Beth Lisick does it all
This San Francisco writer, comedienne, musician, poet and mother is coming to Sacramento to road-test her new book
Witness Redbook magazine, or any other celebrity-driven, supermarket-aisle publication targeted at women with families. The cover is a head shot of a perfectly coiffed actress or model. The companion headline reads, “How Does She Do It? [Insert celebrity name here] reveals the secret to balancing marriage, children and finding a dress for the Oscars!” Of course, these articles never mention the team of publicists, nannies, tutors and personal assistants employed to accomplish this miracle of time management.
So, let this article be the real-world version of a Redbook interview, and let Beth Lisick be our cover girl. This San Francisco artist writes the Buzz Town gossip column for SFGate.com; has published two books on Manic D Press; was the front woman for spoken-word/music combo the Beth Lisick Ordeal and is currently a member of cabaret-style novelty band the Loins (with husband Eli Crews); tours the country as an actress with the sketch comedy troupe White Noise Radio Theatre; and co-hosts the monthly Porch Light storytelling series at San Francisco’s Café du Nord. Take all that and add business negotiations for her original screenplay and a soon-to-be-published third book, plus caring for her 18-month-old son, Gus. Note the conspicuous absence of any personal assistants or an entourage. Now, how does she do it?
“I spend way too much of my small income on babysitters,” Lisick admitted during a recent phone interview (quietly conducted during her son’s nap). “I’m lucky enough right now that I get by on the money I make writing and performing, so I don’t have a regular day job. I sleep for six hours a night, which sucks, because I used to sleep for 10 or 11, but I’m getting used to it. I write a lot at night now.”
Sometimes, late-night writing can be its own source of inspiration. “I’m actually working on a piece right now for that radio show This American Life, and that’s done pretty much when Gus goes to sleep,” Lisick explained. “It’s about hearing my drug-dealing neighbor on the baby monitor. Once my kid goes to sleep, I can hear [my neighbor’s] cell-phone conversations!”
On nights she isn’t writing, Lisick is out gathering material for her weekly Buzz Town column. For seven years, Lisick has delivered a literary amalgam of rumors and entertainment reviews about the San Francisco art scene for SFGate.com, the online, enhanced version of the San Francisco Chronicle. Lisick first joined “The Gate” when its founder heard her reading poetry on the radio, came to one of her shows and offered her a job. Initially, she compiled Web-site statistics and did whatever was needed around the office. Then Tom Petty came to town.
“It was a time when Tom Petty was playing, like, 20 shows in a row at the Fillmore,” Lisick related. “It was this insane thing, and every day, the Chronicle was just writing about Tom Petty. That’s fine, but there was so much else going on! So, one of the [Gate] editors said, ‘You should write a column about the shows that you go see and all your weird bands and friends.’ It was really unofficial. Someone would check my writing for spelling errors, and it would go up on the site next to the other columns, but it didn’t appear in the paper, and it still doesn’t. I’ve been lucky enough to have it run for seven years.”
Keeping a fresh perspective on Bay Area nightlife can be a challenge, especially when family and deadlines make it difficult to get out at all. “It’s hard because my time is so limited,” Lisick confessed. “I can’t check out a ton of new bands, though I know there are so many people out there who deserve to have someone write about them.” To stay up on the scene, Lisick goes out two or three nights a week and also relies on reader tips and the insights of a few gossipy friends.
With its emphasis on humor and a consistently positive tone, Buzz Town differs markedly from other scene columns. “I consciously try to keep it light. I don’t want to be a critic,” Lisick admitted. “I would rather write about something funny that happened at a show than try to describe guitar tone. That’s just not where my interests lie.”
Critical or not, Lisick’s revelations have incurred the wrath of a few San Francisco scenesters. “I try to be really respectful, and I don’t talk trash about people at all, but some people have their limits,” she said. She related a story about an angry confrontation with a well-known Bay Area personality, but she followed it up with, “Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d prefer this story doesn’t even go in the article because he’s so sensitive. I don’t even know if he’d get wind of it, but then he’d be mad that I mentioned he was mad.”
In the interests of diplomacy, the conversation steered toward the less-controversial subject of Lisick’s beginnings as a writer. “I got started writing through performing,” she recalled. “I was at a bar in San Francisco, and I just happened to be there when a poetry reading started. I had always been a frustrated writer, and I thought the open-mic would be a good way to start. You just write something, and you get up there for three minutes and perform it. If you suck, whatever. So, I came to writing through performing out loud.”
Lisick began reading at open-mics throughout the city, eventually attracting the notice of Jennifer Joseph, the host of the 13-year Sunday-night reading series at the Paradise Lounge and the one-woman publisher behind Manic D Press. “After reading at the Paradise Lounge consistently for about a year, Jennifer asked me to compile my work together into a manuscript. My first book, Monkey Girl, was all stuff I’d written to be read at open-mics.” Lisick followed that up with the short-story collection This Too Can Be Yours, which won the 2002 Firecracker award for fiction.
For her third book, Everybody Into the Pool, Lisick hopes to reach a wider audience through a new publisher. “It’s currently being shopped around. There are a couple of places interested. By the time I come to Sacramento [to read at Luna’s Café on November 20], I’ll probably know. It’s really all happening right now.”
Though she’s seeking a deal with a larger publishing house, Lisick is under no illusions that bigger means easier. “I arranged all my own tours and promotion [with Manic D], and from what I’m learning, with bigger publishers, you have to do that, too. I don’t want to be a big name-dropper, but I was talking to Dave Eggers [author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius] and telling him I wanted to get on a bigger press because it’s really hard doing everything myself. He was like, ‘You’ll have to do everything yourself anyway.’ It’s not like I was surprised to hear that. Most of the writers I know and respect do things themselves. It’s good that I had that experience at Manic D because it’s not like someone’s going to suddenly take over for me. And I wouldn’t want them to.”
Unlike her previous works, Everybody Into the Pool is autobiographical. “The book is funny, first-person essays roughly related to my family and my life,” Lisick explained. “I was this upper-middle-class teen. I was a cheerleader and a homecoming princess, and I just turned into this weirdball artist person who has lived a different life than I was raised to live. The essays go from me growing up to me being a mom myself and driving a station wagon with a car seat in the back.
“The book is also about what I see as the death of alternative culture,” Lisick continued. “It’s like I try to go do all these crazy events for my column, but after a while, nothing shocks you and nothing is weird. Things like having a babysitter who’s a drag king or having your dentist be the keyboardist in a goth band, that should just be normal.”
Of course, Lisick acknowledged that her Bay Area surroundings have influenced her views. “Living how and where I do is a huge part of it. I’m not saying people in the middle of the country will find these things normal,” she allowed. “But I think it’s heading that way. Look at reality-TV shows or the Internet. Everybody’s little fetish and strange interest is widely available for people to find out about. People like to single out things that are strange or unusual, but I think it’s exploded to the point where that stuff should just be accepted.” Lisick added that her November 20 reading in Sacramento will be the first public reading of selections from Everybody Into the Pool.
Lisick’s other project-in-need-of-representation is her screenplay, Rusty Citation, which she co-wrote with San Francisco poet Tara Jepsen. “It’s a postmodern take on Thelma & Louise. It’s like if two ladies went on a road trip, but they weren’t glamorous, and they didn’t sleep with Brad Pitt. Thelma and Louise were supposed to be regular ladies, but they were Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, who aren’t regular at all and drove this fabulous car. So, we drive a Chevy Citation and don’t look very good.”
“The screenplay is done!” she added triumphantly. “We’re looking for producers.”
Just then, Lisick’s friends arrived for a play-date with her and Gus. As she cheerily greeted her guests, Lisick quickly switched roles from writer to mother. “We’re off to Children’s Fairyland,” she reported, before signing off.
How does she do it?