Amber Tamblyn, ERA OF IGNITION

Amber Tamblyn, ERA OF IGNITION

Zibby Owens: Hi, I’m here today with Amber Tamblyn who is an author, actress, and director. She has been nominated for an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and an Independent Spirit Award for her work in film and TV. She cowrote and directed the critically acclaimed feature film Paint It Black. She’s the author of three books of poetry including the best seller Dark Sparkler and the novel Any Man. Her latest book is Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution. She’s a contributing writer for The New York Times, a poet in residence at Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and a founding member of Time’s Up. She currently lives in New York with her husband, actor David Cross.

Welcome, Amber. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amber Tamblyn: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I’m so excited to talk about your latest book, Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, which has the best cover ever.

Amber: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s so cool, this bright pink and red and black. How can you not want to read it? Not that I should judge by the cover.

Amber: No, it’s good. I feel like it’s a very straightforward, direct cover, simple, easy.

Zibby: Totally. Tell listeners, what is Era of Ignition about? What made you write it right now?

Amber: Era of Ignition really looks at this wild, chaotic world that we’re living in right now, and especially in the United States post-Me Too and Time’s Up in the last two years since that has happened, but also since Donald Trump has been elected, and this sense of we’re not able to control what is happening. There seems to be a lot of anger and a lot of protests and a lot of questioning about supremacy and identity and all of the things that should matter to us as a country and as a culture, things like white feminism for instance, which is a very triggering word for a lot of white women. Whereas in this book, I really offer that it’s important to lean into that and to not be afraid to be uncomfortable. My argument for the book is looking at how we can harness our own fears and the chaos of this moment into something really productive and profound and powerful and to not shy away from the fact that, especially women, we are in the center of a revolution right now. To call it anything less really undermines us and what we’re all trying to do collectively to have more representation and equality in the world we want to live in.

Zibby: The passion with which you just explained the book, that tone, is exactly how I felt reading it. I was like, she is so into this. It leaps off the page. You feel so strongly about all of it. It’s so great because then it engages the reader so much. You want to hop on the bandwagon if you’re not already on it.

Amber: Exactly.

Zibby: I thought it was so interesting, you have so much of your own life in this book. This isn’t just some sort of manifesto or political treatise or whatever. This is your story from postpartum, having this weird thing happen with your hands which I felt so bad about, to how you ended up as the Forrest Gump of the Time’s Up movement, how you’re in the midst of every room. You’re in every room and responding to every article, so if we could talk about some of that stuff.

Amber: It’s interesting. I’ve been acting. I’m thirty-five now. God, am I thirty-five? Yes, I’ll be thirty-six this year. I actually did a bunch of interviews for this book when it initially came out. My publicist was like, “No Amber, you’re actually a year older than what you’ve been saying.” I’m going to blame it on my child. My child made me lose an entire year of my life.

Zibby: That’s how I feel. I feel like I’m twelve years younger because my oldest kids are twelve. Wait, what? I’m in my forties? No, it can’t be. I can’t be. I’ve only been paying attention to their birthdays, not my birthdays. So you’re thirty-five or thirty-six, give or take.

Amber: Thirty-five or thirty-six, but I’ve been acting since was eleven years old. I did many years on a soap opera when I a kid on General Hospital and was in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and did a lot of film and television. I’ve had a lot of experience in this industry, in Hollywood. Growing up in that industry, I have had to deal with and see a lot of sexism and misogyny and extreme lack of representation, both behind the camera and sometimes even in front of it, and certainly with the powers that be who are making decisions within Hollywood. I think what happened in 2016/2017 with that moment’s Me Too movement breaking the world wide open was that a lot of women were feeling very impacted not just by — I think most people would say the election of Donald Trump might have impacted them and made them feel like they needed to do something. I would also argue that Hillary Clinton losing in the face of what most would say is the village idiot was something that propelled women too. At some point, all women have been that person. They have been the Hillary Clinton in the room who was, yes, flawed, incorrect at times, not perfect, but really fucking good at what she does for a living. Sorry, can I cuss? I can cuss.

Zibby: Go for it.

Amber: Really fucking, fucking good at what she does, excellent at her job, totally prepared in many ways, and still lose to somebody who is not qualified. To me, a lot of what we saw in 2016 and ’17 was a reaction towards that loss. I certainly know that had very much to do with my own experience. Around that time I was just tired of being silent about a lot of the things I had seen in my business and certainly the way I had been treated and the works that I had done, either film I’d produced or directed or just anything that I had done, being undervalued and underappreciated, and finding that I only was ever really allowed to exist in one room. That room was me as the actress in which I was interpreting other people’s lines, basically being the object for other people’s art. It wasn’t until that moment in which I and many, many other women in that powerful zeitgeist said enough and propelled themselves with a lot of fear and with a lot of not knowing what that was going to mean or what the repercussions would be or how everything was going to land. It felt like we couldn’t control not speaking up, not doing something about it. This book really looks at a lot of that and, like I said, the inception of Time’s Up, but also my journey throughout all of that pressed against the lens of the larger cultural shift that we’ve all been facing.

Zibby: It’s funny — not funny, that’s the wrong word. It was interesting how the movement today made you relook at some of the abuse that has happened in your own past in this horrible relationship you had for many years and how actually now that we’re coming up with the words to name some of this stuff you could say, “I actually had a sexually abusive relationship. Now I can focus and deal with it in this way.” How does it feel to be able to go back and put it in a bucket, or know how to process it, or talk to people who have had the same thing?

Amber: I think that’s where the anger comes from, and not just for me but for pretty much every woman that I know, no matter what that is as far as realizing that for decades, for our lifetimes, for our mothers’ lifetimes, for our grandmothers’ lifetimes and all the way back, we have not had the honor or grace or allowance to be able to name the things that have been done to us. If we have, if we speak up, if we use our voice, we’re ridiculed. The narratives are changed about our stories. We’re told it’s not true, all of those things. There have been consequences which have aimed to force us back into a space of silence in a certain way. I know for me that there was a lot of that that was going on from a very early age in many different ways.

It was so important for me to speak about things like abusive relationships and to realize as I had not before that some of the things that had happened to me could be defined as sexual assault. It is very sad that you can be a woman of any age and have something happen to you, whether it’s rape or whether it’s sexual harassment or anything in between, and you are taught, you are conditioned to name it as something else that is not as harmful as it actually was. Women have had to walk around existing like that forever. Nothing is fixed. Nothing has been completely righted with the Me Too movement, obviously. There’s still a long way to go. I know for me it was very powerful to have to come to terms and come to grips with my own language and the language that I use for what my experiences are and to understand that it’s important to name the thing, to name the offense as it is even if that puts you at jeopardy in a certain way or is uncomfortable or complicated for the person that’s done it. Obviously, don’t do it if it affects your livelihood. I think it’s important for you, for yourself, to know the ownership of that language.

Zibby: You talked about, in the book, and which I read in The New York Times, that you came out publicly and said, “This is it for me.” You talked about all your views about James Woods and his actions. That’s a big deal. Putting it all out there in The New York Times, you have to stand by and be so really brave. It takes guts. It’s impressive.

Amber: Again, this has to do with that propulsion which is the ignition that I talk about in the book, this thing that is ignited in you. Fire, we can’t really control when something is burning.

Zibby: Is this why your opening scene was you lighting a candle? Did you do that on purpose?

Amber: Kind of, and then blowing it out. It felt like my life was like a candle that was super dwindled.

Zibby: That was a great image, by the way.

Amber: It was real. I didn’t even have to use it for the effect of that book. It was just a true moment that happened. There is this thing that has been propelling us that we sometimes can’t even control. It’s the same thing, why did Rose McGowan feel propelled? Why was it a matter of her survival to speak out against Harvey Weinstein, to initially be one of those women, any of them, any of the women that spoke out in The New York Times? Why? What was the reason now? That is the thing that I hope this book puts a finger on, the moment and where the rages comes from, but not just what the rage is but what we are doing with it, how we are changing the world with it. For me in that moment, there was not a choice to write the piece in The New York Times. For listeners, it was an op-ed called “I’m done with not being believed.”

Zibby: I had it right here, sorry. It’s called “I’m done with not being believed” from 2017 about when she was twenty-one and went to talk to her show’s producer about problematic behavior and ended up taking a stand against James Woods. I read it. There we go.

Amber: The James Woods thing was a separate experience when I was younger of him trying to pick me up at a diner in Los Angeles to which he said there’s no way he did that and called me a liar. That was really the moment of being called a liar that felt so personal but so normal. It felt so normal to be called a liar for telling that story, as if that’s a joy for me to go out on a limb and put my entire career and reputation on the line to make up some random story about this guy that I could care less about. I felt propelled in that moment to speak a truth. Then Rose felt propelled in that moment to speak a truth. There were all of these women in different industries who were feeling propelled, who were feeling that being ignited. To me, the most important thing is that everybody started to speak together and started to know that it was okay, that there was going to be repercussions, but that it was now or never in the moment. It was this uncontrollable urge to speak the truth which we really haven’t had, especially as women, for a very long time.

Zibby: I like how it was told in such a narrative way like you are there. It’s almost like in thirty years we can look back and see where this revolution began. You’re like, “And then I drove across to LA. Then I went to this person’s house,” obviously in a much more literary way.

Amber: It’s very in-depth and detailed, which I think is an important part of the piece. I hope women, and men too honestly, I hope they read the book and think about ways, when you’re angry and you’re frustrated, how do you get together with other women who are angry and frustrated and create something out of that? How do you create a movement or a group? You and I sitting right here doing this podcast, we could start a movement right now if you and I were pissed about something.

Zibby: Yeah, let’s do it.

Amber: I could figure out something great that you have to contribute, and I have something great to contribute. Together, we would do that. That is literally how Time’s Up was formed, was a bunch of women who got in a room and they decided to change things.

Zibby: It’s so cool. Why not? Better than talking about what you’re going to wear to the Golden Globes, which is also fun.

Amber: I’m making it sound a lot easier than it was, but you know what I mean with the purpose of that.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I know. I’m just joking. I obviously know that. There’s a quote in the book about your childhood acting career. You said, “When you’ve spent your whole life pretending to be other people for a living, it is sometimes hard to know what you’re capable of becoming or what you will want once you’ve stopped.” That’s such a unique perspective to grow up pretending to be somebody else. I feel like many people grow up not knowing really who they are, but they’re not literally pretending to be other people. How do you think that’s affected your life now?

Amber: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I dabble a little bit in the book and talk a little bit about how interested I would be if somebody ever did a study on the effects of people who were child actors, again of any gender, who grew up as actors, what effect that took on their central nervous system. I do think that there is some large effect that we won’t what that is. When you are constantly telling your central nervous system and your body that it is in fight or flight mode, that it is being murdered, it is being raped, it is overdosing, all of these things you do as an actor, while they’re fake in your mind, your body is not faking it. It’s a very interesting thing. I don’t know other than to say I feel like in a certain way I have lied to myself for a very long time. I’ve had to reason with some of that. I still love acting. I’m doing a show for FX. I have a bit of a disassociation with it now because I understand more of that. My healing work has had to be a little bit more encompassing than it was initially supposed to be in just understanding what that is.

Zibby: What do you do to take care of yourself now?

Amber: There’s a term that I love to use, which could also be applied for the experience of women coming together to create Time’s Up, which is that women are angranized which means they are angry and organized. For me, taking care of myself is a combination of many things which includes allowing myself to actually feel those emotions and to process them and put them into action instead of just swallowing them and being angry. It also means taking real care of not only my physical self but my spiritual self, which is something I have felt very othered from for a long time, the sense of taking care of my psyche and my brain and the other parts of me that aren’t as nourished. Meditation is a really big, important factor in my life. I try to get as much rest as I can when I can. Sleep is always great. Water is always great, but also to be able to speak to people about what’s going on in your life, which is the action part of that. I’m a big, huge proponent of therapy. I’ve gone every single week since I was very young. I think we should all have somebody that we pay any dollar amount, it could just be one dollar, to be able to listen to us in some capacity. I know that that’s a very privileged thing to be able to have because not everyone can afford therapy. There are many different ways in which that can be manifested in someone’s life.

Zibby: Isn’t that what Charlie Brown did with Lucy? Didn’t she set up that stand?

Amber: Yes, it totally is.

Zibby: They had it right.

Amber: That’s I mean.

Zibby: Sidewalk stations and pop-ups. You also do a lot of writing, not just this book. You’ve written lots of poetry, three books of poetry. I’m assuming you just write on your own for fun. I don’t know. I shouldn’t assume. Let me ask this again. Amber, do you like to write? Does writing help you sort through your emotions? Do you like to write when you’re not on deadline or writing a book for publication?

Amber: No, I do not at all. My two writing mentors, the first one is Jack Hirschman who was the former poet laurate of San Francisco, phenomenal, extraordinary poet. The other was Wanda Coleman, the late poet out of Los Angeles, also an extraordinary writer. Please get all of her books. They’re on Black Sparrow Press. They are the most important pieces of literary work, especially out of the nineties, especially by a black woman poet. Just get all her books. She was amazing. They had two very different schools of thought about writing. They both taught those thoughts to me. The first was Jack who really was like, “If you’re going to be a writer, you should write every day. It’s a discipline.” That never really worked for me. That was really difficult. When I was a lot younger writing poetry in my teens, I was listening to him because he was a mentor in a lot of ways. Also, it just didn’t really work for me. It was tough.

Wanda gave me the best advice ever, which was to let the muse rest. That’s what she would always say. She didn’t believe that there was anything real about writer’s block. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. You have to let the muse rest. When you’re not writing or when you can’t think of something to write, that’s because she’s sleeping. You have to let her sleep. You wouldn’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night to get up and write. You have to think of your creative subconscious as that, as something that is healing and absorbing. That is very much how I write and how I manifest my writing. I’m a big daydreamer. Often, my husband will get really mad at me because he told me something four times and I’m like, “I did not remember that at all, but I was just thinking about a colony that lived on the moon of half wolf, half women.” It’ll just be something that I have been daydreaming about. Usually, that daydreaming will lead to an idea. Then that idea, I will become very obsessed with and very stubborn about. I’m a triple Taurus, so I get very stubborn about things.

Zibby: How do you become a triple Taurus?

Amber: My rising sign, my moon, everything is in Taurus. I’m just a big old Taurus.

Zibby: Big Taurus, okay.

Amber: Once I become really obsessed with an idea, I lean very heavily into it and I stick with it and see it all the way through. For me, the writing process was always about, not so much the writing, but the manifesting and the daydreaming in between. I’ll spend days and hours just doing that and collecting information in my brain, whether that’s collecting ideas for poems or narrative stories or fiction, whatever that may be.

Zibby: And even writing movies. You adapted this movie, Paint It Black.

Amber: By Janet Fitch. It was a phenomenal book by Janet Fitch who wrote White Oleander. Her book after that was Paint It Black. I adapted it for the screen. I believe it’s on Netflix. You can see it there.

Zibby: Very exciting. You were talking before we started this about a trick you have for reading poetry and how you know — oh, also for organizing books. Come back to that. Also for when you start reading poetry, how you can tell whether or not you’re going to like it pretty easily. What’s the trick? Can I do this with books without reading the whole book?

Amber: Oh god, I don’t know. The beauty of poetry is that a writer can say in one powerful punch of a line, one single sentence, what a different author has to take an entire chapter to say. They’re both beautiful, but they’re both different. I like the compactness of poetry. A good poet, to me, will always open a poem with an undeniable line, a line that doesn’t have to be connected to the second line below it or even to a stanza. Then in one line it will make you feel or understand something that you had not seen put into words before. Something as simple as “He broke my heart,” what are all the different ways you could say that, all the different metaphors and similes to talk about hearts, to talk about the brokenness of them, to talk about the person or the thing or the place or the smell or the time or the planet that did that to you. That is the ingenious effort of poetry to me, is that you can really affect somebody. The line or a poem will sneak up on you. It’ll take a second for it to get there. Then once it does, it has taken your breath away.

Zibby: That’s so amazing, the power of words to make us feel all these things. That’s why, each book, you never know what’s inside.

Amber: I know. It’s the best. It’s a surprise.

Zibby: It helps you make sense of your own thoughts and feelings and worlds. I’m a big fan of books, as I know you are. You have a million books too.

Amber: I have so many.

Zibby: You said you stack them everywhere. What is your organizational trick? Obviously, Amber saw my completely messy office, piles of books here. I think she’s trying to give me a hint on how I can do things better.

Amber: No, not at all. I’m obsessed. You should all know she has a beautiful library here. I’m looking at all the books. It’s a gorgeous library in her home. For me, probably like you, I get sent a lot of books because I also review and have a lot of wonderful relationships with editors and things like that. I get sent piles and piles of books. I was trying to think of ways because I don’t have — my shelves are done for. I can’t put any more books on them. I also do love stacking books up on floors. It’s a thing that I love. I love to be able to go any given pile and be like, ooh, I remember this book was sent to me a few months ago. I’m going to pull this book out. I kept thinking about a way to pile them so that I knew what the hell those piles were. I went on Etsy. I went to somebody who does those garden rocks that say “love” and “health” and “wealth.” You know what I’m saying?

Zibby: Yeah, inscribed.

Amber: I asked her to put different words on them. One says “unread.” One says “urgent.” One says “ado,” as in goodbye. One says “pending.” I have a bunch of different words. I put these heavy rocks on top of the piles. That way when you’re walking by them, you can just look down and see what piles they are. Also, it’s harder to knock them over. It’s also just less tacky than a stick-it, a Post-it.

Zibby: I used to have Post-its all over.

Amber: It’s just a nice way to say this is the unread pile. This is the urgent pile. It’s a small thing, but I do find that is a way to, especially if you are reviewing or if there were books you were considering for your podcast that you thought would be great for that, you could have its own pile with a rock.

Zibby: I need these rocks.

Amber: It’s so good.

Zibby: Is this Etsy lady going to make them in scale?

Amber: Literally, all you have to do is just search —

Zibby: — Personalized rocks?

Amber: Yeah, personalized garden rocks or something like that.

Zibby: Personalized garden rocks, I would never in a million years —

Amber: — Aspirational personalized garden rocks, I’m sure.

Zibby: Wow, I have not googled that before, I have to say. Now I will.

Amber: If only you could see my google history.

Zibby: Did you see somewhere recently that someone put that in — I feel like it was in one of the newspapers. One whole page of newspaper was just the things that people had googled that whole year.

Amber: That’s hilarious.

Zibby: It was really cool. I think it was in The New York Times Review. I’m probably not saying this right.

Amber: That was very funny.

Zibby: It was something in the last two weeks. It was a whole page.

Amber: I bet it was all over the place.

Zibby: Yeah, it was all over. I couldn’t even after a while. What’s coming next for you? Are you going to write another book? You have an FX show. What’s that about? What’s your story?

Amber: Oh, man. There’s so much going on. Right now after this book comes out, I’m going to go do a little mini tour for it. If you want to find out any of that information, you can go to That’s my website. After that, I’m going to do this show for FX called Y: The Last Man. I’m costarring opposite Diane Lane. It’s based on the DC graphic novel of the same name, Y: The Last Man, about a post-apocalyptic world in which there is a defect in the Y genome and all of a sudden, all men drop dead at the same time. Women are the left to run the world, but that is not necessarily a great thing.

Zibby: This is a fantasy show.

Amber: Yes, but it’s also a little Lord of the Flies because things are not that simple. I’m so excited to do that. I get to play a character unlike anything I’d played before. After that and as far as the writing, I’m hoping to direct another feature this year. There’s a couple things in the works for that. I’m circulating a couple different book ideas. I’m strongly feeling pulled to return to poetry in a certain way, so maybe that and something else, maybe a new novel.

Zibby: That’s exciting. You have a little girl. She’s what? A three-year-old?

Amber: I have a three-year-old. I have to tell everyone that Zibby was very sweet and let me be very, very late today because of my daughter.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, of course.

Amber: I appreciate it.

Zibby: I understand. That is my life. Nothing is predictable. Every day is different.

Amber: Different and wild.

Zibby: Especially when the teachers are like — no offense to the teachers, but once you get school-aged kids too, it’s like, I have other stuff I have planned. What do you mean now I’m coming in? I have somebody great coming to talk to me. That sounds very selfish. I’ll do anything for my kids. I don’t miss anything.

Amber: I love my kids. I never hate them. I’m perfect. I have no mom guilt. I’m great. I’m so skinny. Ahh! Sorry, too real.

Zibby: No, not all. Does she get into your work yet? Is she old enough? Not really, right? Does she get the vibe of what you’re doing?

Amber: She does. She does love to come in and go through my books. I try to keep my office door locked, never to keep her out but mostly because she’s very into my garden rocks. Sometimes piles will get confused. You’ve got to be careful of that with your kids, I would say. She is. I try to explain to her, “Mommy wrote this book,” especially when a new box, which is the best feeling ever as an author, when your book comes in. There’s just nothing better, the finished product. She’ll take them out. She’ll normally just flip through them and then point to the back and say, “Mommy!” She’ll say, “Mommy’s on there.” She sees the photo, which is really cool. I can’t wait until she can see me in some acting stuff. That’ll be pretty interesting.

Zibby: Knowing what you know about your whole life and how it’s developed, would you ever —

Amber: — The answer’s no.

Zibby: Okay. I couldn’t even get it out.

Amber: Obviously if she wants to act, I’ll be okay with it. It’s not something I think that any parent should let their kid do without a lot of consideration. It’s a tough industry, really, really tough, and tougher than you think on kids. Their entire purpose in life at that age is to please their parents and make sure their parents are happy because that brings joy into their life. It’s hard to know what a kid really wants and doesn’t want. I would say that the business has gotten so much better, certainly not just from my age but my father who was Russ Tamblyn — not was, he’s still alive — in West Side Story and all these old, great movies. His experience with the Judy Garlands in that era was much, much different than it is now. Still, I think you need to have a lot of consideration. It can’t just be, “My daughter’s really great in school plays. I should get her into acting.” I think you need to have a real serious thought about the psychological ramifications, most especially if you have a girl.

Zibby: Interesting. I’m glad you said that because my daughters are always asking, not to say it’s only girls, but as many kids like to do. Even YouTube, I’m like, “You know what? It’s okay. You don’t need to be out there.”

Amber: No, you don’t.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Amber: My advice for aspiring authors would be to really try to hone in on not just your craft but what your individual voice is, what it has to say and what it has to offer. I became my strongest and best writing self when I did that. When I was trying to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, but especially in these last five years, it just came in with a wild force. I became the author that I had always wanted to be. Sometimes that takes time. Part of that advice would be to be patient with yourself and to know that rejection is inevitable, lots of rejection. If you really believe that is the right creative career and choice for you, to stick with it and to work as hard as you can to figure out what the individual, unique thing is you have to say. Say it in a unique and individual way that is true to you.

Zibby: Piece of cake.

Amber: Easy, easy stuff.

Zibby: Easy peasy.

Amber: Just two decades of torture for yourself. No big deal, enjoy.

Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing all of your thoughts and beautiful writing and your whole experience.

Amber: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks.

Amber Tamblyn, ERA OF IGNITION