Between the Covers with Juliet McDaniel

February 20, 2019 | By Baltimore County Public Library

Portrait of Juliet McDaniel

Juliet McDaniel's debut novel "Mr. and Mrs. American Pie" is a funny, thoughtful, roller coaster of a ride. Buckle up and enjoy the marvelous Maxine, a most memorable character in an unforgettable setting and times which were changing. Here, the author answered our questions and we learned so much, from her writing process, to why Fridays are the best days of the week, and of course, the excitement of having a novel optioned for television.

Lucky for us, Juliet is going to be here in person for a presentation at our Owings Mills branch on March 3 at 2 p.m. for what is sure to be a lively conversation and book-signing.  

Author Interview

Between the Covers (BTC): This novel hits all the right notes—wonderful characters, great time period and funny! What was the inspiration for this wonderful story?

Juliet McDaniel (JM): A big part of the inspiration was my life-long fascination with beauty pageants, especially those for housewives. My grandmother, Marcella Higgins, was Mrs. Minnesota 1957 and I grew up with her stories of the Mrs. America Pageant. These women were judged not only on how they looked, but on how well they kept house, cooked, cleaned and stayed on budget. As a child of the 1980s, this seemed insane to me. Who wants to be judged by how pretty she looks while cleaning a toilet? But the more I researched the pageants and the reasons why women entered (and still do enter), I began to understand it. Being a wife and mom can be a fairly thankless job. Pageants helped bring tangible value to the work women did inside the home. I like that idea.

BTC: Maxine is one of my favorite characters and I would love to hang out with her and wear caftans! She’s gutsy and loving, yet honest and sometimes immature. How did Maxine come to you? Is she based on anyone you know? How about Robert or Chuck or any of the other characters—Douglas?

JM: I wish Maxine were real! I’ve always loved tough-talking, take no B.S., over-the-top dramatic women. Maxine is an amalgamation of all those types of women I’ve loved—both real and fictional—from Dorothy Parker to Jordan Baker, Lucille Bluth to Ethel Merman. These are the women who can sweep into a room, drop a bon mot, throw a drink in someone’s face, and be scandalous and admired. For years now, whenever I’ve been in a situation where I need to call upon some non-existent confidence, I pretend I’m Maxine. Plus, caftans are a great way to balance comfort with glamour.

Robert is a mash-up of all the best men I know. There’s a lot of my husband, Jonathan, in Robert’s sneaky humor. My dad’s personality shows up in the supportive way that Robert raises Chuck and Dawn. His ability to roll with Maxine’s punches comes from my dear friend David. I’m a proud Midwesterner, so it mattered to me to make Robert very Midwest in the way he’s humble and sensible.

Chuck is equal parts my son, my childhood friend Bobby and maybe a little of me. I think people have a tendency to discount kids—especially those on the cusp of those dreaded teenage years—which I think is unfair. Thanks to my now-grown son, Dylan, I got to be around a lot of 12-year-old boys who are thoughtful, smart, funny kids, who are just trying to figure out not only the world, but their place in it. I made Chuck dream of a future career in espionage because that was my goal when I was a kid.

BTC: The Thanksgiving episode is pretty epic, yet also very sad. Maxine’s story is probably typical of a woman’s situation in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Why did you want to set her story at this time?

JM: I’ve always loved the 1960s-early 1970s because it’s a time where America was in the midst of a ton of cultural change. If you look at where the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement and feminism stood in 1960 versus 1970, the amount of progress is astonishing. When I started writing the book in 2016, I saw present day America as being in a similar place. We’d made another big leap forward. Gay marriage was finally legal and for a while there it really seemed like we were going to get our first female president right on the heels of our first African-American president.

I have a degree in American Studies so I tend to get a little nervous when people begin mistaking nostalgia for history. Nostalgia is history all tidied up and stripped of the ugly realities of a time. It’s not truth. We can’t forget how in 1970 when the Miss America Pageant allowed its first African-American contestant, she needed around-the-clock guards due to death threats, or how single women in 1969 still needed to have a man—a husband, father or brother—co-sign their checking accounts. There were laws in all 50 states to make being gay a very literal crime. To me, it’s essential that even though progress has been made we don’t forget all the sacrifice and soul-crushing work that the Americans who came before us put into our cultural progress. Otherwise, I think we get too comfortable and don’t keep pushing forward.

Cover of the Novel Mr and Mrs American Pie

BTC: Reviewers love mashups and I saw one that said "Mr. and Mrs. American Pie" is "The Brady Bunch" fashion with a Time's Up vibe. Would you agree with this assessment?

JM: That’s a flattering comparison, mainly because I am a huge supporter of Time's Up and to a lesser extent, the double-knit polyester fashions of the Brady family. I don’t think it’s an entirely fair comparison though. Like a lot of women of her generation, Maxine is fed up with the sexism she sees around her. She handles it not so much by trying to change sexist attitudes, but instead by finding ways to work around and within people’s sexist notions. Maxine knows that if she projects the image of perfect wife and mother then no one will suspect she’s anything more than that. She survives by biting her tongue and tolerating a lot of crap thrown her way.

It’s like a lesson my grandpa taught me while watching an episode of “I Love Lucy” with me when I was five. Lucy joined a poker game with Ricky and all his friends. The men all assumed she didn’t know what she was doing because she was a woman. Lucy played into that false assumption and beat them all. Grandpa told me that like with Lucy, men are going to think I’m dumb simply because I’m a woman. “You use that against them,” Grandpa told me.

By comparison, Time's Up and the #MeToo movement aren’t sneaky or quiet—and I love it. This is a movement determined to dismantle the entire system of sexism and take to task the people who continue to perpetuate it. What we can’t forget is that the women of Maxine’s generation laid the groundwork.

BTC: These characters are so genuine they become part of the reader’s lives. How do you develop such insight into human nature?  Chuck is only twelve, yet you really get him. Have you ever considered writing for teens or even younger children?

JM: First of all, thank you for this great compliment. We human beings are a nutty, confounding, fun bunch, but I think that’s part of what makes living great. How boring would it be if we were all so easy to figure out? I have no clue where I get what you so graciously call “insight.” I think a big part of it is that I’m nosy. I love listening in on strangers’ conversations, most especially in restaurants and airports.

As for writing kid-aged characters, all I can say is that more adults need to think of children as actual human beings. Yes, their brains are still forming and sure they can be hormonal, but so what? That’s all still part of being human. My husband very much wants me to try writing a young adult novel. I have a whisper of an idea for one based on an incident from my childhood, but it’s not fully formed enough in my mind yet. So stay tuned?

BTC: Did you always want to be a writer? As a debut novelist can you tell us the process of getting your first book published? Do you have any advice for struggling writers?

JM: I decided when I was about four that I wanted to be a writer. Then I became a mom at age 19 and changed my mind, thinking I needed a more solid profession. I was prelaw in college until I took a course in contemporary American literature taught by a wonderful man named Philip Simmons. He returned an essay I wrote to me with “NO LAW SCHOOL FOR YOU” written across the top. I ended up getting into law school and grad school for writing and chose writing at the last minute.

I still wasn’t convinced I could make it as a writer. In my M.A. program, I did all three possible fields of specialty: writing for entertainment, writing for business and teaching writing. After graduating, I worked as an adjunct college professor and in marketing. In my spare time, I wrote a screenplay in 2002 that was optioned, but never produced. I just kept plugging away at it, writing screenplays whenever I had the time. A bunch were optioned and one, "QWERTY," was made in 2012. In 2014, my son was out of college, so I quit my marketing job and focused on writing full-time, working as a screenplay reader to support myself. Just barely!

That’s when I heard about a contest called the LaunchPad novel competition. I was writing all screenplays at this point, but I had this idea for a crazy lady who enters a beauty pageant for housewives. It always felt more like a book than a screenplay. I wrote up the first 23 pages and entered the contest. By some miracle, I won best comedy and met Adam Gomolin, the head of Inkshares and a sponsor of the LaunchPad contest. He agreed to publish the book—and spend 18 months working with me as my editor.

My only advice for writers is the same advice everyone gives. Don’t stop. Write, rewrite and rewrite some more. Seek out people who love writing and reading as much as you do and surround yourselves with them and their support. I know a lot of people who make it as a writer claim that a lot of luck was involved in their success. I think this is an overstatement. Working your butt off and being determined as hell are two absolute requirements in becoming a published writer.

BTC: What is your writing routine? Any must-have snacks or beverages?

JM: Before I was able to turn writing into my only profession my routine was to write whenever I was able to. This meant on my lunch break, when no one was watching me at work, after the kid went to bed, while the kid was doing his homework, etc.

Now that I write for a living I find that I need to set a hard and fast schedule for myself, otherwise I end up wasting my day watching cat videos on YouTube. Although, is it fair to call that “wasted time?” We can learn a lot from felines. In my advanced age, I’ve somehow turned into a productive morning person, so I try to write uninterrupted for a solid three to four hours then. I do this on the weekends, too, which helps me not feel bad if a skip a day here.

Coffee is something I cannot live or breathe without. I love hummus and baby carrots, although anything I can eat without fear of slopping it all over my keyboard is generally fine. On Fridays I eat half a frozen pizza for lunch, which is why Fridays are better than all the other days.

BTC: In exciting news "Mr. and Mrs. American Pie" was optioned for television by Laura Dern for her first project to go into development. Can you describe what this experience is like? Your role in the production?

JM: The experiencing of adapting "Mr. and Mrs. American Pie" for television is about 90 percent amazing and 10 percent "oh my god what the @*#&$ is happening, how is this real?" Going into this I had immense admiration for everyone involved, especially Laura Dern, who’s been a part of some of my favorite films and worked with just about every director I adore. I’ve twice dressed as a Laura Dern character for Halloween.

Getting the chance to adapt the book for TV is a huge honor for me. In general, I have more confidence in myself as a screenwriter than a novelist. It’s a world I know better and feel comfortable in. I like getting notes and working with others to give these characters even more life beyond the pages of the book. I’m still doing all the writing, but it’s a collaborative effort to make it a TV show. I love that.

My feelings can best be summed up by looking at the fantastic 1987 film "Broadcast News." In my favorite scene, a recently very successful and fortunate man  played by William Hurt rather arrogantly asks his less successful friend Albert Brooks, “what do you do when your real life surpasses your dreams?” Brooks shoots back in perfect deadpan, “you keep it to yourself.”

That’s where I am right now. Keeping it to myself.

Category: Collection and Materials