Gothamist became acquainted with Kristen Buckley after reading her book, The Parker Grey Show, which is about a New Yorker who is not only a waitress and aspiring musician, but she also decides to negotiate with her friend's kidnappers. When not writing screenplays (the upcoming Accidental Husband with Uma Thurman; she also co-wrote 102 Dalmatians and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) on the Left Coast, Kristen has been working on a memoir of her years growing up in New Jersey before escaping to New York. Here's an excerpt of Tramps Like Us:
We asked Kristen some questions about the book, James McGreevey, NYC and more.
...I would argue that there is a larger factor shaping the people of New Jersey and that is that with the exception of Mall Rats and nail salon owners, just about everyone from the Garden State wants to escape. And because New Jersey is such a difficult state to escape from (mostly because wherever you turn there are tolls and tunnels all requiring cash payment), there is little room for error. You have to be strong, fierce, determined, tenacious and good with maps.
Why did you decide to write about your formative years in New Jersey? Are you trying to provide inspiration to other young New Jerseyans? Or did NJ inspire you so much that you had to pay it forward? Wait, maybe that's the same thing. The decision to write about my formative years wasn't really anything calculated. I had been writing these short essays about growing up for a long time, mostly because I thought the stuff that happened was so funny - in a 'you can't make this shit up' kind of way. I never really thought to connect them, though I did think maybe there was a movie in there. But whenever I would tell people about my family - in a casual kind of way - they were always amazed, or fascinated, or frightened. So one day I thought that if I could find an emotional connecting tissue to hang the stories on, I'd have a book.
Now, I've never been one of these people who felt that you had to be famous to have an interesting story. To be honest, I am more intrigued by the personal stories of everyday people. For instance, when I vacation I have no interest in seeing monuments or learning about some dead guy who killed a million people to stay in power. I'm much more interested in plunking myself down in one local spot, and just getting to know the people around me because to me there's nothing average about the 'average joe'.
Anyway, I decided that from a thematic standpoint the book would stand as a Suburban Confessional in which I could articulate this feeling of disconnect that I seemed to have growing up. My disconnect wasn't about fighting the status quo. It wasn't Heathers, it wasn't Slackers... it was more about wanting to fit in but not knowing where to go. I was an emotional nomad, and I wanted to capture that sense of alienation where you feel like you have no borders and no place, where identity seems fluid. I think in a place like Jersey, which in itself is such a contradiction ( it’s the Garden State, yet also the Armpit of the Nation) lends itself to this sort of a journey. But the feeling isn’t limited to Jersey. I know there are people from suburbs everywhere who say they felt like they were a stranger in a strange land. Frankly to me, the suburbs just seem eerie and subversive.
One of your stories touches upon a subject that's been in the news lately: Rodent infestation. Except you manage to weave into a tale about how your third Korean sibling became adopted into your family.
Well, my brother Nak Ho had a harrowing life and if he were ever to write about it he'd be the Frank McCourt of Korea. He was left behind in the orphanage because the powers that be didn't think my mom - who had already agreed to take his brother and sister - wanted to take a third sibling. Somewhere along the line some brilliant administrator said "Hey, just don't tell her about the third one, we'll place the other two and meet our quota.” So Nak, who was six at the time, was left behind in the orphanage - and then transferred to several other orphanages - until my mother finally found him six years later.
To say that Nak is a survivor would be a gross understatement but he'd also be irritated if I waxed on about him too much as he's very stoic and doesn't like to see himself as a victim. That said, Nak had spent years living in a very rural part of Southern Korea so he was essentially something of a bumpkin when he came to Jersey. It was funny because his arrival came around the same time as the big Korean diaspora, so our town was filled with wealthy kids from Seoul. And then there was Nak, who had a Korean accent that was so thick you could cut your teeth on it.
Anyway, Nak was essentially a farm boy so the minute he noticed fruit trees in the area he was intrigued. Within a few weeks time, he managed to steal every peach, apple and pear in the area. Then he stored them in plastic bags in the basement of our house.. He wanted to make moonshine and we'd have these strange meeting where we'd have to smash the fruit in the bags, which would occasionally break. We all thought he was going to make jam or something. His English wasn't so great so it was hard to tell. We'd smash the fruit, and sometimes the bags would break. Eventually he got tired of doing it, and we forgot about the now rotting fruit festering in the basement... Then a few months later we began to hear strange sounds coming from the walls. The funniest part is that there's really no mistaking the sound of a rat eating through the wood inside your walls and yet we all chose to just ignore it.
Friends would be over for dinner and we'd just raise our voices. For a while there was a 'we can live at peace with our rat brethren' kind of attitude. But then the rats got a little too friendly and started appearing in the kitchen, openly drinking out of the dog’s bowl and that's when we called in the exterminator. It was the worst infestation in New Jersey history and Rich the Ratman the exterminator actually ran out of the house. Still Nak figured out what to do, and ultimately he pretty much went mano e mano with the rats... Strangely enough in all his years of living in Manhattan he's never seen a rat, and I secretly think it's because they respect him... sort of like the way dogs respect Cesar Milan.
Your mom taught in the South Bronx in the (early 80s?), which could be a book unto itself. Did she have any good stories?
Most of the stories were pretty sad. Life was grim in the South Bronx during the early 80s. Most of her students were just plain lost... they weren't even nomads, because that implies the search for something... For me the most interesting thing about my mom's teaching experience there is listening to her talk about ways in which to fix schools, especially in poorer areas. I listen to George Bush blathering about No Child Left Behind or 'Reading by 8' which is some ludicrous program in California and I think to myself, why don't they just talk to my mom? Honestly, the woman could turn around every crappy school system in the country. I yell at my mom to get out there, maybe stalk Donna Shalala or something but she says that charity starts on a local level and that people need to look around them and see where they can be of help. Her big thing is to take a kid under your wing and tutor them exclusively for basically their entire academic career. If everyone committed to helping just one kid in this way, a lot of kids would get what they need and all sorts of cycles of poverty and ignorance could be broken.
Do you visit NJ often? Do you still have family there? And, actually, how does your family feel, given that you air a lot of history?
I used to go back more often when my mom lived there, but she moved out to LA to be near me (and my kids). I was back for a high school reunion, which was fun yet scary at the same time. I was with my friend Joel, who is also my attorney and of course as soon as we got back he was so happy and I was sort of nervous because I saw people I had written about and suddenly I was kind of horrified…
As for the book. My family was sort of worried. My mom kept thinking I'd bad mouth relatives or something but I assured her that I left them all out and just focused on her. And though she’d deny it, I think she’s secretly pleased that I told everyone how she lived in a yellow bathrobe while writing her PHD.
How do you feel about New Jersey today? McGreevey, suburban sprawl, My Super Sweet 16, et al?
When the whole scandal with McGreevey hit I kind of felt badly for him but then that whole thing with the naked photos sort of seemed odd to me. I’m all for self expression but sometimes you have to think about your audience. My brothers wanted very much to hang Playboy centerfolds on their walls but my mom felt that this would be inappropriate for me and my sisters and rightly so. I’m thinking giant full frontal nudes isn’t exactly something any kid wants to see hanging over their parent’s bed – mostly because we would all like to believe that our parents never have sex (gay or straight).
I associate Suburban Sprawl with the loss of community and the neutralizing of all things original. I’m sure this isn’t the case in every community but it just seems that way to me.
Sometimes I wonder if the sprawl is infinite or if it will eventually go so far that it will suddenly contract in some sort of Big Crunch and people and communities will come closer to each other and merge into something new and better.
As for My Super Sweet 16… Let’s see… I guess my biggest issue, (and this isn’t an issue that came over me as an adult because I sat at my Freshman homecoming wondering what the hell the big deal was about and then vowed to never go again) is that I can’t understand the importance associated with certain teen rituals. It’s not that I’m cynical, it’s more that I just think it’s so incredibly superficial and more than that and maybe this is the thing that bothers me most – it reeks of conformity (and this from a person who has standing highlights appointment every six weeks). I just can’t see how fretting over what to wear to a birthday party or sulking because you didn’t get the new Mercedes means anything at all in the big scheme of things?
For some reason, Tramps Like Us seems like it would play better as a TV series, rather than a movie. What do you think?
I think there’s some truth to that – but if you think about it as a post-modern John Hughes film – wherein you compress time and make it one weekend in the life of one girl I think it could work as a film. On the TV side --- yeah, it’s definitely the next generation of Freaks and Geeks…
When you left NJ, you attended the Manhattan School of Music... only to fall under the spell of the film industry. How did that happen?
It’s called having no prospects. I had dropped out of Manhattan School of Music and was waiting tables at the White Horse Tavern (which I basically chronicled in The Parker Grey Show minus the kidnapping) and I had no discernable skills and nowhere to go and this film came to town – the Basketball Diaries and the bartender knew the DP and I basically just showed up for filming and became the self-appointed Intern. To paraphrase Sally Field – people liked me – and from there I got more film work but I was writing on the side. I worked as a PA, a book scout, I did time with Scott Rudin , and then I finally sold my first spec…
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
My last project was Accidental Husband, which just finished shooting in NYC with Uma Thurman (who couldn’t be lovelier and I’m not just saying that…) and Colin Firth. I’m looking to adapt Tramps Like Us and get The Parker Grey Show out of development jail where it’s currently being held hostage because it’s a great script and a movie worth making.
Are you planning on writing more fiction in the future?
I’m working out some ideas… I’ve just so busy with Tramps that I haven’t had a moment to come up for air… But I’m always writing something so…
And you live in Los Angeles now - how do you manage that? Don't you think it's time for your children to tear up NJ the way you did?
For me, LA is another foreign landscape that I happen to be passing through. More often than not I feel like an ethnographer… A stranger in yet another strange land… And as for my kids and Jersey. They can skip Jersey and go straight to NYC… I’m sure they will do me proud.
And let's talk New York: What's the best subway line?
This was actually a tough question --- I really grappled with it and I’m not joking. But ultimately I decided that I like the B and the D because they take you where you want to go and fast…
What's your favorite place in NYC to listen to music?
Best cheap eat in the city.
La Bonbonniere on 8th Avenue. The Bon has a vibe that can’t be duplicated.
Favorite headlines: NY Post or Daily News?
NY Post… because it’s trashier.
What's your favorite movie/TV show about NJ? Favorite movie/TV show about NYC?
Favorite movie about New Jersey is Desperately Seeking Susan. Favorite movie about New York City hands down is Annie Hall.
Yankees or Mets?
YANKEES!!! My Jeter love is un-ending though I would like some sort of inquiry into his scary Kid ‘n Play hair.