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Interview with Celia Rivenbark, September 25, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Celia Rivenbark, September 25, 2007
September 25, 2007
Interview with Celia Rivenbark, syndicated columnist and author of Bless Your Heart, Tramp; We're Just Like You, Only Prettier; and Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like A Skank.
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Interviewee: Rivenbark, Celia Interviewer: Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview: 9/25/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 60 minutes

Diesenhaus: Hello, I'm Doug Diesenhaus and today, September 25th, 2007 I'll be interviewing Celia Rivenbark for the Randall Library Oral History Project on creative writers. So perhaps a good place to start is if you could just talk about how you got started writing and how you've come to it.

Rivenbark: I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter ever since I was like six years old. I tell people that and they don't believe me, but it's true. I would go to the laundromat with my little daddy and my sister, and every Sunday I would get a big, old, fat Raleigh News Observer. And I tell people this and they can't believe it, but I would actually memorize the bylines because I was so into newspapers. I never doubted for an instant what I wanted to do, and that's kind of why when I got out of high school, I basically started newspapering. And that went from a small hometown paper, the Wallace Enterprise, to the Star News in Wilmington, to eventually being a syndicated columnist. So I feel like, you know, I've done a little bit of everything, every aspect of working in a newspaper, which is really what I hoped to do when I was six years old.

Diesenhaus: Is it something that you spent any time on in school, or were there teachers who kind of helped you onto that path?

Rivenbark: Well, again I pretty much knew what I wanted to do, so the classes that I did well in, of course, were, you know, English, journalism, things like that. And yeah, I had some great teachers, particularly a couple in high school, and then I did do a couple of years of community college, but I was actually working writing press releases and doing some reporting the whole time. So I kind of jumped into it when I was 18 for pay.

Diesenhaus: When you had this interest early on in the writing aspect, did you also have a parallel interest in reading?

Rivenbark: Yeah, I was a pretty voracious reader. I was.

Diesenhaus: And the newspapers that you approached?

Rivenbark: Newspapers, fiction mostly, you know. My grandmother lived next door to this big old Southern house with a huge wrap around porch, and I spent every summer, because we were way out in the country, I spent every summer just reading. You know, I went through the whole original Nancy Drew series, you know, and on, and on, and on. I loved to read.

Diesenhaus: And I'm curious, obviously a lot of your work is humor, and I wondered did you come to that naturally? Is that a thing you kind of found, or did you sort of start from that perspective when you started working in the newspaper?

Rivenbark: I was probably in high school, I was called the class clown. So there was this sort of twisted sense of humor, you know, even then. From as far back as I can remember I had kind of a slightly twisted take on things that would make people laugh, people that I was around. And so it was kind of a natural evolution, I guess. I was so fortunate because I actually had pitched doing restaurant reviews, because my other love besides humor is food, and I had pitched doing restaurant reviews for the first time for the Wilmington paper. And they said, "No, this is going to be too expensive. Why don't you run some of that funny stuff you talk about?" So that was actually what launched the column and that was really where I truly felt at home. I had done, you know, certainly lots of general reporting, tons of bored meetings, and boring sewer pipe discussions, and courts, and done all the hard news, and I'd done soft news too. But humor is really where my heart was, and I don't think I did know that for a while.

Diesenhaus: And that humor seems to be fixated on the South, and where you live, and where you come from, or parts of it. You know, it's an element of what you're working on. Can you talk a bit about place, and location, and how that plays into what you write?

Rivenbark: Well, it actually plays less of a role than it used to, because the column now is national, and so I cannot write about southern things, you know, not exclusively. Every now and then I'll throw a little southernism in but, my cat's mewing, but if you really follow the writing you see that there's really been a change. And I mostly write a lot about pop culture or very general things about family, children, that sort of thing. But, you know, every southerner, it's in him to do this. You know that. I mean every southerner is full of stories to tell. We just seem to have a kind of knack for it and I grew up, you know, it sounds like a cliché but I grew up, you know, around the cracker barrel and the country store, hearing the old men talk, and the old women talk, and the WMU. So kind of, everybody has these fantastic stories. So, yeah, the southern, I think so many southerners are drawn to retelling those tales. So I never, you know, I embrace them. I'm tickled to death, proud to be a southerner, but it does play less of a role in what I do now.

Diesenhaus: Can you talk a bit about that shift? Was there a certain time period when it went from to being a national, in syndication? Have you maybe had to change some of what you're doing or how you shifted into?

Rivenbark: Well, it was pretty, you can pretty much draw a line because when I worked just for the Wilmington paper and then later the Myrtle Beach paper, you know, it was very much about it. Myrtle Beach paper still runs my column and calls it, "From the Belle Tower," which is cute and I like it. But that I guess about probably ten years into the column, I realized to have a bigger national audience I needed to kind of maybe be a little, and also the folks at St. Martin's that have published the books have been, like, the Southern stuff is great and they love it, but you kind of need to keep the wider audience too. You don't want to alienate too many people.

Diesenhaus: And you talked about the other elements being culture, and family, and children. Am I right that you bring some of your own family and your own experiences with your daughters?

Rivenbark: Sure, yeah. I had my daughter when I was 40, which was a complete shock to me and a great shock that it changed my writing a lot, because I suddenly was thrown in with people frankly that I used to kind of go, "Pfft," you know, obsessing over preschools and that kind of thing. I made terrible fun of these people and then I became one of them. So it really was kind of an eye opener, and then of course you have different priorities when you have a kid. And it's a huge, huge life-changing thing, and everybody said it would be and it was, but it's such great fodder for writing. You know, it's like I would've, you know, paid for a kid years ago if I'd known how many great ideas I'd get out of it.

Diesenhaus: Does your daughter have a perspective on it? Does she like being included in it?

Rivenbark: Right now, she does. She is ten right now, and she reads the column, and she reads the books except the nasty parts, and I have every idea that when she turns about, I may have one more year, maybe two at the outside before she starts getting a little bit teenagery and like, "Oh mom, I can't believe you write that," you know. And certainly there's some exaggeration in some of the stories, just a little bit, and so I'm sure she'll call me out on that. Right now things are good. I figure I got one to two more years. You know kids, 'tweens.

Diesenhaus: And talking about when you moved to a more national audience, I wonder was that a big break for you in your career?

Rivenbark: Yes, it was huge. It was huge because I get tickled with people. I'm 51 years old and when people say, "Oh wow," you know, "Oh, that's great, you know, tell me how I can do it." And I'm like, "Well, why don't you start when you're 18 and go national when you're 49." You know, that's a long time. I paid a tremendous amount of dues and the beauty of being a national columnist is that it certainly helps sell books. You know, books are sold all over the country not just in the southeast, and so it's a real big deal to be able to have people all over the country at least familiar with my name now. You know, 'cause they're going to go out hopefully and by those books.

Diesenhaus: Given how important family, the other worlds besides writing are, how do you balance the writing work with the obligations of a family?

Rivenbark: Really, really good question because even if it was as simple, and I struggle with this every day, it's like for example talking today with you. I had to put it in between taking care of my elderly parents and getting down to where they need to be today, the doctor's appointments, the senior center, the picking up the drugs at the pharmacy. I had to sandwich you and then picking up my daughter and her friend after school, and then you had to come in there before, you know, other obligations. And so I am the poster child for the sandwich generation. You know, the other side of that is it's funny being, like, I might spend the morning with people who are 85 and older playing bingo, and the afternoon, you know, coaching the student newspaper with a bunch of nine year olds. So it kind of keeps you, you know, I don't know if it keeps you sharp or crazy, one, but it is, you know, somewhere in the middle of all that is my sweet husband. You know, so there's a lot going on.

Diesenhaus: So are you doing your writing work at a specific time, or is it that you're really fitting it in between other things and it may be at various times?

Rivenbark: I usually try to write early in the morning. It just seems to work better for me because the thing is, and you know this, when you start, the further you get into the day, the more the phone rings, the more e-mails to answer and you kind of start losing your focus and going, oh, I better deal with this, I better deal with that, and putting out fires, you know. So if I can get at it early enough before the fires start, it goes better, and I usually never write more than two hours a day. So we're not talking about ditch digging here, and it's humor.

Diesenhaus: If you're working in the column form, are you trying to finish a column in a day or-- ?

Rivenbark: Oh, an hour, an hour. I consider an hour, if I spend more than an hour on that, there's something terribly wrong. Because, you know, it should come, I don't rewrite. I haven't got time for that. You know, it's like here it is, you know, let's go and mercifully I've had really good editors, so, you know, they kind of leave me alone. That's how I define really good editors is people that don't touch my copy, and I think anybody that's ever worked for a newspaper would agree with that. But yeah, an hour pretty much for the column, and then, you know, there are plenty of other things. I have to write a speech this afternoon. I have to work on another book that's due sooner than I'd like for it to be. So there's always something to do.

Diesenhaus: And are there any rituals that you do before you write, or while you write to kind of get it going?

Rivenbark: Yes, this is embarrassing but I only write in my pajamas. I never write in anything else. I can't write with clothes on, normal clothes, you know, no constriction of any kind, just nightgown.

Diesenhaus: So is it the comfort or relaxation?

Rivenbark: Yes, I have to have coffee, two creams, no sugar. Everything has to be just so. I do, I mean I'm a Virgo, you know. We got to have our little rituals, you know, and I eat up rituals.

Diesenhaus: And overall does the writing come easy to you or is it a struggle at times?

Rivenbark: Well, at times is it a struggle and it's funny because you can always do, like, some sort of chart. I would have, I told my husband this the other day. I'll have nine weeks on, four weeks off, meaning nine weeks where gosh, I got a million ideas. I've got lots of things I want to say. They seem to be, you know, and they just click together, and I have that awful period where you go into the valley. I'm in valley right now actually, unfortunately, but I should come out in another week. And I feel bad for the reader because sometimes I wonder, can they tell I'm in a valley? You know, I'm kind of wondering but I discovered, strangely the columns I'm the least proud of when I've been in the valley and I'm really had to work at it, which is so unpleasant with humor, you shouldn't have to work at it. And when I've been in the valley, those were the columns where somebody would stop me or I'll get tons of e-mail and they'll go, "Wow, I really enjoyed that one. That was really funny." And I'm like, oh hell, you had no idea how hard that was. You know, I hated that column.

Diesenhaus: And when you're in the valley, is there something that you try to do to get out of it, or is it just you need to-- ?

Rivenbark: Yes, and what I do is, and this is not in the least bit plagiarism, but it gets me thinking in the right head, I will pull out some Dave Barry, or I will pull out and old Lewis Grizzard, or I'll take a look at some of my very favorite, David Sedaris. Just read a few pages to get myself back where I need to be, you know, because sometimes, as you mentioned, with all the responsibilities of elderly parents, young child, big old rambling, falling in house to maintain, all of that can be overwhelming. It's hard to be funny when you've got, you know, I was at the emergency room a couple of days ago. You know, it's very hard to find funny sometimes. So I need a jumpstart, and that's when I go to my beloved humorists, and I read, and I get my head in a better place. It works for me.

Diesenhaus: I also wonder about getting ideas that you might, you know, need to talk about having so many ideas and trying to bring them together. Do those just sort of filter in, or do you go after them?

Rivenbark: A little of both. Sometimes I'll just be sitting and watching TV, and I'll think, God what a jerk. That'd be funny to write about. You know, just some little talk show topic, or something, or just somebody will say, or there'll be a quote in the newspaper that will just, I don't know, just something that I think that's funny. I'm trying so hard right now to write something funny about the preacher-killing wife. Very hard to do, by the way. Not a good topic when you're in the valley to write about a woman who killed her husband by shooting him in the back while her kids were home. But I think there's something in there. You know, it's the old story of, you know, now she wants custody of her kids, and it's the old story about, you know, the guy who kills his parents and then whines because he's an orphan. You know, come on it's a little funny, you know. And then I'll pull, you know, articles from magazines. I have a file of potential things but I discovered that if they stay in the file for longer than five or six weeks, I better get rid of them because they stink.

Diesenhaus: If you see an idea or you have an idea while you're watching television or another part of life, are you taking handwritten notes?

Rivenbark: I do now. I didn't used to but the older I've gotten, it's like Swiss cheese. There's just too much going on and so yeah, I'm one of those people now that keeps a little notebook in the car, you know. I don't know. Yeah, I didn't used to have to do that.

Diesenhaus: When you go to the writing, are you writing by hand or are you writing on the computer?

Rivenbark: Oh, strictly, I'm a lazy girl, strictly laptop.

Diesenhaus: And when you talk about putting the ideas in the folder, are there other means of organization, or is it just sort of putting them in there and if they still feel--

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: I guess I just wanted to ask a little more about how you manage the ideas. In terms of either prioritizing or is it timeliness? You talked about when time seems to pass, they don't work anymore.

Rivenbark: Yeah, some of that is because they're no longer newsworthy. There's always a delay. There's a ten-day delay between when I write and when it actually goes out on the wire service. So that's something I always have to have in the back of my head. Sometimes things are so delicious it doesn't matter and I don't care if it looks dated. You know, back when Paris Hilton was calling for her momma in the courtroom, I didn't care if it was going to be ten days late because it was fair game, baby. That's what the ______________.

Diesenhaus: So, I guess I'm not sure if I have a great question here, but it feels like your work, when it's relating to the culture or things that are going on, you know, it's like you can kind of ride the wave a little bit, that that can be a high point. And potentially if there isn't something going on, you might feel apart from that.

Rivenbark: Could be, yeah.

Diesenhaus: I'm not sure I have a question.

Rivenbark: Well, it could be, yeah.

Diesenhaus: But I guess I was thinking, because the column, there's such a close relationship to what's going on, especially when it's nationally syndicated. You're really making a connection with what people are also hearing about, and I wonder do you feel that as you're writing it? Do you feel like you're sort of reaching out to-- ?

Rivenbark: I hadn't, not until now but now I'm going to be really nervous about it. I guess, yeah. Yeah, I'm sure I do. I'm sure I feel some of that.

Diesenhaus: I guess another way to think of it is like, potentially whether your comment about the preacher, being a humorist is it like you're giving license to people to laugh about it? Sort of look at it in a lighter-- ?

Rivenbark: Yes, because, and I know that actually this column is kind of a work in progress and, you know, I hate that because that's more than hour, right? That's going to be a two-hour column, which really pisses me off, but I don't know. There are just some subjects that I don't, they're tasteless, and potentially libels but I don't care. They're so much fun. You know, when I was in school I made six straight Fs in conduct. Yes, that's right and that was in seventh grade, I think. I mean it's because I was always talking, I was always joking, I was always, you know, that's what I-- and that record still stands, I'm pretty sure, Charity Middle School.

Diesenhaus: And talking about the 10-day lead time and perhaps taking an hour, are you sort of working on them and not sort of stockpiling but coming up with a few?

Rivenbark: No.

Diesenhaus: So it's really constant pressure.

Rivenbark: Yeah, that's a good way, yes it is, it is. Yeah, the column, I mean like I said, there's other kinds of writing I do, but the column I pretty much try to do on Tuesday mornings. That's my little formula, you know, and today's Tuesday and things have not gone well. But like I say, we're in the valley now. We know it's going to end. It always does. It always has. It better.

Diesenhaus: And the pajamas writing in the morning, is that always in a specific place?

Rivenbark: Oh yes, my office.

Diesenhaus: And never outside of that?

Rivenbark: Oh, no. No. I tried to write elsewhere during, I think, a book tour and it was a disaster. I'm totally inflexible. You know, it has to be in my little room, my little turret up there and yeah, shades have to be drawn except for one. Two drawn, one halfway up. I mean, I sound like Monk, but I mean, you know, it's, yeah.

Diesenhaus: Are there other, like desk has to be clear or-- ?

Rivenbark: Oh yes, I'm a total neat freak. Yeah, everything is ridiculous up there. You can see it if you like and you'll understand.

Diesenhaus: Tell me about the book tour. I know a lot of people have different ideas about the book tour, it being a good thing or a bad thing. What's your sense of it?

Rivenbark: I've had both extremes. I've had wonderful experiences and I've had pretty sad experiences. Probably the worst one was when some bonehead scheduled me to be in Atlanta, in Buckhead, trendy, trendy Buckhead on a Friday night at 7:30, in a bookstore. It's crazy and so I had one wino who came and I mean it was like Aqualon, the greasy fingers smearing, shabby clothes. He was disgusting and he smelled, and I read the hell out of that story to him. He was it, and then I've been shocked. Sometimes I've gone in stores that don't know me. The column doesn't run in that town. It'll be like tons of people and tons of support and particularly Lexington and Louisville, anywhere in Kentucky, you can flat sell a book. If you can't sell a book in Kentucky, you need to go home and give up because those folks are readers. So I'm real high on Kentucky.

Diesenhaus: I guess I want to talk a little bit about the form of the column, and I think you've already made a few mentions to it, but is there something about the forms or about the length that kind of fits you or that makes it right for-- ?

Rivenbark: They tell me 450 words and that appeals to, I love that, I love that knowing that it has to be no more, no less. I love that sort of thing and it's something to me, oddly, made it sounds weird but it's kind of freeing to know that it has to be done in 450 words. And I get there, I kind of know how things are going to flow throughout the column when I start writing it. And I will do one word check usually and usually if it's hovering around 400, I bang out an ending and get on with my life. I hate seeing columns jump. As a newspaper reader, I've always hated that. I can't stand it, especially humor. It shouldn't jump. Just get it in there, just get it all in there and there's a columnist I know that he was actually writing about 800 words of humor. And I said, "No, this is not going to work. This is a bad idea," because there are just some things that don't lend themselves to that. Now, the book, sure, okay, go crazy, go nuts. You know, really have fun with it but you can tell when somebody's stretching with humor. You're laid bare. You know, there are no secrets. You are right out there for the whole world to see and if you're not funny, you're screwed, and 450 works very well for me.

Diesenhaus: And do you think that's sort of also kind of like the optimal readerly length too, that they kind of-- ?

Rivenbark: Maybe 500. When I first started writing it was 550, and they cut me because, this was back in Myrtle Beach, and that was a Knight Ridder paper. And then it just kind of, when they cut me to 450 they expected the great hew and cry, that I was going to go, "Oh no," and get all writerly on them. And I'm like sweet, you know, I can knock this baby out in 30 minutes some days. So that was fine with me. 300, fine.

Diesenhaus: You could keep going.

Rivenbark: Two drafts, I'm in and out. Don't need the fine distillation for the really good jokes.

Diesenhaus: Talk about the transition to the book and can you talk a bit about how the work, are you writing differently for that? Are you adapting material that you've worked with already? How does that work for you?

Rivenbark: I do adapt material I've written already for a lot of things. The interesting thing about the one I just finished a couple of months ago will be out in August. It's the first time that I've had, it's probably 70% new material and I got to tell you, I enjoyed doing this. It was different for me. Usually I'll use the columns as a framework and that works fine. You know, it kind of keeps me, you know, I like my little rigid 450 kind of kept me on track, you know. And of course obviously with the book you can use all kinds of naughty words, which is lots and lots of fun. And you can say so many things, some of them un-PC that you just can't say in a family newspaper. So it's much more liberating but it was weird for me. I thought it was going to be harder than it was to come up with new stuff but it was actually a lot of fun. I just kind of got carried away, you know, and it's funny, my husband really gave me trouble about this because he's like, I work better under pressure, excruciating pressure. It's the way I have to do it. So the book was due May 1. I started in February and it's almost, let's see, 375 pages. So but I just kind of kept going and I told him, I said, "Don't worry, it will be done. May 1 it will be shipped," and it was, 'cause I knew it had to be. Therefore it got done.

Diesenhaus: And is it giving you an opportunity to write longer pieces that you said might be a better fit for a book? Or the new pieces that you're writing, do they kind of match the length of the columns?

Rivenbark: No, they're longer, they're much longer. It's okay since it's a book. It's okay because I know I don't have to, like, you know e-mail it in like an hour, you know. So it's okay.

Diesenhaus: And is that process different for you, not having that tight limitation?

Rivenbark: Yeah, it's a little more loosey goosey. You know, I mean I might actually write some of the book, when I'm working on the book I might actually put clothes on. So yeah, it's somewhat different, you know. I might even write in the afternoon. Well, let's be honest I was writing at two a.m., you know, as we got closer in April. It was a long book but it had to be. I'm just demented in that way. Maybe most folks are. I cannot write ahead, you know.

Diesenhaus: I think, I know I am, but do you think that is in any way connected to the newspaper world? Is that a deadline?

Rivenbark: Maybe. Could very well be. I'm very deadline oriented, you know, and that could very well be it. It's kind of sick but it works for me.

Diesenhaus: And for the book, especially when you're creating new material, are you sort of setting up an outline of how it might be organized?

(doorbell rings; crew talk)

Diesenhaus: When you're looking for ideas or when you're sort of generating stuff, does the Internet play a part in it? Or are you sort of apart from different kinds of technology, like kind of setting up the camera?

Rivenbark: Research wise, sure. You know, like every now and then I'll Google something to make sure I've spelled something right. Or one of my favorite sites to go to, I talked about jumpstarting, you know, when I'm in the valley I'll read those. Sometimes I go to Defamer, because that's always a fun site. There's a few sites that I'll do just to cheer myself up by reading about skanky celebrities. Nothing just gets the day started like that. Today, I saw pictures of Nicole Ritchie pregnant in a bikini. It made my entire day. It just doesn't get any worse than that.

Diesenhaus: I guess they're bringing out the kind of most ridiculous elements or the people who have been able to be laughed that then go through these weird changes in life.

Rivenbark: She's got the tattoo and the belly's huge, and the tattoo is, like, starting to spread, you know. It's wild, you know. Might should have rethought that whole tattoo thing.

Diesenhaus: Yeah, are there other things besides Defamer that you like?

Rivenbark: Oh gosh, TMZ. You know, you got to stay current, you know, and yeah. I like those.

Diesenhaus: Are those different for you then magazines that sort of focus on the same thing?

Rivenbark: They're a little worse. You know, they're meaner. You know, if I'm really having trouble, Defame is so mean and deliciously so. It just kind of, I know it sounds awful but I need a little wicked, nasty stuff to get me going.

Diesenhaus: And how do you see, when you talk about it then, how do you see your perspective on those kinds of things? Are you trying to be a little bit mean?

Rivenbark: Sure, yeah. Oh yeah. There's definitely and element of bitchiness, you know. Occasionally I'll be sweet, but it's rather tiresome. That's why the books are so liberating because I can really be more who I really am. The newspaper I have to fluff it up a bit and rely on some, you know, I don't want to alienate people. But with the book, I don't care. You know, pay your $19.95 and let's get on with our lives. It's so mercenary sounding.

Diesenhaus: If you're feeling that spirit with the book and I think ultimately you're hoping to bring that to the reader too. So I don't think it's mercenary.

Rivenbark: Hope not. You know, I hope not. See this is the good southern belle and the bad southern belle.

Diesenhaus: Does that feel like that comes out in the work?

Rivenbark: Every now and then, because, you know, the funny thing is, you know, I taught children Sunday School until last year for 11 years, and sometimes I'll say that and people, or it'll come up or something. Oh, you taught my kid Sunday School and whoever's besides us, "Oh my God, what were you thinking?" You know, so I am the good southern, well, I'm sorry, not well educated, well read probably, good southern belle who knows about the basics of southern, you know, life. The no white shoes stuff, you know, how to make a mean chicken salad. I know what to take to the funeral wake. I know all that stuff. You know, but there's definitely an edge there.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder, especially with the books, how do you deal with critics or reviews? Either way, how does if affect you?

Rivenbark: Well, the good news is that reviews have been kind, for the most part. There have been a few that I really wish I hadn't read, because I guess it's only natural that you put yourself into this, you put yourself out there, and it's not a very good feeling to be told that your stuff isn't that great. And there was, I remember in particular there was a review in Entertainment Weekly last September, and oh, we were just real excited about it coming out, because it was cool to even get, you know, reviewed in that. And so I actually had them deliver, I was at a hotel I think in Dallas, and I had them deliver the Entertainment Weekly to my room as soon as it came to the newsstand, because it was that morning. And they did, and I spent the rest of the day pretty upset. You have to just realize, you know, humor sometimes, you know, not everybody's going to get the joke. Or if they do, they go, "Eh, you know, it's not my thing." But it can be pretty, it can be kind of sad and because it's humor you really got to bounce back from that, you know. It's not like I'm writing, you know, bodice rippers every year. I've got to go, okay, she didn't like it, wasn't her thing but look at all this. These people liked it, you know. So you got to be able to build yourself back up, otherwise you're just sitting around, get really depressed about it, which doesn't work well in my field.

Diesenhaus: Has that made you think to avoid reviews overall? Or do you think you sort of, you know-- ?

Rivenbark: I think I'm okay with that. I mean part of being a newspaper person for so many years is I got plenty of hate mail over the years. And so I like to think that I've got tough enough skin, tough enough hide to deal with that.

Diesenhaus: And on the flip side, especially with the national syndication and the books, do you get positive mail, fan mail that plays a role?

Rivenbark: Yeah, it probably does. People are so, just unbelievably kind because everyday my e-mail is, I'll have something wonderful and I always answer it, you know, always. Because I figure if somebody is taking the time and, you know, in Bupkis __________ to write me, then the least I could do is tell them thank you and that it meant a lot to me. You know, and well, I mean let's not dilute ourselves. I'm not Grisham here so of course I've got time to do that, but still that's a southern thing. You've got to respond and in a kindly manner.

Diesenhaus: Before the doorbell rang, we were talking a bit about how you're organizing the books especially with newer material. I was wondering if you do any kind of outlining, or are you thinking along kind of thematic groupings?

Rivenbark: Yeah, usually, just because as a reader I like things, you know, again with the Virgo thing, as a reader I like my things organized. So yes, I know the sections. What I do is I'll take columns that run or ideas that I've wanted to write about and I'll just start putting them in five or six little neat compartments. So that way it keeps me really focused, and that helps me tremendously. That's why I have so much respect for people who write novels. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to invent huge timelines of families and interactions. I can't even imagine that. I wouldn't dare tackle something like that. This is very manageable, my little sections.

Diesenhaus: In talking, you also mentioned that you have to write a speech. How does that fit in? Is it the same kind of writing, or is your approach to it different?

Rivenbark: I have to do, I've discovered, I started doing this kind of thing about four years ago because I discovered that pays a lot better than writing. I mean, a lot better, and so I kind of cobbled together a boiler plate that is three-quarters humor, Southern humor, because this is mostly gigs in the south, and then the rest is motivational because people like that crap. I'm like all right, whatever. You know, I don't really care about motivating you but I'll fake it. So I have sort of a boilerplate that I tailor to different audiences, which is how everybody does it. And so it's a lot of, what I like to do is come out hitting really hard, like bang, almost like a standup comic, you know, bang, bang, bang, joke, joke, joke. So everybody knows we're here to laugh. We're not here to learn anything. We're here to have some fun and also I never ever book a gig that's longer than 30 minutes, because I don't care who you are, you need to shut the hell up after 30 minutes. I mean I have sat through too many rubber chicken things myself. Shut up. Thirty minutes is all anybody needs. Bill Clinton was coming whom I love, 30 minutes, that's all I need to listen to him. George Bush, two and a half minutes tops.

Diesenhaus: Well, you mentioned standup comedy and I just wondered given, you know, your success, have you ever thought about other forms, or have you ever been approached for things like television?

Rivenbark: Yeah, I've turned that stuff down. I mean nothing big of course, but there have been standup opportunities and I can't do it. I wish I could. Again, like novelists, that is brave, brave territory. Not for me. I have notes. I always have a lectern. I always have a microphone. I mean I'm not in my natural element when I'm doing speaking. It just does not come naturally to me. Hopefully people don't catch onto that and I think if you're laughing hard enough, you know, you don't care if there's notes up there. If you're up there without notes that's just, I can't, I have great respect for those folks.

Diesenhaus: So would you say you are in your element with the writing?

Rivenbark: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Diesenhaus: I wonder is it something about being kind of alone?

Rivenbark: Yes, definitely and it's funny because, you know, sometimes I feel like when I go to something socially people are almost pointing guns at my feet metaphorically and going, "Dance, dance. You know, be funny. Be funny. Oh you're not that funny. She's not that funny." You know, I'm like, you know, I'm an in print kind of girl. I mean I might crack a few jokes in the carpool line but that's not really what I do. I like being alone in my office, writing my jokes. It makes me very happy.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder, talking about social events, do you socialize with other writers?

Rivenbark: No, they're boring. Oh no, they totally suck for company. No, I am kidding. No, but I'm real bad about things. I'm ashamed of myself because in this neighborhood that I live in there is a writer's enclave, you know. They get together and have coffee once a week, and they discuss ideas and read each other stuff. And they tried to get me to join and I'm like, no. You know Larry David? I'm like him in some ways, which is kind of frightening. Not the part where he's a billionaire and has a hybrid, but the parts where he's just at heart, when it comes right down to it, I don't want to, you know, mingle or discuss it despite the fact we're doing it now. It's almost like it's magic and if you talk about it too much it goes away. I mean I know that's not a unique thought but it is kind of the way I feel about it. And also, God this is going to sound awful but you're a nice guy, I'm going to level with you. I don't want to read anybody else's shit, especially stuff that they're struggling with. Right now, I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love, which is fantastic. I just finished Middlesex finally, the last person in America to read it. Loved it but my reading time is very dear to me. So I don't want to read anybody else's stuff that they're like agonizing over. I can't imagine anything more boring.

Diesenhaus: Do you have anyone read your stuff, either in the-- ?

Rivenbark: No, my husband doesn't even read my stuff, ever. Nobody.

Diesenhaus: So is the editor the first person-- ?

Rivenbark: Absolutely.

Diesenhaus: And I guess that just made me wonder a bit about the editors. In your newspaper life and in your book editor life, is there any difference between the editors? I mean, I know what kind of editor is your favorite kind.

Rivenbark: Yeah, the kind that don't touch it, right.

Diesenhaus: Do they approach it differently? Do you deal with it differently?

Rivenbark: Yeah, because it's harder to write for newspapers because I will try to sneak some stuff by, you know, and you always get called on it. What I've learned to do is it's like, you know, a game I play. I'll put, sometimes I'll put in two things I know are wildly inappropriate just so I can keep that third one, you know. This is just smart negotiation. So they'll go, "Oh, Celia we need to, that's a little bit out there. We need to cut that." And I go, "Oh no, don't throw me in the briar patch," you know. What are they getting? I knew that. You can't put that in a newspaper but they kept the one I wanted. Eh?

Diesenhaus: Tricky.

Rivenbark: I have been at this forever so you learn a few things.

Diesenhaus: Yeah, and I don't know much about the syndication world. Is it that you're communicating with one person and then that same column is identically going out to a number of papers?

Rivenbark: Yeah, what happens is it's a McClatchy Tribune, which used to be Knight Ridder and they gobbled them up, swallowed them whole. So now it's McClatchy Tribune. So I write for a McClatchy Tribune paper, which is Myrtle Beach. It's edited there. Then they send it to McClatchy and I check, and they don't change anything. I check. I do a little spot check. I'll see where it's running and what they did to it, and almost never, it's almost always, and some papers have a lot of fun with it, and do photos with it. And I love it when they do that. There's one in Texas that makes a half page of my silly little mess and does this beautiful layout. So it's fun to see how different people treat it.

Diesenhaus: Do you know how many papers it's going to?

Rivenbark: I'd say just based on mail and I did discover you cannot rely on Google News for this. You just can't 'cause mail, the people who write me, which thank God for them, probably about 50.

Diesenhaus: And are you getting any of those? How do you do your spot-checking, through the Internet?

Rivenbark: Yeah, but really, mostly what I know about it is when I start seeing, I'll start getting e-mail from a certain little pocket of people. Like Upstate New York, I suddenly started getting, you know, a bunch of mail from up there. And I'm like okay, so then I ask them, I just write them back and I say, "Are you reading this every week? What paper is it? What's the circulation?" And then I'll sometimes fire off a note to the features editor and say thank you for running it, because again it's a southern thing, you know.

Diesenhaus: I guess I also wonder if you're saying some of the issues that come up are about the context, it's different in different parts of the country.

Rivenbark: Not so much. That's what I've been surprised at. I mean, sometimes, no, I mean I don't think so. I really don't.

Diesenhaus: From either the national side or earlier on, do you have any of your most favorite columns that either you remember?

Rivenbark: This sounds dreadful. People will say to me, like at church or at school, or whatever, they'll say, "Oh, I enjoyed your column Saturday. That was really dead on." And I'll go, "What the hell was it about?" I have no clue. I cannot, I mean part of that is I'm just, you know, a dumb ass. But the other part is, I'm done with that. You know, I'm very much into closure. That's why I love to mow grass. It gives immediate gratification. Go move on. You know, do something else, and so I just don't even, you know, people say, "Oh, you remember the one about restless leg syndrome?" which got a ton of e-mail, some good, some bad. But yeah. Yeah, it's funny, sometimes you'll right something, like I say, that you just didn't expect much of anything to come of it. You just get, maybe, well over 100 e-mails. You're like woah, how'd that happen? Anytime I write about Bush, or if I've ever said anything political. The ones I hate are the e-mails I get where they say, "Now, Celia, I love your column but I don't like it when you go and get political." And I say it with southern accent because it is a southern paper usually where that happens. So there is something to that, perhaps, and I go, "You know what? Why don't I just go over there and just fiddle-dee-dee myself into a stupor and make some cheese straws, and some lemonade, and you can put me back in your little box?" And I kind of resent it.

Diesenhaus: I read some of the comments about the restless leg syndrome. If the positive ones, you forget about when people have a problem with it, do you remember some of those just because of the number of letters?

Rivenbark: Yeah, I probably--

Diesenhaus: Is it, in addition to the restless leg, is there any others that you feel like you've gotten this huge-- ?

Rivenbark: Yes, I did get some, you're right, it's so much easier to remember the nasty letters. It's much easier 'cause thank God, they're so fewer and farther between. I wrote a column that I kind of like, actually, about knitting, all these little knitting groups. Women were knitting, it's like it bored the crap out of me. But I mean, so I made fun of, you know, for God's sakes, knitting, you know, what is this, Little House on the Prairie, little shack in the ___________ up in the desert? What, stop? You know, this is the 21st century, you know. If I want to a sweater, I'm going to go to the mall and buy one. You know, I have no soul so I'm okay with that. So, I got all of this angry, angry mail, I mean tons of angry mail from knitters. It was like this irate knitters universe out there that I didn't know about, and I told people later on, I said, "It was just like I expected to come home one day and find a tiny little knitted horse's head at the foot of my bed." It wouldn't have surprised me. They're crazy, you know. I remember one e-mail in particular. The fellow said, "I knit. I knit tiny caps for premature babies. What have you done for premature babies?" And I was like, I was like, I told him, I wrote him back, I don't ever write back the hateful people 'cause that's not a good idea, but, you know, the smart ass in me came out. I couldn't stop and I did write him back. And I said, "Well, I don't do anything for them. You know, but I can teach some sarcasm in the womb, so, you know, just maybe shout. I can do a little sarcasm tape and, you can play it on your belly, your wife's belly." But usually I make it a point not to respond to those.

Diesenhaus: That makes me thing, I noticed on one of your books Jill McCorkle I think referred to you as one of our greatest domestic anthropologists.

Rivenbark: She's so sweet.

Diesenhaus: I thought that was pretty interesting. That's an obscure type of comment.

Rivenbark: Well, she's a smart girl. I could have never thought of a good blurb like that my own self.

Diesenhaus: Does it appeal to you that it's sort of relating to this world where you're making fun of, you know, you're relating to a world where people have lives. This is what they do. This is what they experience. How does that feel to you?

Rivenbark: It felt pretty good to me.

Diesenhaus: It sounds like even when you're making fun of something, you're still kind of playing with that idea?

Rivenbark: Yeah. Sometimes, you know, sometimes it just really, I'm mystified because people don't understand it's humor, you know, and they get real confused headed about it. And I'm like, you know, this is what I do. You know, catch on.

Diesenhaus: I just have a few more questions if that's okay with you.

Rivenbark: Oh yeah, sure.

Diesenhaus: I guess and you mentioned your syndication was gobbled up, and I wondered if you could talk about any changes in the newspaper world, or the book publishing world, and how you feel about it, how it might have affected you?

Rivenbark: Not so much book publishing because I'm still relatively new to that, but newspaper, and it saddens me. Even the folks, my friends my age, my demo, they don't take the paper and this is so sad to me because, you know, I told you I had my love affair with newspapers. There's something about newspapering that is just so special to me. It breaks my heart to think that people are getting their news online. It just breaks my heart and I know that sounds like, oh, it's so old folkish, you know. But there's just something so wonderful about picking up a newspaper, and carrying it with you, and feeling the paper, and seeing the words, and it's not the same. It's not the same when you read it online and it makes me very sad to see how that's changed, and the newspaper, and it also saddens me even more to see what newspapers are doing to solve that. That makes me very sad because it used to say McNews for USA Today and people, journalists, real journalists would look down their noses at USA Today, or McNews. Well they're all the same now. You know, there's such a sameness to it and I hate that. I despise that. You know, there's no in depth reporting. There's no attention to detail. It's sloppy, you know, and all full of fluff, and frankly because I'm old school, I'll admit this is really old school, but I don't even like it when they partner with TV stations. I don't like that. You know, they used to be the enemy. Print, I loved being in the trenches, you know, trying to get that story first before some yahoo at the TV station. I loved that and there's none of that. Oh, they're all touchy-feely and working together, and it makes me sick. I don't like it.

Diesenhaus: Do you have any ideas to reverse the trend?

Rivenbark: I don't think it's doable. I really don't. I mean and, you know, the Internet, I can read any paper in the world. It's right there at my fingertips in my silly, little office anytime I want to. And, you know, and I have found, my husband particularly, he's a sports nut and he reads sports sections from other papers, not this paper because they're so, you know, they're more in depth. And I understand, you know, just that obviously a bigger paper has bigger resources but it'll get to the pint where they're just McNews and everything too.

Diesenhaus: And I mean clearly you got your start with an individual paper, potentially the local ties. So it has the possibility to really connect with someone in their small, little area, even if it's a larger area. But it can be a real direct connection, whereas if you change the direction you might lose some of that. But I have two more questions and they're both about advice.

Rivenbark: Oh no, I just told you I don't do writer groups. So that should, you know.

Diesenhaus: They're both general advice but I guess you could apply them both. I wonder if you could give any advice to a new southerner?

Rivenbark: Oh, a new southerner.

Diesenhaus: Someone who's new, especially to this area, but it can be broader.

Rivenbark: Okay, that's easy, yeah, new southerner. It certainly didn't come from me first, but the best thing a person can do who is moving to the south or newly here is to, for the love of God, do not tell us how you did it back where you're from. Or if you do, kind of couch it in a way that you kind of come in the back door. Because southerners, that's the way we do. You know, we say, "Oh, well you know my brother had one of those, but here's what he did." You know, you don't say, "Well, in Jersey we did this, this, and this. Now aren't you a dumb ass." We get crazy about that. Also, forget to use your turn signals. They're overrated. We just don't use them down here. Just, eh, you don't need that. I always tell people, I say we know where we're going. It's nobody else's damn business. So yes, to review, don't tell us how you do it up north and don't use your turn signals, and you'll be just fine.

Diesenhaus: Is the a turn signals a North Carolina thing, or is that really stretching the whole south?

Rivenbark: Well, it's pretty bad in North Carolina but I certainly have seen South Carolinians that don't use turn signals either. Georgia, yeah, it's a southern thing. We hate them.

Diesenhaus: Because up in New York, in Connecticut we use the turn signals.

Rivenbark: What is up with that? Do not use that. Overrated. We play with your head. We're terrible drivers. Have you noticed that? See, that's one of the things I can say but you can't. It's so unfair. I understand what a double standard that is.

Diesenhaus: And I guess my last question is, do you have any advice for young or aspiring writers of any sort, writers who might be interested in journalism, or for newspapers, or book writers, nonfiction writers?

Rivenbark: Probably newspaper folks, I think that, I tell people that working at a small paper or even, you know, heck for that matter just maybe even a freebie paper, you know, like an Encore or something like that, is the best thing in the world. You know, I mean I jumped in when I was 18 and I mean, I'm not saying I don't regret. Sometimes I regret that I didn't go to college, but by the same token you learn so much so quickly. I would advise, even if you're going to school for journalism that you should think about working part time at anywhere that'll have you, whether they pay you or not. I've had people ask me, say, "Well, you know, they're not paying me, you know," and I'm like, "You know what? Suck it up, you know. If you're good enough, there'll be a time when plenty of people will pay you. Just suck it up and do it. Pretend it's homework, you know, because the experience is going to be invaluable."

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Rivenbark: Thank you. Okay, I kicked Dan Russell's ass. Now, you know I did and Wilbur, come on now.

Diesenhaus: Well, they were certainly more [inaudible] but I can't comment.

Rivenbark: Oh, you are a doll. That was fun.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Rivenbark: My pleasure, believe me. You're the smartest person to come in this house in about, I don't know, 40 years.

Diesenhaus: Given what you said about writing communities may go nowhere, but are there any other people that you think might be a good idea for us to talk to?

Rivenbark: Let me think. You know who's just fabulous is Bill McIlwain. Get him before he dies.

Diesenhaus: I don't think I've heard his name before.

Rivenbark: He's healthy, he's just old but he worked for Newsday years and years ago, and he wrote a couple of novels, and he has wonderful stories to tell. And it's Bill McIlwain. Yeah, Google him, you'll find him.

Diesenhaus: And does he live in the same town?

Rivenbark: Yeah, he lives across from the beach. His sister lives at the end of my street. She's adorable. He's probably, gosh, Bill is probably, he wrote, God what'd he write? Naked's always in his titles. You will love him. He is so sharp, and he's funny, and he's all good things. He's the coolest old dude I know.

Diesenhaus: Yeah, I have one of the interviews that's coming up is in Wrightsville, so I wonder if maybe [inaudible] be in. But if not I'll definitely pass it along. You said Newsday?

Rivenbark: He worked for Newsday for years and years and years, and he worked for some paper in New Jersey that won a Pulitzer. So he has all kind of street cred as far as newspaper and being a novelist, and he's just a great tennis player, great guy. He always has a bandana and a ponytail, white, silvery ponytail. He's very wise as opposed to me. If we're talking wisdom, after people watch me they go, "Oh, shit. I need a palette chaser." I'm mortified I didn't have tea to offer you. That's just so sad.

Diesenhaus: That's okay.

Rivenbark: I'm going to lose all my southern woman stripes.

Diesenhaus: And did you say you have a new book coming out?

Rivenbark: In August.

Diesenhaus: So are you doing another tour?

Rivenbark: In August I will, yeah and thank God in August.

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