Interview: Alison Arngrim on Confessions of a Prairie Bitch
I’m thrilled to welcome author, actress, and advocate Alison Arngrim to Book, Line, and Sinker. Like many, my sister and I grew up watching Alison hector the children of Walnut Grove during her reign of terror as Nellie Oleson on the long running hit television show Little House on the Prairie.
In 2010, Alison turned her one-woman comedy show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, into New York Times Best Seller. Today, she and I discuss life on the prairie, life as an author, and life as an advocate.
Thanks so much for dropping by! Alison, you mentioned in the introduction of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch that you wrote the book, at least in part, to explain to people how much being on Little House on the Prairie really meant to you. Was there a defining moment when you decided to sit down and write your autobiography, or did several small events motivate you?
I suppose I could say I’ve been writing this book all my life! I, like most actresses and artists, had been talking about writing a book for years. But there were periods in my life where I actually wrote stuff down. Right after Michael Landon died I wrote a whole bunch of stuff and just put it away.
But really, it was in 2002 when I started doing my one woman show, where instead of straight stand-up, I began telling true (hilarious – but true!) stories from my life. That show is VERY much a response to fans – I even include a Q &A. During this process, I began to write down the “long versions” of these bizarre tales.
And like in all Hollywood tales, there’s a trail of false starts and bad agents. I was approached by and made approaches to, several people who expressed interest in getting my book published, none of which got anywhere near fruition. About the time I was rolling my eyes and giving up all hope of finding anyone who actually had a clue what I was talking and writing about, Mr. Kent D. Wolf of Global Literary Management appeared as if by magic in my Facebook message box. OK, not magic really, during all this I had continued to perform my one-woman show and he saw it and tracked me down.
Everything really hit the fan after that and the next thing I knew I was on deadline with a publisher.
From start to finish, how long did it take you to write and edit it?
At that point, I’d say it was roughly nine months intensive writing and four months of intensive edit and re-write process. That’s not counting picking out photos, and my hilarious conversations with the publisher’s legal department. (You can just imagine what THAT was like!)
Was writing the book as glamorous as I imagine?
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Convulses with laughter, falls to floor, nearly pees pants.)
Yes, if you consider typing away furiously at 3:00 in the morning, drenched in sweat, in your underwear and bathrobe to be glamorous.
I did actually have one glamorous period – I continued to write while on the road with my show in France. You know those old stories about writers going off to some garret in Paris with just a beat up Olivetti portable typewriter and bottle of scotch? In my case it was a Dell Mini laptop, and a glass of Bordeaux. And really, my friend’s apartment where I stay is probably a lot nicer than a “garret”.
But I was writing at a kitchen table in Paris and I could see the Eiffel Tower from the window.
Some fans and readers might not know that in addition to being an actress, writer, and advocate, you also have a career as a standup comic. You touch on it in the book, but in a bit more detail, when and why did you start performing in clubs? Doing the Vegas circuit anytime soon?
I started doing stand-up when I was 15 years old. I had friends who were comics, so I was hanging out in clubs. Really it was after I heckled some poor guy and he said “if you think this is easy, you should go try it!” I thought that was a capital idea and I did just that. Been performing ever since.
My current show is much different than the standard club stand up I used to do. Yes, it has jokes, but there all true stories, and there’s a lot of audience interaction. I’ve also added video, photos – all kinds of stuff.
I did do six shows in Vegas at the Onyx Theatre. I will probably be back sometime next year.
One of my favorite excerpts from your book has to do with child stars embracing the roles that made them famous:
I constantly hear actors complain about being strongly identified with a character they played ages ago. They reject the character, refuse to talk about ‘that old show,’ and dismiss their fans and silly and ‘uncool.’ Not me, buddy. It took me a long time to figure out which side my bread was buttered on, but once I did, I never turned back. I will happily, wholeheartedly embrace Nellie Oleson, Little House on the Prairie, and all the fans worldwide until the last bitchy breath leaves my body.
You say that “it took (you) a long time to figure (it) out…”, so during those years–the figuring out years–were you resistant to discuss Little House or be identified with Nellie?
Oh God yes! Right after the show, when I was in my 20’s, I really thought I was going to be able to just “walk away” from Little House and the whole Nellie image. My agents, my family and friends all believed this. We all thought I was going to be – brace yourself – a “sex symbol”.
We were of course, all completely delusional.
Little House was not considered “hip” by the industry, and especially not in the early 1980s. It was all “Dallas” and “Dynasty” and “Fantasy Island” and the “CHiPs” Roller-Boogie episode. It was a great big spandex clad, coked-up, T&A world.
Being on a show like Little House wasn’t thought of as something to be proud of. It was something to go into the witness protection program for.
Of course now, all that resistance to something so successful seems really stupid and pointless. But hey, that was the 80s!
I’ve read that the wheelchair episode was your favorite. Of the scores of episodes you were in, does any one stand out as a least favorite or particularly difficult one to shoot?
Oh anything involving a baseball game, football game, “founders day picnic” etc. Those were always a pain in the butt. You do realize that when the whole cast is sitting there in the stands cheering for the event – game, race, wood chopping contest, what have you – there’s absolutely nothing really going on? That’s all shot separately. So imagine, sitting for hours and hours in the hot sun: “everybody look left and…Yeah!! Boo!!” Now, on your right…Yeah! Go team!!” All. Freaking. Day. Long.
Did you manage to keep any souvenirs or props from your stint as Nellie Oleson? A spare wig in the closet or some candy from the Mercantile, maybe?
No! Not a damn thing! Isn’t that awful?
That’s why I’m so pleased now that I have fans who make all this really cool Prairie related art – paintings, sculptures, t-shirts, etc. I have paintings of the Mercantile – oil and watercolor. But my favorite is the scale model of the Mercantile made by Eric Caron. You gotta see this guy’s stuff!
Until reading your book, I was unaware of the abuse you suffered as a child at the hands of your brother. While this must be a difficult part of your past, you managed to channel your energy into working as a child abuse advocate. How has your celebrity helped your role as an advocate?
Big time. People, rightly or wrongly – OK, usually wrongly – pay an inordinate amount of attention to what people who are on TV say and do. Sometimes this results in lucrative advertising campaigns for cars or low cost airfares. Or it causes things like TMZ to exist.
Sometimes though, it can mean George Clooney drawing the world’s attention to the horror in the Sudan. It can mean Elizabeth Taylor talking about AIDS.
It’s what they call having a “bully pulpit”. They’re going to interview you anyway, why not talk about something that needs talking about? I’m sort of stunned when a celebrity chooses NOT to use their fame to assist some cause. And really, it is a choice. Famous people are approached constantly to be spokespersons for causes. If they’re not talking about saving trees, or water, or animals, or kids, or SOMETHING – it’s because they chose to not to. (Which I think gives you a big fat hint about what they’re like as a person. Just sayin’……)
In my case, having been “invited into people’s living rooms” on a show like Little House on the Prairie that is SO loved and SO popular worldwide -a show that people “grew up with” – allows me to talk to people about subjects they’d rather not discuss. Like AIDS. Like child sexual abuse.
Hey, I’m the prairie bitch, give me the tough topics!
How can others get help or get involved?
You really don’t have to have a TV series to help people. (Only in 21st century America would I even have to say that, right?!)
Please go to www.PROTECT.org. You can read about all the different projects were working on in different states. You can read about how you may be able to start a grass roots campaign to fight child abuse in your city and state. If you sign up with PROTECT, we can send you e-mails when major stuff is going on and let you know which Senator of Congress person you should be giving a piece of your mind to this week.
And hell, if it’s not us, then call somebody. I actually put an appendix in the back of “Confessions”, with a link to a website for pretty much every social issue mentioned in the book. I suggest everybody flip open to that page and go take a good long browse.
For heaven’s sake, everyone can do something.
Were you a big reader while growing up? Do you have time to do some reading these days, and if so, what’s on your nightstand?
As a child, I read CONSTANTLY. I still do. Last thing I read was the promotional copy of “The Wilder Life” by Wendy McClure. (I was asked for a blurb.) It’s really all about the whole experience of being a “bonnet-head” – one of the millions of women who became obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder as a girl. Wendy goes on this absolutely hysterical quest “in search of” the “real” Laura and winds up visiting all the Little House historical sites. I loved it!
Right now, on my Kindle, I’m bouncing around between an old David Sedaris book and Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography.
What does a typical day (or week) look like for you? Is it all first class travel, butlers, maids, and caviar?
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Convulses with laughter – AGAIN – falls to floor, ACTUALLY pees pants.)
Having just folded the laundry and done the dishes before writing this, I’d say that’s an unqualified “no”.
I have flown first class, but I usually fly coach. I’ve had housecleaners on occasion, but not currently.
I have never had a butler and I think having one would really creep me out. “May I draw your bath, Madame?” “No! Get out of my bathroom!”
Today, I shall rehearse, run errands and call around to see about having the roof fixed. Tonight, my husband and I will see a play. Later, I will probably clean up cat barf.
Do you have any plans for another book or any stage, movie, television, or events coming up?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that too. And Yes.
Yes – kind of a sequel. Yes – I start rehearsals today for this February’s Los Angeles production of “The Vagina Monologues”. (February 18, 19 & 20) Yes, I’m told there will be a sequel to my last film, “Make the Yuletide Gay”. Yeah, that too. I’ve got a seriously crazy writer friend working on a series for me. And yes, I’m going to Sacramento next week with the PROTECT gang, for more action on child protection issues and on the 15th, I’m getting a “Living Legacy” award from the Women’s International Center in San Diego.
I’d like to sincerely thank Alison for taking time to talk with me. I hope everyone enjoyed this interview as much as I did!
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated was published by It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, on June 15, 2010.
A special thanks to Erica and Janina at Harper Collins for helping me secure this interview.