On Good Girls and Daddy Issues: Talking to Sarah Tomlinson, the Duchess of Rock

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Sarah Tomlinson aka “The Duchess of Rock” has had her eye on the pulse for a while. Throughout her career as a writer, she’s ghostwritten ten books, including two uncredited New York Times bestsellers. She’s scoped the minds of people like Tila Tequilla and Stroke-d the recollections of Todd Bridges (who can forget Willis in that 70s-80’s comedy about the misadventures of a rich Manhattan family who adopted the children of their late African-American maid?). Before that Tomlinson spent years as a journalist and rick critic for the Boston Globe. She’s roamed and resided in cities like Boston (of course), Portland, Nashville, Brooklyn, and her current home, Los Angeles.

Her recent memoir Good Girl details her life starting out as the precocious child of a bohemian single mom on a farm in Freedom, Maine, and then takes us through her teenage years as a Cure worshipping outcast who drops out of high school and starts college wily at age of 15. By 19, it’s safe to say Sarah had experienced more life, love, and loss than the average teen—including having survived a school shooting at 16—all while dealing with her gambling addict/acid-dropping father’s elusive yet necessary presence, which involved seeing him disappear for ten years straight, only to reappear as a major force later in her life. Sprinkle some rock star romance in the mix, featuring a coke-fueled menage à trois and plenty of kinky lingerie, and what you’ve got is a raw, honest story of a girl who refused to embrace the role of a victim with a broken heart.

I got the chance to talk to Sarah over malts and burgers at the well-known diner Fred 62 in Los Feliz where we talked about Good Girl, the sins and serenities of dating, palm-fronded beaches, and beyond.

Good Girl‘s a solid 290 pages, but based on one of our conversations, you said the original manuscript was much longer. How long was it?
Not to sound like too much of an overachiever, but the first draft was 1,058 pages.

How long did it take you to write it? 
It took me about eight months to complete this monstrosity, which was in essence an autobiography, rather than a memoir. My agent forbade me to hand in a draft that was longer than 400 pages, so as soon as I edited it down to exactly 400 pages—which took about a month—I sent it to my editor for her notes. From there, with the input of two different editors and several incredibly generous friends, I cut it down to the length it is now, while also adding a bit of material they’d found lacking.

Looking back, I still find the book a bit long and wish it could have been closer to 250 pages, but I honestly felt all of the material that remained on the page was essential to giving readers an idea of who I am and how I got here.

What did you do with the parts you cut out? Was it mostly details and elaborations or did you have to cut an entire chunk of your life including the people involved? 
So far, I haven’t done anything with the extra material. Much of it was set during times in my life when I felt particularly stuck—mostly as a child in elementary school and junior high, and also, a bit of it took place during the six years I lived in Boston and launched my journalism career. Looking back, I realized I’d been eager to get through those times in my life when I was living them, so why should I repeat them—or make anyone else endure them—on the page? That’s not to say I didn’t have rewarding experiences during those years, with people who were and are important to me, but I’ve always been very focused on getting free, for lack of a better way to say it. And those were times when I felt very constricted—by my age and lack of power when I was a kid, and by my distance from where I wanted to be as a writer, and the extremely dire state of my financial life when I was in my mid- to late-20s. So I’m not eager to revisit them.

For the moment, I have an extreme block against even going back and reading those pages, although I suppose all writers are hungry for material, and I’ll probably go through it at some point and make use of what I can. I definitely had many conversations with my dear friend, Cathy, who helped me to edit the book, about how there were many moments in those cut pages that were indicative of why I later needed to struggle to develop self-esteem, find some boundaries, and learn how to stand up for myself. So I can see myself maybe crafting some of the material into essays about that part of my coming of age story. But, really, what I’d like to do next is stop thinking about myself and write a novel.

Some parts of Good Girl are eerily lucid, even in the telling the of events that happened more than a couple decades ago. Is your mind a steel trap, or did you reference things like journals? Have you always kept journals? 
I have kept journals since I was a teenager, and I did reference them, but only to check facts after I had finished a complete draft of my book. My first editor and I had several lengthy conversations about how memoirs function, and she said she was more interested in my memories than in what was in my journals. I was really fascinated by that idea that my recollection of events could possibly be truer than an actual record of how things happened and how I felt at the time. But I was a journalist for many years, with a resulting habit of reporting events as they actually happened. Also, I wanted to be extremely respectful of the other people involved in my story. So I didn’t abandon my journals completely.

My compromise was to write every scene from my memory, often listening to the music from that time of my life as a way to unlock sense memories. And then, once I had a complete version down on the page, I consulted my journals and also asked family and friends if my memories were correct. Mostly, my memories were right on. I think because I saw my dad so infrequently and had some incredibly heightened experiences in my life—dropping out of high school and going to college at 15; surviving a school shooting at 16; moving cross-country at 19—the details of those times had been etched into my system in a really deep, memorable way.

Nostalgia can sometimes be unsettling if life has dealt its fair share of trauma. How did writing about issues of early alienation and abandonment affect your presence in reality? Did you feel exposed? Anxious? A purge like that, you must’ve felt vulnerable. 
I knew going into the writing of this memoir that it was going to be really difficult. I’d been in enough therapy to understand a bit about how trauma works. And I’d also ghostwritten memoirs for a number of people and seen how upsetting and unsettling the process often was for them. So I took some precautions from the start. I stopped drinking during the time I was writing the first draft because I’d used alcohol as an emotional escape hatch in my teens and twenties, and I didn’t want to allow myself any outs now. I also made a commitment to myself that I was going to maintain habits I knew would help me to stay rooted in the present day and keep some focus on my health and well being, including my running and meditation practice, and frequent yoga. My friends and family knew what I was going through and were really generous with their time, allowing me to call or spend time with them when I needed support. And I turned to one of the best solaces I’ve found throughout my entire life: good books.

I had decided to move to Brooklyn and write my memoir there, and I made a point to go out to a lot of readings and buy a lot of books, especially memoirs. Being immersed in the work of the brave, gracious writers who’d gone before me gave me something to aim for in my own writing. I definitely needed all of these safety nets because there were many moments when I was in deep grief and had a tremendous amount of anxiety about whether or not I’d be able to write the book I wanted and needed to write. I also instinctively knew that greater self-awareness and happiness awaited me on the other side. And I was right about that. Writing this book literally changed my life. My relationships with many of my friends and family members have deepened. I’m in a romantic relationship I don’t think I would have been capable of before. And I’m less anxious and feel less vulnerable than ever before because I feel so much stronger, and that goes really far.

Along with telling the story of your inconsistent relationship with your father, you also reveal upswing/downswing details of you past romantic relationships. Was this as therapeutic as it would seem to be? I mean some therapists will say writing your thoughts down is as good as any one-on one session, as far as compartmentalizing emotions go. After you finished Good Girl, did you feel liberated from any major “daddy issue” dysfunctions? 
I’d say what I did in this book was to survey my past romantic relationships through the lens of my relationship with my father and the abandonment issues he’d created within me. Doing so was definitely therapeutic and it also made me see my former lovers with less romanticism than I had in the past. I’d always taken a certain amount of pride in being screwed up—I think because I didn’t know what else to do, really. And I idealized relationships with men who were very elusive because they made me feel the same way my dad had always made me feel, and that was comfortable for me, even though it could be painful.

I was also in a really self-directed period of my life, where I put my writing before all else, and I don’t think I would have been a very good partner, even if I’d tried. So these were the relationships that made sense for me at that time. And I did take away some important lessons about making art from these men, and I also started to see myself as an artist, in part because of these relationships. So I’m grateful for them. And for everyone who was in my life during these years because I was in a lot of pain. But through the writing of this book, I saw the limitations inherent in these relationships.

As I approach 40, I’m much more aware of how I spend my time, and with whom, and I’m really committed to having the deepest, most loving relationship I can have with my boyfriend. I don’t think I could have handled that before writing this book because I was too afraid of revealing myself and being rejected. I’m, honestly, still scared of this sometimes, but we work through it. I can’t tell you how many men have approached me and said, “My girlfriend/wife really needs to read your book because she’s got major issues because of her dad.”

People like to joke about “daddy issues,” but it’s a real thing that can cause a lot of damage. Now, I’ve revealed everything on the page, and made peace with it all, at least as much as I can for now, and that’s had a profound impact on my life and inherent happiness.

Your dad was rarely around when you were little, but then disappeared from your life for ten years straight and before coming back again. You finally got close as you got older, into your early thirties. How’s your relationship now? 
My relationship with my dad is in a good place today. As I describe in the book, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011. So I’m profoundly grateful that he’s still with us. And that we’ve had a chance to have the major conversations we needed to have. He knows I’ve forgiven him and love him. And I know he loves me. That may sound like a small, obvious thing. But for anyone who’s had a complicated relationship with a parent, it’s like the Holy Grail. It’s even nice that we don’t need to have that many heavy conversations anymore. We’ve worked through a lot of stuff and can just enjoy each other. That said, my dad is a longtime gambling addict, and I have learned to maintain the appropriate boundaries. Which actually allows me to relax and have a greater appreciation for all that’s amazing about him: his curiosity, his eloquence, his unconditional support of me.

Are you still ghostwriting? What’s next for you?
I am still ghostwriting. I’m currently in the editing stage of two books that will be out this fall. And I have several potential ghostwriting projects on the horizon. My dream is that a cool female rock star or artist with daddy issues will read my book and hire me to help her tell her story. In the meantime, I learn something from all of my projects, which makes it an ideal day job for an artist. I’d really love to write about someone other than me for awhile, so I’m gearing up to dive into a novel and a television script. And my boyfriend and I are going to Europe for three weeks the day after my last promotional event for this book, so we can run around and have fun together, and I can remind myself how big the world is and how many incredible stories are out there.

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