Thursday, November 7, 2019

Q&A with Sheila Weller

Sheila Weller is the author of the new biography Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge. Her other books include Girls Like Us and The News Sorority, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair and Glamour.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Carrie Fisher, and how would you describe her legacy today?

A: I love to write about distinctive, iconic, complex women – I have a kind of history of that – and Carrie Fisher was about as iconic as iconic and complex as they come.

I was always aware of her charisma – the famous Carrie-Penny parties! – and I loved her book Postcards From The Edge.

When she died, so tragically (and with Debbie dying right afterward), in late December 2016, her role as a feminist heroine hiding in plain sight came into focus, by way of all the tributes. You realize sometimes that you “knew” something about someone deep in your subconscious, even when you didn’t.

Then came the Women’s Marches – and posters of Princess Leia and Carrie were hoisted high. Her significance was unmistakable.

In addition, I grew up in Beverly Hills and “Hollywood” – a bit older than Carrie, but I knew that world well.

My uncle owned the famous Sunset Strip nightclub, Ciro’s, where her mother, as a budding young star, learned to be “sophisticated.” My mother was a movie magazine writer and editor who interviewed Debbie many times. I even tagged along to their house. 

And our family just happened to have its own version of the Debbie-Eddie-Elizabeth Taylor scandal, hurtful and not unpublic. So I felt I knew her general world.

Carrie’s legacy today is multifold, but of all the many things she was – Hollywood Royalty, Princess Leia, hostess extraordinaire, friend!

To so many, her generation’s Dorothy Parker, actress and novelist-memoirist, one-woman-show actress… - the most important parts of her legacy are (1) her de-stigmatization of mental illness: enormously important! And (2) her honesty! Fierce, fierce, huge honesty!: healing honesty about herself. 

Not only did her words about her imperfections and lapses, and her honesty about being weight- and age-shamed, feel relieving to people (especially midlife women), but in this era of the most dishonest president of all time, and a political party that honors that dishonesty, her honesty is a needed and sorely missed commodity.

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds?

A: It was so complicated! Most mother-daughter relationships are, but this – according to what people told me, and what has been authoritatively written, was especially so. During Carrie’s childhood, her mother was a star and very charismatic – Carrie may well not have felt as beautiful or magnetic. On the other hand, she seemed to learn to cultivate her own charisma through her perhaps imitating her mother’s.

When she went to drama school in London, even though she enjoyed the experience (she has said this), she was in a period of being cold to her mother. Some people heartfully said that Debbie always felt encouraging of and protective of her – almost “agented” her, partly feeling her daughter’s vulnerability and partly being a natural stage mom. Others said that she was still the “perfect” mother against whom Carrie felt competitive.

Of her dual diagnosis – inherited drug addiction and bipolar disorder – Debbie once wrote, “If I could, I would suffer for her.” She keenly knew and was pained by her daughter’s suffering. 

For the last several decades of their lives, they were very close – Carrie called Debbie “my husband.” They lived in a compound – two virtually joined houses – together. For the last few years of her “unsinkable” life, Debbie was ill but never stopped performing. Carrie worried about her and cared for her.

Q: What impact would you say the role of Princess Leia had on Fisher's life?

A: The role certainly gave her massive stardom and fame, for which she was very grateful. But some of her close friends said she privately, or not even so privately, had a very ambivalent relationship with Leia and made fun of Star Wars – but gentle, appreciative fun. Carrie was edgy – there was little she did NOT make fun of!

Q: You describe Fisher as one of the first celebrities to discuss their experiences with mental illness. Can you say more about the importance of her outspokenness when it comes to public discussions about mental health?

A: She came out with her bipolarity years before Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jane Pauley, and many other celebrity women. Her destigmatization of mental illness was enormously powerful – it enabled so many others to shed their shame. Here is a USA TODAY piece I wrote about how significant her work in this realm was.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am looking for another great subject or topic for a book. I am open to smart suggestions! I have a couple of ideas and am rolling them around.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. Please order or pre-order the book on Amazon – or, if you wish, buy it at your local indie. I would be grateful!   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sheila Weller.

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