By Heidi Stevens
12:54 PM EDT, May 10, 2013
I had spent all of six minutes with Julia Sweeney when I brought up adult braces.
They're the worst, I said. I had them for two years, I said. They're the worst, I said again — this time with feeling.
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It's an odd thing to say to a person you barely know. Especially a person who lived through cervical cancer, recently lost a brother to alcoholism and nursed another brother through non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which eventually killed him.
Adult braces are, quite obviously, not the worst.
But Sweeney had offered a tidbit about her 13-year-old daughter, Mulan, getting braces. And because I had just read Sweeney's new book, “If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother,” I felt like we were pals.
And because she is a good sport, she reacted like we were.
"Oh, I know!" she said. "A friend of mine had them and when he finally got them off, a year later he started losing his hair. He always jokes, 'I only had one good year! One year when I had hair and good teeth!'"
Of course, she's so much more than a good sport.
"Julia tells the truth," says her friend and fellow comedian and author Merrill Markoe. "Her writing voice is very personal and chatty, like she has called you on the phone to tell you what just happened. Or invited you over for dinner, and now, after a glass of wine, she is catching you up on what she has been doing lately."
Nowhere is this more evident than in "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother," her charming, droll, at-times heartbreaking account of adopting 17-month-old Mulan from China, and, a few years later, marrying her husband and moving from Los Angeles to Wilmette, where she still resides.
The book is a collection of essays she assembled and edited into a narrative, ostensibly during a month of luxurious solitude when her husband was traveling for work and Mulan was at sleepaway camp.
She writes in the prologue:
I love my job.
Secretly I hate my job.
I love my family.
If only they would disappear.
And they do, for a spell. At which time Sweeney, known both for her "Saturday Night Live" years (1990-1994) and her one-woman shows "God Said Ha!" and "Letting Go of God," invites us to sit for a spell.
"I so did not write this book in a month," she laughs. "All the stuff where I'm looking back, that's from old writings. But I did have a month where I assembled all the chapters. And a lot of the writing was from that month."
The essays delve into Sweeney's life before Mulan — the cervical cancer that robbed her of a uterus, the relationships that did not end in wedded bliss; and her life outside of Mulan — losing her beloved brother Bill to addiction, meeting her husband, Michael.
But the majority of the book is about motherhood. Which isn't a topic she was particularly eager to tackle.
"I resisted it for so long because I didn't want to write about being a mom," she says. "It seems like such a common experience. So many people have kids and they're always difficult and they say funny things and, you know, I'm not really a fan of that stuff."
But she teams up frequently with singer-songwriter Jill Sobule for "The Jill and Julia Show," a mix of singing and social commentary performed live, and she found that many of her monologues tended toward the parental.
"They became these crafted stories that I did with Jill because it was the easiest and only material I had to tell," she says. "The stories sort of got solidified and an arc was put into them and the funny was mined into the right places."
And audiences, Sobule says, ate them up.
"I'm up there (on stage) with her as a fan and so I feel like I'm part of the audience, but I also get to watch the audience," Sobule says. "And I see how they connect. She talks with such humility and sweetness on any subject, and we laugh at her stories and we laugh at ourselves and that's what's great about her. We relate to her, and we root for her too."
Sweeney's previous works are equally personal. "God Said Ha! A Memoir," based on her one-woman show, was published as a book in 1998 and, later that year, turned into a film starring Sweeney and Quentin Tarantino. It recounts the year following her divorce, during which her younger brother Mike was diagnosed with cancer and moved in with her. Shortly after his death, Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer and underwent a hysterectomy.
"Julia is unfailingly brilliant at presenting her life as a comedic story," says Markoe. "She is at ease as a story teller, and seems to stick to the truth. But through some magical combination of her attitude and the details she presents and her innate intelligence she manages to make even the darkest experiences she lives through seem funny.
"She's just really good at this," Markoe says. "Maybe even the best at this."
Which likely explains why she has succeeded at writing about motherhood — a topic rich with comedic possibilities, but rarely treated to truly funny re-tellings — that is often hilarious.
Christopher Piatt, creator and host of Paper Machete, a local weekly "live magazine" program, says Sweeney is a storyteller unlike most.
"I work with a lot of amazing comic artists and monologuists and Julia Sweeney is a total pioneer of the form," Piatt says. "She tells her story very plaintively with very little gimmickry. I can't think of a better solo artist who talks about her life. She's in a class by herself."
Of course, that's the adults talking. I asked Sweeney what Mulan thought of her new book.
"She's only read like a third of it," Sweeney laughs. "She said to me, 'It's very conversational.' I'm like, 'Thank you?' I never know if that's a diss or not."
As the person who felt comfortable enough — compelled, even — to launch into a vain, insecure rant about braces, simply because I had read her conversational book, I feel confident saying:
It's not a diss.
Julia Sweeney will appear at Printers Row Lit Fest June 8-9.
Heidi Stevens is a lifestyles reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
"If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother"
By Julia Sweeney, Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $26
We went to a lot of parks. I'd lived in Los Angeles for twenty years and had never noticed children's playgrounds. Suddenly with a toddler, they sprang out at me everywhere. People seem much more likely to approach you when you have a child, and that's both a great and frightening thing. Once someone asked me at the park, "Is her father Chinese?" And I said, "Yeah. I think so. I mean, it sure seems like it."
They would also go up to Tara and ask her for her name, and she just would stare at them blankly and say nothing. I would allow a short pause and then answer "Tara" for her. One day when she was almost three years old, an elderly man leaned over and asked, "What's your name, little girl?" I said, "Tara," and simultaneously I heard my daughter say in a clear, loud voice, "Mulan." She looked at me with a frown, as if to say, "You can call me Tara. But I answer to Mulan."
I had to give it up. She was Mulan.
After that, I replied "Mulan" when people asked her name. Their faces would freeze in a smile and they'd say, "You mean, like after the movie?" And I'd say in a gush, "No, no. That was her name in China. I wanted to name her—well, I did name her Tara, but…blah blah blah." I soon tired of that song and dance and eventually just answered emphatically and slowly, "Yes. After the movie."
Once, a man asked me, "Like after Moulin Rouge?"
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