Amber Tamblyn on Hollywood's corrosive sexism: "I don't feel it, I know it"

The "Two and a Half Men" star and writer talks to Salon about her new book, written in the voices of dead actresses

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published May 29, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
(Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

If you only know Amber Tamblyn from her work on TV ("Joan of Arcadia," "House," "Two and a Half Men") or film (as one of the four BFFs in the girl-power positive "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" series), you're missing some of her most daring work. She's also an accomplished lifelong poet and engaged literary citizen — she's been at this since way before James Franco tried to make it cool — and in her newest book, "Dark Sparkler," Tamblyn turns her sharp eye to her own industry and to the young women who didn't survive it. Brittany Murphy. Marilyn Monroe. Dana Plato. Heather O'Rourke. Sharon Tate. An "Unnamed Actress" whose casting requirements are heartbreaking. Tamblyn's poems pay homage to these women by writing through their untimely deaths, uncovering dark truths about Hollywood's power relationship — and, by extension, our entire culture's — to its young women.

And yet "Dark Sparkler" is, at its heart, also a deeply personal work. The book ends on "Epilogue," a 38-page series of poems written in her own voice that includes poems in the form of emails between her and her father, actor Russ Tamblyn, and a particularly haunting email exchange with a casting agent, which places all of the poems that come before it in a very specific and individual context. Tamblyn, who was raised in show business and has made it her life, brandishes none of the confident bravado or gushing gratitude that young stars are expected to exude. The reader gets the feeling that she could give it all up and not look back, just slip out the back, Jack; she might be just fine — better, even — with a different kind of life.

We caught up with Tamblyn last week by phone in London, where she was enjoying a well-deserved vacation with her husband, the equally multi-talented comedian David Cross, to talk about the process of writing the book, how she balanced reportage with poetry, Hollywood's pervasive sexism, and the unexpected (yet unabashed) feminist work of art she produced. (And yes, we also asked about "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.")

When you started this project you wrote a poem for Brittany Murphy [after she died], and then you kept writing other poems in the series. Is that correct?

That’s exactly what happened. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I wrote it, when it hit me, this idea. It was in 2009; I think it was like six months after she died, maybe less. I had read all of the reports about her life and also read all of the salacious interviews about her death and questioning a lot of it, but it all just felt very voyeuristic. It felt like nobody was actually really talking about a human being. She was a contemporary of mine, so even though I’d never really met her I felt like I had an understanding of what her life was like, what it’s like to be a girl in L.A. auditioning all the time, and working and growing up in the business in that way. So I was really taken with her death and also the way in which her death was used in a sort of salacious way. Also the conversation of what her death was, and how she died, really never went further than those few moments on magazine covers, as they usually do with any celebrity or actor that dies.

The minute that the realization that this was what my next book was going to be came to fruition in my mind, I told friends and they went, “Oh, of course, that makes perfect sense and it’s what you’ve been destined to write.”

So how deep were you into the series before your realized that you had a book project? I’m always interested in that tipping point between, “I’m writing a few poems on a subject,” versus, “This is going to be my next couple of years, this is what I’m immersing myself in.”

I don’t write recreationally. I either get inspired and turned on by something, and then it just snowballs, or I don’t. There’s no in between. That actually took me years to accept as a proper way to be a writer. I had always been told by Jack Hirschman and by those that I was raised around that it really is a muscle, you’ve got to write every single day even if that poem doesn’t mean anything, and I never wrote like that. It never felt good to write like that; it felt awful. It wasn’t until the late Wanda Coleman — who I still have a hard time even speaking about, her death was very painful for me and my family, but she was as instrumental to my writing as Jack was — she was really the first person that ever said to me, she’d describe it as, “The muse is sleeping.” This was her metaphor, and she said, “It’s all good to let the muse sleep and to not do anything for a while. Then when she wakes up, you’ll know, and she’s ready.” That’s when you can write a lot, and then you decide what you do with that writing.

But I always felt a certain amount of shame that I wasn’t like Jack or somebody who just wrote every single day. They just wrote to write and I couldn’t do that, I didn’t enjoy it. So for me there’s not a sense of "I’m going to sit down and write some poems today; they may or may not turn out to be great." If I don’t feel like writing, if they’re not being written because they need to be written, then I’m not looking for them, I’m not searching for them.

So in essence, to go back to your question, once this book started, there was no stopping it.

So some of the poems in the book are written in persona, like "Sharon Tate," written in the voice of the unborn child. Some of the women become metaphor in the poems or the subject of hybrid forms, like the screenplay poem "Heather O'Rourke." How do you find the form for your poems and in the persona poems? How do you navigate the tension between your own voice and the character’s voice?

That’s a great question. Each poem was a different experience each time. It really depended on what was being written, whether it wanted to be written or not. There were some days where I’d write three poems a day and they would just come off the top of my head, like the Brittany Murphy piece, like the Laurel Jean piece, they came very quickly. Then, for instance, the entire epilogue, which is like 30-some-odd pages, I wrote in about five days. That includes, and I wrote it linearly, so it was like everything that was written that you see there, the thing before it informed the thing that came after it. It just came out of me in that way and I never thought about reorganizing it. It took me five days to write it, but then I sat on it for almost three weeks and I was too scared to send it to my editor and one of my poet friends forced me to do it. She was like, “You have to send this in; this is really good and it’s done.” I was scared to send it to him.

But then, poems like the Dana Plato poem -- that was probably one of the hardest pieces. I wrote it and then I rewrote it, I must have done eight to 10 drafts of that poem. That was an instance where the real life of Dana Plato -- and I have studied and researched every single one of these women within an inch of their life, pun intended — I really felt like I knew too much information about her. And too much information can actually be a detriment to a poet, at least for me, speaking for myself, because it doesn’t give you the basic facts and then you can’t let your imagination run circles around the facts, if that makes sense. If you have too much information it flattens your brain and it makes you feel like you don’t know which direction to go in.

I kept coming at the poem and coming at it and I wasn’t finding a way in. I usually know when I write a draft if it’s crap or not and if it’s worth saving or not; I try not to think about it in the moment when I’m writing it, but [this poem] took a long time. Then, really, the very last line of that poem, about the weather patterns of 1964, was taken from one of the original drafts and then I built the poem around that and the idea of a mother saving her methed-up, drug-addled son, which is sort of exactly what Dana’s story was.

When you’re writing a project that deals so heavily with research like this, and it’s an endeavor where you’re really trying to bring these women to life in a way and also honor their stories and do it in a way that feels right and true for you, sometimes in doing all of that research, do you find that there’s a tension between the fact and the truth of the matter in a poem? Like, this [detail] might have been factually correct, but does it actually get in the way of you finding the poetic truth of the story?

I’d never done a thematic work before like this. This is the first book that had a general theme, a narrative that ran through it, and it was also straight-up journalism at the end of the day. Somebody had told me that; I did an interview for The Frame, this really great radio station, and he was like, “I was a journalist in all these wars and that’s exactly what you are.” I was like, “What? Oh, alright.” I just hadn’t really thought about it in that sense. I think that because of the nature of these works, it was very important that I also did not change the facts of the people who were alive, who were real. As you know, there are several poems in there that are not real actresses, they’re all fake. So for the real ones, though, it was important that, like I said, I took the fact and I ran circles of imagination around it.

Which doesn’t mean changing the fact of it, it just means exaggerating its power because it’s poetry, because that’s what you can do with poetry. So if you were writing a poem about someone who had an eating disorder, you could take that as an analogy and you could take the metaphors and similes of that and offshoot into huge directions. So that’s what I tried to do; I never tried to add something that wasn’t truthful about who the women were.

As far as my perception of what they felt or what it felt like to be them, of course I won’t know, none of us will ever know. They may not even have known themselves as they were alive. So that was the only part of it that was a projection of a certain sort. But I tried not to ever really project my own feelings, my take on their business, into the poems, other than some of the ones that were fake actresses, and obviously the epilogue.

Speaking of the fake actresses, the second poem in the book really hit me in the gut: “Untitled Actress,” written in the form of a casting call for this idealized, perfect, sexualized woman who’s also paid scale, waives her rights to her image, and it’s not even a speaking role. The way that I read it was as a pretty brutal condemnation of how Hollywood treats women. Do you feel like you work in a sexist industry?

I don’t feel it, I know it — furthermore, every industry is a sexist industry. You know that as a journalist and a writer. Any woman I talk to, whether it’s my mother or someone who lives in my building or somebody I’ve just met at Pilates class, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, that runs amok no matter where you are. So I think what’s insane, what’s really interesting, this was such a wild experience, the experience of this book coming out and people feeling the way that they felt about it so strongly, was that I did not intend to write a feminist work. That was not my intention at all, and I’m a feminist. It just turned out to be that way in a wonderful, unexpected way.

Ultimately the book is about women; it’s not just about actresses, it’s about women. Because you can take that “Untitled Actress” piece and just call it “Untitled Woman,” and no matter what fucking industry you’re in, you will understand those to be truths. A lot of people will ask me and say, “Wow, is that really what casting breakdowns are like?” And I said, “Well, I’ve actually never seen one.” It’s really interesting, right? But the fact that I know all those things to be true, and the fact that you can read them as a woman and go, “Yeah, that’s definitely true in some proportion.” The thing about Caucasians are preferable, no Asian Americans, the weight thing, the double standard between men. Like, women have to be a certain weight and size, and men can be like four feet tall and whatever, it doesn’t matter. These are things we know as women to be true, those double standards.

"Character learns the hard way to believe in herself." Some of the stuff seems like the trope of here are the movies women are given, here are the stories that women are given also, over and over.

And it’s also, though, how we really feel about ourselves. That moment in the poem is really about art imitating life. There are, so many times, really shallow opportunities for roles for women in film and television, but then other times art mirrors life in that way. That could be the breakdown for a character and that also could be the interior feelings of every single woman you and I both know.

Not to reduce it to this, but this is a whole book of poems about death. I know that a lot of poets struggle with writing about joy, that writing through grief or anger somehow feels more natural to the process. Do you struggle with that also?

I don’t. I’ve never written stuff this dark. My first book was very angry, it was very much a young, budding feminist voice that was angry and had a lot of rage and fire. That voice still exists, it’s just different; the anger is different, the feelings are translated in a different way, transmuted in a different way. My second book, there was a lot more humorous stuff in it and actually I’m already halfway finished with my fourth book, which is probably going to be all erotica and love poems. Those are my favorite type of poems to write. As I said, I don’t choose to do that. I think just because this stuff was so dark for so long, for six years, as soon as the book came out I just started writing. It’s like it was finished and all of a sudden all these love poems were coming to me and I felt like I wanted to write about being alive, and being in love is what that feels like. It’s the antithesis of what this book was in a lot of ways. I think these were harder, these were harder poems for me to do.

Any updates on “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Part III?”

I know what you know, girl. The minute I know something someone will leak it all over online.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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