Alexandra Auder, DON'T CALL ME HOME: A Memoir

Alexandra Auder, DON'T CALL ME HOME: A Memoir

Zibby interviews author Alexandra Auder about Don’t Call Me Home, a gutwrenching, darkly humorous, feminist memoir about growing up with her mother—a Warhol superstar—in the vibrant avant-garde New York City art scene of the 80s. Alex reveals the reality behind her childhood of “glamor.” She then talks about her later career as a yoga instructor and her book’s transformation from a fictional novel for her senior project at Bard to the memoir she sold decades later. Finally, Zibby and Alex discuss their experiences portraying others and writing truthfully in memoir.


Zibby Owens: Welcome to the podcast, Alex. Thank you so much for coming on. Your book is gorgeous. Look at that.

Alexandra Auder: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s my pleasure to be on here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Tell listeners, please, about your memoir.

Alexandra: Great. Thank you for asking.

Zibby: The floor is yours.

Alexandra: This is my first interview about it. I did one other thing last week. It’s very exciting. I’m a little ball of nerves. It’s like being pregnant for years and years; for me, being pregnant for twenty years and then having a scheduled C-section because you know when it’s coming out. You don’t know what to expect if it’s your first baby. I started writing this, actually, at Bard College for what we called then my senior project. Coincidetally, my daughter is now there. It’s where I met my husband. It was fiction. A professor of mine said, “Let’s work on this a little more,” when I graduated, Elizabeth Frank. We did. It was still fiction. She gave it to her agent, Joy Harris. Joy said, “This is a big caveat –” I had to look up that word at the time — “but I think it should be nonfiction.” At that time, at least for me — again, I was in my early twenties. I thought of nonfiction as kind of cheesy. She was like, “Read The Liar’s Club.” After I read that, I was like, oh, okay. I thought of memoir as celebrity hoo-ha. Fiction was where it was at. This is in the early nineties. Anyway, I put it away, put it in a drawer. Then many years passed. I had my first kid. I was like, maybe I will try to turn this into nonfiction. Did that. Then another amazing writer who I’ve always been a fan of, Jo Ann Beard, who I’m going to be in conversation with near Bard eventually, which is a dream come true — I knew her because I had a yoga studio, and she was a student of mine. She said, “Let me look at what you have.” Then she helped me. I couldn’t get an agent. I could never get an agent. Nobody wanted it. I put it away in a drawer. Another ten years passed. Then long story short, pulled it out just pre-COVID and poked around with some agents and an editor and, making a very long story short, managed to find an agent and rewrite the entire thing, do a proposal for it.

Zibby: Wait, don’t make a long story short.

Alexandra: Don’t? Okay, fine. I won’t. Just stop me if I’m blabbing.

Zibby: No, no, it’s good.

Alexandra: What was it? Actually, I have to say, Instagram really made this happen because I was — I’m the only yoga teacher you’ll ever meet who’s retired. It doesn’t happen because you can’t retire if you’re a yoga teacher. I did these satirical Instagram videos on Instagram, and I got this New York Times profile. The woman who profiled me, we started talking. She’s a writer. I said I had this book hiding in a drawer. She said, “You’re going to sell this after this profile.” I just didn’t pay attention. I was like, whatever, I’m almost fifty, I’m not going to sell this fucking book. Sorry, am I allowed to curse?

Zibby: Yes, you are.

Alexandra: I have a very naughty mouth.

Zibby: That’s okay. Bring it.

Alexandra: I was poking around with more yoga, autobiographical essay-style things. Then through this process, a lovely editor, Jynne Martin of Riverhead, who I managed to get in touch with and had been a fan of my yoga teaching, said, “What do you really want to do here? Do you want to sell your old book or these essays? Do you want to write it?” I said, “My old book.” She said, “Let’s do that.” She just connected me to a list of agents. She was like an angel coming out of the blue. Marya Spence at Janklow & Nesbit was like, “Let’s do this.” It was about a year, really, of getting the proposal together. I had this old manuscript, huge manuscript, very big and dense and way too complicated and way too long. We turned that into a proposal. Marya helped so much. Without her, I don’t know. Just so much of crafting it and getting it to look good. It was an eighty-page proposal. She made it happen. Then I said, “I really am worried here that Armageddon’s going to happen before.” It was leading up to the election between Biden and Trump. I was like, I think something bad’s going to happen. I don’t care about the rest of the world. I just want to see this book in a bookstore. I’m kidding. I do care about the world.

Then COVID happened. I was like, I fucking told you. The world’s going down. I actually gave up on it again. I was like, this is never going to happen. We’re going down. Eventually, a year into COVID, she was like, “We’re going to send this out.” I really actually did feel like this was my last chance for this. Not last chance in life. Had a lovely life. Love my kids, love my husband, blah, blah, blah. It was a dream that, I will say, was eating at me that I had given up on. I was like, I guess this didn’t happen in life. I had to kind of reckon with that to just set that aside. That’s not going to happen. Getting those calls, waiting for the calls — I was learning all this as we go along. What’s a call? “You’ve got a call with so-and-so.” I was like, “I’m auditioning, right?” They were like, “No, you’re auditioning them.” I was like, “No, they’re auditioning me.” When we got our offer from Viking with my amazing editor Meg Leder, I was actually sobbing and crying. It was the day before Biden won. I don’t know if you remember how tense that was. I was just so tense for so many things. We happened to have a school bus at the time. My husband bought a school bus to travel during COVID.

Zibby: What?

Alexandra: Yeah, a humongous school bus that we had a bed and a couch in. We got in the school bus and drove around Philadelphia neighborhood of Philadelphia celebrating both for my book deal and for Biden. Random people would get on the school bus. It was really for the election, but also was for my book.

Zibby: You’re like, that might be their celebration, but here’s what I’m celebrating.

Alexandra: Here’s really what I’m celebrating. Then it was actually another — I don’t know the exact time — another year or more to actually finish the book after that. I think it was two years. It was a long time. Here I am.

Zibby: Here you are. Oh, my gosh, congratulations. What a victory.

Alexandra: You were the first person who my publicist was like — when she first started putting stuff out, she was like, “You’re going to be on the Zibby podcast.” I had that in my little — I still write things down by hand in an address book. I’ve literally been like, Zibby podcast, Zibby podcast, Zibby podcast. I was sitting here at 10:15. It’s happening.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so funny. I’m honored. As soon as I got pitched your book, I was like, yes, yes. Thank you. I can’t wait. Content of your book, let’s go there. What made you keep coming back to this story, your family, all of it? Go into it.

Alexandra: That’s a hard question. Why did you write it? You get these grids from the marketing and publicity team. I was like, “I don’t know, Marya. It just happened.” On some level, it’s true. Way back when, I was like, this is the story that I’m writing. I knew there was a very idiosyncratic thing with my story. Many of us have kooky moms, high-maintenance mothers. It’s definitely a trope, a theme, obviously, in memoir, women and their mothers. I knew that because my mother had been this Warhol star and because I’d grown up in the Chelsea Hotel and I was of this era, born in ’71 and a teenager in Downtown Manhattan in the eighties — my mother, at that point, was on the periphery of the avant-garde art scene. It was deeply enmeshed in our world. I was like, there’s something definitely unique and I want to tell here, that I felt compelled to tell. At the heart of the story was really a love story. I sound a bit pessimistic here, but as all love stories tend to go awry, I feel, I knew there was a love story here between my mother and I that falls apart. Again, classic themes. Viva, my mother, being who she is, I also felt very compelled to just write her, to describe her.

She’s, one, so funny. I hope people get a lot of laughter and humor from the book. There’s a lot of dark humor too. Two, she appreciates dark humor. There’s so much that she rants and says that was running through my head. I think I was compulsed and compelled to write it down. At that time, I didn’t have, necessarily, the voice clicked in, which is maybe why I had trouble finding someone to trust it and want to bring it out into the world. I think all of the aging process over the years gave me that perspective. I ended up kind of snapshotting into what I call the now in the book, which takes place here in this house in Philadelphia. One Christmas in 2018 where my stepmother, my mother, my sister all gather here — they’re obviously these major characters in the book. You get little crumbs and clues as to how it all turned out. There’s definitely times in the book where one might be like, god, did they survive this? We did. We did survive. Viva’s still around. She’s an older woman at that time. It’s a bit of comedic relief as well, I hope. I think it’s a universal story in the sense of — I also think it’s very feminist. It’s women enduring each other and just enduring.

Zibby: That’s so funny. We published a book this month called Burst. The main character is Viva.

Alexandra: No.

Zibby: Yeah.

Alexandra: That’s so funny. I saw that book. I’m excited to read it.

Zibby: Viva and Charlotte are the characters. In fact, when I originally got sent your book, I forwarded it to Mary Otis. I was like, “Can you believe this is the name? Maybe you should change your character.”

Alexandra: Do you think she had ever heard of Viva, my mother?

Zibby: No, there was no recognition there. She was just like, “What a coincidence.”

Alexandra: That’s so funny. Warhol gave that name to my mother. I actually have a very casual friend who named her daughter Viva, not after my mother, I don’t think. I actually can’t deal with it. I don’t want to see a child named Viva.

Zibby: How did everyone in your family handle the fact that you’re writing about them and that this is coming out? How do they feel now? How are you navigating that whole landmine of emotion?

Alexandra: I’m not sure. Maybe you can help. I’m in gentle denial, I think. My father and my sister, who are the main people besides from birth mother and stepmother, who happens to be a famous artist, Cindy Sherman — my father’s no longer married to her, but we’re very close with her, my sister and I. They have been incredibly so wonderful. My sister’s a huge enthusiastic supporter of the book, my father as well. He’s French. He was just like, “That’s so wonderful. That’s great.” He doesn’t care. I can kind of say anything about him. He’s an artist, and also in the true sense of the word. He would never challenge or question somebody’s choice to make their story. I could’ve portrayed him as a junkie in the gutter. He’d be like, “That’s fine if that’s what you think. It’s cool, man.” My mother, Viva, on the other hand, she hasn’t read it. I project it’ll probably be a bit difficult. She read a version way back when. She was a big supporter of it. It was a very different version.

I have been very relieved that the reactions are like, this is a love story. This is beautiful. People relate to Viva. I would love for her to see that. I don’t know she will. Yes, I have fear. I have nervousness. I have denial. We’ve mostly always been in touch. We’re gently estranged right now. COVID did some things to us, her perspective on it, which you might be able to read into. I could handle that, really. That’s okay. I’m used to that with her. She did get fixated on the book and what she assumed was the story. I hadn’t finished it. It’s, hopefully, not going to be a horror show. I’m happy for her to tell her story. I had a New York Times interview last week. I gave the lovely journalist my mother’s information. I have no problem her saying her side of things. I absolutely respect that she has a different version of things, but I don’t think she believes other people’s versions have legitimacy.

Zibby: Completely understand. I wrote a memoir. My take was just to — very selective portrayals. Everything I included did happen. There was just a lot that I did not choose to include that would make life miserable. A book comes out, and then that’s it. Everyone’s on with their lives. It can wreck everything for the rest of .

Alexandra: Oh, my god, yes. I’ve heard of family members not speaking to each other after that. Did you choose to give the book to certain family members to get their approval?

Zibby: I did. I gave it to almost everybody who was in the book, who had a major role in the book. I didn’t give it to random ex-boyfriends who I . Although, I thought about it.

Alexandra: Nor did I. I thought about it too. Actually, I was counseled not to. There is a large section of the boyfriends that are — it’s slightly inappropriate because I was a young woman very attracted to older men, and I guess vice versa. attracted to me. I protected some people by changing names and did give it to those closest to me, like Gaby and my dad. Once those who are listening read the book, you’ll probably get a good idea of why I maybe didn’t give it to my mother ahead of time.

Zibby: I will go on a limb and say I feel like most mother-daughter memoirs, the mother has not, necessarily, read the book or reads it at a very late stage.

Alexandra: Or not at all, maybe.

Zibby: Or not at all or finds it totally incomprehensible that this could be the memory and blah, blah, blah. I love mother-daughter memoirs. I feel like I’ve interviewed a lot of women in your exact situation. It’s fine. In fact, Ariel Leve, did you read —

Alexandra: — Oh, yeah. It’s intense.

Zibby: It’s intense.

Alexandra: Very intense. I always call it, for mine even, intense light. There’s nothing that bad. You know what I’m saying? People have gone through much more intense stuff that they write about, which I’m so in awe about, really laying it out there. It’s just a histrionic mom who rants a lot. At the end of the day, she’s not being accused of anything, which is what makes me feel better. If she disagrees with the story, it’s like she disagrees with who she yelled at when.

Zibby: Your life, you had so much glamor. It’s just crazy. To have Cindy Sherman as a stepmom, that’s crazy.

Alexandra: I know. It’s so funny that you say glamor, Zibby, because when I was upstairs in my bathroom quickly putting on some face makeup, which I’ve never used in my life — then also, in the basement, it stinks of kitty litter. Realized I was almost late because I was bra-less and trying to do the laundry because I’m leaving for Costa Rica tonight, reluctantly, to teach a yoga retreat. I was like, so unglamorous. It’s funny. I think a lot of people think this — it didn’t feel glamorous. We were boho glamor, for sure. When my dad got with Cindy, she was barely known at the time. She had just put out her Untitled Film Stills. She lived in a loft apartment in the Fish Market — which was not the Fish Market now, the Fulton Street Fish Market — with a shared bathroom in the hall and the shower in the kitchen. That was, yes, glamorous in the sense of this idea of old New York. I do find that glamorous. I have, even, my own nostalgia and miss that.

The reality of the situation was not the Chelsea of Edie Sedgwick or what we see. It wasn’t really like that, but I did love it. I loved growing up in the Chelsea. It was actually really kid friendly, if people are okay with cops and transient riffraff. You didn’t need a key. Everybody knew me. I was practically born in the lobby. I could come in any time of night after going to Nell’s or the Palladium when I was fifteen. Jerry, the deskman, who was there when my mother was born, would be like, “Hey, Alex.” In a strange way, it was very safe, safer than how I feel my teenage daughter who’s now in college grew up in Philadelphia. Much safer. You don’t drive a car. If you’re drunk, you just walk home or take the subway. I basically had this doorman building. When you’re living in it, it doesn’t feel glamorous. In retrospect, I wish I could go back now and be like, living the glamorous life. I would feel that it was glamorous. Now I’m just doing laundry in the kitty litter.

Zibby: How have you dealt with raising a teenager and all of that? I have two teenagers at the moment, so any advice is very welcome.

Alexandra: Do you have more gray hair? I do. I have literally no advice. I think it’s a fucking shit show. You have to negotiate every single day in a different way. I have friends who are like, is this normal? They send a picture of their kids’, let’s say, a whole collection of vape situations. I’m like, yeah, that is totally normal. I have seen that, for sure. I don’t know what you should do about it. Really, I have no idea, even though I already dealt with it. You know, I always say — not “you know,” because you don’t. What I do always say to people is if your child feels that sense of love in their core, if they feel loved, truly loved, somatically loved, even if it changed, before the age of ten years old, if they got that, you could be batshit crazy, and they’re kind of okay. I think it’s those children who have not experienced that where things can go awry. I’m not saying that when things go awry — I’m saying something dark here, but let’s say your kid ends up in rehab or worse. I’m not saying that that doesn’t mean they weren’t loved like that. Things can go badly. Despite that, yes, things can take a dark turn. I think if they have that core sense, there can be negotiations. There can be understanding, a sense of trust on some level, even though they’re going to lie out their teeth most of the time. I hope that’s true. I just said that for the first time now. It’s recorded. It could be complete bullshit.

Zibby: I’m going to go with it. I think it’s good. I think it makes sense. That tracks with my own experience as a teenager, for sure.

Alexandra: Same with mine, actually, because I did feel that. I also say whatever they’re telling you, I think it’s possible they’re totally being truthful, but I’m always like, they could be like, “Oh, yeah, that was my friend’s thing. I’ve just done it once,” and meanwhile, they’re running a whore house in Calcutta doing eight-balls. You believe that they’re the sweetest little angels in the world.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What are you going to do to celebrate? If you are already retrofitting a school bus just for the deal news, what is your celebration going to look like?

Alexandra: You know what it is? It’s going to your luncheon, Zibby.

Zibby: Oh, really?

Alexandra: I honestly believed that when I sold the book, Viking would be like, and now we meet at The Odeon and open champagne over steak frites. It was like, no, here’s a Google Doc. You’ll never meet anyone in person. I was like, really? I don’t get invited to the office, at least? I was imagining 1970s publishing world, Joan Didion. When you sent — I know it wasn’t you personally, necessarily. When I got the invite for authors and their editors and I saw the address and looked at a picture, I was like, oh, baby, I am in. I’m probably the first person to RSVP.

Zibby: I have to tell you, my daughter’s bat mitzvah was supposed to be over Zoom. It was supposed to be in this place. I kept postponing a year at a time. Can I keep pushing back my credit? Finally, they’ve said to me, you can no longer push back your credit, but you can have the space for the whole day. I’m like, then I am going to make a day of it. I thought I would do this. I came up with this fun idea for a spring author luncheon because I met a spring author, and I’m like, “You should meet all these other spring authors who I’ve been interviewing and who I have coming up. I bet you’d all really like to know each other.” Then I was like, I’ll just do an author thing. I don’t even know what made me occur to invite people’s editors. I was like, I bet that’s interesting. I bet editors never — oh, I know what it is. I was going to invite my author’s editor, who I adore, Bridie. Then I was like, I bet she would like to meet other editors. Then I thought, I’ll just invite the editors. Then I have something for my younger daughter at five and then my older daughter at seven.

Alexandra: Oh, my god, I love it. I love it. I’m so thankful that you’re doing that. I was like, woo, a luncheon, yes! I’m actually being not sarcastic at all. I’m so looking forward to it. I have some fun stuff in New York City happening. New York City, have you ever heard of it? On pub date, launch date, my friend, who’s the designer Rachel Comey, she’s been hosting some stuff. I’m doing a thing with her and also an old casual friend, Parker Posey, who’s the most wonderful woman in the world. That’s really fun. I’m excited to get an outfit, Rachel, I hope.

Zibby: Exciting.

Alexandra: Then I’ve got something at McNally the next day. Definitely will be exciting. Then I come back to Philly. I’m taking myself to Los Angeles.

Zibby: Nice.

Alexandra: When you’re a fifty-year-old unpublished author, they don’t really pay for your travel. I’m flying myself to LA to be with Maggie Nelson at Skylight. I’m really excited about that. Then a little thing near Bard. It’s not a lot. It’s a few things, but I’m thrilled with it. No complaints, except that I would like a first-class flight to London.

Zibby: Maybe for the paperback.

Alexandra: Exactly. Thank you. Please.

Zibby: When you’re in LA, go by my bookstore and sign your books at Zibby’s Bookshop.

Alexandra: I want to do that so badly. I realized. I know. I looked at that, and I said I need to do that. I’ll have my people call your people. I would love that. I only have the one thing at Skylight with Maggie.

Zibby: When are you going to be out there?

Alexandra: That’s on May 17th.

Zibby: I don’t think I’ll be there. Obviously, the store will be.

Alexandra: I’ll do that. I would love that. I already had planned to come by the bookstore. I’m so not used to this. I didn’t even put it together that I would have a book. Do you know what I mean? I’ll go look at Zibby’s bookstore, not even thinking it would be for my own book.

Zibby: This has been so fun. I really needed a laugh today. This was totally entertaining. I could just listen to you all day. It was really fun.

Alexandra: Thank you so much. I so much appreciate it. It’s really meaningful to me.

Zibby: Awesome. I’ll see you at our luncheon.

Alexandra: See you soon. See you at lunch. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Alexandra Auder, DON'T CALL ME HOME: A Memoir

DON’T CALL ME HOME: A Memoir by Alexandra Auder

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