Amy Dickinson is a Big Deal.
Her syndicated “Ask Amy” advice column — which succeeded Ann Landers after a nationwide search — is carried by more than 150 newspapers and read by an estimated 22 million people. Her New York Times bestselling memoir has piqued Hollywood’s interest. Still, she reads all of her own mail and emails and even handles her own press requests. No assistant, no secretary, no airs.
No surprise, really, considering her upbringing in teeny, rural Freeville, N.Y., surrounded by her large, estrogen-dominant family. Her distant father walked out when she was a teen, leaving behind four kids, a wife and a dairy farm so mortgaged that even the cows got repossessed. This is a woman who thinks Kleenex is highbrow.
“You’ve got one box of Kleenex floating around, and you can never find it,” said Dickinson, 54, from her home office tucked into an old red barn in Dryden, N.Y., where she lives with her second husband, Bruno Schickel, and the youngest of their combined five daughters. “I have a roll of toilet paper in my car — there’s always toilet paper. Or my sleeve. Ya know, a sleeve will work.”
Her common sense, sharp wit and snappy writing are the hallmarks of her column and book “The Mighty Queens of Freeville” (Hyperion, $22.99), written as a series of essays that follow her path from a young mother blindsided by divorce to advice columnist.
A featured author at the Arizona Daily Star tent for the Tucson Festival of Books, Dickinson will talk about the challenges of writing, publishing and selling your own book next Sunday.
She’s in the early, early stages of a second book, this time a novel. It was author Fannie Flagg — who wrote “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” which became a movie in 1991 — who gave Dickinson the idea when they met at a writer’s conference.
“I hadn’t even thought about it,” said Dickinson. She immediately loved the thought. “The idea, for me, of just diving into my own imagination and taking these real-life situations that are true in my own life but being able to manipulate them so the outcome can be different, you get to bring people back to life, it’s super, super liberating.”
Dickinson was scrambling to stockpile columns to cover a month-long break so she could concentrate on the book during a solo getaway to New Orleans, which she’s wanted to do for several years.
So even though she was busier than busy, she graciously allowed us to Ask Amy ...
About book festivals:
“This is a very solitary occupation, but for me it’s such a pleasure to go to festivals. I love meeting people. I spend a lot of time alone, so when I’m with readers I’m like the guest who gets drunk a little too early — ‘I love you, maaaaaaan!’”
About people who try to weasel free advice: “That started really early on, and I very quickly figured out what to do. It especially happens at parties. People feel this genuine desire to connect, but also they get a couple of drinks in them and they want to challenge me. What I started doing is they would tell me their dilemma and I would say, ‘That would be a fantastic question. Why don’t you write it up and send it to me?’”
About fake letters: “I feel like I can sniff out a fake letter. I’ve gotten fake letters. My big triumph was probably in the first six months of the column. I happened to recognize that it was right out of a “Simpsons” episode. Dear Abby did run the letter. … I think like the person who would write the fake letter.”
About email: “I get a very high volume — 200-300 emails a day. That’s been really steady since I started. … The most time-consuming aspect is going through and finding good questions. The questions are what make the column sing. I love the way people write, I love the way they tell their stories. I try not to change how people express themselves. Half of it is people telling their stories their ways. If you think about it, where else in the newspaper do people get to do that? Going through email, you can go through very quickly. Half the time is responding to previous questions. I would say a fair portion has “you suck” in the subject line. And then there are the requests for advice. I answer a lot privately.”
About her life popping up on the big screen: “The specter of movies, it’s a real huge thing, and as someone who loves movies I would love nothing more than for my little book to be a movie. Actually, I’d love it to be a TV show, an ongoing trials-and-tribs thing. A friend wrote a super-successful novel and it was made into a movie. She gave me the best advice. She told me, “Amy, it’s a total crapshoot.” If you’re offered the opportunity to write the screenplay — which she had been offered — she said you have to think about do you want to live with this one story for several years? I’m hoping for an option and then I would happily turn it over and see what happens. I’d be completely happy to turn it over to a screenwriter.”
About casting her life story: “It’s all I do. Every night. I don’t care who you are, every single person on the planet has to spend some time casting. What’s fun is asking other people who they’d pick. I used to feel like Holly Hunter needed to play me, but she got super-edgy and I didn’t. I have been told, and I’m very flattered by this, that Diane Lane would be a good fit. Bruno would be played by Ed Harris, without doubt.”