He’s okay now, but back in college, Mitchell Kriegman took a hard hit. Part of the first male class attending Vermont’s Bennington College, creative writing major Kriegman met one day with his writing professor. The critique was not positive. The teacher told the wannabe author he might as well give up: There were no signs of promise in any of the work submitted. But that wasn’t the worst part. “He told me his grandchild had more talent than I did. My writing teacher was Bernard Malamud,” said Kriegman.
How did he deal with such harsh rejection from the beloved author of The Natural? “Well,” said Kriegman the other day at a downtown coffee shop, “40 years later.”
He’s referring to how long after the damning indictment it took him to actually publish a book. But the good news is that that book, Being Audrey Hepburn, came out this week from St. Martin’s Press, and Kriegman will celebrate the publication with a thumbed nose for Malamud and a reading at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) on Thursday, September 25, at 7 p.m. The book, a fun-layered young-adult novel, tells the edgy but inspirational story of a Jersey girl whose life is transformed for better or worse the day she dons the little black dress that Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — not the same style of dress, mind you, but the real item, worth a million bucks and containing something better than magic.
You don’t have to worry about how Kriegman kept busy those intervening years; the new author managed to limp through them fabulously even after the Malamudian critique. “I’m a very successful dilettante,” said Kriegman, who was born into a family of psychiatrists in Richmond, Virginia. “My father was the first psychoanalyst south of the Mason-Dixon line.” In fact, dauntless Kriegman published a story in the New Yorker (a career-topper for many) not long after the meeting and became a heralded and funny performance artist after college, which somehow led him to a writing gig with Michael O’Donoghue of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, leading naturally to work at National Lampoon and onto Saturday Night Live’s ill-fated sixth season, the Joe Piscopo years. “I was fired during ‘Weekend Update,’” he said, despite solid reviews. Kriegman’s next big gig was during the early Ren & Stimpy period at Nickelodeon, where Kriegman created Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart. (If you are a millennial or raised one, you understand that Clarissa was something more than iconic. To that age group, the show offered the blueprint for all geek hipsters to come. As a female role model, Clarissa implied permission to be confident, weird, and sarcastic while staying rooted in a family’s life. One of the show’s writers was Suzanne [The Hunger Games] Collins. Lena Dunham, of Girls fame, unequivocally endorses the show.)
Without a doubt, Kriegman’s Clarissa experience inspired his Audrey Hepburn novel, which is full of nuggets for the Hepburn archaeologists out there. “The book began back then,” said Kriegman. “I’m crazy about Melissa, but when we first started Clarissa, we really had to work with her. She was from Long Island, and she had this accent.” Kriegman found himself fascinated by Pygmalion themes, but self-improvement factors, too.
In Being Audrey Hepburn, Lisbeth is a smart girl obsessed with Hepburn but caught in a daunting cycle of family problems and doubts about her own future. Lisbeth gets a chance to break away when her best friend, Jess, who happens to work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, lets her try on the dress. The transformation that follows is magical but not magic; it’s the Oscar Wilde idea of becoming yourself by donning a mask, and Lisbeth leaps into a more rarified world of pop stars, fashionistas, and creeps.
The book is chock-full of ironies; Kriegman is one of them. He seems more like a public intellectual than a clothes designer, but his command of couture and its meanings is frankly stunning. “I did extensive research on the Internet,” he said, “but I also had Lisa Lederer, who costumed Clarissa and who I remained friends with all this time, as an advisor.” And Kriegman’s book plays with the idea of fashion by recycling a trunk of old haute couture belonging to Lisbeth’s hip grandmother. Best of all, Kriegman’s women, from Lisbeth’s drunken mother to her lesbian best friend, feel real and full of unexpected dimensions.
“I like writing about women,” said Kriegman, whose protagonists have ranged from Winnie the Pooh to a news piece about Carl Jung written for this paper last spring. “The truth is, there really isn’t a story that surprises us nowadays, but characters can still seem new. Most [male characters] are burdened by the hero’s journey — it seems like there are only so many places to take them. But women are much more open-ended. You can move them around and create a sense of surprise.”
The real change for him is the format of this storytelling. “Television is visual, but a book has to be a journey of words. And I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he said. Kriegman does think that television is closer to novels than movies are. TV happens in long arcs with lots of chapters with more opportunities to develop characters. “Movies are obsessed with the third act,” he said; little can change. “Most of my characters are self-made,” said Kriegman.
But there’s another aspect of the novel Kriegman likes, and it came from a chance meeting with movie director and writer Mike Nichols, who, out of the blue, said, “Good things aren’t so bad, and bad things aren’t as bad as you think.” This became a kind of an underlying mantra for Lisbeth, Kriegman’s main character in Being Audrey Hepburn. Like Clarissa, Lisbeth gets a lot of time to explain herself. “Ultimately, she realizes that the point is to become the best me possible,” said Kriegman, and to realize that going through bad things can lead us to good lives. Bernard Malamud might even agree.