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Isabel Gillies, Author of Happens Every Day

April 7, 2009; Jen Chung

Isabel Gillies may be familiar to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit viewers for her role as Detective Stabler's wife, Kathy, but her real life role as a wife and mother is what takes center stage in her debut memoir, Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story, which vividly describes the arc of a heady love affair through happy marriage and blissful parenthood into a painful divorce and awakening.
Gillies, a native New Yorker, embraced a move to Oberlin College in Ohio, where her husband landed a job as a poetry professor, they purchased a big brick house, and their young sons thrived. But it started to unravel with the appearance of a new Audrey Hepburn-like 18th-century literature professor and reached full-tilt when her husband announced their marriage was over. When she asked a friend how this could be, the response is, "Happens every day."
The memoir is charming, self-deprecating, harrowing and ultimately triumphant.
NPR's Maureen Corrigan said, "It makes for compulsive and, frankly, chilling late-night reading." Gillies, who is remarried, is reading tonight at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble (Broadway at West 82nd Street) at 7 p.m.; we spoke to her last week about why she wanted to tell her story, her first acting role in Metropolitan, some of her favorite memoirs—and whether there's a sequel in store.

Your book is now Starbucks' new pick in its book program. How has the reaction been?
It's great, it's wonderful. It's on the NY Times bestseller's list,
No. 8. So it's fantastic and sort of surprising and overwhelming—it's just wonderful. But the really wonderful reaction that I've been getting, which is like the whole reason to write it, is to get all these great letters and emails from people all over the country, from men and women who have had the same thing happen to them, saying how much they've been connecting with the book...how it's helping them—knowing there's another person out there who has gone through it, too— and how it makes them feel better about their circumstance. So that's been amazing.

Your writing is incredibly vivid. I can't imagine someone going through that— clearly it happened to you and then there are other terrible instances of marriages falling apart out there...
Yes, there are marriages falling apart but, you know, tragedy or misfortune can strike you in many different ways unfortunately. I mean, it's sort of a guarantee that shit is going to hit the fan for everyone in some way. I think even if you haven't been divorced, you can hopefully relate to having to navigate through a really difficult time and see how you can get through to the other side and how you can stay positive, even if there's some really bad stuff happening.

I know you wanted to share your story so others could feel like there was someone else out there who felt similarly but what actually prompted you to sit down and write?
I'll start out by saying that I think that for everybody with their stories, the story just sort of sits with you. You think about it and it marinates... So I think it was kind of getting written inside me for a long time before being on paper or anything. And then I started writing it: I have these kids and I was in classes sitting there watching them play soccer or whatever. My husband Peter gave me a Blackberry and I started writing it on my Blackberry during those games... then I'd find myself writing it on the bus on my Blackberry. I had read
Stephen King's book on writing and he said if you want to write you have to write every single day. And there was a writer's strike that was happening at the time so I didn't have to work on Law & Order and my kids were in school from nine to three and I thought, "You know what? I'm just going to go to the library and give this a try and see if I can write this down properly." So I went everyday from ten to two and wrote it. [It took] about three months.

Maybe because of your background as an actress, everything is so detailed and the reader really feels in those moments with you.
I do think that acting has a lot to do with it because it's not really acting, but when you're trained as an artist, and I was at RISD too, I thought I was going to be a painter and then I was going to be an actor... What you're doing is really training yourself how to get the feelings that are happening inside you out so that other people can feel them or ingest them or something so I actually think that 20 years of doing that and training to do that helped me a lot with that process.

And then did you think, "Wow, this could be something that a publisher would be interested in?"
No, the first day I sat down to write it I happened to have lunch with my friend
Eliza Griswold, who is a wonderful writer and a very smart woman—she's a poet and she writes in the
Middle East and she's just really great. I told her, "Do you know what's weird? I started writing a book today." She said, "Oh, well you have to meet my agent!" And I was like, "Okay, well hold on there, Nellie. I don't think I'm going to be sharing this with anybody." I didn't show it to anybody at all until it was completely finished. And she said, "Well, just let me give him your name so that if you do want to meet someone, he knows your name, he'll take your call." So I said, fine, and when it was finished I thought, "You know what, this feels like a complete work," so I called him up and that was that.

You say in your book that you're friendly with your ex-husband now. I suppose there was a transition period, given that you were both still parents, too?
First of all, he's being really wonderful about the book. He couldn't be having the easiest time having his life being written about even though it's very much from my point of view.

I read the Cleveland Plain-Dealer feature on you and the book—they asked your ex for a comment and he said, "I have found that the best policy is to refrain from commenting."
Yeah he's remaining silent...Of course, there had to be some kind of transition. But we always, even when we were divorcing, even when it was happening, kept our eyes on the prize of our children and did not want to hurt each other or hurt the boys because we were focused on ourselves and what was happening to the two of us as adults. We wanted to keep some sort of family feeling alive for the children and just communicate. Today, we talk every day about some kid issue or other or email, and he comes here and sees the kids and they go out to
Ohio. I think if this does happen to you, for the children you really have to look at the bigger picture and try to not be angry and bitter because they'll feel it and you're their parents, you know? They are made of us, so we have to treat each other with respect and kindness so they can feel that reflected in them.

So you grew up in New York and you found yourself to be transplanted in Oberlin. It's a wonderful place. I think there are wonderful places all over Ohio. Ohio gets a bad rap just because people [think] you're talking about the boondocks...It's this sort of label for the middle of nowhere. But Ohio is not like that at all and there are a million wonderful things about Ohio. Lots of different kinds of cities and people and it's a racially really diverse state. The Oberlin/Cleveland area is where the underground railroad came out so it's an interesting historical place. I love Ohio and really loved Oberlin.

So, shifting back to New York—and this is a little more related to your other career, but just the other day they were showing Metropolitan [a 1990 film about young debutantes and an outsider in Manhattan] at the Film Society at Lincoln Center—I was thinking I need to see it again.
And I do, too, because it was so long ago! It's probably interesting to see it in terms of how it fits into the world now.

How were you cast in that?
Actually, I saw [director] Whit [Stillman] last night. I was in my first year at the Rhode Island School of Design and Whit was having a hard time casting. He was doing big open calls, but he wasn't quite getting what he wanted, so he went to the [private] schools and asked the directors of the drama departments if there were any sort of girl actors around. My [high school] director, who [told Whit] there was this girl but she went to college, contacted me and said there's a filmmaker that would like you to come audition for him for this independent film. You have to remember that independent film wasn't sort of the sexy thing it is now. It just didn't exist really and anybody making a film for $200,000 you were like, "What is this a porno? I mean, what is this?" But I got the script and I was 18, and it was a very wonderful script—it reads more like a novel. And so I read it and thought, "Well, this certainly isn't a porno, I better give this a go." So I went and auditioned and got the part.

What other projects are you working on?
Well, Law & Order is always cooking along. But besides that I'm working on a second book.

Also nonfiction?
Yeah, I think probably I just write about my life, I don't know (laughs). Then, just kids and school and you know, Little League.

So is the second book going to be a follow-up?
Yeah, I think so, I'm just starting to work on it.

Well, the way you end the book, it's very tantalizing, it opens the door.
Well, we'll see. I don't know.

Do you have any favorite memoirs that you have enjoyed?
It's funny because I love memoirs and biographies, learning about other people's lives. Two of the ones that I loved so much were actually edited by the same person who edited my book too. I loved Angela's Ashes, I loved Glass Castle so much. It's a wonderful book. I think I had an acting teacher who said, "Just read. It doesn't matter if it's about your profession, just read other people's account on how they got from point A to point B" because it informs your work so much. That and probably cookbooks are probably the happiest readings.

As far as cookbooks go, whose writing do you like?
Oh, my goodness, Jamie Oliver, everybody... Tony Bourdain I love.

Did you read Heat [Bill Buford's account of working in Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo]?
Yes I did. I love all the Alice Waters.

I love Ruth Reichl's writing.
Oh, I just finished Comfort Me With Apples, which I really loved. That's her stories about her child and about her relationships—the marriage and the friendship with her husband. It's not only interesting, it makes you feel part of humanity. We're all kind of trying to figure it out— I hope that with my book, people get that there isn't one way to do things. No one is all good or all bad, and there's many different ways to go about your life. I'm sure I participated in the demise of my marriage in many, many ways. I'm sure it was a lot of my fault too, and it wasn't just that I'm this perfect person that someone just leaves. I didn't like how that went down, but at the end of the day, God knows, I mean, maybe he's right. In my book I try to see things from all different sides from my perspective, and that's what's interesting about reading books like Comfort Me With Apples. Ruth Reichl didn't do all the right things and it sounds like her husband wasn't either, but they did still try to protect each other and understand each other. They didn't want to hurt each other. My husband didn't want to hurt me; that wasn't his intention—it ended up that he did, but it's just complicated. Life is very complex, and it's my opinion the more you talk about it and talk about your feelings and sort of try to crack it open, the more the discussion goes to a greater place. It seems not talking about it and by not examining it, I think, leaves you in bigger trouble than if you really take a look at it and see why to the best of your ability. It's very difficult, this life thing, it's very difficult to get it right.

Well, it sounds like everything is working out for you.
Oh, yeah, we've got to keep going, you know. You've got to keep putting one foot in front of another, and children help that out enormously because they require very little steps: let's make breakfast, let's take a walk, let's go to school. It's all very doable. Taking care of a child, in one way it's very systematic.

You know that you need to protect them and care for them.
Yep, you gotta hold the hand crossing the street and when you're trying to recover from a blow in life, those tiny little details and tiny instructions, like, "Okay, let's brush our teeth." "How do we brush our teeth?" kind of gets you in forward motion and you can look out and see what you want and go for it and just keep living.

Isabel Gillies is reading tonight at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble (Broadway at West 82nd Street) at 7 p.m.

Source: Gothamist