Interview With an Author: Juliet McDaniel

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Photo of Juliet McDaniel and her debut novel, Mr. & Mrs. American Pie

Juliet McDaniel has an M.A. in Writing from DePaul University. Although raised in Arizona, she spent the last 25 years living in Chicago, where she currently resides with her partner and her cats. She is the screenwriter of the independent romantic-comedy QWERTY, released in 2012, and her debut novel, Mr.& Mrs. American Pie, was just released. Ms. McDaniel recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for Mr. and Mrs. American Pie?

Lots of things! I’ve been fascinated with beauty pageants my whole life since my late grandmother, Marcella Higgins, was Mrs. Minnesota 1956. She told me plenty of stories about the sewing, cooking, and ironing contests and admitted she wished she hadn’t taken it all so seriously. That really stuck with me.

A big part of the story also stems from seeing the phenomenal strides made by the LGBTQ+ community. In 1970, it was very literally a crime to be gay. The same is true when it comes to women’s rights. In 1970, most banks wouldn’t let single, working women have their own accounts. I see Millennial and Gen Z kids and their smart, evolved thinking on basic human rights, but I also worry that they take the struggle that came before them for granted.

I’m also a big believer in family being what you make it. I’m lucky enough to have close friends I love immensely who are absolutely my family, though we don’t share DNA. For some reason, we’re still clinging to this notion that family has to be a mom, dad, and at least one kid they made together. That’s actually never been true, and we need to let it go. Family is the people you love and go through life together.

I also like to make people laugh. The more we can laugh at ourselves and our silly hang-ups, the easier it is to get over them.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

My first lousy draft was 120 pages. My second, slightly less lousy draft, was pushing towards 500 pages. (Hug your editors, kids!) I wouldn’t say that things were “lost” so much as they were refined. I did have in one draft a POV from Mrs. Alice Depwelt, the conniving pageant head. That was fun, but probably better left in my head. I also sometimes miss Buleah, who was Mrs. Illinois Maisey Walker’s best friend. I based her on my own BFF, who is a total riot.

Are Maxine, Robert, Chuck, or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Maxine is the imaginary friend lurking in my head whom I always turn to when I need to be ridiculously confident. She’s every too loud, too brash, too in-your-face woman I’ve ever wanted to be. Whenever I’m in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I pretend I’m Maxine and she sees me through it. She’s also probably influenced by my love of Dorothy Parker.

Robert is a mixture of three of my favorite, most easy-to-love men in my life: my dad, my partner Jon, and one of my best friends, David. All three are Midwestern born-n-bred and thoughtful, kind men with wicked senses of humor.

Chuck is somewhat my son, Dylan, and also a lot of a childhood friend, Bobby. As kids, Bobby and I wanted to grow up to be spies and would practice by snooping where we shouldn’t in our neighborhood. So, I guess there’s a little of me in Chuck, too.

With the novel starting in 1969 and moving into 1970, there are a lot of references to 70s television/music. What’s your favorite 70s television show? Band?

This is embarrassing, but I’m just going to own it and say that I pretty much live for the variety shows of the 70s. They range from awkward to awful and I can’t get enough. The March 12, 1976 episode of The Donny and Marie Show is a personal favorite. Some people think that Donny Osmond’s cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” is a butchering of the original song. I think of it more as a ritualistic torture killing accidentally committed by a too-wholesome, too-toothy guy in a silver jumpsuit. I simply cannot get enough of it.

Despite what I just said, I love the music of the time the book is set in. There are far too many amazing bands and albums to list, but Melanie’s 1970 album Candles in the Rain was something I couldn’t stop listening to while writing the book. It’s a gorgeous album that sounds equal parts weary and hopeful, which to me sums up the late 60s and early 70s. Her version of “Ruby Tuesday” is even better than the Stones’ original.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Nothing on the nightstand because I don’t read in bed. (I would never sleep.) In the pile on my desk that the cat keeps knocking over: Joan Didion’s South and West, Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, Eve Babitz’s L.A. Woman, Angela Y. Davis’ Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, and Moo by Jane Smiley, which I recently promised my former AP English teacher that I would read.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

As a very young child, The Runaway Pancake really did it for me because I could never decide if I was rooting for the plucky-yet-tasty pancake or the adorable-and-hungry fox who was trying to eat him.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My dad is a former high school English teacher, so there was very little off-limits in my house. I grew up in super conservative 1980s Mesa, Arizona and decided in 7th grade to read every one of the books on the banned list. Dad was cool with this, mainly because some of his favorite books were on the list. But there was one banned book that I always assumed Dad would have taken issue with: Jackie Collins’ Lucky. My girlfriends and I all passed around a tattered paperback of that book and highlighted some of our favorite unsavory passages. It might be the most 80s thing I’ve ever done.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

(1) Joan Didion, (2) Raymond Carver, (3) Don DeLillo, (4) Allen Ginsberg, (5) David Foster Wallace.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Oh boy, this one’s going to get me in trouble, but I’ve flat-out lied countless times, although not in the last 7 years, to reading and loving Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not for me and I’ve never finished it. It was, however, a favorite of a lot of cute guys I’ve met, so…

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Less Than Zero back in 1987. Robert Downey Jr. was on the cover. I don’t think I need to explain myself further.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I got to read this for my AP English class in high school, despite it being on the banned list, and I ended up reading it three times in a month. It forced me to look outside of myself and definitely helped spur my burgeoning political awareness. Plus, the writing is incredible.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I try very hard to not do this since I think reading tastes are so personal and I know for a lot of people there’s a time investment involved. That said, I’m never going to miss an opportunity to push Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I also think the world would be a better place if we all read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This book blew open my mind when I read it the summer before starting 4th grade. Meeting Scout was huge for me since I’d never read anything so clearly from the POV of a girl close to my own age. I already knew at this point in my life that I wanted to be a writer, but this book made it clear I needed to be a GOOD writer. It was the first time I read anything that felt like it had a purpose beyond entertaining me.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I want three days at a beachside resort. I want to get up early in the morning and take a seat in the shade staring out at the Pacific Ocean. Just me, my sunscreen, and a stack of reading material, although my wonderful man is also free to join me. Throughout the course of the day, I would like drinks and food to be brought to me. When I get too hot, I will run into the ocean, but then quickly return to my chair, my books, and my tropical beverage. Around 4 p.m., I’ll return to my room and head off to dinner. Then in bed early and up the next day to do it all again. No email. No phone. No terrifying news alerts. Nothing to do but read, eat, drink, and succumb to relaxation. I’m thinking 2019 might be the year I get to make this happen.

What are you working on now?

A project that I’m beyond excited about, but needs to stay top secret for now.