WRITER DISHES ON HER NEW NOVEL, ZSA ZSA'S SENSE OF HUMOR, AND HER VERY POPULAR
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
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 thenhead 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.
her recollection, she was perhaps the second female staff writer for the show
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
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.
the editor of the literary website Beatrice.com.
is a freelance writer specializing in book reviews and pop culture journalism.