Melissa Gilbert, BACK TO THE PRAIRIE

Melissa Gilbert, BACK TO THE PRAIRIE

Zibby is joined by child star of Little House on the Prairie Melissa Gilbert to discuss her latest memoir, Back to the Prairie, which focuses largely on her experience creating her dream home in the Catskills. The two talk about how Melissa faced and overcame her chronic pain, when she and her husband decided to dive all in on living a more rustic lifestyle, and what she loves most about being a grandmother. Melissa also shares how her life differs from popular misconceptions about celebrities as well as what she hopes to write next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Back to the Prairie, so exciting, A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered. It was so great. It was so great to get inside your head and hear your whole story. Really, it was amazing. It was in such an approachable and conversational way that I just felt like I was chatting with a friend or something like that. I don’t know if that was your intention, but it was very successful if so.

Melissa Gilbert: Good, I’m so glad. It’s interesting because this is sort of the beginning of promoting it for me. I haven’t really talked to a lot of people who’ve read it who are not relatives yet. I’m really enjoying hearing how people are reacting to it. I love hearing your reaction to it. I love that you felt like you were talking with a friend because that was the whole idea, was to give us all that feeling of community. That’s why I wrote it, so we didn’t all feel like we were so incredibly alone. Even though we thought we really were, we weren’t. We aren’t.

Zibby: True. Thank you for that. It was so funny, too, as I was reading. I’m on my second marriage. I was hearing all about your marriages and all of that. I was relating to this and that. I was like, I have the same herniated disk, L5-S1.

Melissa: Oh, no.

Zibby: Then of course, you had a lot more stuff. Preaching to the choir here. Actually, to be honest, your health stuff and all your pain that your body has gone through, I was really taken aback. That is a lot to have to deal with. Maybe you could talk just a little bit about even falling on the stage. All this stuff, it’s so much.

Melissa: It is a lot. It’s a running joke in my family and with my friends. Most people get a splinter. They get a cold. I don’t. I get something massive. I get pneumonia. I did not get — I’m knocking wood right now — did not get COVID yet. I have yet to have it. I definitely have weird accidents and strange injuries that turn into something really massive. My spine has been a real problem. I’ve injured, originally, my c-spine, my neck, so many times. I’ve had to deal with herniated disks and then ultimately surgery and then a surgery that failed, as you read in my book, and then the surgery during COVID where I had to fly cross-country to get it all repaired. Then I broke my back, too, doing the musical version of Little House on the Prairie, which I write about. I sort of feel like dealing with chronic pain, which I don’t anymore — I don’t have any pain at the moment. I haven’t since November of 2020. Dealing with chronic pain has just been a part of my existence for a very long time, and who I am. There’s a couple things that are good about that. I definitely have an empathy and sympathy for people who are in any kind of pain, especially chronic pain, and a real understanding of — this ties into what happened with my father, which I wrote about.

My father was in chronic pain. No one was helping him. He kept saying, “I wish I were dead. I wish I were dead.” Nobody did anything. He chose to end his own life. I have chosen, repeatedly now throughout the course of my life, to get through the pain and either live with the pain or get through the pain and fix it somehow. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a number of physicians, physical therapists, surgeons, and nurses in my life who have helped me to achieve that. Today before I saw you, I was running on a treadmill, which, considering all the bits and parts and surgeries and stuff and all the spine stuff, is kind of phenomenal. I did it with ease and comfort. I am finally in a place where my body is starting to betray me a little because it’s getting harder to get it moving. She’s not so young no more, but I feel really healthy and strong at the same time. At my age, which is almost fifty-eight years old, I think people really start to feel the aches and pains and aging. I’m actually in a place where I’m not feeling a lot of pain because I had all the pain before. This is kind of my lovely salad days. I’m really enjoying my life. I like to go to the gym and get on the treadmill. I like to dance around the living room. I like to do yoga. I can do these things and not have it be burdensome or painful, which is great.

Zibby: Next thing you know, you’ll be skydiving. Who knows what’s coming next?

Melissa: No. You know what? I have reached a conclusion about that. I have skydiving relatives. I have just decided that there is no reason for me to do that this lifetime. There really is no reason. I’m not a fan of heights. I’m also not a fan of flying. I don’t understand why anyone would willingly jump out of a plane. It doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s no reason. No reason.

Zibby: I’m in the same boat. Boat versus plane, I guess, but yes.

Melissa: We’re in the same plane.

Zibby: I’d rather be in a boat than a plane.

Melissa: Me too. I might do a zipline, but I don’t think I will ever bungee jump. No. Think? No, I’m never going bungee jumping. I’m never jumping out of a plane. There’s just no reason for it.

Zibby: There were all these things when I was younger. I was like, you never know, I might go here. I might go on this trip. I might do this. Now I’m like, I’m actually not going to do that.

Melissa: I think I’m just going to play it safe and live longer.

Zibby: That sounds good. You also address a lot in the book, your relationship with your body aging and beauty and skin care and what you have decided, which is to stop with all the stuff that your LA life required, or that you felt it required, with the fillers and the this and the that and trying to mask what was actually going on, which is normal aging. Part of what you’ve adopted in this new phase of life with your wonderful husband and your love affair, which is so nice to read about, is just being your total authentic self and not filling anything except for your soul, I would say.

Melissa: That’s a hundred percent right. I love that you put it that way. That’s genius. I really have consciously decided at this point in my life, I’m going to fill my soul and not my cheeks.

Zibby: You can steal it. Go ahead. It’s fine.

Melissa: I just love that. It’s true. This is the latter third of my life. I don’t have time for a lot of things. One of the things I don’t have time for, nor the desire to do, is keep trying to fight the inevitable. I don’t want to fight, period, generally. I will fight for things that I really believe in, but I don’t want to fight something that’s so organic and natural as aging. It just seems like a no-win, first of all, because it’s going to happen. I don’t have the time to devote to going constantly to the dermatologist and worrying about — I don’t. I have no desire to be that person anymore. I would much rather spend my life surrounded by people whom I love who I want to be around. I don’t even have time for what my sister calls tiny talk. I don’t even have time for hovering cocktail party talk. If we’re not going to get into a deep conversation about meaningful things or just laugh our heads off, then I don’t have time for getting-to-know-you stuff anymore.

Zibby: You should host a podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Get to Know Other People,” or something.

Melissa: Moms don’t have time to get to know anybody, even themselves, really. I spent so much of my life when my kids were home just nose to the grindstone, getting up every day and going through, whether I was working or not working, the constant dealing with someone else’s life and working on their schedules and my schedules and getting people to activities and making sure people had food and went to their dentist appointments and the orthodontist appointments and doing their homework and all of that stuff. I feel like now, selfishly too, this is a little bit my time now. I didn’t even have that before I had kids because I was working. Now I’m very choosey about what I do with my time.

Zibby: And you’re a grandmother, which is so exciting. Congratulations.

Melissa: I will tell you now that it is one hundred percent the primary reason to have children. Tim and I, with our grandkids — we’ve got another one coming imminently, any minute, a little girl, here in New York too. We’ll finally have one nearby. We have been grandparents now a few times over. We’ve had the grandkids. We don’t have kids together, so we didn’t get to do all of that together. Now we get to do the absolutely best part of it where we get to have these little people in our lives and feed them and hold them and change them and love them and then give them back and go to sleep at the end of the day and not worry about it. Also, we’ve been through stitches and heartbreaks and bullying, all the things you can go through with kids, and the teenage stuff, car accidents and arrests. You can’t even imagine what they put us through. That’s why my hair is gray. We’re so relaxed now. There’s nothing that phases us. We had never changed diapers before we were with baby Ripley, my son Dakota and his wife Marissa’s daughter, in Texas last summer. We hadn’t done that yet. It was seamless. Here, you hold this. Here, you hold that. Here, I got it. We had them staying with us overnight. We let my daughter-in-law sleep. Tim and I took the night shift. I was up from one AM to four. He was up from four to seven. Then they left. We were in a coma, but we did it. It was easy. I wasn’t as nervous. I’m not as nervous with my grandchildren as I was with my children. So she doesn’t go down in two hours. So?

Zibby: I have four kids. I feel like that’s how I am with my fourth. With my fourth kid, I was like, you’re fine. It’s all good.

Melissa: I had a friend in New York when I first lived here in the eighties when my first son was born, when Dakota was born, who had three kids. She was my neighbor. She said the first child is an experiment. The second child is to keep the first child busy. The third one is all yours. I don’t know if she went any further than that. Then the fourth just becomes — I don’t know. It’s like a puppy.

Zibby: Actually, as you were talking, my husband — we don’t have children together either, but we do have a dog. Sometimes it’s like, who’s going to take it out? Every so often, I’m like, there could be a lot of friction here. We could be fighting about this, but there’s no friction at all. How nice is that? There’s no counting who did this when. It’s just like, oh, are you going to take her, or am I going to take her?

Melissa: We do the same. We have a puppy. We’ve had a puppy for a month now. Tim’s going home to let her out of her crate and give her her lunch. That’s just we do. We just trade off. There’s not even a discussion. You got it? I got it. Okay, great. Easy.

Zibby: I think anyone who’s been in more complicated relationships can appreciate the simplicity of a hand-off so much.

Melissa: There is nothing better than simplicity too. It really is highly underrated.

Zibby: Yes. By the way, speaking of simplicity and buying this house that you got in the woods and stripping it down and the little mice in the bed and all this stuff, this is literally getting back to basics. It’s so crazy, too, because as a child — I’m sure you hear this all the time, so I won’t go into it. I used to watch Little House on the Prairie. It’s just so perfect that now I’m meeting with you, and you literally have recreated this fictious world by going back onto the land again and stripping everything down to basics. Tell me, though, about the demo and the construction. I could not believe you were doing all this stuff yourself. I was like, where is the reality show on this? This is what I want to watch.

Melissa: I think it’s coming, actually.

Zibby: Oh, really?

Melissa: We’ll keep our fingers crossed. There’s some conversations happening.

Zibby: Oh, good.

Melissa: Don’t expect any Martha Stewart-ness. I am the imperfect contractor/crafter/chef. Everything I make, create, do is great but flawed. There’s no way I’m going to teach anybody to do this. We had moved to New York. We were living in the city. Then we knew we needed to have some space. We both love the Catskills. We’d both been up here. We started exploring. We found this little hunting cabin. As I write in the book, the price was a hundred percent right. We knew we were going to put some money into it. We did that hiring people and bringing in — but on a budget. It was going to be the place where if we ever did have chickens maybe someday, it could be there. If we ever did really plant a garden someday, it could be there. We talked about it all the time. Then March 13th — it was Friday the 13th — 2020, we came up here to escape. It just kept going on and on and on. Then like everybody else, we’re hearing people are freaking out about toilet paper. They’re freaking out about paper towels. They’re talking about the food supply chains and the factories and the meat-packing plants. People are getting sick. They’re shutting down. What are we going to eat?

Then we finally said, you know what? If we’re going to have a garden and chickens, now is the time. It made perfect sense. Now it’s second nature to us. I was up this morning with the chickens. Yesterday I did the big spring cleaning in the coup. I have gone back to the prairie, but I do vacuum the coup with a Shop-Vac. I scoop as much as I can, but then I get in there with the Shop-Vac in the spring just to give it a really good clean. I don’t think they had that back in the 1800s. It feels very much like how I grew up on the set, not in my own life. There were chickens and horses and cows out there. It was dusty and dirty. There were chores that needed to be done. I really wanted to learn how to do all of those things. That’s why I loved being on that set so much. It’s very much the same thing now at home. I build my own fire. I don’t have a special effects guy to do it for me, which is probably good because he was missing fingers.

Zibby: Oh, gosh. That’s not what you want to see in a special effects person.

Melissa: Luke Tillman. I love him dearly, but yes, he was missing fingers.

Zibby: I feel like it’s also interesting as you get older, what actually feels like home. Maybe it’s not where you actually live. Maybe it is where you worked. There are different places and sentiments and things that you feel more comfortable in. I don’t know. I think it’s interesting.

Melissa: It is interesting.

Zibby: Another thing that I loved, too, that I don’t think a lot of people talk about, or I certainly haven’t read enough about, is what the realities are, even financially, of the entertainment business and how there are all these assumptions that everything is fine. You’ll never have to think about money again the rest of your life because of X, Y, Z for both you and your husband. You really go into it and explain what it’s like and what’s happened and how a divorce can change your setup with — I found that fascinating to read about and just so important so that other readers can see what it’s really like and not assume anything just because you’re a celebrity.

Melissa: The assumption is that we all know each other. Everybody in the entertainment industry who has any recognition knows each other. They all hang out together. They all make the same amount of money. Some people are a little more famous than others. Some people do movies. Some people do television. That’s why so many people, athletes and people go, no, I’m acting now. I’m going to be an actor now. You can’t just be an actor. Not only is it a craft, but it’s a business. The majority of the people in our business across the board in all categories are gig workers. We make money when we’re working. Unless we’re working on a long-term show like Little House on the Prairie was, which I have not done since Little House on the Prairie — this is almost fifty years ago. I worked on a series for nine years almost fifty years ago. I’ve gone from job to job to job. There are times where the jobs come fast and furious. In the nineties, I would do five movies of the week in a year. That was great. Things were cushy. My husband, at the time, was on a television series. Everything was good. We had a big house. We took vacations.

That’s not the reality now. The jobs have gotten fewer and farther in between for a woman of a certain age. My husband works constantly, but he’s got an ex-wife. He’s got debts. He’s got bills. He’s got kids. He’s still paying off student loans. Salary compression’s a real thing. We’re comfortable. We’re safe. We own our house up here. We’ve managed. The reality is, we have to watch our budget like normal people do. As I said in the book, I got in some trouble several years ago right at the same time that I got divorced from my second husband, from Bruce. At that same time, we sold a house. The bubble had burst. We sold two houses. I was getting in debt and getting in debt and getting in debt. I ended up having to work with the IRS because I had back taxes, a huge amount of back taxes. I had to work with them to figure out a payment plan. The money comes in, but it goes to the IRS first. It’s manageable, but I can’t tell you the last time we went on an actual vacation. It’s fine, though. We’re comfortable. We’re safe. We’re healthy. We have medical insurance. I can’t complain. We get in the car. We do a lot of driving. We drive to Texas to see the kids. We drive to California to see the kids. I’m completely happy. I don’t need a lot of fancy stuff and fancy meals and all of that. I’m really happy with my life. I’m most happy in my BarcaLounger with my knitting.

Zibby: I love that. Who knew? It goes back to what you were saying before. Where are we going to direct our energy? What is it for? What do we need all the energy for? Can we just be happy with what we have? Maybe we need a lot less than we think we do, right?

Melissa: I think we learned how little we really need when we were all scrambling for toilet paper.

Zibby: Yes, well-said. What was it like writing the book?

Melissa: It was an absolute joy. This one sort of poured out, mostly because it’s really focused primarily on the last two years, so the memories were pretty clear. Although, a lot of dates ran together as I was looking back because, COVID. No one knew what day it was. I just knew which pajamas I had been in and for how long. I think I’ve been wearing these for two weeks. I think it’s time to change. It was very fresh. It was also a very joyful experience because I’ve come from a place now of, here we are, those of us who — my heart, obviously, goes out to the hundreds and thousands of people who lost loved ones and children who lost parents and all of the people who died and, of course, to the healthcare workers and the first responders who have done such an incredible job and continue to. Essentially, as of now, we made it through that. There are reasons we did that. We made it through because we really do, at our core, care about each other. We really do, at our core, believe in community. We really missed one another. Did we come out of it being kinder? Not necessarily. The political climate enabled us to become a little more siloed and vicious. I think we’re still learning how to be nice to each other now that we’re back looking at each other’s faces again for now. We did make it through, just like our forefathers and mothers made it through plagues and not having electricity and all of the hardships they endured settling this country, and others and back and back and back. I think it proves how resilient we are. To me, that’s a joyful thing.

Zibby: Totally. Do you want to write more? Do you want to keep going?

Melissa: Yeah, I have other things to write that are not autobiographical, for sure. This is my fourth book. I’ve written a children’s book. I wrote the cookbook and my first autobiography, which I don’t like. I really don’t. I was in such a weird, bad place when I wrote that book. I didn’t know the truth about my father’s passing. It felt disingenuous when I found out. I thought, that book, it’s just based on a lie, though it was not my lie. It was very much too much of a kiss-and-tell-y — I don’t like that book. I have other books. I have an idea for a novel that I’ve been working on, kind of. We’ll see. I don’t know. You never know. There’s so much to do. We’ll see.

Zibby: What about reading? Are you reading anything good now?

Melissa: I am. Right now, I’m into Mary Roach’s books. I don’t know if you’ve ever read her. I just finished Stiff. Now I’m reading Bonk. I have Gulp. I have Grunt. Gulp, Grunt, and I have Spirit on deck. I’m really enjoying Bonk. It’s a very interesting look at the people who studied in the study of human sexuality. It’s very interesting. Stiff was fascinating and funny. She’s very, very funny. I’m reading nonfiction at the moment.

Zibby: Very cool. I’ll have to check it out. Last question. Do you have any advice to aspiring artists of any kind? I was going to say authors because in this capacity, you’re an author, but really in any capacity. People who feel like giving up or they’re never going to make it, it’s just weighing on them, or the rejection or any of it, what inspiring words can you share?

Melissa: I would say that the most important thing, really, and it’s hard to do, is to create your art for yourself. Do the best you can to have it not matter what other people think, which is really hard to do, especially when you put it out there like this book. The books, for me, more than film or television or any projects I do at home, they feel like sending my babies out into the world because they come from such an intimate place, especially the autobiographical ones. I don’t want people to bully them and be mean to them. I’m perfectly prepared for people to not like it. There’s some political stuff I think people will object to in this book, which is fine. We don’t all have to agree. I think it’s really important for artists to just compete with themselves to try and be better than they were the time before, to try and perfect their art and get better at it or to deepen it or to explore in it more. Really, the goal is to detach from what other people think. That’s hard, but it’s really important to do because art, it’s very personal. If you’re just doing it for yourself, I think you stay a lot healthier than being crazy worrying about what other people think.

Zibby: I feel like that’s the through line and the message of your whole book, really.

Melissa: You can’t please everybody. You really can’t. There’s no reason to try. I tried for a really long time. If you look up people-pleaser in the dictionary, there’s a picture of nine-year-old me. I did everything everyone asked me to do. I sacrificed my own well-being for decades and decades and decades. It got me nowhere, ultimately. Well, it got me into therapy, is what it did, so there you go.

Zibby: This has been so amazing. I’m not even kidding, if you have any interest, I have this whole podcast network where I’m launching all these new shows. I feel like you would be so great at doing a podcast if you have any interest. We can talk about it.

Melissa: Thank you. I appreciate it. Yet another venue.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Thank you so much. It was great chatting with you.

Melissa: It was so great chatting with you too. I hope I get to do it again soon.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Write another book.

Melissa: I’ll write another book, and I’ll see you then. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Melissa: Bye.

Melissa Gilbert, BACK TO THE PRAIRIE

BACK TO THE PRAIRIE by Melissa Gilbert

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