50-for-50 interview: Faith Salie, horizon-scanner

faith salie

I confess that my first exposures to Faith Salie triggered embarrassing pangs of artist envy. When I was struggling to get crappy acting parts in iffy stage productions, she was already working in film and TV, in the exact kinds of funny/smart roles I dreamed of. When I was readying myself to leave acting for the greener pastures of speaking, she had already moved on to be radio personality and TV commentator—a smart, funny one, on the kinds of shows I loved but couldn’t even envision myself doing. But when she showed up in the hallowed pages of my favorite magazine as a columnist, my envy evaporated in a puff of awe—somehow, there was nothing I could do but admire what she had done, and was doing, and was so damned good at. And much of that, as it turns out, is a vision for finding the next great thing, and the courage to be open to it. Now I’m happy to have her in my firmament of guiding stars; it’s accomplished overachievers like Faith who keep me going when the going gets tough, and remind me that looking forward plays a significant role in getting anywhere.

When did you decide to become a writer?

It was more like allowing myself to be called a writer.  I had always thought of myself as an actor—that’s what I did since I was a kid.  I studied History and Literature in college and then got a master’s in Modern English Literature, and even though I was writing copiously about the works of writers, I would never deign to think of myself as one.  I had too much reverence for who “a writer” is and what a “real” writer does, having dedicated my academic life to appreciating and deconstructing the works of Dickens, Woolf, Wharton, etc.  So I acted for laughs and applause and I wrote for A’s, and it all seemed separate. Then I moved from ivy-covered Ivory Towers to gloomy audition rooms in Los Angeles (so strange:  LA, to me, is the gloomiest sunniest place on earth) and I stopped making straight A’s when it came to auditions.  I got parts here and there, but I clearly wasn’t reading other people’s words the way they wanted to hear them.  So I started writing my own: I started doing stand-up and then was on an improvised tv show.  Somewhere in there, I realized, almost reluctantly, that I was a writer, albeit an unconventional one.  I think, subconsciously, that I didn’t, at first, want to be a writer because the truth is it takes so much work and energy.  It’s so much harder to write than to act, and I’m even including pulling out a crying scene after 18 hours on the set.  But once I allowed myself to think of myself as someone who writes, so many opportunities opened up.

I moved to New York City and became a public radio host, and then the imprimatur of public radio led to contributing to a column for O Magazine.  Then I started being known as a “commentator” and “personality” (the latter title makes me uncomfortable, because it sounds like you should be famous or you think you’re famous) and eventually I landed on CBS Sunday Morning and on NPR—and both places allow me to script myself entirely.  And please don’t judge me as a writer based on that last run-on-y sentence.

Who was your favorite teacher?

That’s so difficult to answer with pith.  I loved Mrs. Kriegel, Carlyn Kriegel, who was tough and supportive.  But I have to say I now appreciate Mrs. Altman because she was the singular in a series of people who severely underestimated me, which always serves to stoke my fire.  It was 9th grade Honors English, and I wrote my first paper on figurative and literal incarceration in Great Expectations.  When she handed the papers back, she handed me my paper, which said, “see me after class” in red ink.  Then she accused me of copying from Cliff’s Notes.  I had never read Cliff’s Notes. I’d never touched one of Cliff’s things.  I was shocked, I was pissed! I was 2 of the 5 stages of grief!  My father had a chat with her that evening, and the next day, in a dramatic flourish of aggressive passive aggressiveness, she lectured to the class about plagiarism and then, as the bell rang, silently handed me a paper with an A on it.

My favorite teacher was probably my dad. I grew up seeing my parents read all the time.  So I read all the time.  And my dad would drive me to auditions and we’d talk about things like The Scarlet Letter as he drove.  And he’d ask me enlightening questions like, “Why do you think her name is Pearl? How are pearls created?”  And he’s the one who encouraged me to read The Turn of the Screw when I was 13.  It scared the bejeezus out of me; I still remember feeling pinned to the sofa in our living room the night I finished it during the summer after 8th grade. Years later in college, when I was focusing on Victorian women in literature, I read it again and it was a different book—it offered an entirely different meaning!  It went from ghost story to a tale of suppressed feminism and hysteria, and I realized acutely how much literature can signify and affect.

My dad was also a stickler about grammar and the passive voice, and I love him for it to this day even if it means my ears bleed a little when someone says “for he and I.”

What do you love to write about?

I love to write about things that have happened to me that I hope have broader relevance.  One of my favorite things I ever wrote was an essay for Slate called “What I Wore To My Divorce.”  It was my story, to be sure; but I wanted it to resonate with others.  I write my commentaries for Sunday Morning, and I am always grateful when I receive an email of appreciation from someone who tells me I touched her.  I did a piece about freezing my eggs for the show, and I was honored to have many women reach out to me after it aired—I met someone who is now one of my best friends that way!

I love to write about subjects that involve women, that challenge assumptions and provoke.  I’ve written about losing friends, about how astonishing it is to me that women change their names when they get married, about what to do when a friend wears too much makeup, about how Bill O’Reilly dissed me.  As any writer will tell you, it’s all material.  (That aphorism got me through a few excruciating dates.)

What has writing taught you?

That there is always something there.  That we are infinitely fascinating if dare spelunk.  That vulnerability, transparency, and honesty are gifts you can give away if you are brave enough.  That you can say almost anything if you inject humor and some self-deprecation.  That you have to be humble and patient with yourself.  You have to have enough faith to know you have something to say that’s worth saying, and then you have to be humble enough to know that it might suck when you try to say it.

How has writing made you stronger?

Because a lot of what I’ve written, of late, has ended up on tv in the form of an opinion piece, I’ve had to learn to deal with hateful comments—not just about the content of what I say but the way I look. I’ve read comments about how brittle I am, how pale I am, how it’s clear that no one has ever loved me. I’ve been called the c-word, but they spelled it with a “k.” I once stumbled on a chat room that talked about how big my forehead is. The lesson there, of course, is not to “stumble” upon chat rooms. I’ve had to learn not only not to respond to cruel emails but not to read them at all. This is more difficult than you might think if you are an approval junkie like me. (And Approval Junkie is a book I am working on.)

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Although it sucks to have boobs at 10, it won’t later. (Also, they seem big now, because you were the only 9 year-old who had to wear a bra, but trust me: your boobs won’t be big later.) You are funny and that is unique in a little girl.  You are little, even if you feel old. Don’t worry so much. You are going to have a big, big life—amazing things will happen to you that you can’t even dream of. Spend every second you can with your mom because she’ll be gone in 16 years.  (Well, maybe I wouldn’t say the last one out loud, but I’d think it the whole time.)

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

I can honestly say that it is part of my job to be up on pop culture, so I love going to talkentertainment.com every day. I read Star on the elliptical without apology. But I also read the New York Times digest provided by the gym, so it’s like eating kale and chocolate at the same time. Jezebel is reliably awesome. Favorite book is probably The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, not only because it is breathlessly riveting, but because the last time I read it, my fiancé and I were traveling around Morocco reading it together (but separately, each with our own book) and laughing at the same character. To The Lighthouse makes me choked up just thinking about it—the story is inextricable from my memories both of my beautiful mother and of reading it as a graduate student in halcyon Oxford.

But my favorite thing of all to read are the BlackBerry messages I get several times a day from my fiancé, John. If I described them to you, you might throw up a bit.  Sometimes I email the chats to myself so I never lose them. I might tell my 10 year old self that, too: that you will know love like you can’t even dream of. You’ll have to wait a long, long time, but boy will it be worth it, kid.

Faith Salie is a television and national public radio host, commentator, interviewer, “ethics expert,” actor, and journalist. And she’s probably the only Rhodes scholar who’s been a standup comedian.

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