Carmel and I first spoke a couple of years back at a fundraising event for a literacy organization I used to work with. We kept up a friendship, meeting seasonally to catch up over tea between phone calls, emails, and letters - yes, she is one of the few people I know in this day and age who still enchants with good old letter-writing. It comes as little surprise as she's a writer who came of age in the late 1950's, long before blogging and texting and instagram, and has seen firsthand the changing of the times. She has a wealth of stories to share, and her seemingly endless arsenal of wit and knowledge never ceases to fascinate me. She's written more than two dozen books and has contributed to several publications including Harper's, The New York Times, Woman magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Datebook - to name a few.
When did your writing career start? Was it when you first wrote something, when you first had something published?
I was 8 years old. I was living in Washington Heights, and I was going to Public School 189. I was reading Shakespeare, and I was very impressed so I decided to write a play. I wrote a wonderful part for myself - I was the fairy queen, and then there were all the bad people who were trying to do away with the fairy queen, and then there were all the good people she knew and liked. I wrote out each of the parts, naturally giving myself the best part. What’s the point of writing a play if you’re not going to give yourself the best part? I went around to all the parents of the children I’d given the parts to and asked them if they would please see to the costumes.
Was this a school assignment?
No. I was just reading and so impressed with what I was reading that I wanted to write also. The play was such a success that the school decided to put it on in the auditorium for the whole school. When I think about it now, how I did all that, I don’t know, but I did do it all. It was amazing. I tried to mimic a lot of what I read then in Shakespeare, and I kept writing plays every term after that. When I got to high school, I was editor of the yearbook, and I always wrote short stories. Then I went to New York University - Washington Square College of Arts and Sciences. I always wanted to be a writer. After college I lived in the Village and wrote for a few magazines including Harper’s Bazaar. You know this is just always what I wanted to do, and that’s how it all moved along.
You graduated college in the 60’s, did you find at that time there were a lot of other female writers, or was it mostly male-dominated?
There were a lot of other women writers. One of my favorites was Hortense Calisher, who was also one of my good friends. She was married to Curtis Harnack, also a friend and writer. Leighla Whipper Ford was another female writer who was a very good friend of mine, and her daughter, Carol Ione, became a writer as well. And there were many other women writers I met through various literary agencies I was involved with.
So you had a close group of friends who were all writers, did you ever read each other’s work and give feedback?
Occasionally, but I’ll tell you one thing, we all decided while we were doing this, there was no point if we weren’t being honest with one another.
I know you’ve written about a lot of different things, what propelled you to delve into various topics? How did you decide what to focus on?
What happened was, I became a freelancer. I had a lot of different jobs writing for different magazines, assignments for different stories and so on. One of the things I loved the best though was this magazine called Datebook. It was a very serious magazine for teenagers - we were compared to Seventeen. I was an editor and writer at Datebook, and at that time there were only two of us on staff. It was a lot of work, but we believed in it, and we had a lot of contacts so people would help out and contribute without being compensated with a lot of money. My work there really was very rewarding, even if not financially for some time.
I was working for Datebook at the time the civil rights marches were going on, and we really wanted to cover that in the magazine. It wasn’t a topic many magazines for teenagers wanted to cover, and it was controversial. In a lot of the southern states, they would pull our magazine from the stands because we were writing about what was really going on. Terrible things were happening at that time in Selma and throughout the south.
In addition to covering political issues, we were some of the first people who covered the Beatles. Arthur, my partner who I worked with, went and heard them in England, knowing how hot they were before they hit the states. So we decided to do a one-shot, which is one issue about the life and the times of one topic, in this case, one group, the Beatles. Of course, it sold out, and we made a lot of money - finally. That’s what really saved the magazine was this one shot.
What about the book you wrote on advice for young girls – can you tell me a bit about that?
Yes, that was my first book, and it emerged pretty easily from Datebook. It was called What Girls Want to Know About Boys. I wrote it, and Arthur Unger edited it. It was very different times then to write a book like this. (It was published in 1962). It’s funny - there was actually an article in the times a few years ago about what to advise your teenage daughter about sex and such, and someone referenced my book, although they said it was very outdated, haha. I was writing to very young teenagers like 13, 14, 15 years old. I wrote in there, when it comes to sex, don’t. At 13 you shouldn’t. And someone in the Times article said well no one is going to listen to that anymore, but that’s what I thought, and that’s what I wrote. It was serialized in the Post when it came out and was later translated into Japanese and Dutch, so it did very well at the time. I was in my late twenties when I wrote that book, my first book.
Would you say it was a feminist book? How did feminists respond to it?
Well, some years later I wrote another book specifically from a feminist point of view. An agent called me and said he wanted to do a book about automobiles, how to take care of your car or something like that (A Women’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of an Automobile). I didn’t know anything about cars, so I did all the research. I wrote if you know how to cook a stew, you can learn how to fix a car, and one woman editor said that’s very anti-feminist! And I said why is that anti-feminist? And she said well because you’re talking about cooking, and I said well, people cook, women cook, men cook too. So what? If you can do this, you can do that. That’s the idea I was leading with - that women can learn anything.
So you basically took the stance that women can do anything that men can do?
And you proved that in writing this book – doing all this research about cars, and then writing the book on it.
Yeah, I did. I did the research. I interviewed all these Ford people. And in my interviews I made these connections with people who said if you ever wanted to borrow a car for the weekend, just let us know, so one weekend I did. The car we rented was a nice Ford, and Harry (her late husband and co-author of the book Lovers) and I drove it over to the beach one day. We went swimming all day, then went to get back in and start the car, and it wouldn’t start. I turned to Harry who was wanting to call a mechanic and said wait, wait let me take a look. Harry didn’t know what to do, but I opened the hood, took a look, and fixed it. So there’s that.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, of course. And I would call my mother a feminist, and my grandmother a feminist. My grandmother said to her daughter - my family is from Hungary, very middle-class family, and in those days you know middle-class women did not work - but my grandmother said I want each of you to learn one thing, I don’t care what, but you have you learn one thing, because who knows what will happen down the road, and I want each of you to know how to do something so whatever happens you can take care of yourself, you can make some of your own money. Then along came the Second World War, and they left Hungary and came to the states, and they all knew how to do their one thing. Whether it was knitting or crocheting or something with arithmetic, each of them was able to work, and that was because of my grandmother. My mother worked too. She was actually one of the few mothers of children at my school who did work, but she wanted to, she liked it. She worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I was always dressed in Saks clothes. People assumed we were rich, although we really weren’t. But I came home one day and asked my parents if we were rich, and my mother said “Absolutely!” My aunt was upset and asked her why she told me that, and my mother said she didn’t want me to worry about it, or worry about having to get a job when I was that young. Her and my father were so supportive of my writing. I would ask her if I could help her with chores around the house or cooking, and she would let me, but then she would say, just go write, I want you to write.
Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written?
Yes, Lovers, the book I wrote with Harry. I think it’s a wonderful book, and for a long time we thought it would become a television movie.
What was it like writing a book with someone else?
Well, this book was a story from two points of view. We alternated chapters. The woman’s point of view and the man’s. It goes back and forth. It was great fun, it wasn’t a problem at all. We just did it.
Have you ever been discouraged in your career or received negative feedback? How did you deal with that?
Of course, you have to learn to deal with rejection. I mean ten publishers are going to turn your book down before the 11th says it’s wonderful. You can’t be thin-skinned about it. You just write something else.
How do you know when a piece is done, with writing and rewriting and editing?
Well, I don’t do too much editing. I write it once, I go over it once, and that’s it. But you know every writer has their own style and process. And if I think of something after the fact that I should have added, or a new idea, I just write something else. Writing is such a personal thing that I don’t know how much advice you can give to someone else because it comes from the gut, and everyone has a different take on things.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
The thing is you have to sit down and write. Don’t say to yourself, one day I’ll do this, I’ll plan to this. No. You have to write all the time. If it doesn’t sell, put it aside and write another book. Not everything is going to sell. You just have to write. The problem now about becoming a writer, it’s a whole different time, a lot of publishing houses have merged, it’s very difficult to find an agent, it’s very hard to sell. It’s a full-time job writing, and then it’s a full-time job trying to sell what you write. What with blogging and websites, it’s very different now. I mean, when I think back to when I got books published, my agents and the publishers took care of everything with the promotion, where I would go to speak, the logistics, and the funds to do it all. They did it all for you, now they don’t do that. You have to do it yourself, and it costs a lot of money, and it takes a lot of time. I think it has a lot to do with the internet and social media which has taken over things. Now, everybody’s online, and it’s very different from how it used to be. If you want to be a writer, then you have to do it because you love writing, not because you can make a lot of money from it. It’s no longer a career like that, I mean for some people of course, but no one thinks; now I’ll get into writing to make a million dollars, you do it because you love it.