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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

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“Vanessa looked back and forth between the photograph and the doll. The doll in Janey’s arms was the right size. It had on a similar long while dress and what was left of its blond hair was tied with a thin ribbon. But the resolution was nowhere near sharp enough to see whether the doll in the picture had a dimple like the one on the mantle, and the wig on the real doll was too threadbare to make a comparison.”

While playing in the yard forty years ago, Lissie’s younger sister Janey went missing. Lis feels guilty and responsible. They’ve never found out what happened to Janey that day. Every year on the anniversary of the sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places an ad in the local paper with a picture of the one-of-a-kind porcelain doll Janey had with her when she went missing in hopes that she’ll find answers. This year, the doll returns and it sets off new theories and a few leads into Janey’s disappearance. Someone must know what happened to Janey decades ago.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town, Hallie Ephron’s latest novel–You’ll Never Know, Dear— explores three generations of women and the aftermath of a devastating event. Miss Sorrel makes dolls which look like the little girls who own them. There’s a certain creepiness to porcelain dolls. Her daughter Lis moved home after getting divorced. Lis’s daughter, Vanessa, conducts research on dreams and PTSD in graduate school.

I spoke with Hallie Ephron last month by phone.

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Amy Steele: As the book’s set in the south, what kind of research did you do?

Hallie Ephron: I’d been in the south very little. In South Carolina you find a lot of wealthy northerners there for the warmth of the winter season. I‘d been to Beaufort– a beautiful riverfront southern town– it’s where they filmed Forrest Gump. It’s a very colorful and beautiful place. I wrote half of it coasting on my memories and then realized I needed to go down and spend a few days with my camera and tape recorder. I spent four days absorbing it. The way that the marsh grass is a matted surface on the water, pecan trees … all the details went into the book. I’d already created my characters and I added details. The big thing I learned is that Beaufort has its own storied past. I fictionalized it so I wouldn’t be tethered to the true history of the place.

Amy Steele: Your parents being screenwriters, how did that influence your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I spent a lot of time not writing. I have three writing sisters and I was going to be the one who wouldn’t write. It took a long time to cave and I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have the genes. It’s a hard slog getting good enough to be published. I think my books are fairly cinematic. That’s from a kid growing up in Hollywood in a house that was movie-oriented. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough and I had to be old enough not to care. It took me a lot of time to get confident. There is a story in being a sister and a mother, in the everyday.

Amy Steele: You wrote about three generations of women. What did you like about that?

Hallie Ephron: I like writing about family and generations. I think we’re each so formed by our generation but you’re also formed by your relationship to your family. I particularly like writing older women. I think they’re often caricatured. Especially women over 60 or 70. I take a special pleasure in writing them as human beings with weaknesses. I liked writing Miss Sorrell. She’s kind of a tart individual.

Amy Steele: What do you like about writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

Hallie Ephron: I like figuring it out. I like the click when I figure it out. I usually don’t know the ending when I begin.I just know the set-up. Then I write all the complications, setbacks and challenges and all the while I try to think what does it look like is going on and what do I think is going on. I think in this book the mystery isn’t so much whodunit. I think the reader will realize halfway through who the villain is. But what are the motivations? What are the secrets they’re hiding? That’s what I try to figure out as I work my way to the end.

Amy Steele: How do you organize the novel or your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I have multiple time lines. I think of each character as having a life before the book began and after the book ends. I make a table where each character has a column and the rows are years. I plot the characters in their slots– when they were born and where they went to school– and see where the characters are as their lives progress as well as as the novel progresses. This novel I think takes place over three or four weeks so I do a drilled down version so that I know where the characters are. Even if the reader doesn’t know, I know.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with the characters first or the plot idea?

Hallie Ephron: The first thing I knew is that there would be doll parts. What does that mean? If there were doll parts there would be a doll maker. And who would she be. The story and the character go back and forth as I go along.

Amy Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?

Hallie Ephron: I started with two narrators: Lis and Vanessa. I knew I couldn’t be in Miss Sorrel’s head because she knows too much. That was the 20someting and the 40something. I started to ask myself who’s story is this, who’s the protagonist and the answer can’t be both of them. I realized it had to be Lis. She’s the one who lost her sister. She’s the one who had to find her. Lis is the hero. It worked.

Amy Steele: What kind of books do you read?

Hallie Ephron: I read lots of books. I’m reading The Mothers. I just finished Joe Finder’s book. I read lots of books on South Carolina. I powered my way through Pat Conroy’s books. I don’t like horror. I don’t like romance.

You can catch Hallie Ephron speaking about You’ll Never Know, Dear at these events [for more events see her website]:

July 9, 2017
Rockport Public Library
Rockport, Mass.

July 11, 2017
Ferguson Library
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
Stamford, Conn.

July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
Maynard, Mass.

August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
Natick, Mass.

 
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STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Kathryn Claire

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The songs on the latest album, Bones Will Last, from Portland singer/songwriter Kathryn Claire exude gorgeous melancholia through violin and strings-based arrangements. Lovely, bold chamber/folk music. The opening track reminded me of the heartbreaking violin melodies played by a character on the television show Treme.  Meaningful, profound lyrics delve into existentialism and our place in the world. Just the type of songs to which I most connect. Claire’s deep vocals combine with exquisite layered orchestrations. These dark, provocative, thoughtful songs engage the listener and elicit deep emotions. Claire collaborated with Portland musicians Zak Borden (mandolin), Allen Hunter (upright bass), and Don Henson (piano) on this album.

I spoke with Kathryn Claire by phone last week.

Amy Steele: What do you like about the Portland music community?

Kathryn Claire: So many people are playing music. A lot of people are based out of here and touring extensively. It’s great when I am home because it’s such a thriving scene. It’s a great place to write, perform and record. and be inspired. I love it when I’m out in the world because people are aware of Portland and in the last ten years it has become a popular well-known city. It’s cool to be from Portland. I’m proud of the scene we have here.

Amy Steele: When did you develop an interest in playing music and in songwriting?  I think you had some classical training when you were younger

Kathryn Claire: I’ve always been drawn to music and have been very musical from a young age. There was a lot of music in my family growing up. I’m the first person in my family to be a professional musician. My mom was a public school music teacher. My father was a gypsy jazz violinist as a hobby so that is what got me into that instrument. I started studying violin at the age of seven and singing in choirs. I taught myself guitar as a teenager and I started writing. I’ve always been a journal writer and a creative writer. I can’t remember my life without music in it. It is always a vital part of my life. It developed into something that I now do as a career.

Amy Steele: Have you always been a solo artist?

Kathryn Claire: I’ve always enjoyed collaborating. My career has been interesting. Part of what has allowed me to do this full time, to make a living, is that I’ve worked as a side person a lot. The violin is a versatile instrument in that way. I read music. I also have a really strong background in harmony singing. I’ve been hired by a lot of groups and to sing with other singer/songwriters. I like playing solo but I love having a few different instruments and sounds to work with and the energy for collaborating has always been inspiring to me.

Amy Steele: How did the (music) experience you had, working on other people’s projects, help with your own?

Kathryn Claire: I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve put out solo albums but this album has been huge for me. It really is my own. I’m totally fronting it. I wrote everything on it. It was my vision. I made all the decisions. I didn’t even work with a producer. I had this vision that evolved. It was my own and my own voice. I feel that the way I arrived at such a clear place was from working as a side-person for so long because I really have developed an ear in how to accompany other people. I have developed my own clear voice as far as being a side-person and I’ve developed a good ear for listening. I took a lot from other people and I’ve been influenced by my classical upbringing. I’ve played a ton of Celtic music. I’ve played with amazing songwriters. I’ve played in a rock band. I think that gave me an eclectic base and I synthesized that into this album. I feel like it’s a unique sound, totally my own, but inspired by all this work I’ve done with other people.

Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?

Kathryn Claire: Lyrically I tend to like it when you have a personal connection to the imagery and poetry of the connection. You’re writing from something that’s touched your heart but you’re not overly explicit so it allows the listener to make their own connection to the words and images that’s completely their own. I tried to be specific and close to me but letting there be openness to it so there can be some universality.

I think over time I’ve learned how to edit. Not trying to cram in so many words. Editing down so there’s a bit more simplicity in it. I’ve come to value that in a song.

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Amy Steele: It seems that a lot of the songs are sad and a bit darker. Is it an outlet or your general mood and temperament? I listen to a lot of dark music but I think I’m very dark and gravitate towards that music. I was wondering what draws you to make that type of music.

Kathryn Claire: I definitely do have a darkness or a pensive side to me but as a performer I have a lot of energy and joy on stage and I really do feel that in my own life. I have a more positive and joyful energy. This music has been a way for me to express sadness and melancholy. The world is really beautiful and really sad. I tend to be compelled especially on this album in tapping into that darker nature in myself and in the world. I put the violin at the center of the album in the sound –it’s a violin/strings-centric album—and the violin has a deep sad melancholy to it as well. I tend toward darker music. I like minor keys. I like haunting melodies. I can get behind a major up-tempo song but my heart is really with the darker music.

Amy Steele: The song “Bones Will Last” you wrote about thinking about death and dying. How did you write that?

Kathryn Claire: It’s a really personal song that I initially wrote reflecting upon a loved one. The chorus got written a little bit later. I was just thinking of that image –“we’ll be gone but our bones will last.” The passing of timed. The ephemeral nature of life. That was central to what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been thinking about death a lot and trying to be present while I’m here. I’ve had a lot of people pass away. Not just grandmas and grandpas but people my own age. You never know when it’s our time. In holding that and looking at that I think what are those things that last? That we leave behind? What are the bones of who we are? It became the theme of the album overall.

Amy Steele: What about the song “Sweet Chariot?” What inspired that song?

Kathryn Claire: One of the famous cemeteries in Paris where Jim Morrison was buried [Père Lachaise Cemetery]. I was in Paris in the fall of 2013 walking through that cemetery just reflecting on all these people that have gone before us. In the end that’s where we all go. The first verse of “Sweet Chariot came”—when I was imagining Jim Morrison. What would it look like to see his skeleton? Just ruminating on our bones. I wrote that first verse there and worked on that song for over a couple of years. I got to be in India doing some work [artist-in-residence at the American School of Chennai in 2015] there and I finished some more there. I wrote it in my journal and I’d sit with it and find a melody for it. I’m also grateful for our iPhones because I can collect these little pieces. That first verse felt like it came though me. It’s an interesting song and people have responded to it on such a deep level.

Amy Steele: What about the song “Never Be?”

Kathryn Claire: That is such a heartbreaking song. That was a breakup song. That one I wrote super fast. I was looking at this person I’d gone through a difficult breakup with. I’d seen some stuff on social media. You see images you don’t want to see. Unfortunately these are aspects of our time. Breaking up is even harder because you have all this access to people’s lives. I wrote the whole thing in a sitting.

I started playing around with my violin and a little loop pedal and that’s where I came up with the actual orchestration of that song. It starts with the pizzicato. It’s so strings-central. That was built on this loop pedal. Everything on that track is me. I’m playing the guitar and the violin and there’s no other person on that track. In the end I love that song so much.

Amy Steele: Over the years how has your music evolved?

Kathryn Claire: As a writer I have become a better editor. I went to Boston University for my freshman year and that’s when I got into writing and going to Club Passim and hearing singer/songwriters. I wrote a lot that year in Boston but I never edited. The songs were like journal entries. I’m now able to write a lot more universally. My voice is deeper and relaxed. My voice sounds like is has dropped into itself. It’s settled. The orchestration of the violin has evolved and grown and changed. I’ve just gotten to be such a better musician by playing with other people.

Amy Steele: Aren’t there fewer music programs in schools now? I played the violin and then I played flute. I didn’t continue it because in my high school it was required that you play in the marching band and I rode horses and it conflicted and also I just didn’t want to play in the marching band. Music and arts are so important in public schools.

Kathryn Claire: I will continue to do work in that direction throughout the course of my career. I believe in music education. We had such a killer music program in Eugene, Oregon. I grew up in the 80s and 90s. In that era you could join orchestra in fourth grade and by the time you’re in high school you’re playing symphonies with your friends. That was normal.

It becomes this elitist thing. Portland is cool to have these alternative programs. I’m grateful to have done that basic classical training.

Amy Steele: What type of challenges have you faced as being a woman in the music industry? I listen to a lot of female artists. I try to support women in music and all arts. women are still not the majority.

Kathryn Claire: It is challenging. The thing is like any work environment is still very male-centered. I get to collaborate with women but when I started out I played in a band and didn’t know how to set up a PA. It has been so important to me to work a PA, to know how to speak the lingo when you go into Guitar Center and there are all these dudes and they make you feel stupid because you don’t know what an XLR cord is. I went through the time to learn all the technological jargon to function. It was important to me to know it. I was talking to a female musician friend and I asked her if she knew of any well-known female music producers. In the studio I’ve never worked with a female engineer. These things make you realize that the music industry is really still male-dominated.

Amy Steele: I’m curious how many women study the business side of music/ the production side of music at Berklee or other schools. [note: Fader piece: Why Aren’t More Women Becoming Music Producers?]

Kathryn Claire: I’m in my late 30s. There probably is a lot of movement forward. I’m basing this on my experience as coming up in this 15 or 16 yrs ago. In that time it is changing but it is also women being able to shred and own it and front-women and to speak the language of music. I know for me in high school so many guys were in bands.

It can be intimidating and that’s where Girls Rock Bandcamp and other programs can get girls past that. I would have loved to have played in a rock band but I was intimidated. Where does that come from?

Amy Steele: our patriarchal society and assumed gender roles.

Bones Will Last is available now.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Dan Chaon

Reasonably settled in Cleveland, Ohio, psychologist Dustin Tillman learns that his adopted brother, Rusty, will imminently be released from prison. DNA evidence cleared Rusty, who received a life sentence for the murder of Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle. While mentally preparing himself for Rusty’s release, a patient draws Dustin into a potential serial murder case involving the drowning of drunk area college students. Dustin becomes progressively focused on this case as memories churn from that evening he violently lost his parents. What does Dustin remember and how accurate are his memories? How did this sensational murder and trial in the 1980s affect Dustin and his surviving family members? Ill Will is a riveting, contemplative thriller about memory and deception. Past and present collide in a dark, disturbing and creepy manner.

Dan Chaon is the author of Stay Awake, Await Your Reply, You Remind Me of Me, Fitting Ends and Among the Missing.  He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.

We recently spoke by phone about Ill Will.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Dan Chaon: There was an urban legend in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My brother-in-law went to school at the University of Wisconsin and he told me the there were all of these mysterious drownings of these drunken bros and the college kids all thought it was a serial killer. I thought it was cool. I put it on the back burner. It was the early 2000s that I heard that story. It got tangled up in this other story I was writing—this  brother that gets out of prison. Then I thought: ‘can I have two murders in the same book or not/’ and they start to knit together after a while.

Amy Steele: You write from different points of view. Is that difficult and why did you decide to write in that way?

Dan Chaon: I have always liked novels that do that. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. It’s a really good technique and for someone who came to the novel having started out as a story writer, that makes sense to me because it helps me to compartmentalize. Thematically because this book is so much about deception and multi-bookends of the same story, it made sense that we saw the story from different eyes.

Amy Steele: You went from writing short stories to writing novels and you also teach writing. How did that influence you? It’s a long novel but a page-turner. I read it quickly and I read it on the Kindle which I don’t like that much.

Dan Chaon: And it looked okay on the Kindle with the weird things. The typographical things. Random House put a front note on the Kindle edition so people know the Kindle isn’t glitching.

Amy Steele: I still don’t understand the columns. I don’t understand why you did that.

Dan Chaon: I wanted to create this effect where multiple things were happening at once. I liked that idea of having almost a split-screen thing. The sophomore in college in me was really thrilled by it. I thought it looked cool. It has parallels across and down. I feel good about it. I know some readers will be like: ‘Hmm. Pretentious. Weird.” But I don’t care.

Amy Steele: It provides more information. You have the text messages and all this other stuff.

Dan Chaon: That felt organic. It’s part of our daily life. Sometimes you shouldn’t do things that are too contemporary and date the book and make it less universal. It’s true to some extent that texting maybe in five years won’t be a thing or people won’t use Facebook as much any more. If you leave it out you’re leaving out a big chunk of what it’s like to be alive today.

Amy Steele: You have to stay true to the time period and be representing whatever time it is.

Dan Chaon: I also feel like there’s something about that mode of communication that fits with the elliptical quality of the book. It feels like it fits with the mood of the book. All those ghostly floating balloons on the page.

Amy Steele: It’s really dark. How did you get to that point? [note: asks the woman who is extremely dark in mood and interests]. I feel like your other work wasn’t as dark.

Dan Chaon: Oh really. You think this is the darkest?

Amy Steele: It’s pretty dark. Have you read David Vann?  I really like David Vann. Very dark.

Dan Chaon: David Vann’s dark feels heavier and more serious in some ways. There’s an element here that’s a little more playful. I think Aaron is often funny and Rusty’s funny. There’s still a more playful quality to this than any of my other novels. It’s both darker and a little more comic in some weird way.

Amy Steele: How do you keep track of different characters and flipping back and forth with the time? Did you know how it would end up?

Dan Chaon: There were definitely surprises along the way. I did a timeline for when everybody was born and different stuff happened because it’s covering 30 years. I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view so I blocked it out so each character would have their own section. And then I started to write the different sections and see how they rubbed up against each other. The second section with Dustin as a kid was the first section I wrote. Aaron came late in a weird way and I wasn’t expecting him to be such a huge part of the story until I feel in love with his voice.

I also felt really compelled to write about heroin addiction. It’s really been a scourge here. My students have friends that are overdosing and it seems like it suddenly has become this middle-class thing and it wasn’t when I was growing up it– like Kurt Cobain but not college kids. Something about Aaron’s voice and the way he was dealing with grief was really compelling to me. In the end I ended up giving him half the book when I was originally just planning on him having one section.

Amy Steele: You came up with the idea and dropped the characters into the situation.

Dan Chaon: The premise or idea is there and then the characters grow up around that. The twins–Kate and Wave–there’s a lot of various places that they come from and to some extent my family makes fun of me because there are avatars or parallels. I am a widower. I was raising two teenage boys. My sister said, “You just did this weird thing where you killed your whole family and turned yourself into this creepy sucker.” And I said, “Yeah that’s how fiction works.”

Amy Steele: You based a lot of this on people you know?

Dan Chaon: I wouldn’t say it’s based on their personalities. If you’ve been to my house, Dustin clearly lives in my house. Aaron clearly lives in my younger son’s bedroom. Dustin is not me and Aaron and Dennis aren’t my sons in terms of personality. Kate is definitely not my sister in terms of personality. There’s an element of me and my family in this even though the whole thing is fictional. You always have to have a touchstone of some sort.

Amy Steele: What did you like best about writing this novel?

Dan Chaon: I always wanted to write a straight up crime novel. I read a lot of serial killer books when I was in college. It was during that time that every other book was a serial killer book. I thought I really want to do this. It was fun to take that form and mess around with it and play in that playground. That was exciting and fun for me.

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books | March 2017| 480 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9780345476043

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Furniture Girls

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Seattle, Wash. electro-rock band Furniture Girls formed in 2007 and creates raw, energetic and thoughtful music. The band infuses a soulsy, bluesy sound into its already cool, funky eclecticness on the new album In Shadows—released in August. It’s a fantastic album—superb arrangements and emotive vocals. I played over and over in my car for weeks. It’s skipping which happens with CDs. Cool opening bass riff on the first track “Doobius” and I particularly connected with the songs “My Time” [of course I like a song with the line: “Nothing’s quite as dark as a bright sunny day.”] and “Heirlooms.” Hoping the band will be able to tour the East Coast in the near future.

Furniture Girls is: stayC Meyer [lyricist/lead vocalist], Jim Watkins [bassist/producer], drummer Thane Mitchell [drummer], guitarist Jason Lightfoot [guitartist] and vocalist Kate Bradley [vocalist].

I sent a few questions over to stayC and Jim via email.

Amy Steele: How did you get together?

stayC: I was in another band at the time with fG’s current guitarist, Jason Lightfoot, called Gracie Law & the Pork Chop Express. My high school friend, Nikki Wolgamott, approached me to start an electronic side project. In the beginning, it was just me & Nikki, 2 drum machines, & I was playing a little guitar. Nikki brought in Bubba Jones, who then brought in drummer Thane Mitchell and then bassist Jim Watkins. After Nikki and Bubba left for other endeavors, we brought in Jason Lightfoot on guitars and eventually Kate Bradley on.. well, a lot of stuff.

Amy Steele: Why did you name the band Furniture Girls?

stayC: The name is taken from the 1973 Sci-Fi classic Soylent Green, in which the high-priced call girls of the “future” were referred to as “furniture.”

Amy Steele: What is the Seattle music scene like these days?

stayC: Vast. Diverse. Massive. My only complaint about the Seattle scene is that there is so much going on, it’s impossible to be aware of it all. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this town right now.

Jim: At the same time – and this probably true of any big city – you really have to get out to live shows to discover what’s happening. For example, Seattle’s got a (well-earned) reputation for producing alt-rock bands, but an incredible improv funk/soul scene has been thriving here for years as well, and it’s barely talked about. On the one hand, it’s cool that there’s an “underground” scene than only locals are aware of, but it’s a shame that some of these bands aren’t more well-known.

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Amy Steele: There are bluesy elements to the songs on In Shadows. The opening for “Doobius” grabs listeners immediately with that intense drumbeat and then that grooving bass throughout. What a superb sound. It’s a very cool album. The melodies are lush and eclectic. What was the creative process like?

stayC: The creative process for In Shadows was unlike any of our previous albums. This was the fastest we’d ever written, recorded, and put out an album. We were less concerned with a cohesive concept, per say, and more concerned with just getting out what we felt was a worthy body of work.

Jim: Working on this music was honestly the most fun experience I’ve had in my eight years with this band. The five of us started from square one (with a marathon writing/jam session) in August of last year, and by January we had eight new songs ready to record. By contrast, some of the songs on our previous releases were a year or two old before we ever took them into the studio.

 

Amy Steele: I’ve already mentioned [via Twitter] that I love the songs “My Time” and “Heirlooms.” Listening to them in my car when I often get anxiety has been super effective. Such outstanding lyrics. Plus gorgeous vocals. What inspired these songs? How about the songs “Solitary” and “The Want.”

stayC: Ok, lets see – first of all… anxiety sucks. It is no fun at all. So to think anything we’ve done can actually help lessen the effects of anxiety is hugely flattering and incredibly satisfying. An artist always hopes to bring joy to the listener, but relief? Well, that’s just huge.

I’ll go one at a time on the song inspiration. “My Time” actually came to me while laying in a hammock on a lovely summer day. For whatever reason, I began imagining a body lying in a field enjoying that same beautiful blue sky for the last time. Morose, I know, but that’s just where my mind goes sometimes.

“Heirlooms” was written the morning after I had to go through a bunch of my grandmother’s things after she passed. I was fortunate to have 2 strong grandmothers and I wrote this song for them and all they left behind. I also reflected on what was important to me and what I would leave behind.

Funny you should mention “Solitary” and “The Want” in the same breath. They were both inspired by my current beau, a touring musician who’s away a lot.

Amy Steele: When did you decide you wanted to be a singer or could sing? Have you had vocal training?

stayC: I did take a vocal lesson. Once. The very first time I tried to perform solo, I choked. Big time. Couldn’t control my breathing. I ran out of air and couldn’t figure out how to make the sounds I knew I was capable of making. The vocal coach I went to in my early twenties was awesome. She specifically told me, “I can teach you to sing. I can train you to sound like everybody else. But I don’t want to do that. I want you to sound like you. I’m just going to give you the basics and teach you how to breathe.” I really appreciated that advice and coaching. I first “thought” I could sing when I was very young, but I never had the confidence. It’s all about confidence. That didn’t come for me until I was 22 years old.

Amy Steele: You write the lyrics and then have the band put music to them or does the music come first and you put lyrics to it or a little of both?

stayC: Both. Some songs I’ve written with lyrics, melody, and complete arrangement. I record all of that to a click track and Jim (bassist) composes around it. Other songs start out as (mostly) finished instrumentals that Jim composes, and then I’ll write to that. There are a few songs we’ve all written in the same room together as a band. Those are more rare, but we enjoy that process equally.

Amy Steele: Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in music? What do you think about the state of women in music today?

stayC: We have a fantastic and talented group of female musicians in this town who support and promote one another. I have never felt like an outsider or like I wasn’t respected as a woman in music. I feel like the men in the scene give equal weight and respect to the women in the scene. Sure, there are pressures to look a certain way as a woman, but I feel that’s just as much self-imposed. Really, if the music is good, you should be able to look any way you want in this day and age.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

stayC: What makes a good song is anything that grabs you. Anything that pulls at your soul and won’t let go. Anything that makes you hunt all over to find it so you can listen to it over and over again. That can be a musical hook, a lyric, a vibe. Right now – I’m pretty obsessed with Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen.” Something about the keyboard line in that song. I dig it.

Amy Steele: What new music are you listening to?

stayC: My tastes are all over the map. I’ve been listening to Sleigh Belles, Elephant Gun Riot, The Adarna, and American Pinup, to name a few. But also, I listen to a lot of not so new stuff.

Amy Steele: What show are you currently binge-watching?

stayC: My recent binges include Stranger Things, Between, and Penny Dreadful (really bummed it got cancelled). I also have been watching American Horror Story since the beginning. Oh, and I recently got into Roadies.

Amy Steele: Come play this way. The Middle East in Cambridge would be a perfect venue.

stayC: I would absolutely love that!! Furniture Girls have yet to make the East Coast, but I have a lot of family there so it’s just a matter of time.

 

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: L.A. Witch

la witch

All-female alt-rock trio L.A. Witch is currently on tour supporting The Kills. On its Facebook page the band describes its genre fittingly as reverb-soaked punked out rock. Gutteral, churning, expressive. The band plays tonight at The Paradise Rock Club, Boston. The show is SOLD-OUT.

L.A Witch is: Sade Sanchez [guitar/vocals]; Irita Pai [bass], and Ellie English [drums]

 Recently I asked the band a few questions via email.

Amy Steele: How did you get together?

Irita Pai: I had been jamming with some girlfriends and a mutual friend introduced us to Sade.

Ellie English: I knew Sade from high school. We used to play in a band together, so it was really cool when she asked me to play drums for L.A. Witch. I met Irita a few months before I joined the band. I actually went to see L.A. Witch play 2 times before joining the band.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being an all-female band? What are the challenges of being an all-female band?

Irita Pai: We get to share stuff when we go out on the road, like shoes and clothes and toiletries. Sometimes there are sound guys who will be a little standoffish, or maybe address us like we don’t know what we’re doing. Not sure if that’s a female thing though.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to name the band L.A. Witch?

Irita Pai: Witch was taken!

Amy Steele: Who are some of your musical influences?

Irita Pai: Gun Club, BJM, Stooges, Wipers.

Amy Steele: When will you release a full-length album?

Irita Pai: When we get back from this tour, we’re going to work on putting that out. We’ve waited because we want the album to be really representative of us as a band, and I think that we’re constantly changing and evolving so it’s been difficult for us so far.

Ellie English: We are definitely hoping to release the album sometime this year.

Amy Steele: How is your live show different from the recorded music? What happens up on stage?

Irita Pai: Our live shows are definitely different. The first EP we recorded was with our old drummer, and I think that’s what a lot of people expect when they come out to see us. The sound has definitely evolved a lot since then.

Ellie English: The live shows have a lot of energy.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

Irita Pai: For me, something that’s catchy and interesting and tells a story.

Ellie English: I really like songs that you can tell have a lot of feeling behind them.

Check out the video for “Get Lost” on YouTube.

TOUR DATES:

05.20 – L’Esco – Montreal *
05.21 – Danforth Music Hall – Toronto *
05.22 – St. Andrews Hall – Detroit, MI *
05.23 – Riviera Theatre – Chicago, IL *
05.25 – First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN *
05.26 – Midland Theatre – Kansas City, MO *
05.27 – Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO *
05.28 – The Depot – Salt Lake City, Utah *
05.31 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC *
06.01 – Showbox SoDo – Seattle, WA *
06.02 – Roseland Theater – Portland, OR *
* dates with The Kills 

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Illeana Douglas

book cover. I blame Dennis Hopper

Do not expect to find gossipy stories in Illeana Douglas’s memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies . Instead this reads as a genuine love story with film. Infused with passion and enthusiasm, actor/director/producer Illeana Douglas discusses her journey to become an independent voice in cinema. Illeana reveals disappointments and achievements with equal parts humor and honesty. She recounts her early and ongoing love for classic films and the art of film-making itself. She writes: “That’s how movies change us: in ways we cannot even remember. Those images of movies stay in our brain; those fragments become shards in our memories.” She recalls working with directors such as Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Allison Anders. Illeana has starred in a ton of  films including Grace of My Heart, Picture Perfect, To Die For, Goodfellas, Wedding Bell Blues [check this one out. it’s so much fun], Ghost World, Return to Sender, She’s Funny That Way, Factory Girl, Happy, Texas, and Cape Fear. She directed Illeanarama and Easy to Assemble as well as several short films.

Not only did she study acting but she questioned every moment while on a film set and dissected various films to completely absorb and comprehend the film-making process. She voraciously read books about film. Illeana explains: “To me, a movie is like a roulette wheel with a series of problems where the numbers should be. The wonderful mystery of a movie is that you can never predict those problems, so fixing as many things beforehand as possible, such as answering questions in the script, is a good idea.”

I truly enjoyed this memoir. It provided so much insight and Illeana possesses such a passion for film and a respect for the entire process. She’s a great storyteller and she remembers details about everything. We met briefly when she screened Devil Talk at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film so I ask Illeana lots of questions about it.

Illeana took the time to answer some questions by email.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write this book now?

Illeana Douglas: We are in a period where-although movies are readily available to see-we have no context with which to talk about them. I was lucky that I had my grandfather Melvyn Douglas talking to me about working with Greta Garbo and Peter Sellers. Now that’s context! I always saw and wrote about movies-but it wasn’t until I started working with Turner Classic Movies that folks became aware of it. Yes, I’m an actress, and I do talk about my own career/life story in the book but the focus is that I am a fan of movies as much as being in them. These are 15 stories about movies or movie stars that changed my life.

Amy Steele: Why the title?

Illeana Douglas: It’s called I Blame Dennis Hopper because I wanted to tell a memoir through the movies because the movies have defined who I am. In 1969 my parents saw Easy Rider. After seeing the movie they rejected their middle class life style and became hippies. The title pays homage to him because it’s how the power of that film– Easy Rider— changed my destiny. I am an actress because of Dennis Hopper—because as a child I was raised on his philosophies—which were based on the film Easy Rider. Later on of course I met and worked with Dennis Hopper—in the movie Search and Destroy— and had my own profound experience which is what I write about in the book.

Amy Steele: You talk about films at the drive-in being a major part of your childhood and teen years. Is that how you developed such an interest in classic film and film-making in general?

Illeana Douglas: I learned about classic film I think because I was spending time with my grandfather and sitting across from Myrna Loy or Robert Anderson or Diane Baker at the dinner table. I knew they were in the movies. I wanted to be able to impress my grandfather so I started reading more about classic film so I would have something to say at the grown ups table! Then when he brought me to the set of Being There I started to get an interest in the behind the scenes making of films. He picked up on my eagerness to learn, and started sending me movie books.

Amy Steele: Your childhood did surprise me. The hippy factor and uncertainties. How did this influence your acting and shape you as a person?

Illeana Douglas: My childhood seemed like a movie. It was all out of my control. I became obsessed with movies—somehow I knew this was my way out. Movies were—when I was growing up—how you could define yourself. You looked to the movies. I wanted to be Liza Minelli, or Ruby Keeler, or Richard Dreyfuss. I looked up to these icons– still do. I knew if I could be in the movies I would be happy and that has been very true!

Amy Steele: Your grandfather [Melvyn Douglas] was a well-known and Academy-Award winning actor [Being There, Hud]. What kind of relationship did you have with him and how did he influence your decision to act? Did he know that you wanted to act and what kind of advice did he give you?

Illeana Douglas: He was of course my first mentor and my first fan. He believed in me. He gave me structure. He encouraged me to read and to learn. He said, “When you find someone to learn from don’t let go of that person”. I have tried to honor that. To respect the craft and the history of acting. He also pushed me to write. So writing has been my way of making him happy.

Amy Steele: Then your grandmother was the first democratic woman elected to Congress from California. What did you learn from her?

Illeana Douglas: She was so confident. She believed strongly in her principles-which were very liberal. Politically- it was her opinion or you were on the wrong side. She also had great taste in art, music, and antiques. These are all qualities I admire. She also loved to hear little poems or songs I had written. Pictures I had painted. She created a world that I very much wanted to be a part of.

Amy Steele: How has acting influenced your directing?

Illeana Douglas: I love acting-love it-but my heart lies in directing. Acting made me want to be a director. When I work with actors I obviously know through experience what they are going through. I have a certain empathy. They are not in control. My goal as a director is to tell the stories of emotional triumph.

Amy Steele: As with many industries (journalism for one), film is quite white-male dominated, what has been your greatest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Illeana Douglas: The greatest challenge is that an “actress” will always be treated with gender bias. It’s sad because I love acting and actresses but you will never get respect as an actress if you have opinions. Shirley Maclaine has said she’s played a hooker 8 times in movies. What does that tell you about being an actress in Hollywood?

Amy Steele: Hollywood also has issue with aging actresses. Seems once you’re over 40 you get the mom roles. What do you think could change that?

Illeana Douglas: I don’t think generally it will change. All you can do as a woman is write a great part for an older woman and try like hell to get it made. In the meantime there are other areas in show business you can work in and a lot of actresses—I’m one of them have branched out to writing and directing.

Amy Steele: As Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film, I adored that section and found out many things I didn’t know like that you and Allison wanted to make a film about Anne Sexton. Is there no possibility to make that film?

Illeana Douglas: We would love to collaborate on a film. I don’t think it will be Anne Sexton.

Amy Steele: Of you and Allison you said: “Allison and I both felt like female artists who didn’t quite fit in a mold.” I would think that’s a good thing. Can you explain how that shaped the film as well as your relationship with Allison?

Illeana Douglas: I wanted a collaboration with a female director in the way that male actors did with male directors. Allison is so knowledgeable about films. That was the surprise. We just clicked because we both loved movies—especially melodramas. We wanted Grace of My Heart to be a musical melodrama and I think we achieved that. We got that movie made, and I am awfully proud of it. We are friends to this day. I love her. I loved co-hosting with her on TCM and the Trailblazing Women series.

Amy Steele: You’ve worked with mostly male directors. How are things different working with a female director?

Illeana Douglas: I have actually worked with many female directors. Allison Anders, Nancy Savoca, Kathy Bates to name a few. I sought a collaboration with Allison Anders. She was the quintessential female director I wanted to work with because I felt she would bring out the best in me and she did. What I have found is that once you are on set everyone is very supportive– it’s getting to the set.

Getting a female-driven film set up and made that is the challenge. I know when I am directing a project—I get more personally involved in the hiring of women in all departments. There are more women physically on set. I have also worked with two female D.P.s [cinematographer/Director of Photography and I have found no sexism directed towards them once they are on set. Again it’s getting the job that is the problem.

Women directors tend to write their own material. It usually feels, as in the case of Grace of My Heart that the story is very personal and very real. Everything I have written for film and directed—my shorts etc. are all based on real experiences or feelings and I have turned them into a narrative. I’ve said this before and it’s widely quoted but I believe women shoot better sex scenes than male directors. They are just prettier to look at, and certainly more arousing. Some of the male depictions of sex scenes turn my stomach a little—they seem about power—not so much about love.

Amy Steele: As you worked in the Brill Building for one of your first jobs how cool was it to make a film about its history?

Illeana Douglas: I worked in the Brill Building in 1987 and continued to work there throughout the 90’s and became fascinated by its history. I’m a big music buff—so the idea that this was Tin Pan Alley fascinated me. I started to read a lot of books about it as my grandfather’s parents were actually song-writers themselves. There were so many stories of these great song-writing teams at the Brill Building. Of course the Carole King story resonated with me—as it did Allison Anders. She’s an expert on the girl groups. I was merely a fan. We would have loved to film in the actual Brill Building.I did film there with the movie Picture Perfect. The halls are square and have linoleum on them so you could move pianos around. I liked the idea of that much creativity happening in one building. We tried to create what it would have felt like to be a singer/songwriter in that era. One of my favorite scenes is writing a song with Howard (Eric Stoltz). It felt very organic. Of course it helped that Elvis Costello had written the song for us.

Amy Steele: You also stated that the 90s was the “height of independent film-making”—how and what has changed with independent film since then?

Illeana Douglas: We don’t have enough time! The 90s represented the best of that mid-range indie film—3 to 5 million dollars. Now you can either make a big budget movie that will have to have big big stars or make a movie for under a million. It might get into a festival and it will not be released in theaters, it will be VOD. We are making a lot of movies– not as many people are seeing them. Also it was filmed. Everything now is digital. Doesn’t have the warm quality of film.

Amy Steele: Why do you think you’re more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress?

Illeana Douglas: I enjoy satire and irony. I think funny. Situations in life I find comic. I find life absurd—like a Fellini movie. I really enjoy making people laugh, it makes me happy.

Amy Steele: Illeanarama is so funny and so is Easy to Assemble –where did those ideas come from and what has doing a web series allowed you to do these days?

Illeana Douglas: I had a couple of pilots that I made that didn’t go anywhere and then I was approached by IKEA in 2007 to create some branded interstitials. Easy to Assemble came out of my feeling of wanting to do more comedic writing. I had made a number of shorts but my directing was always put on hold so I could act. Easy to Assemble which came out of Illeanarama was a way to act in projects I had written and to have a voice comedically. I had five years to write/produce/direct because of IKEA. I was able to learn how to produce, handle budgets work with actors and write scripts without the pressure of failing. I knew I would be writing and directing films and this was a fantastic training ground. We were pioneers and I will always be proud of that and thankful to IKEA.

Amy Steele: You stated: “I’m a bit of a rebel. It’s true. I challenge the system and I question authority.” I am the same way and it hasn’t helped me much. People don’t appreciate that. Has this been problematic or beneficial for you?

Illeana Douglas: I do not like unfairness, and when something is wrong I will speak up. Does it rub people the wrong way to be outspoken– yes it does. You also have to question authority because they want to corral everyone into the same thinking. I am for the individual. Women have to rebel and risk not being liked. There is no other option for a woman than to have the attitude of “I got this” but that rubs folks the wrong way.

 

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - A Conversation With Richard Dreyfus at Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

HOLLYWOOD, CA – APRIL 11: Actors Richard Dreyfuss (L) and Illeana Douglas attend a conversation with Richard Dreyfuss at Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel during the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 11, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)

Amy Steele: Richard Dreyfuss seems to be the actor you’ve always admired. What do you like about him?

Illeana Douglas: Everything. He’s one of our finest amd most thoughtful actors. His films in the 70’s shaped a generation. There is no performance like Jaws or The Goodbye Girl. His energy and drive is palpable and yet underneath is strong vulnerability. And he’s DAMN funny. I like what I wrote about Richard Dreyfuss, “Was he cocky… yes… was he right? Always.”

Amy Steele: You developed a special relationship with Roddy McDowall. How much did he mean to you?

Illeana Douglas: Roddy got me into keeping journals and autograph books. He was a student of film history and was one the first people to talk about film preservation. He was gracious and kind and just the epitome of class. Everyone loved him, and he was also a very talented photographer. I never saw him complain or be sad about any blow that life dealt him. His picture is on my desk, and he is always in my thoughts.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about working at TCM?

Illeana Douglas: Working with Turner Classic Movies is a dream. There is not a person who works there who has an agenda other than to celebrate movies, movie makers and to put on a pedestal the giants of the cinema. I have great respect for Robert Osborne who gave the channel a face. They are also in tune with the fans. The fans make TCM a family, and I don’t know a TV channel today that actively thinks about pleasing the fans. I have had the opportunity to interview luminaries like Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, Eva Marie Saint.

When I was going to write a book it aligned with what I was doing with TCM—which was shining a light on the importance of films. Our Trailblazing Women series set the agenda for female filmmakers and the contributions of female filmmakers going back to 1896. Many of the films we highlighted are now being recognized –Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden– no one was talking about them– now their films, and the films of many other female filmmakers are being recognized.

Amy Steele: What inspires you?

Illeana Douglas: Amarcord means “to remember” I am the rememberer.

purchase at Amazon: I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: fashion designer Kelly Dempsey [Project Runway]

Project Runway contestant Kelly Dempsey

Project Runway contestant Kelly Dempsey

Fresh, honest, vivacious Boston fashion designer Kelly Dempsey is in the final four of Project Runway S14. The pretty and talented 31-year-old Bostonian has two consecutive wins including the Avant Garde Challenge [Kelly says: “that was my favorite dress so far I couldn’t wait for it to go down the runway
”]. She also won the Unconventional Challenge which puts her at three wins overall and in a solid spot at this point in the competition.

Kelly's winning Avant Garde design inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge

Kelly’s winning Avant Garde design inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge

Her style is edgy
blending street chic and vintage. I’ve been rooting for her from the first episode and not just because she’s from Boston like me. Her infectious positive attitude makes her such a delightful person. Like many cool Bostonians,  Kelly balances her independence and outspokenness with a sweet caring spirit.

another winning design by Kelly

another winning design by Kelly

I recently interviewed Kelly by phone where we bonded over our love of thrifting and The Middle East Club in Cambridge, Mass.

Amy Steele: How did you get into fashion designing?

Kelly Dempsey: Growing up my mom had a craft store in our house she was a very crafty woman and she made a lot of stuff and I kind of grew up watching her design I feel like a lot of clothes we had were second hand clothes like I kind of wanted to be different it was a small town and I didn’t want people to know I was wearing old clothes so I began designing my own things at 8 or 9 (years old)

Amy Steele: You haven’t had training or gone to school for fashion design?

Kelly Dempsey: I went to Mass College of Art for one year. I wanted to try all the avenues. I ended up not finishing because I had already gone so far and I continued on my own to get things moving.

Amy Steele: Where did you learn how to sew and develop techniques?

Kelly Dempsey: A lot of trial and error. I am always learning and you kind of teach yourself whatever you want to learn to mold yourself as a designer. Whatever I am curious about learning I do research on the internet and practice.

Amy Steele: Do you have your own company or line?

Kelly Dempsey:  I do. It was Kelly Couture for a while and I was making a lot of one of a kind designs. I wanted to do my new brand which is Rack Addik — a ready-to-wear urban street glam line . . . and fanny packs.

Amy Steele: Why do you like fashion and fashion designing?

Kelly Dempsey:  I feel like I’m a super creative individual. My mind is always going a million miles a second I do like all different kinds of art. I think fashion is the one I get the most excited about. A painting you just hang it on your wall and look at it and no one sees it. When you see people it’s your first impression of someone. I’m just very outgoing and like to embrace that and add it into my clothes

Kelly Dempsey sketching by the Brooklyn Bridge for the Avant Garde challenge

Kelly Dempsey sketching by the Brooklyn Bridge for the Avant Garde challenge

Amy Steele: What inspires your designs?

Kelly Dempsey: It’s the hardest question people ask and I don’t really have an answer.   Anything and everything inspires me. I just feel it comes from within and I’m super motivated with fashion design and I love it. Seeing different perspectives from different designers I just love the whole process of it.

Amy Steele: Who are some designers you admire?

Kelly Dempsey:  Alexander McQueen. Jeremy Scott. Betsey Johnson.

Amy Steele: Who are you designing for?

Kelly Dempsey: I feel like my market is not 90% of the people…it’s very youthful…the girl is young and she wants to stand out and look amazing all at the same time …demographically I’d say 15 to 35.

Amy Steele: How would you describe yourself as a designer?

Kelly Dempsey: I think as a designer I definitely have that craft store/thrift store embedded in me. I design very eclectic/ in your face but sexy and fun all at the same time.

Amy Steele: What’s it like being a designer in Boston? How does it affect you being a designer in Boston versus New York or LA?

Kelly Dempsey: If I was in Kansas it would suck because you have to go so far to get to any fashion capital…being in Boston it’s so easy to get to New York I could drive there right now…Boston is great because Boston needs me to launch my brand here. It needs more edgy designs. That’s my goal.

When you’re sifting through dollar bins you see things to put together that don’t necessarily belong together. I think it is part of my brain to see things differently. I’d rather be myself and have some people not like me than to be someone I’m not happy with.

Amy Steele: You’re tough.

Kelly discusses her design with PR mentor Tim Gunn

Kelly discusses her design with PR mentor Tim Gunn

Amy Steele: What have you learned being on Project Runway?

Kelly Dempsey: I have learned so much being on Project Runway. I think the experience of working with people who have been in the industry and talking with the other designers I have learned so much. I got more information here in one second than I did in my entire life. You talk to people who live it. Being on the show I had no idea of how I would do. That was like the most crazy thing where I am at this point– I feel being myself is what got me through. I didn’t conform. I took what the judges said and I added it to me. When I get out of here I’m going to need a market.

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Amy Steele: What’s the best part of being on the show?

Kelly Dempsey:  I feel like I’ve been struggling and trying to make this work for so long that I needed this in my life to take it to the next level. This is the best opportunity I could have gotten. Being here and making it to the final four is a dream to me. I feel like I have a lot of confidence but this has pushed me to a whole other level.

Kelly's winning design for the Unconventional Challenge

Kelly’s winning design for the Unconventional Challenge

Amy Steele: What are your favorite places in Boston?

Kelly Dempsey: I’m a huge baseball fan– I love Fenway Park. I really like the Charles River on Storrow Drive. There’s a path there by the water…it’s somewhere I can go and center myself. For the last thing I have to say the Middle East in Cambridge Downstairs because I’m a huge hip-hop fan.

Amy Steele: Thank you Kelly and best of luck! We’ll have to go thrifting. I’ll see you on twitter and Instagram.

Kelly Dempsey: Thank you.

**If you like my interviews and coverage of Lifetime TV programs (as well as books and music) please donate so I can keep going. Donation button to right. Thank you.**

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