"Don't call yourself a whore," Jill Soloway's mother pleaded when she read the manuscript of her daughter's new book. "Call yourself a . . . sex enjoyer!" Soloway's memoir, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants (Free Press), could give any mother palpitations, but Jill's mom is used to it. In the book Soloway tells the tale of losing her virginity at the age of 17 to a George Hamilton clone she met at the East Bank Club and details her teenage career as a stalker of every celebrity who passed through Chicago, from Ric Ocasek and David Lee Roth to a not-yet-famous Tom Cruise. He gave her his phone number, but she threw it away because she thought he was too short.
Now based in LA, Soloway's been a writer and producer for Six Feet Under for the last four years. But she spent her early years in South Commons, on the near south side, before her family eventually decamped to the Gold Coast. She and her sister, Faith, spent their high school years at Lane Tech.
At Indiana University, Faith started an improv group with Mick Napier, Joe Bill, Eric Waddell, and Mark Howard Sutton--the group that later founded the Annoyance Theatre. Jill was working as a production assistant for commercials when she and Faith came up with the idea for The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show in which they'd get their friends to wear crazy 70s clothes and perform scripts from actual Brady Bunch episodes. The show was an instant hit, playing at the Annoyance for two years and spawning New York and LA productions as well as a national tour.
Jill and Faith went on to stage other shows at the Annoyance, like The Miss Vagina Pageant--a send-up of beauty pageants--and eventually Faith moved to Boston, where she writes and performs in "schlock operas" with titles like Jesus Has Two Mommies and The F-Word, her current parody of the lesbian-themed TV show The L Word. Jill headed to the other coast to pursue a career in television.
In Hollywood she worked her way up the food chain writing for sitcoms. It was the frustration of working on a particularly horrid one that made her sit down and write her first short story, "Courteney Cox's Asshole"--told from the perspective of Cox's fictional personal assistant, whose duties include fielding press calls about a rumor that Cox bleaches her anus. It was published in the literary journal Zyzzyva, featured on Andrei Codrescu's Web site Exquisite Corpse, and developed a cult following on the Internet. It got to the point, she says, where high-powered agents were supposedly telling their clients, "You need to write a CCA." The short story also caught the attention of Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, who hired her to join the writing staff for the show's second season.
Soloway was one of the contributors to the Six Feet Under book, Better Living Through Death, and recently published a novella called "Jodi K" in Susie Bright's latest collection of erotica, Three Kinds of Asking for It. In Tiny Ladies she gives herself free rein to rant about love, sex, religion, and any other topic close to her heart--like why Jews go to the bathroom with the door open.
Jill returns to Chicago on September 26 to stage a "Tiny Ladies Extravaganza" with Faith at I.O. The show will feature chapters from the book read aloud by old Annoyance friends Susan Messing, Tony Stavish, and Jim Carrane, plus songs from their favorite productions and video footage of early Real Live Brady Bunch and Miss Vagina Pageant moments. She'll also be making several bookstore appearances that same week.
Danny Miller: In the book you compare working on Six Feet Under to playing a really long game of Barbies.
Jill Soloway: I keep having these experiences where we all look at each other and say, "We will never have this again." In Chicago I felt that way about The Real Live Brady Bunch and The Miss Vagina Pageant. But it really did happen again with Six Feet Under. For four years it was like being with my best friends doing amazing writing and acting and filmmaking.
DM: It sounds like there was more creative collaboration on Six Feet Under than is often the case on TV shows.
JS: Alan Ball and Alan Poul, the producers, were just wacky in that they truly wanted us all to learn and have authorship over our episodes. So we did everything. We went to all the prep meetings and talked to the transpo department about what kind of car a character would be driving. We helped to cast, we were on the set in a chair next to the director and were able to say stuff like, "Maybe we should try it again, but this way." Directors hated it, but for writers it was like a dream come true.
DM: In one of the last episodes you wrote a scene where some of the female characters on the show were planning a women-only retreat like the one you describe in your book. At the end of the book you even include an application for readers to fill out for this utopia you call Lesbo Island or its code name, "Feather Crest," where there are no chore wheels, meetings, or pointy-toe shoes. Men can stop by for brief visits, but blow jobs can only be given when it's the woman's idea. Poor Ruth--the matriarch of the Fisher clan--was devastated to learn that the other women were only joking; she was ready to pack up and move there.
JS: A lot of stuff from my book came up in that episode. I was working on both at the same time. Those actresses on Six Feet Under were just brilliant.
DM: Did you start writing when you were a kid growing up in the city?
JS: I grew up watching my mom write--first newsletters for the neighborhood, then PR when she started her own business. She's a great writer and has her own memoir coming out, "The Division Street Princess." I always wanted to be just like her, so that meant tap-tap-tapping at the typewriter all day. Some childhood friends told me recently that they have stories that I wrote back then. They were always these comical wish-fulfillment stories about me and my best friend going to Water Tower Place and having a romantic interlude in the glass elevator with Matt Dillon and Christopher Atkins.
DM: Do you think your theater experience influences your work today?
JS: Working at the Annoyance Theatre was amazing. Mick Napier's thing was to let people feel free to do whatever they wanted without judgment. So many things he taught us are still a huge part of my creative process. One of my favorite things he passed on was that no one should be allowed to say anything negative on opening night--it is always a celebration. Notes, ways to fix, even behind-the-back insults traded privately are for the next day.
I'm still very close with my Annoyance friends. Everyone's getting so famous! Seeing Steve Carell on all those billboards for The 40-Year-Old Virgin warms my heart. He understudied Greg Brady in our show. Before the Annoyance my best friends were James Grace, who now runs ImprovOlympic West, and Chris Farley. I remember begging Charna Halpern to give Farley a chance--to please, please put him onstage. I also did acid with James and Farley and had a horrible trip involving pig hallucinations while lying on Farley's stinky mattress.
DM: In one chapter of the book you add up all the times you've mentioned the word "Jew." Why is being Jewish so important to you?
JS: To me, Judaism is all about questioning. I constantly question everything that I do, and sometimes I worry that I sound like a big complainer, dissatisfied with my life. Then I realize it's just my Jewishness and I feel relieved.
For me being a female and being a Jew have always gone together. Andrea Dworkin wrote that if you want to understand anti-Semitism, you have to understand misogyny--that the hatred of the Jew is really the hatred of the feminine. It's a fear of the questions.
DM: As opposed to many fundamentalist religions where the focus is on the answers.
JS: Right. For them, Christ is the answer, Christ is the Messiah. The masculine is the answer. So where Jews differ from other religions is by asking so many questions: "Where is our Messiah? When is he coming? What will it be like? What should it be like?" This feels very feminine to me.
I think the kind of people who love George Bush love the idea of a father, a person who has all the answers, someone who can say, "This is why we're doing this." I'm much more interested in the questions.
DM: Do people ever say to you, "Oy, stop with the Jews already!"
JS: Yes, but to me the Jew is not just the Jew--it's the scapegoat, it's the other. My whole book is about feeling like the other, the other at summer camp, the other in the sorority, the other in every part of life.
DM: Did you have a sense when you were growing up that your family was more on the side of "the other"?
JS: I thought that all regular families were like the Brady Bunch. I knew we weren't normal, but I also knew I was part of a wonderful, brilliant, funny family, even if we weren't always having such a great time. Everyone is so talented. My dad is a shrink, and when I gave him my book to read he sent me ten pages of detailed notes written on tiny prescription-pad paper. I wish I could have included them in the book, they were so funny.
DM: How about your family life today? Is it more Brady Bunch or Six Feet Under?
JS: I find it humorous that for me, falling in love with Dink [her partner], who's like this really macho biker type, has caused me to rethink a lot of stuff I used to wave around as politically important. I used to love strip clubs and books about prostitutes and sex workers, but now I get sick thinking about having a partner who looks at porn. So we have like this very Jewish, porn-free household. We observe Shabbat, but in our own way--meaning I'm not allowed to check my e-mail, and we have to completely relax and treat ourselves like kings and queens. So our life is unbelievably traditional. But all these questions about feminism, objectification, and spirituality still drive me. I'm developing a TV show about these themes right now.
DM: I enjoyed that tension in your book between traditional ideas of feminism and your need to be noticed, to be an object of desire.
JS: A lot of people may read my book and say, "Hold on a second, you say this here, but then you say this here--it doesn't make any sense." What I really hope will happen with the book is that women will start talking more about their experiences. I feel like it's sort of my mission to take complicated feminist ideas and make them understandable to people who don't normally give a shit about feminism.
Women in our culture tend to be defined by men as either their beloved or their whore. I believe that both of these poles exist inside of all women and that we're constantly going back and forth between them. Am I good or bad? Am I a good mother or am I too focused on my career? On Six Feet Under I wrote this dream sequence where Rico was taking his mistress, Sophia, down off the cross and his wife, Vanessa, was washing her. What happens when the Madonna and whore meet is the central question of everything I write. I believe that bringing these polarities together and making them whole will allow women to get to the right balance with men.
DM: What are your plans now that Six Feet Under has ended?
JS: The TV show is something I'm really excited about. It's with this woman named Robin Schwartz at Regency who wants the show to reflect the voice in the book. Selling that to a network may be a tall order, as the book is fairly riddled with vagina references--but we'll see.
The movies are also really important to me. One is called "Tricycle," and I'm going to direct it, hopefully next spring if everything goes right. It's about monogamy and love and the way women triangulate themselves around men. The other is based on the Alexandra Robbins book about sororities, Pledged. Again, it covers some of the same things that are in my book--like the Kobe Bryant chapter that questions young women's ability to meaningfully consent to sex. There's a character in it who is constantly going back to the sorority and saying, "Hey guys, I just got date-raped again."
DM: With so much happening in your career, do you worry about your "masturgoogling" problem--your obsessive need to look yourself up on computer search engines? Will this get worse and worse as you become more well-known?
JS: I'm in a struggle with the computer right now. . . . My computer puts me in touch with people who want to tell me how great I am. I can see where people are talking about me and what they're saying. Sometimes people say very mean things about me, but I can't stop reading. There's something about the computer that fits like a lock and key with my neuroses.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller, Michael L. Abramson/Timne Life Pictures/Getty Images.