Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
I love to share inspirational reinvention stories. Actress Melanie Chartoff talks about her journey from actress to writer and why she truly believes its ‘never too late’, marrying for the first time at 65!
Tell us a little about yourself
I hail from New Haven, CT, lived in New York City where I began performing on and off Broadway and in nightclubs. I started working bicoastally in Los Angeles in television in my late 20s. I bought my first home here in Los Angeles in 1991, a house built in 1921, with lots of character. It felt from the first moment I stepped inside it like my first real home. Still does, even more so since my brand new husband moved in with me.
When did you start to write?
When I was very young. I thought I would grow up to be a writer, as early poems of mine were published in the New Haven Register. I wrote my first play in fourth grade and it was produced
in local schools. But when I wasn’t cast as the lead in my own play, I decided I’d better become an actor, too.
While studying acting with Stella Adler in New York, I continued writing poetry and songs and was invited into the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop with some of the greatest composers and lyricists of the last decades. Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim were among the guests who guided us. Ed Kleban who wrote the lyrics for Chorus Line was in the workshop; Alan Menken, composer of some of Disney’s biggest animated hit musicals, was a collaborator. Being part of that zeitgeist influenced me enormously while I was acting on and off Broadway in plays and musicals.
What have been the challenges for you?
Actually, by comparison to an acting career, writing has been a far easier, unobstructed flow for me. First, you don’t need another actor or set or costumes and props to do it. My big problem is that too many ideas get logjammed in my head, clamouring for my undivided attention, and for the energy and will to be expressed first.
What did you do prior to this?
I’ve made my career as an actor for over 50 years now, in stage shows, live action series, films and cartoon series. It’s supporting a more serious writing career now.
What is the title of your book and when will it be published?
My first book, Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories launches Feb. 2, 2021, just in time for Valentine’s Day. It will be a great gift of love for oneself and/or others, too. It was a gift to me to get to express it.
What was the inspiration behind your latest book?
When I told mature singles of all genders that I married for the first time at 65, they cried, “You give me hope!” This book was written for them. I learned it’s never too late to learn to love…yourself and maybe somebody else, too, if you want to, if you are fortunate enough to seek and attract someone.
What can you share with us about some of the main themes of the book?
Identity. For women of my era, finding one’s identity amidst the demands of family and a radically evolving society was a challenge. One of my preoccupations was with the pressure to stay pure and innocent, versus the sudden availability of the Pill and the possibility pregnancy-free love. Also, my feminist side and my romantic young maiden self were often in contention.
And another aspect of an identity crisis for me personally was clarifying myself to myself when my career was all about developing other characters’ identities. Each invention would alter me somewhat. Now I contain multitudes.
How do you hope readers over 50 will relate to these themes?
I want them to know there is plenty of life after menopause, or mid-life crises and, it turns out, after Medicare, too. Take care of your heart and your health and fan the flames of your hopes by visualizing your dream scenarios with you starring in them, feeling them already in progress.
I’m a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, and its newest edition, Age is Just A Number, has some inspiring stories about folks beginning new lives in their 60s. Fred Webber retired at 60 from his desk job and, as he’d always wanted to be a fireman as a boy, took the training and joined the fire department. He’s no longer climbing into burning buildings and carrying folks out, he drives the truck, tends to the wounded, and teaches new applicants. One woman was given a parachute jump for her 60th birthday and so loved the novelty of flying in free fall with a man strapped to her back, she made a habit of it.
Are there any key issues you wanted to draw attention to?
Having played so many different aspects of women before becoming a real human myself, I think I understand the human comedy pretty well. I think many will recognize themselves in my mistakes and confusions in these stories. I hope to save folks some agonies as they experience and laugh or cry at mine.
What do want readers to take away having the read the book?
Faith in the future. It may be different, and it will be an adventure.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing a book of coronavirus poems, some black comic, some elegiac.
Here’s a sample:
HAPPY DEATH! from Hallmark Cards
I wish you peaceful passing
in the middle of a dream
or in the middle of someone.
as you plan a happy scheme.
Not in the teeth or talons
of a bear or crocodile,
please not in the grip
of some cancer that’s
been gripping you awhile.
Not amidst despairing
strapped in an electric chair,
nor during confrontation
in a fight that is unfair.
I hope you dwell in pleasure
As you take your final breath
And did not see it coming.
I wish you Happy Death!
What 3 tips would you offer women looking to write their first book?
- Write what you know, of course, perhaps put it inside another character’s life.
- Join or create a writing group on Zoom, with writers at a similar level of writing experience. Working with folks in different areas of the country has been a gift of this isolated era.
- Keep rewriting as it will never be done. As Leonardo da Vinci said: Art is never finished, only abandoned.