Be Tawdry & Kind
The Body, Brain, and Books: Eleven Questions with writer Caroline Cala Donofrio
For the first fifteen years of her career,worked on all sides of publishing—in the literary department at WME, as an editor at Penguin Random House, and for nearly a decade at the women's lifestyle site Cup of Jo. Eventually, she jumped off the proverbial cliff to write full-time. Caroline is the author of the humorous middle grade series Best Babysitters Ever, and has worked as a collaborator on nearly a dozen books, including multiple NYTimes bestselling memoirs by notable people. Her essays have appeared in places like The Cut, The Washington Post, Refinery29, and others. She writes the newsletter about connection, creativity, and the many facets of being human.
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What are you reading now?
I’m almost always reading two books at any given moment—one fiction, one nonfiction, which I toggle between depending on my mood. I just started The Witching Year, a memoir about one woman’s “earnest fumbling through modern witchcraft,” which was recommended by a friend. As for fiction, I’ve been (re)reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. I’m currently writing a satirical novel, and her neurotic-yet-lovable first-person narrative and staccato sentences feel like a pep talk.
What are your most beloved books from your youth? Did you ever hide any from your parents?
Oh, so many! For picture books, I adored The Sign on Rosie’s Door by Maurice Sendak. (It was also the basis for “Really Rosie,” an animated TV special with music by Carole King, which is an excellent time. I remember the songs to this day.)
Like entire generations before and since, I worshiped the canon of Judy Blume. Those were the first books I encountered that felt like friends—that demonstrated the power of literature as a living, breathing entity that could reach through the page, grab your hand, and say, “I see you. Me too.” And I suppose I would be remiss not to mention The Baby-Sitters Club, which not only informed my youth (all I wanted was to assert myself like Kristy and accessorize like Claudia), but also my own middle grade series Best Babysitters Ever, about three girls who start a babysitting business but are more motivated by profit than minding young kids.
I never hid books from my parents—they were pretty good about letting me borrow or buy whatever I wished where books were concerned—but I did hide magazines. They weren’t thrilled by the focus on beauty, dating, and sex in the teen magazines of the day, which only made me more enthralled with them.
What’s your favorite book to reread? Any that helped you through a dark time?
I adore (and frequently revisit) everything Dani Shapiro has written. Her memoirs—Slow Motion, Devotion, Hourglass, and Inheritance—are the grownup version of what those Judy Blume books were in my youth…with the added bonus that they actually happened!
What’s an article of clothing that makes you feel most like you?
I’d have to say jewelry, which I recognize is not an article of clothing, but an entire category of accessories. I’m five feet tall and most clothing is cut for a giraffe. But jewelry always fits. I find it also has the power to help shift my mood. Right now, I am wearing a rather large, ridiculous cocktail ring, in the middle of the day, alone in my home, paired with a gray hooded sweatshirt. Is this a sound sartorial choice? Perhaps not. But it makes me feel fabulous and very much like me. (And really elevates the typing experience.)
What’s the best piece of wisdom you've encountered recently?
I recently interviewed writer Jessie Gaynor who had this to say about the best advice she’d ever received:
“In terms of writing, I once got this wonderful advice from Michael Cunningham: ‘There should be something slightly tawdry and trashy in pretty much all writing, if only because tawdriness and trashiness are part of the world.’
In terms of living, my extremely kind mother used to tell me to aim for kindness, and as in most cases, she was absolutely right.
Actually, if I could combine those, I think ‘be tawdry and kind’ sounds just about right.”
Tell me about any special relationship you’ve had with an animal, domestic or wild?
My dog, Mia, who saw me through nearly all of my twenties and thirties and recently passed away, just shy of sixteen. She was a massive presence in a six-pound body, a magnificent ball of joy and ire. I wrote a bit about her, and my surprising grief experience, here.
What's one thing you are happy worked out differently than you expected?
This is tricky; there are so many examples, personal and professional. Is it a cop out to say everything? In hindsight, I’m grateful for the relationships that weren’t built to last, the jobs that didn’t pan out, the rejections and mistakes and missteps that led to this moment. It helps me to think that maybe one day I’ll be grateful for the things that feel difficult right now.
Singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen? Or another favorite way your body expresses itself?
I very often take dance breaks in the middle of the workday, to combat stress or lift my mood or move some stagnant energy through my body. (If I’m writing fiction, I’ll sometimes listen to a song that gets me into the character’s headspace in a scene before settling back down to write.) I guess I should clarify that I only do this when I work from home.
What are your hopes for yourself?
That I remain curious and open. That I remember the why. That I keep writing. That I have perspective. That I celebrate the small wins. That I stop every now and then to appreciate the moment.
That being said, I certainly wouldn’t mind some critical, commercial, and/or financial success. But the rest is more important.
What’s a kindness that changed your life?
What comes to mind is less about a grand gesture and more the result of many small kindnesses, many of which have taken place right here on Substack, or in relation to my writing life. Maybe you’ve heard, but society doesn’t always reward or value art or artists, and it isn’t always the easiest path. Any time someone has taken a moment out of their day to say something supportive, or share my work, or confide some part of their own experience or story with me, it means the world. I think I’d be writing no matter what, because that is my personal compulsion, but kindness has everything to do with why I choose to share it.
What’s a guiding force in your life?
“Everyone is people.” (Yes, I realize it is grammatically sound to say, “everyone is a person,” but I prefer this as a tagline.) The thing about people is that none of us has the answers. No matter what anyone claims, we are all figuring it out as we go. We may try to quantify everything, with our wearable tech counting our steps and heartbeats. We may spend our days searching for meaning or grasping for control. But no matter what we do to try to transcend it, everyone is people. Celebrities and geniuses and doctors and therapists and parents and children…anyone who is rude or helpful or angry or beatific. You are people, too.
The thing about people is that they are imperfect and impermanent. So, forgive yourself. Cut yourself some slack. For what you said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do, know or are still figuring out. We are only human.
Want more? Enjoy Caroline’s beautiful essay on sharing our personal writing here.
Meet me in the comment section
What are ways you aim for kindness? Do you have a piece of jewelry that makes you feel fabulous? How many books do you read at a time?