that.

So who's getting more email from your website, you or your cat?

Wayne receives at least twenty emails for every one I receive. I think this is all the evidence we need to conclude that the furry boys are taking over the world.

 

Ron Hogan, the editor of the literary website Beatrice.com. is a freelance writer specializing in book reviews and pop culture journalism.


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