Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be doing a Skype interview today with Bess Kalb, the author of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. Bess is an Emmy-nominated writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live and actually wrote for the Emmy Awards in 2012 and 2016. She wrote for the Academy Awards in 2017 and 2018. She regularly wrote for The New Yorker‘s Daily Shouts and received a WGA Award in 2016. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and baby.

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

Bess Kalb: Thank you for having me on this wonderful show. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, can you please tell listeners what it’s about? What inspired you to write it?

Bess: This book is about my beloved grandmother. I was inspired to write it because she started telling me her life story from the time I was a baby. She passed away in 2017. In an effort to feel close to her again and to bring her back, I decided to tell her life story in her own words in her voice. For me, it was partially a grief-processing exercise and a cathartic way to reconnect to the woman that I loved so much.

Zibby: Aw. Bess was recently on an Instagram Live I just did for the coronavirus special, basically. I’m making her repeat this in case you miss this. This will come out later. Talk to me about the moment at your grandmother’s funeral where you wrote a eulogy in her voice and then realized how well you could capture it.

Bess: The real moment when I realized that maybe I am able to channel her in a way that is meaningful to the people who really knew her best was right after she died. I was given the task of delivering a eulogy at her funeral. I tried several different versions of speeches. I remember feeling really frustrated that they were just sort of platitudes. The way that we talk about death can feel almost trite sometimes because we stick to a script. We have a certain vocabulary in discussing the deceased. I found the way to be most authentic about it and the way to really honor her and really be true to her was to deliver the eulogy. I spoke about what she would think of her funeral in her voice to my family. It was such a sad day. The fact that she was a very, very old woman at her passing doesn’t at all diminish the enormity of her loss and how very tragic it was. Everyone was upset. No one was coming in ready to laugh, of course. This is a funeral. I skipped mascara. By the end of eulogy, my family was wiping away laughter tears because I knew how my grandmother would’ve reacted to everybody coming out, having to get dressed, having to figure out what to wear, what to say. I just wise-cracked as her and threw this sort of family roast and brought her back to the people who needed her the most. I realized, wow, I do have her voice. I’m able to bring her back. Maybe there’s a bigger literary project here. That’s what the book is.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so funny too. Your grandmother is such a spitfire. She is so real, like jumps off the pages. I can’t imagine she’s actually different than how she seems. Do you know what I mean?

Bess: I went through a lot of her old voicemails. I saved every voicemail. We’re on Skype, so I can show you. In my voicemail, you’ll see my son’s pediatrician and then Grandma, Florida; Grandma, Scarsdale; Grandma, Grandma, Grandma. I don’t know if this is showing up, but it’s all —

Zibby: — Wait, I’m taking a picture of you doing just that. That’s so amazing. Wow. Thank you.

Bess: It’s just her voicemails. I’m such a technophobe that I know that even though they’re on a cloud, allegedly, the act of deleting them from my phone is something I can’t do. I have all of these voicemails. I have so many real artifacts of her voice and listen to them to try to bring her back. Also, this is a woman who I spoke to almost every day since I was born. That’s not hyperbole. She really did come up and help raise me when both my parents were working full time when I was a very, very new baby. I almost feel like I’m an AI bot that can generate my grandma because I’ve listened to her so much. I can almost have the algorithm for Bobby Bell and decide how she would react to a certain situation just because she was so close to me in her life that after her death, I feel like she’s still here. I bring her back in the way that I think is most authentic to her, which is hilariously funny. I’m a comedy writer. I hang out with comedians — I hung out. Before the apocalypse, I hung out with comedians all the time. My grandma’s still one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. She is somebody who would deliver a line with the arched eyebrow where she would know what she was saying would just totally knock you flat on your back. She knew she was funny. I think that the fact that the book ends up being funny is very much true to who she was.

Zibby: One of the things I found really interesting in the story was the role of your mother in all of this. You go into detail about your grandmother’s difficult relationship with your mom when she was growing up. Then you talk about the closeness with your grandma. How did your mom respond to this book? Did she read the book?

Bess: Yes.

Zibby: I mean, I’m sure she did.

Bess: No, that’s a great question. My mom was actually the primary source for the book. When I was writing it, I would call my mom at all hours being like, “Mom, tell me the story again about when you tried to sue your school board. Tell me the story about when you left at age sixteen. Tell me the story about when you started sleepwalking. Tell me about grandma going away for three months to Europe when you were –” She was really on the other end of the phone through the writing of the book to give me facts. When I needed fact-checking, my mom was my best resource and a true primary source and witness to my grandma’s life. Obviously, she knew I was writing the book and would supply me with very personal details about her relationship with my grandma as I was writing, which isn’t to say that when she picked up the manuscript for the first time and started reading it, it was easy for her.

In fact, she made it through two pages before crying and putting it down and saying, “That’s Grandma. I can’t do this.” Eventually, I just sort of said, “Mom, this is a purely legal situation now. You need to read the book. As you know, it’s about you.” She did. I know what she said to me, but my mom loved the book. I think she appreciated that the book was true to their relationship. I think it speaks to something we were discussing earlier about how we talk about the dead. It’s easy to lionize and to idealize the deceased. My grandmother, as fabulous and inspirational as she was, was a real person and a flawed person. I think the biggest regret and flaw of her life was her relationship with her only daughter, my mom. Including that tough relationship in this love story about a grandmother and granddaughter adds a dimension to who she was that I think keeps her relatable but also is just true to who she was as a person.

Zibby: Your book makes me want to try to do the same thing for my grandmother’s voice.

Bess: Totally. You should.

Zibby: No, no, I don’t want to copy you. It’s such a great way to give a tribute to somebody that you love, especially someone with such a distinctive voice. It wasn’t just about your relationship with her. This could’ve been written as a family saga, intergenerational-whatever because you included so much background from Europe, to riding the boat to America, to the illnesses. There’s so much history in it too. As I was reading it, I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s how this woman came to be.

Bess: That’s such a part of it. It is an immigrant story. It’s a story about the full scope of a life. It’s not just our relationship. It’s her origin story. It’s her superhero origin story. I don’t think it would be copying it at all if you want — I would be so thrilled if this book set off a chain reaction of people writing in the voices of the women who matter to them as a way to understand them better and a way to fully flesh out their relationship with that woman. I found it to be, just as a writing exercise, really therapeutic. Especially if we have all of this time now, why not? Why not get into it and connect with the people who you can’t see by writing as them? It sounds crazy, but it did make me feel very close to the person that I lost.

Zibby: I love that.

Bess: Maybe it could be an interesting exercise.

Zibby: Totally. I’m up for it. I’ll try it. There was also this line about your — her love story with your grandfather also was so vibrant and real. She said something — well, you said something in her voice. It’s as if she said, “If I could see one thing for the rest of eternity, it would be your grandfather laughing.” That just made me want to cry. Really, I might cry now. It’s just the sweetest. He told you at the service that it sounded like she was actually there too. What has happened with your relationship with him since her loss?

Bess: My grandfather is the person who has experienced her loss most profoundly and acutely. I’ve seen various people grieve throughout my life. I’ve never seen anybody grieve with the vehemence and presence of my grandpa. He misses her every day in a very real way and has built rituals around grieving her that are part of his personal story for him to tell. I will say that the book is a way for him to connect with her. A few days before it was released, I was walking with my son in a park nearby our house. I got a call from my grandpa’s cell phone, which is a really an in-case-of-emergency thing. I remember giving the baby to my husband and picking it up. He called and he just said, “Thank you for doing this. Thank you for giving her to so many people.” Even though the book was something that was personally healing — there’s no way for him to heal from her loss, but it was a way to be closer to her, in a way. He was so thankful that other people would fall in love with her. That’s something that I wasn’t expecting. It was something that really blew me away because I think when you love somebody you feel like the whole world should love them too. For my grandpa, feeling this private, daily, lonely loss of this love of his life for sixty years, knowing that other people would love and grieve Bobby as well made him feel less alone. It almost feels like every person who reads the book is joining the club with my beloved grandpa and, in solidarity, is missing her with him, which makes me feel like I’ve finally done something to help.

Zibby: You’ve done a mitzvah.

Bess: I hope so.

Zibby: You have. What you should do now, you need to do a little Facebook group for your grandfather. Everybody who reads it should literally go in and send him little notes, right?

Bess: I should definitely do that. That’s a great idea. I was thinking about even putting a PO box for him that people could write letters saying that — or maybe I would go through them first. Then I could send him the pictures. There should be a way I could —

Zibby: — Even just do an email address and ask people to send him a note about what quote of hers resonated with them the most or what they fell in love with. Then he could just read those emails every day.

Bess: That’s a great idea. I’m going to talk to my mom about this and then talk to my grandpa about it and see what he wants. We’re all isolated now and lonely. My grandpa has been living in, essentially, the isolation of the heart for three years, so anything that brings us all together I feel like is what we need. That’s a great idea.

Zibby: That’s so sad. Oh, my gosh.

Bess: I feel like writing, and writing a book like this, is an act of joy as much as it is out of grief. It’s a way to feel connected to someone who’s gone and bring them back. I feel like every time a reader picks this up and is able to delight in everything that my grandmother delighted in, is able to laugh at voicemails that she left, laugh at conversations that she had with me, that’s bringing her back. That’s celebrating her.

Zibby: Absolutely. So how did you get into writing to begin with? I followed your history through how you told it in these little clips, but how did you end up writing for Jimmy Kimmel and the Academy Awards and now this book?

Bess: I was a writer from the time I was in kindergarten when I wrote my own version of a Madeline book. It was called Madeline at the Ballet. It almost rhymed. It was something that I was very serious about. I read the Madeline book. I said, “I would like to contribute a Madeline book.” I wrote it. I ended with the page, “And then one day, she was a star. And then she owned a salad bar.” That’s a line that my mom and I repeat to each other. Whenever I’m like, “I have a deadline. I don’t know if I can do this,” she would go, “And then one day, she was a star. And then she owned a salad bar,” which is to say, you were always a writer. You were always a writer who was, at first, unintentionally very funny and then by profession, required to be funny. I think having that bug in me from a very young age and that drive in me from a very young age is what kept me in this thankless and crushing profession that I’m in. Knowing that there’s something in me that is just saying, sure, but you are a writer, is something that I think a lot of writers can relate to.

I got my professional start in writing just basically the only way I could. Whoever would hire me is who I wrote for. When I graduated college, I got an internship at GQ magazine. I don’t know anything about men’s . Still don’t. I certainly was excited to be paid a dollar a word to write. I ended up profiling comedians and actors for GQ and doing little interviews with them and little write-ups about very small things for GQ‘s culture blog. In interviewing comedians and interviewing filmmakers, I remember thinking, okay, I would like to be one of those people one day. For the meantime, I am a journalist. I will interview. I kept taking journalism gigs. I ended up writing for Wired magazine in San Francisco. I wrote freelance for a whole host of places while just basically making rent.

I basically never said no to a job. I would write for anything. I even did reviews of VRBOs for a travel — I would take any gig. I believe that to be a good writer you really just have to write all the time. It’s a muscle. You just have to keep doing it, and so I did. Eventually when I was at Wired, I was a fact-checker which is a really creatively antithetical job. You’re basically a stick in the mud replying to real writers going, “Unfortunately, according to the abstract of this paper…” or “I understand you have notes on this. I would love to see some verification.” It was crushing. As a side project, I started tweeting. I started this sort of comedy Twitter account that was just for my friends. It was just my observations, my voice, a fun side thing, no big deal. One tweet blew up, got noticed by this comedian Rob Delaney who has a fabulous show on Amazon called Catastrophe which everybody should see. He retweeted it.

Zibby: Wait, what did the tweet say?

Bess: You know what? This is awful. I don’t even remember. It was just one of the many. I would write like two tweets a day. This was one of them. He favorited it, which was before — or stared it, hearted it. I don’t know. And then gave me a #FollowFriday, which is something that happened on Twitter a long time ago. It said, “Super funny person alert, @BessBell,” which is and was my Twitter handle. Overnight, I started getting hundreds of followers. I think I had five hundred followers from my thirty college friends. Then all these SNL and Letterman and Family Guy people started following me. I had this secret life as fact-checker by day, like good, studious journalism girl, and then secret comedy person on the internet. This went on for a couple years. Eventually, one of the people who followed me is this incredible journalist and comedian. Her name’s Nell Scovell. She’s a contributor to Vanity Fair and also had been a Letterman writer and a Simpsons writer.

She said, “Come to LA. Stay on my couch. I want to introduce you to a bunch of people,” and so I did. I met these Family Guy and Simpsons writers and went, oh, my god, this could be my life. I could be a real TV writer. Then I went back to San Francisco for a year and forgot about it until one day Nell sent me an email saying, “Kimmel is looking to hire a writer. Submit a packet.” I watched ten episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live. I hadn’t really seen much of the show. I knew Jimmy Kimmel as a TV personality. I was a fan. I watched a bunch of shows. Then I wrote a show in Jimmy’s voice from top to bottom, the whole monologue in paragraph form, which is not what a packet is. A packet is a bunch of pages of jokes. I did basically what I did in the book to Jimmy. I was like, okay, I will just write in the character of Jimmy Kimmel and do jokes about the news that way. They called me in for an interview. I left the interview. I called my mom from the Zara on Hollywood Boulevard and said, “I think I just got a job.” It’s eight years later. Sorry, that was a very long-winded —

Zibby: — I loved it. I was riveted. You’re a great storyteller.

Bess: That’s how. Then that led to the Oscars and Emmys and things like that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. When you write for Jimmy Kimmel, is it like a writer’s room situation where you all get together?

Bess: It’s a very solitary practice, writing for late night. You write alone on your computer and submit jokes to a writer’s assistant. Then Jimmy goes through and picks the jokes and sketches that will work for that day. Then we all come together and punch up and work collaboratively. The beginning of the day and the bulk of our work is done individually.

Zibby: What if you’re just not feeling funny? What if you’re in a really bad mood?

Bess: You know what? I would say ninety-nine percent of the days, that’s how you wake up and feel. By the end, you just have that cursor blinking on your Microsoft Word document. By the time the joke deadline hits, you’ve somehow filled out the page. I can’t explain it. It’s just a muscle. You have to do it. You just sort of punch in, write your jokes, send it, and live to tell the tale.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. So then when did you write this book? At night? When did you do this?

Bess: I write for a living and then had to write this book, wanted to write this book. I couldn’t do it at night. I did it only over our hiatuses when the show wasn’t filming so I could completely turn off my TV-writer brain and just be my author-self. I wrote it in these discrete chunks of two weeks at a time. We have eight weeks off a year. I took two years and would do the bulk of the writing during those hiatuses, and then editing and conceptualizing and thinking about structure during the work year, but the real pure writing would happen during hiatuses.

Zibby: Wow. So you didn’t really get a break?

Bess: No, and then I got pregnant.

Zibby: I mean, you were married. It didn’t come out of the blue.

Bess: Oh, yeah. I’m married to my college boyfriend who I moved to San Francisco for. It all paid off, ladies. That story’s also in the book.

Zibby: Wait, side question. Did your grandmother end up coming around? I feel like she was so negative about your husband in the beginning. You were so funny about it.

Bess: Well, she was just mystified as to why anyone would marry a non-Jew or date a non-Jew. In her mind, date and marry went hand in hand. She was absolutely right. The only person who’s a bigger fan of my husband than myself and my baby was my grandma. My grandma loved him so much, would take his side routinely, would ask to talk to him when she was done talking to me. She loved him. He loved her. They were on the same wavelength about a lot.

Zibby: My grandmother has been a huge fan of my husband. Then we had lunch the other day. She’s ninety-five. She’s starting to get very confused. He got up at our lunch to go to the bathroom. She’s goes, “Have you two been going together for long?” I was like, aw. It was so sad. I was like, “Yeah. You know what, Gadgi? We’re married.” She’s like, “Oh, you are not.” I said, “Yes, we are.” She said, “If you were married, I would’ve been at the wedding.” I said, “You were at the wedding.” She’s like, “Well, I’m very confused because I see you wearing a wedding ring, but there’s no way you married him.” Anyway, it was very sad.

Bess: Sad but sweet.

Zibby: I know. It’s sad but sweet.

Bess: It is sad but sweet. What a tough thing.

Zibby: Anyway, I’m glad the two of them are big fans despite the religion roadblock at the beginning.

Bess: I bring up the pregnancy because I finished the final draft while four months pregnant with my son. I would write and barf all because of the first trimester of a pregnancy. I had this deadline. I would write and eat plain pasta and crackers and made it through. The book is dedicated to both my grandmother and my son because I wrote it for and containing both of them, in an odd way.

Zibby: Wow. Are you over writing books? Do you think you’ll write another one? Are you already writing another one?

Bess: Yeah, I’m already writing another one. I love writing books. It ended up being something that flowed — this book flowed naturally and readily for me just because I was so close to this character and this voice. I realized, well, look, I’m a fraud. I’m not a real writer. I just write in voices. Why don’t I just pick some more characters to write from? So that’s what I’m doing in my next book.

Zibby: I love it. Can you share who the character is?

Bess: I don’t want to say too much about it just because it’s still changing, but I’m writing right now from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing. I have a stack of camp letters that I wrote my parents when I was nine. I wrote a ton of letters every day. My parents recently gave them to me. I am working backwards from those.

Zibby: Bess, I have a big — not Tupperware; what’s it called? — container full of my camp letters from when I was nine. If you need any additional information, my mother also recently was like, “I’m cleaning out your old room. Take all your letters.” I have them all. I’m glad you’re doing that.

Bess: We should talk about that at some point if I run out of material.

Zibby: Yeah. If you run out of material, use my camp traumas to enlighten you. I know you’ve already included a lot of great advice for aspiring authors, but do you have any last-minute words of wisdom in addition to building up the muscle and dealing with the blinking cursor and all the rest?

Bess: I don’t have the answers. I just know what worked for me. What’s worked for me is to write all the time and write every day in some form. We don’t all have the luxury of being able to do that, especially juggling so many things with motherhood. Moms don’t have time to read. Moms don’t have time to write. Yet we do all of it. We do read. We do write. I think the way to do it is just to set aside a little bit of time every day, even if it’s five minutes, to see what comes out. Some days, there’ll be nothing. Some days, there’ll be four times as much as what you had. Setting aside that time for yourself is so crucial because maybe your next book will come out of that.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for doing that Instagram Live and being the first person I’m doing an online book club with and all the rest. I hope that we get to meet in person sometime because I feel like we could trade camp stories and lots of other things.

Bess: Totally. Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you so much for your shout-out on Good Morning America as well. I screamed. It was so exciting. Thank you to all of your listeners for supporting women who write and being in this together with us. It’s just great to be here and talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Thanks.

Bess: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye, Bess.

Bess: Thank you for your patience too.

Zibby: Of course. No problem. Bye.