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Author Spotlight: Asking Amy Dickinson

Festival Staff / February 3, 2017

Nationally syndicated "Ask Amy" advice columnist Amy Dickinson pulls back the curtain to reveal the life behind the advice in her new memoir, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, which she previews at this year's Tucson Festival of Books. The book is a continuation of her 2009 memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, a New York Times bestseller.

She took some time out from giving advice in her “Ask Amy” column to talk with the festival.

It's been 14 years since you took over Ann Landers' column and made it your own. How did you find your own voice for the column?

Honestly, initially I thought that would be a challenge, but the "voice" was instant and immediate, mainly because it is authentically my own—just as Ann Landers' was her own. The questions that come in to me oftentimes dictate the tone of my response, whether it is supportive, chiding or, sometimes, just a little bit snarky.

What inspires you to write episodes about your life story and what do you hope readers learn about you through your memoirs?

Mainly I think that people will see that my life is probably very much like their lives. When I pull the curtain back, you see that I have experienced both great joy and great sadness, crushing sorrow and grief, and that I have made my share of boneheaded mistakes, just as we all do. But they will also see where I get the wisdom that I share in my column, because I introduce readers to my history growing up on a dairy farm and my current life, which is split between Chicago and my hometown of Freeville, New York.

You're pretty funny on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." What do you get out of participating on that show?

I love my appearances as a panelist, partly because it offers me a starkly contrasting experience to the rest of my life. I get to interact with other people who are smart and funny, and also very kind and generous. Plus, I get to laugh and make other people laugh. It is a great joy, as I think listeners can hear when they tune into the popular show.

What does the day-to-day business of being a writer, both of the columns and the books, actually look like for you?

I spend a lot of time alone and quiet, working on my column, which runs 365 days a year. Carving out additional time to write a memoir was challenging; honestly these are two different writing muscles, and I think it was a great creative stretch. And, like most working parents, I spend a fair amount of time picking kids up from school, cleaning the house and making dinner for my family. It's not always a pretty picture, but I mostly get the job done.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I don't have anything too original to offer, except for writers to anchor to what they know and to commit to their own story. I think every writer—whether fiction or non-fiction or poetry—is sitting on a story they want to tell. It is important to commit to that particular story. Writers sometimes get sidelined trying to gauge what will be commercially successful, but in the end it is the authentic voice and intimate story that matters the most.

What are you working on right now? Can we expect compilations of columns in the future?

I don't expect to publish a compilation of columns any time soon, but I know I will at some point down the line. Just now I am recovering from my most recent writing binge to complete my memoir Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things. I have a couple of ideas percolating for down the line, after I go on tour to introduce this book to readers.

Dickinson’s “Ask Amy” column runs in more than 150 newspapers. She dispenses her advice from her hometown of Freeville, New York, with her husband. She is the mother of five daughters.

Find Amy Dickinson at the Tucson Festival of Books: Hot Off the Press(By Invitation Only to Friends), Writing What You Know: Women Writing Their Experience, Saturday, March 11; Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things,Sunday, March 12. She will be available in the corresponding signing areas after each of these events, and books will be made available for purchase.

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