Sheltering: Bess Kalb on Pandemic Eating and Having a Book Party with Your Cat
Episode 2: The Author of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me Talks to Maris Kreizman
Today on Sheltering, Bess Kalb tells Maris about her new memoir, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, told in the voice of her hilarious and wise grandmother. She also discusses comfort foods, how to give a good eulogy, and what it’s like to hold a book signing for an audience of one cat. Bess’s home bookstore is Skylight Books, so please think about ordering a book through their website, or even just buying a gift card!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering, Episode #2. So thrilled to be here with Bess Kalb. Here, meaning “here.” Do you want to introduce yourself and tell us how you’re doing?
Bess Kalb: Sure. My name is Bess Kalb, and I’m the author of this book, which I have here, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me from Penguin Random House, Knopf. I am doing. . .I’m doing great!
Maris: Say more.
Bess: I feel like the global pandemic has interfered with the American response to “how are you?”
Maris: Oh, yeah.
Bess: Like our default, and people from other countries will occasionally say, what is this fine?—that’s my generic accent, that’s my Pan-European accent—but we can no longer say I’m doing great, how are you? Because the answer is, I’m hanging on for dear life and waiting for either doom or not doom.
Maris: It’s really a coin flip, isn’t it?
Bess: It is! It’s a total coin flip.
Maris: I saw on Twitter, at @bessbell Twitter, that you had a signing—a book signing—a very important one.
Bess: Yeah, I know that given the quarantine and social distancing rules it’s taboo, but it was important to me as an author to invite my cat to a book signing. We actually filmed two versions of this, I’m not One-Take Kalb. We filmed a couple versions of this. Two is a lie. We filmed eight versions of this. The first few had our baby in it, but he’s deeply private, so we decided to honor his wishes as a baby and just do it with our dumpster cat.
Maris: Your cat really has no say.
Bess: Yeah, no, our cat was born in a dumpster, so we remind him that he is technically garbage. So, this is what he gets.
Maris: Bess, tell me a little bit about your book.
Bess: My book is a sort of genre-bender. It’s unclear how to—we have very similar glassware—
Bess: Cheers! The book is a ghost memoir. It is an autobiography told from beyond the grave. And so in a sense it’s my memoir, but in a truer sense, it’s my grandmother’s dictated memoir through me. It’s the story of her life and her mother’s life and her relationship with my mother and the story of our relationship, all in one book. It’s told through prose as well as transcribed voicemails and dialogue. The mix of comedic and tragic all in there. Encompassing a life in the way that I think is accurate to any life experience, where comedy and tragedy co-exist. So it’s a sad-funny memoir from beyond the grave.
Maris: Oh, I love that. and I think there are plenty of women, particularly Jewish women, who will feel seen, or feel like their grandma has been seen by your book, so thank you.
Bess: I hope so. In literature and—at least when I went to school for writing and reading—the Jewish male experience is sort of elevated and canonized in this sort of heroic male journey. And I find that the female characters who exist on the sidelines are no less important and are worthy of their own narrative and their own literary spotlight. So, this is the story of a woman who was not a tortured Jewish man. This is not a Saul Bellow, Philip Roth—there is no Portnoy’s Complaint, it’s Bobby’s Kvetch.
Maris: That would be very, very awkward if you were doing Portnoy’s Complaint with your grandma.
Bess: It would be, it would be. Although liver does make an appearance in this. Chopped liver. Consumed. This is sort of my way of telling a book that’s a matrilineal story, that excludes the men, sort of, relegates them certainly to secondary characters, to supporting characters. And I think tells a story of how, or tries to show, that even a mundane life of a woman who wasn’t a titan of industry, didn’t accomplish anything that was written up in a newspaper, was still worthy, and in my opinion heroic and epic.
Maris: Absolutely. Tell me how you got the voice just right. I mean, I know you have a lot of personal experience, you have archives of many conversations, but tell me more.
Bess: My grandmother was truly one of my best friends. In the call logs, she was one of the greatest hits of people I would talk to. My grandma and I talked every day when I was driving home from work, without exception. If she didn’t hear from me or I didn’t hear from her, one of was would panic. I think in just talking at me her whole life imbued me with her character. That this was sort of second nature for me at a certain point. It’s almost like I had an algorithm for Bobby Bell, my grandma, made by like machine learning. I listened to her for let’s say 20,000 hours, so I can pretty much churn out her voice.
I think when I knew that I really had her voice and I knew there was something to the way I could write as her was at her funeral. When she died, I was tasked with giving the eulogy. A eulogy. And I couldn’t do it. I wrote a few drafts, and they were all sort of trite or couched in this language of cliché. The way that people talk about death can feel scripted and inauthentic. I just decided to write as her, and to deliver her eulogy as sort of a roast of my family from her perspective, what she would think of all of this. And a lot of that ended up in the opening passages of the book. And I looked out at my family, at my grandfather, the love of her life, laughing, and knowingly looking at his kids and sort of kibitzing with her as me. And that’s when I knew, OK, I’m able to do this. She’s talked at me long enough that I can bring her back.
Maris: I love that. I’ve asked you this before, but here, for now, tell me what your grandmother would have said about all of this.
Bess: Well, she’d have a lot to say. And she and I would take turns reassuring each other that everything was fine and then hang up and we would both privately freak out. But our job was to tell the other person that this is going to blow over, we’ll be fine, just hunker down, we’ll be fine. I think the primary concern would be oh my god, your roots are going to grow in. People are going to find out that your highlights and lowlights are an act. I think she’d have good advice. I think she’d say you have to make your bed every day, which is something that she told me. She would say, if you don’t make your bed then you might as well have gone to hell.
Bess: Make your bed, get dressed, wear something that makes you feel great. And she would repeat something that her mother said, which is if you’re having a rotten day, make yourself an ice cream soda and buy a new hat. On Day 3 of the pandemic, I rifled through our fridge and found the closest thing we had to soda, which was a Kombucha.
Maris: Oh no! Did you put ice cream in it?
Bess: We did not. But as I heard the fizz, I thought of her and was like, can’t get a new hat!
Maris: Tell me what else you’ve been eating.
Bess: Ooh, great question. Oh, you said reading.
Maris: No, I said eating.
Bess: Oh, good! Eating. OK. Pandemic eating has been all about comfort over style. So, I’ve been doing sort of interesting combinations of things that make sense more poetically to me than practically, like peanut butter and cheese on toast. I couldn’t decide to do a cheesy toast or a peanut toast, so, this artist chose both.
Bess: Yeah, thank you. We’ve been making a lot of pasta. We’ve been getting pretty inventive with scrambles. Stretching out our eggs to be full of other things. It’s altogether been a comforting, depressed hodgepodge.
Bess: How about you? Have you been eating anything good?
Maris: We’ve been trying to make our scrambles stretch too actually. And ordering local takeout, as like a public service slash act of desperation.
Bess: Yeah, yeah.
Maris: Have you been able to do any work?
Bess: So, it’s been fascinating having a book come out while the world is shut down due to a global pandemic. The work I’m doing feels very small and insignificant and petty, and I’m sometimes worried on Twitter, my job is to promote the book and to get the word out about this project that—a publishing house took a risk on a new writer, you know, there are a lot of people involved in this. Booksellers that are shutting down. Independent bookstores are unable to pay their rent and keep the lights on. A lot of people rely on the industry of bookselling. I have an audience on Twitter that I have hopefully not over-bombarded with promotion, but my work is to set up interviews and send out emails to friends of mine who are journalists saying like hey, I think this is good, people who are smarter than I am think it’s good. What do you think? Please buy this, and if you buy it, support an independent bookstore.
Maris: What is your independent bookstore?
Bess: Skylight, here in Los Angeles. I’ve spoken with them a few times in the past couple of days. I had a stack of books—very sad. I have boxes of books. I can bring one into frame. How about this? Here, I have this. [Holds up unopened box from Penguin Random House]
Maris: Oh, that’s depressing.
Bess: I was like, I can sign some of these and drop them off at your door. They were like, great! We have no idea how that will work with inventory, but at least that’s something. And then they closed. But they are still doing delivery, I believe, at this point. Today is Monday. I think they might still be doing delivery.
Maris: That’s great. And if not, we will be linking to Bookshop.org, which sells books for all the indies.
Bess: That’s great. I think that local bookstores are the treasure of every neighborhood that they are in. I really hope that at the end of this they come out strong, and authors can support them. We’re all in this together.
Maris: I hope so. Last question: what are you reading now?
Bess: I thought I was going to pick it up to just laugh and feel better—but it’s a book that I had been not putting off, I just have had it on my desk—I ended up weeping, it’s Jenny Slate’s new book.
Maris: Little Weirds!
Bess: Yeah, Little Weirds. It’s glorious.
Maris: It is.
Bess: She’s brilliant. She is a poet and a great articulator of unknown, unseen feelings, and I enjoyed every morsel of it. It’s so beautiful. I’m reading—I’m usually reading two or three things at once; I’ll have nonfiction and fiction and then like a comfort read. My comfort read, I’m just cycling through the Neapolitan novels. Right now, I’m sort of in war-torn Italy in my head, with Elena Ferrante. And nonfiction, I started Gary Janneti’s book, which is really funny. He blurbed my book, and I was so excited by that because I love his Instagram feed. Who doesn’t? And I picked it up, and it’s really funny and sharp. He’s a great writer.
Maris: Wonderful. Well, thank you. The book again is Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. Thanks, Beth.
Bess: Thank you, Maris!