Reeling Through Life: A Conversation with Writer Tara Ison

The Retro Set’s Wade Sheeler discusses Life, Death, Virginity and Fiddler on the Roof  with the Celebrated Novelist

Tara Ison has come home; literally and spiritually. She grew up in LA’s San Fernando Valley and is back again preparing for a tour to promote her new book. But after more than 17 years as a celebrated writer of fiction, she’s looking over her life as if refracted through a camera lens; a life lived at, around and alongside the movies.

Her first claim to fame was as co-writer of the now cult classic film Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. From there, she’s held several impressive academic positions from Northwestern University and Ohio State to Arizona State where she’s currently Associate Professor of Fiction. In 1998, she shifted gears with her powerful debut novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. This was followed by novels The List and Rockaway, which was featured as one of the “Best Books of the Summer” in O Magazine.

Now she is releasing her first non-fiction memoir, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, and the groundswell of excitement at this original concept already, pre-release, has prompted Oprah to list it as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now.”

Not a book of film criticism, and not an autobiography in the traditional sense, Ison has done something wholly original. She’s taken films that have stories, scenes, or even single shots that became touchstones in her life and uses these as measuring sticks for her own personal journey . As writer Matthew Goodman commented, Ison’s book is “…as stirring as Norma Rae’s union sign (and) as seductive as Mrs. Robinson’s leopard-skin coat.”

With chapters organized like a “How to” guide, Reeling Through Life offers up reflections, advice and experiences on “How to Go Crazy,” “How to Be a Lolita,” and even “How to be a Jew,” using, as examples, films as disparate as Planet of the Apes, Taxi Driver, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Saving Private Ryan. The stories and experiences are heartbreaking, shocking, surprising, and above all; relatable. I sat down with Tara recently to find out how this idea came to be, and how such a smart concept hasn’t been done before.

BM: You’ve never released a full-length non-fiction book. Where did this idea come from?

TI: When I’m drawing from my real life in fiction, I am taking real events and conflating them, and taking people I’ve met and merging them to create a character. But there was something about the honesty of writing non-fiction and writing memoir that I actually enjoy, the sort of nakedness of it. I don’t find my life interesting enough on its own to write about, which is why I would write fiction and draw from real life, and make it more interesting and make it better and make characters and situations more interesting.

I love movies. And I started thinking about whether I wanted to write more essays about myself, what could I bring to it that wasn’t just navel gazing. And I realized that all the critical moments in my life, I so often turned to film. It’s really subconscious, and creeps up later, like when my mother was in the hospital dying. I don’t think I consciously thought of Terms of Endearment, or Million Dollar Baby, but when I would leave the hospital, I would find myself thinking of those movies or those moments that I could relate to, sort of the way I would process my own experience. So I think the idea of the book came out of that. I mean, what do I love? I love knitting, I love dogs, I love movies, and I love books. And movies seemed to be a natural connection for me.

A lot of good biographies and autobiographies are about organization. How did you choose what moments you wanted to talk about in your life? Or going backwards, was it the movies first, and then a life moment surrounding that?

It was very symbiotic. When I sat down to do the writing, the movies sometimes sparked memories of my life, or sometimes I would think about particular moments in my life, and then the movies came to me. So I had my theme. I knew I wanted to write about alcoholism. I knew I wanted to write about mental illness. I knew I wanted to write about sex. So I had these broad thematic categories that I knew I was interested in. And with each essay what I started doing was I had 2 different pages and on 1 page I started writing bullet points, pivotal moments of my life, my father falling down drunk, and having to clean him up. My mother in the hospital, losing my virginity, and then I would start brainstorming the movie that related to that theme, and the more I started remembering movies that related to that theme I started remembering lines of dialogue, visual images, and I’d start writing the essay, and then I would go back to the movie. As I crafted the essays, I started going back and forth.

Were there life moments or movies you wished you could’ve gotten in there, but didn’t?

I would use the word “selection.” There’s a lot about my life that isn’t in the book, that was perhaps meaningful when I look back on my life, but I couldn’t find the cinematic touch-point for it, and I left it out. And there were movies that were my favorite movies of all time, that didn’t connect to a seminal moment from my life. So I didn’t talk about those movies. It was very hard. I needed movies that people would find interesting to hear about, and define the moments in my life that were relatable to other people, and find a way to shape the narrative that joins the two together.

How did you organize what you were going to tell; when, or decide that you would end the book with the chapter on “How to be a Writer?”

The first two essays I wrote were “How to Go Crazy” and “How to Be a Writer,” and I wrote them several years ago. The reason I started with “Crazy,” I hadn’t sold the book, so I was just writing for myself and there’s that kind of purity and innocence, and no expectations for it – I hadn’t read anything quite like it, that synthesized memoirs with film criticism this way, so I was wandering the wilderness. There’s something very creative about that. I liked the tone where it gave just enough family background. It gave a good foundation, and laid the foundation for the rest of the book narratively, and the story of my life, and also structurally that I thought was accessible to readers and a good place to begin at, with One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. It’s probably one of the more relatable films I talk about. I reference 110 films and I think Cuckoos Nest, you say the name, and people immediately tap into it, and specifically, the electro-shock therapy. It pushes a button. And so I thought beginning the book with that was a little bit “shocking,” but immediately engaging.

The end “How to Be a Writer” seemed to be a natural bookend, it went back to me being a child, and covering the material of my life, and was a good comprehensive way. Some of the essays focused on specific periods of my life, and I thought that story sort of went back and reviewed my life.

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Obviously this is a very personal book, dealing with some sensitive issues, for you. How was it going about that?

I think that’s why I didn’t just write a straight memoir. If I can always being it back to film, it’s a buffer. I know when I was writing personal stuff, I would stop myself, what does this have to do with film? Get back to the movie. It’s a little bit of a veil in an odd way. I can always say, “I’m really talking about this movie here. I’m really talking about The Last Picture Show. I’m really talking about Reds.” It allows me to retreat, I can always duck behind the film.

It’s one thing if someone is reading a short story of yours, or a novel and dismisses it, and says, “I don’t like this character,” or “I didn’t find this believable.” But if there’s criticism of this book, they are criticizing my life or my choices or my relationships So that will be an interesting experience, if and when that happens.

There’s definitely sections of this I gave to friends to read, who are referenced, and a couple of people said, “God, I don’t remember it that way. “ But no one had a bad reaction. I was very nervous. I’m talking about when we were 18 years old and we did this together, no one asked me to take anything out, or censor anything. Some people thought I had an “interesting” memory of it, but it’s “my” memory, so It could be slightly different than the way it happened. I don’t think anyone felt “violated.” I think it always came back to, if I’m going to make anyone look bad, it’s going to be me. I’m the one with the flaws. I’m the one who’s messed up. I’m the one who’s confused about life, and love, and sex. That’s the stuff I wanted it to be about, my own confusion about life.

For “going crazy” you focused a lot on electro-shock therapy.

That movie, and after that scene, in doing my research, anything post-Cuckoos nest, references that scene. I’m talking about psychology and psychoanalysis and psychiatry, always mention it. A couple of months ago I read a section of the book aloud for the first time. And at that time, it didn’t really have much personal stuff about me, I described watching the scenes (from Cuckoos Nest) with the electro-shock, and how disturbing and haunting it was. And afterwards, I can’t tell you how many people came up to me, waiting to talk to me, to tell me how that scene freaked them out, and what happened to their mother, and her getting committed and the electro-shock, and another woman started telling me about how she tried electro-convulsive therapy.

So you’re finding the subject matter impacts people?

It’s interesting, when I would talk to people about what I was writing, as I got into discussing what it was about, it pushes a button. I love that! Why would I not want to move people in that way? I would post something on Facebook about loss of virginity movies, and people were immediately engaged. People were opening up to me in a very personal way. It spurs people to want to share a personal intimacy with me, so it didn’t feel one sided. And because it ties into film, it seems to move other people to say, “Oh my God, I have the same intimate secrets.” And they want to share their experiences.

It seems like the two things people are always up to talking about, even if they don’t know each other, is sports and movies.

And how many Thanksgiving dinners where at some point you don’t know what to say to a relative, so you say, “Did you see Birdman yet?” Have you seen Foxcatcher yet?”

A cool thing I found with the book, is you don’t sound like a film critic. It’s not like reading some academic’s dissertation on this film, or that trend or trope. You sound like a lover of film, like a fan.

There’s some films in the book where I do spend a good amount of time on the history of the film, or the cinematography, but I try to only do that when it’s relevant to my experience. Like Fiddler on the Roof. The fact that Norman Jewison shot it through a woman’s stocking, because he wanted that sepia-grainy- feel to it. That directly affected, as a child, my appreciation of the film. It had this glow that I was very caught up in. I referenced or included that trivia in the book when it was relevant to my emotional experience to the film.

Fiddler on the roof

You mentioned films you wished you could’ve included but couldn’t. Can you name a couple?

I never talked about Gone With the Wind. Or Paper Moon. It’s one of my all time favorite films. I use it in class. I don’t think I mention it once. But how could I not talk about Paper Moon? It just didn’t have its place. But I think it’s bizarre that I talk about four Charlton Heston movies. How could I not find a place for Paper Moon, but I include four Charlton Heston movies? What is it about Charlton Heston movies that kept coming up for me?

Do you see yourself writing a follow-up, maybe where you can find a way to get into some of these favorites?

I’ve thought about it. I think the problem is, I would worry that I would end up repeating some of my personal history, and really — how much of that would anyone want to read? I feel like I need to go over new material. Maybe doing something smaller, some essays are rather long, but if I did something more on film, and less on memoir. I could write some follow-up pieces.

A lot of the films trace your life from childhood, but you also included some more contemporary films, and how they impact you now, or make you think about the past.

A good example of that would be Flight. That happened to coincide with my father drinking again for the first time after 15 – 20 years. So most of the films about alcoholism are older. The Days of Wine and Roses. The Lost Weekend. But because my father drank, and it was around the time that Flight came out and I was really concerned about tying in a more contemporary film into a very recent personal experience. I wanted the book to be about my on-going relationships and what not only happened in the past, but what’s going on with me now.


Did you find that some of the films you really appreciated as a child, when you look at them again now, especially with an eye towards the book you’re writing, didn’t hold up?

The whole point of the book is that emotional connection, and the power of those images from the films, and those lines of dialogue and the impact they had on me growing up and I compare that with how I feel about them now, as an adult. I sat down to watch Pretty Baby again. And that opening shot of Brooke Shields face. I felt the exact same sort of awe, as when I watched it at 14 years old. And seeing this study of this face that was so breath-taking. I mean, I can look at Fiddler on the Roof now, and I may roll my eyes, but I still cry. It affects me every time,. And that’s why you watch those same movies over and over and over again. It brings it back. So, it was easy to tap into those feelings again.

What were some of your favorite movies that made it into the book?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. One of my all-time favorite movies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve see it. And people don’t talk about it that much anymore. And that is a jewel. Maggie Smith in that movie is mind-blowing. Little Darlings. I think every 11 and 12 year old girl, it should be required viewing. Because I’ve never seen a film that so understood the experience of adolescent female sexuality. And the longing for a connection with intimacy with a man, and the terror at the same time, to be so confused and be pressured to be sexual, and yet you still want it. And you’re not ready for it. And this film captures that. Tatum O’Neal is fantastic. Kristy McNichol is heartbreaking. Magnificent. She was an incredible actress. And it’s not an anti-sex movie. It’s respectful. It was the female perspective. There are not many films that were respectful of that. I was really happy to write about that.

Tara Ison
Author Tara Ison


Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies by Tara Ison is releasing in bookstores and online today, January 13th.


About Wade Sheeler 162 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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