Love, Ellen ( Rob Weisbach Books, New York, NY, 1998, $24, 366pp ) by Betty DeGeneres is a generous, autobiographical telling of how the mother of comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres went from being the mother of a lesbian to a gay- rights activist. Her story, which includes her childhood, three failed marriages, motherhood and her own creative, spiritual and political awakening has the potential to join Robb Forman Dew´s The Family Heart as essential reading for families and friends struggling with the coming out process of a loved one. DeGeneres is in town for a booksigning Friday, April 2, 7:30 p.m. at Women & Children First Books, 5233 N. Clark, ( 773 ) 769- 9299. Following are excerpts from Outlines´ phone interview with DeGeneres.
Gregg Shapiro: In your book, you give Ellen´s father Elliott a lot of credit for both Ellen and [ Betty´s son ] Vance´s senses of humor, when in fact, you also have a great sense of humor. Long before the prospect of this interview came up, a friend of mine told me a story about how someone waiting on line behind her in a women´s bathroom was overheard saying "Would you like to see Ellen´s mother have an accident?" in order to move closer to the front of the line. That´s pretty funny, don´t you think?
Betty DeGeneres: ( laughs ) Really? Are you sure it was me and not some imposter? I don´t even remember ... maybe it was me. I´m not without humor, I know that. But he ( Elliott ) really, really is funny. Shamelessly corny, but funny. So they did grow up hearing jokes made all the time. I´m a good laugher, too. I feel like I was the audience.
GS:You are also a born storyteller and possess the ability to write a nice poem. Do you have a favorite writer?
BD: Oh, that´s an interesting question. A favorite writer? I read a lot. As far as traditional, world- famous writers, I have loved Joseph Conrad´s writing. His wonderful descriptions. Herman Hesse. You know, I just love to read. The latest thing I read, the one I just finished, was Into Thin Air, about the terrible tragic climb of Mount Everest. The Perfect Storm and The Deep End of The Ocean. I try to read the really good, latest things, as well as non- fiction. I like a lot of non- fiction. My favorite may be whoever I just read and loved.
GS:What about a favorite poet, since you have been writing poetry yourself?
BD: I don´t. As I said in the book, my sister writes poetry and she´s very, very good. I really wish I could have put some of her poems in the book. I gave her a book of poetry for her birthday this month. I can´t even remember the name of the poet. I just saw it in a bookstore and it looked wonderful. She loved it.
GS:How much input, if any, did Ellen have in the writing of Love, Ellen?
BD: Not a lot. She´s so busy with her career. We just get snatches of conversations a lot of times. Certainly, I talked with her about things we would and would not want in the book. But, pretty much everything is there.
GS:Do you know if Ellen has plans to write another book?
BD: She´s been encouraged to do so. People have asked her to write one. In fact, right after the show was over, she got an offer that would have been hard to refuse, for most people, but she did refuse it. She just felt like that was not a good time. So, yeah, I think it may happen.
GS:You mention at the end of your book about people writing in to you to compile material for another book. Have you thought about trying your hand at perhaps something more along the lines of fiction? Now that you´ve told your story, have you thought about writing another book in a different genre?
BD: I think about it all the time. I love writing and I am in awe of writers. And I read about writing. There´s a book called Bird By Bird by Ann Lamott that is wonderful, about writing. There´s a new one, on the bestsellers list called The Right To Write. To open yourself up and get ideas, personally, I just feel like I can´t do enough of that. I´d love to write short stories.
GS:On page 134, you write about how useful reading books by other people on a subject similar to yours was very helpful. Do you hope that your book will also become a resource for parents of gays and lesbians?
BD: Absolutely. That´s the whole idea. I hope the book will bridge a gap between parents and their gay kids. Because that´s what I´m hearing, as I speak all around the country, that it is doing that to some extent, just in speaking. So, if the book is there, from now on, for somebody to look through and get the idea that, Yes, this is fine. That would be wonderful.
GS:What do you think about the show Will & Grace?
BD: I could tell you the honest truth, I have only looked at Ellen. I don´t look at sitcoms. Years ago, I looked at Murphy Brown. I really did enjoy that. Certainly, I have seen episodes of Friends and Seinfeld, and I´ve watched Veronica´s Closet, because Kathy Najimy is such a good friend. But, I just don´t look at sitcoms, so I´ve never seen Will & Grace.
GS:Do you have any more plans to appear as a guest on television shows?
BD: Only if Ellen gets another one. I´m the "Where´s Waldo?" in that one, popping up in the background.
GS:Do you know if Ellen has any plans to be making any guest appearances on a show such as Will & Grace?
BD: No. She did some guest spots on Mad About You, and that was fun. But, she´s busy with her own plans, so I don´t think she´ll be doing that.
GS:Speaking of her plans, Ellen is starring in three new movies, Ed TV, The Love Letter, and Goodbye Lover. Have you seen any of these movies yet? If so, what did you think of them?
BD: We´re going to the premiere tonight of Ed TV tonight. It´s very exciting. I´ve also seen Goodbye Lover. It´s a very dark comedy and she plays a detective and she wears a brown wig and blue eye- shadow and padding under her polyester clothes. It´s a different Ellen. She does a good job. You know, don´t ask me, because I´m so prejudiced. But she does.
GS:You mention Matthew Shepard in the acknowledgments section at the beginning of your book. Since his death, there have been even more recent incidents of anti- gay violence, including the brutal murder of Billy Jack Gaither in Alabama and the beheading of a gay man in Richmond, Virginia.
BD: Oh, goodness, we could talk for the rest of the day about this, couldn´t we? Because it is just incomprehensible that any lawmaker would not vote in a hate- crimes law based on sexuality. There is no excuse for it. All the rhetoric that has devalued this whole segment of our population ... it´s incomprehensible, I think. I don´t know what to say about it. We just have to keep fighting and fighting and talking until people come to their senses and realize, Well, of course gay people have to be protected and this hatred has to go away.
GS:Speaking of some of that rhetoric, you also wrote in the book about Jerry Falwell´s attack on Ellen. Falwell´s credibility, which was never that stable to begin with, has become even more shaky as of late with his comments about the Jewish, male anti- Christ walking among us and his outing of Teletubbie Tinky- Winky.
BD: He´s made me such a fan of Tinky- Winky. I´d never seen it, and now when I´m changing channels and I come across it, I watch, and it´s so darling. It´s the sweetest thing in the world. The man is crazy.
GS:And yet, there are people who take what Falwell has to say as gospel.
BD: Yeah ( laughs ) literally, yes. It´s very frightening. There are a lot of people out there that can be swayed way too easily, and their minds made up for them.
GS:If we survive the Y2K madness, we have a presidential election with which to deal. Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Dan Quayle, representing the scarier aspect of Republican Christian conservatism, have all expressed interest in being president. Any thoughts on the impending presidential election antics?
BD: I don´t know if I want to dignify that with what I really think about that. Let´s leave that one alone. We have to be sure that Al Gore gets in.
GS:In February of this year, I attended the OutWrite conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered writers. The Human Rights Campaign was not spoken of very highly. What would you say to someone within the lesbian and gay community who felt negatively about the HRC to change their attitude?
BD: Was that because of the election and backing D´Amato?
GS:I think that had something to do with it.
BD: Yeah, I think that was it. That´s all I can imagine. I know they took some flack for that, and they did that because they generally back the incumbent, especially if he has been friendly to gay causes, and he had been. It was a tough decision for them to make, a tough call, and that´s what they did. But, the work they do is so wonderful.
We should thank our lucky stars that they´re in Washington. A lot of those people, who work for the HRC, could be making tons of money in the private sector.
And they´re doing this work that´s so important. So we should just absolutely thank them.
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