April 8, 2008

Pretty is What Changes- Interview with author and TV writer Jessica Queller

What would you do if you watched your mother wither away and suffer from breast and ovarian cancer and then discovered that you had the gene that gave you an 87% chance of getting the same cancer? Jessica Queller, a Hollywood TV writer (The Gilmore Girls, Felicity and Gossip Girl) was confronted with this quandary after testing positive for the BRCA-1 gene. In her new, powerful memoir Pretty is What Changes, Queller takes us through her mother's illness, her devastation and her own brave journey towards a preventive prophylactic mastectomy to prevent her from getting any type of cancer. From her TV experience, Queller clearly knows how to write accessibly and her book is interesting, informative and at times very scary and heartbreaking.

Queller answered some questions about her book and about being a woman writer in Hollywood.

Women & Hollywood: How did you come up with the title Pretty is What Changes?

Jessica Queller: I spent a lot of time trying to come up with the right title for this book. One of the titles I considered was "There Is No Better Place" which was a quote from my mother. When my mother was gravely ill she continued to fight like a wildcat to survive. The hospice nurse, Sharon, told my sister and I that hanging on after her body was ready to go would only increase our mother's suffering. Sharon instructed us to tell our mom that it was okay to let go -- assure her that we would always love her and think of her every single day -- but that we would be okay without her. My sister and I obeyed, and one afternoon I assured my mom that we'd be okay and that she would "go to a better place." My mother raised her eyebrow skeptically and said to me, with her morphine-slurred words, "There is no better place." That summed up my mother's passion for life, desire to go on living. She wanted to live so desperately. Cancer cut her life short.
My mother was a great beauty (a dead-ringer for Jacqueline Bisset) and a glamorous fashion designer. Another large theme in the book is how her ideas about beauty -- and my own ideas about beauty -- evolved through the course of my mother's illness. She put great emphasis on 'prettiness' and taught my sister and I that the most important thing for a girl was to be pretty. As cancer ravaged my mother, all artifice was stripped away and my mother's true soul shone through -- her fierce love for her daughters, her love of life. It became apparent to her, and to my sister and me, that true beauty went far beyond the external -- it was about the soul, inside stuff -- the choices we make, how we live our lives. I've always been a great fan of Stephen Sondheim and the lyrics from Sunday In The Park With George, "Pretty isn't Beautiful, Mother" kept running through my head. The fact that prettiness is not true beauty. I sent the full quote to my editor, Julie Grau: "Pretty isn't beautiful, mother. Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges is what is beautiful." Once we both saw the lyrics in print, it became apparent that "Pretty Is What Changes" was the title we'd been looking for.
W&H: It seems that the turning point for you was the writing of the op-ed piece in the NY Times. Talk a little about how that experience made you realize you had something to say on this topic.
JQ: When I tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation I wasn't at all ready to deal with it. I had only taken the test because I felt certain that I would NOT carry the gene mutation and I thought it would be comforting to have a clean bill of health in writing. I was shocked to test positive and I stuck the test results in a drawer, blocking it out for three months. My college friend Kay happened to be an editor at the Op-Ed page of the NY Times. She asked if I'd be interested in writing an Op-Ed piece on the subject. I had no intention of doing research on my own behalf, but the notion of writing an Op-Ed piece was so exciting to me that I said of course I would become an expert on the subject and interview doctors all around the country! In the course of doing research for the 'article' I became educated about BRCA and also realized that I was in danger. It was writing the article that forced me to confront my own medical situation. There was an outpouring of responses to the article which quite naturally led to the notion of writing a book.
W&H: You have an amazing support structure of friends and family who helped you in your decision making process, the surgery and the recovery. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to help their friends get through such difficult times. What worked best? What was a total disaster?
JQ: My friends were incredible to me throughout my ordeal. The most meaningful thing was how supported I was. A few of my best friends were a bit aggressive in the beginning when i was in denial about having the gene -- they nudged me (or shoved me!) toward dealing with the matter. They were blunt but always loving. Once I began the journey of educating myself and deciding what course of action to take my friends were purely supportive, listening for hours as I processed the information and obsessed. So many of my friends supported my decision to take preventative action full-heartedly and without any judgment. They made me feel courageous for taking action. Overall, the most important thing a friend can do in this situation is to listen, to support, to be present and loving.
W&H: Hollywood is so obsessed with unrealistic expectations about how women should look and places unrealistic expectations on them. How do you handle that obsession in your work and your life?
JQ: Hollywood is not a healthy place for women!! Even though I've lived there on and off for a decade, I still feel like a New Yorker and identify with being a New Yorker. The ideal of beauty in Hollywood tends to be blond, buxom and botoxed. That has never been my taste or aesthetic. I try to remain true to myself, remember that beauty is made up of more than the exterior -- that intelligence, humanity, compassion, humor all go into making a woman a true beauty. Of course I try to take care of myself -- i exercise, go for facials, etc! But I do my best not to internalize Hollywood's beauty standards and to value my own.
W&H: You're back at work now that the writers strike is over. What has changed for writers and what's it like being a woman TV writer in Hollywood?
JQ: Being a woman TV writer in Hollywood can be trying. It's not unusual to be the only woman on the staff and to be in a frat-like atmosphere in the writers' room. The main tool to get you through is a good sense of humor. I've been fortunate lately in that I've worked on female-centric dramadies with other amazing women writers. I have come across quite a few female bosses who are bitchy and mean to other women -- I find this shameful and depressing. Thankfully I've met many more incredible, nurturing women than I have bitchy ones. I feel it's essential for women to help each other, support each other, especially in this business. I do find that good people flock together. I've been amazingly fortunate in the friendships I've made with other female writers I've worked with.
W&H: You've written on some of the most beloved female-centric shows in recent times like Felicity and the Gilmore Girls and now the hot Gossip Girl. Talk a little about how these types of shows have evolved and what effect they have on girls and young women today.
JQ: I've worked on Felicity, The Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl. These shows all carry great appeal to young female viewers. Each of these shows have presented different images of young women, yet all of the portraits seem to resonate greatly. It's gratifying for me to hear how girls identified with Felicity or Rory on The Gilmore Girls. The Gossip Girl characters are less earthy, much more dominated by wealth and privilege. I think there has always been a vicarious pleasure in watching shows about rich and pampered people who get to live lives beyond what most of us can imagine.
W&H: What advice would you give a young woman who wants to be a TV writer?
JQ: If you want to be a TV writer, I think it's important to define what type of TV writer you want to be -- find a niche and stick to it -- at least at first while you're establishing yourself as a useful commodity. Do you want to write procedural shows like Law & Order and CSI? There's a need for women's voices in procedurals, an arena dominated by men. If you want to write relationship shows then make sure your samples reflect this and show you off well. Keep writing, keep honing your skills, don't turn anything in that you're not proud of.
W&H: What do you want women (and men) who read your book to get out of it?
JQ: Cancer has become an epidemic in our society. I feel lucky that there was a genetic test available to warn me of my predisposition to two deadly cancers. I hope that the description of my mother's suffering and death will impart to people how scary cancer can be, and inspire those at high risk to seek information that could spare them that sort of horror. I especially hope that my story will help others at high risk not to feel afraid to take preventative action.
Book is available everywhere now.