Before Brett Paesel's book was optioned by HBO for a series, it was turned down by 13 different publishers. Lucky for her she was too distracted to be discouraged. "That would have been a blow," says Paesel, "except that it happened pretty much at the same time that I had Murphy. I don't think I really felt it."
Murphy is the second of Paesel's two sons, now two and six. Mommies Who Drink, her raunchy book about parenting, was published by Warner Books in August; an audio version recorded by Paesel came out this month. A collection of short humorous essays, it's punctuated by set pieces recounting Friday happy-hour get-togethers with a group of girlfriends, four composite characters based on eight of her real-life friends (fellow former Chicagoans Paula Killen and Marsha Wilkie among them). In between riffs on aging eggs, C-sections, and the politics of preschool, there are stories about Paesel's first exposure to a more traditional mommy group--she's shocked that no alcohol is on offer--her group's abortive attempt to plan a girls' night out with an eightball of coke, and smoking weed with her husband on a Christmas visit to her parents in Ohio.
Paesel, who's 46, was in town last week for a couple of readings, including one at the new Annoyance Theatre in Uptown. An Annoyance member in the 80s and early 90s, she performed in some of the troupe's best-known productions--Splatter Theater, Co-ed Prison Sluts, the touring version of The Real Live Brady Bunch. She and founding Annoyance member Pat Towne, who married in 1991, moved to LA for good in 1995; she's since been a regular on Mr. Show With Bob and David--"For some reason they usually cast me as Bob's wife," she says--and had small roles on Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Paesel had only dabbled in writing when in 2000, midway through her first pregnancy, she found herself unable to get work as an actor. "I was built sort of like a ship," she says, "carrying it all in front and I couldn't turn around fast." A fellow actor suggested she take a class with actress and writing coach Claudette Sutherland. Paesel liked it almost immediately. "I didn't have any ego investment in it the way that I might have had in acting," she says. "So I could fail and not feel like that meant I was terrible. I really did start at square one and decided to learn how to write."
At first Paesel focused on short stories, but the response to the humor pieces she brought in about becoming a mother got the highest praise from her classmates, who included published authors Mariette Hartley and Adrienne Barbeau and, later, Moon Zappa. "I was having a ball," she says. "Aside from being well-known, they're very interesting women with full lives and that was really wonderful to be around."
Paesel took a page from the Annoyance playbook and used plenty of salty language. One scene in Mommies Who Drink has her thinking "Cocksucker," "Lick my juicy pussy," and "Fuck me up the ass, soldier" while the mothers around her discuss ways to get kids to eat their vegetables.
"One of the reasons why I used profanity was to differentiate this mommy book from other ones," she says. "I also wanted to be able to write like a man. I didn't want to feel like I had to constantly reassure the audience that I was a good mother, a concerned mother, or that I had to equivocate."
Eventually Paesel began reading her pieces in public and submitting them over the transom; her work's appeared in Hip Mama and Brain, Child. In 2003, when she was five months pregnant with Murphy, she was approached after a reading by Adam Peck, a manager who works in both TV and publishing. "I think this is a book and a TV series," he told her.
Soon Peck had signed Paesel up with Erin Hosier at the Gernert Company, a small but successful agency whose star clients include John Grisham and Tommy Lee. Paesel and Hosier carefully crafted their proposal. Then came the 13 rejections.
That's when Paesel and Hosier came up with the title Mommies Who Drink and the idea of using Paesel's happy-hour get-togethers as a thread through the book. When the proposal was sent out again it sold to Warner almost immediately. Of course it didn't hurt that in the meantime HBO had picked up the project.
Based on audience response at her readings, the title has struck a chord: during Paesel's appearance at Transitions bookstore a woman confided that she was a "grandmommy who drinks." Reviews have lumped Paesel's book into the category of the "momoir," but she's not averse to being labeled an author of chick lit or mommy lit. "The label is useful to a certain degree because if you write within a genre you're probably going to sell within that genre, and publishers tend to be a little more confident about that," she says. "On the other hand the label can marginalize some really good writing. . . . I would like to not be pegged as only a mommy writer simply because I have more to say."
Her next two projects are a novel, "probably comic in tone," about a woman who returns home to take care of her father, who has Alzheimer's, and another collection of humorous essays about being in your 40s. The working title is "Forty Is the New Black: How One Woman Became Appropriate for Any Occasion."
Paesel, who's in the midst of a two-month tour, expects to be stumping for the book as long as there's a book club or mommy group interested; Warner is putting out a paperback edition next year. Meanwhile, her husband's stopped working to stay home and take care of the kids. Being away from them is the hardest thing about touring, Paesel says--that and fans' constant offers of free drinks. "Ironically," she says, "I'm actually a mommy who doesn't drink much."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.