Meet This Girl Autumn Chiklis
On her debut novel, Smothered
For the past three years of my life, I worked on my debut novel Smothered, which was just released August 7th. This past month has been such a whirlwind because there was so much buildup with the book launch and now it’s actually out there. For so long I've been blowing off dinner dates because I've had deadlines with the book and now everyone's seeing the work come to fruition and seeing what I’ve been up to for the past three years.
On her creative bloodline
I've been a storyteller since I was a kid and I’ve been acting professionally since I was seven. I grew up in a very Hollywood family - my dad's an actor and my mom was an actress before she had me.
Our household was always very creative. We'd always run out into the backyard to play and act out stories.
I would constantly be the master storyteller - I'd say, “okay, so we're all mermaids in the pool and you're the evil sister.” And so, I was kind of writing from a young age, I just didn’t know it yet.
On being a (closeted) childhood writer
I started putting pen to paper when I was very young. It's funny actually. We just moved out of my childhood home so we went through all of our boxes and there was literally a paper trail suggesting that I was going to be a writer going back to the first grade. I wasn't a bad student, but I definitely had ADD and was unfocused on things that I didn't care about. But all of my creative writing essays were always very strong. I would get comments from teachers saying, come in, we need to discuss this. I got accused of plagiarism once in sixth grade. They were like “clearly, this is not your work.” It’s so funny how when you look back on your life in retrospect, you see all of the signs. But I was a closeted writer up until now, when I released Smothered. Since I was around ten I had been writing short stories, scripts and poetry but I would hide my work from my family and friends just because everything I wrote was so deeply personal to me. I used to feel like writing was something that was just going to be a passion of mine, not something I was going to share with the world.
On her career pivot
I thought I was going to strictly act because that's what I had done my whole life. It's what my dad did, and you know, when you're born into the circus, you stay in the circus. The film industry is kind of like that where it's very difficult to do anything else once you’ve grown up with that kind of excitement and exhilaration. And if you're a natural storyteller, it's very difficult to get into banking.
It wasn't until the last five or six years that I really started dipping my toe in the writing field. Everyone who had coincidentally read my writing always told me I had a knack for it and that I should pursue it, but I just kind of blew it off because I was scared.
It wasn't really until about four years ago that I started writing scripts that I could be in. And that was kind of my stepping stone. I thought, you know, maybe I can be the kind of actress who also writes roles for herself. But then I started to realize how much I was drawn to writing. I realized that in times of stress, I went to my writing. Whenever I had nothing to do, I would start writing. And I started thinking, maybe writing shouldn't just be my hobby, maybe writing is something that I've always sort of known I should be doing but haven't really let myself get comfortable with.
On the real life inspiration behind Smothered
So, my mom is an absolute character. She's completely fabulous, but what separates her from a lot of other crazy, wild mother figures we've seen in the past, is that she's a very good mom. She's so warm and loving and cares tremendously for her children.
My mom was always texting me these outrageous things “you should take Adderall, you’ll lose weight” or “blow off class, we're going to the dry bar” or the classic, “don't tell anyone I'm your mom, tell them I'm your stepmom, so people don't think I'm so old.”
She was always saying these really funny things, and when I started posting them online, they caught on fire. People were commenting and tagging their friends and tagging their mothers and sharing them in a way unlike anything I had ever seen. Before, when I’d post my own stuff on my facebook and Instagram, I'd get like 15 likes max. But then when I started posting all the outrageous things my mom said, I was suddenly getting hundreds of likes and retweets. That's when I knew I was onto something special.
On how Smothered came a book
I realized that my mom’s quotes were a hit, so the question then became how do I turn this into something that is bigger and something that is more long form with the potential to become a real and meaningful story. I committed myself to turning this into something and I started writing the concept for what was then titled, Raising Mom (and is now Smothered) at the end of my Junior year of college at USC.
I was really fortunate that right before I graduated college I met Erin Malone, who is my agent and my angel! At that time, I had written a smaller book proposal for an Urban Outfitters-type coffee table book with all my mom’s texts and anecdotes which I sent around. Erin wasn't my agent at the time, but she read it and really responded to the work and wanted to set up a meeting with me. So, we met, and I thought I was just going to be getting advice from her and it turned out that she wanted to represent the project. That was one of the most exciting moments in my life.
Smothered went through a lot of phases. It was going to be a lot of different things. It was going to be a TV show, it was going to be a web series, but I hadn't really solidified what it would be until I met Erin. She asked if I could turn the idea into a novel and I said yes, because when an opportunity like that presents itself, you have to say yes. I obviously had never written a novel before, but I had been writing my whole life and I figured, you know what, I have this tremendous opportunity right in front of me, I better not squander it! So I took it upon myself to be resourceful. I told Erin, “I need you to send me five samples of a book proposal,” and I read all of them. I then devoured every kind of book that was in the genre that I was going for. I read 10 books in two months, and then went from there.
I was always looking to see what other people had done well. In many ways I think my lack of experience and knowledge was one of my greatest assets because it allowed me to be completely creative and approach writing a novel without knowing the standard “rules.” As I wrote, I basically just asked myself what would I respond to? What would make me laugh? If I were reading a book in my bedroom and my mom was in the living room, what would make me get up and go over to her and be like “Mom, you have to read this!”
On her postgrad college path
I was really lucky. I was nothing like my lead character in the sense that I had a very distinct path postgrad. I graduated college and then I actually went to Martha’s Vineyard for two months to do a show. While I was in Martha’s Vineyard, I was finishing up the proposal for the novel that was going to be pitched to publishing houses. And I was terrified. I think that's something it’s important that I mention. I was putting so much of my hope behind this little project and I knew how hard it was to get a book published. I was just hoping against all odds and was honestly just working my ass off, trying to make it as funny as possible and make it as relatable and as sell-able as possible. I was figuring everything out as I went. I didn’t know how to make a proper book proposal. There's not a YouTube tutorial on how to do that or at least not one I found helpful. Maybe I should make one…
On the challenges of being a writer
The isolation’s tough when you are a novelist. You don’t really work with anyone other than your editor and that’s just online. There are days where it gets very lonely because it's just you in your room shutting out the world, trying to come up with the right words. There's nothing more exhilarating then when that happens and the right words flow, but then there’s obviously writer's block, which is when three weeks goes by and you hate everything that you've written.
On the best parts of being a writer
There is this rhythm that you get into as a writer, this flow, where words just pour out of you, and you’re not even thinking of them, they're just writing themselves almost. And to me, that feeling when something just clicks into place and you are suddenly telling a story that you almost don't have control over, it has control over you, that's the most amazing feeling in the entire world. Sometimes you look back on those moments and read what you wrote later and go, actually this isn't that good, but it doesn't matter. The high that you feel when you come up with the right words in the moment is second to none in my opinion.
On a rule she tries to live by
Honestly, one of my biggest rules in life is to say yes to things. Everyone should read Shonda Rhimes’s “Year of Yes.” It's amazing and really resonated with me because in my family, we’ve always said, “say yes to life” but you know, not if someone offers you drugs on the street. Well...my mom might say yes to that. She’ll go “Will this make me lose weight... Yes? Then sure!” Not actually, but when an opportunity presents itself, even if it scares you, especially if it’s something you have never done before, if it’s something that sounds like it could be a great opportunity, say yes to it and then figure it out later. As someone who isn't a particularly spontaneous person, I really try to stick to this rule because all of the greatest achievements and opportunities in my life have come out of a “yes.”
On how she spends her downtime
I'm very lucky that I have a tremendous group of friends and a really wonderful boyfriend. I love to get everyone together and have movie nights where we have tacos and make popcorn and just laugh.
On her secret talents
I'm a tap dancer. I love tap dancing. It's one of my favorite things in the entire world to do - it’s very cathartic. I just do it in my room. I have wood floors which is nice, and they have these little blocks that you can buy and put on top of your floors to tap on. Another random fact about me - I’m an archer. I love archery. We used to have hay barrels in my backyard I would shoot at.
On her life five years from now
Five years from now, I will be almost 30. Wow! I'd love to be running my own show with a part that I am in. I don’t necessarily need to be the lead actress but you know, something along the lines of what Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling have done.
In five years, I hope to have found contentment. I hope to be in a good relationship, I hope to find success and be in a position where I get to create and tell stories. Five years from now, I hope to wake up in the morning and have my cup of coffee and look over my balcony, wherever it may be, and just feel really happy with what I am doing on the day to day. That's 100% my goal.
On the three traits she’s most proud to possess
I would say empathy - I think it's so important, especially right now in the time that we're in that we all develop a sense of empathy.
Intellectual curiosity. I feel like intellect is kind of an objective term. There are a lot of people who are smart. There are a lot of people who know fancy words. There are a lot of people who are street smart. But I’d say that I am intellectually curious - I constantly want to learn.
The third trait would have to be my ambition. I love my ambition. It is the trait that has brought me the most heartache, because I'm a perfectionist and I already feel like I should be doing so much more than I am right now, but I also think it's the reason why I have accomplished everything I have so far.
On the best piece of advice she ever received
“Don't look in the rear-view mirror.” In other words, stay present. That's what my mom always reiterates to me and I didn't really understand what that meant viscerally until this past year. I've spent a lot of time in my head overthinking things. Focusing on being present is probably what will make me the happiest in my life.
On the worst piece of advice she ever received
Someone once told me, if it makes you anxious, you shouldn't be doing it. I hate that advice because anxiety is an indication that you're nervous about something, but it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be pursuing that thing. Writing a book made me very anxious, but I’m glad that I did it. I think the person who gave me that advice meant to say that I should trust my gut, but I don't think anxiety is your gut. I think anxiety gets in the way of your gut.
On the women she looks up to
Growing up my idol was Nora Ephron. To me, she encompassed everything that not only a writer, but a strong, intellectual woman should be. She was curious and funny and engaging. She was empathetic and did what I've always wanted to do, which is to tell stories that make people think and feel.
My mom is also clearly a very important figure in my life as well - she was the inspiration behind my book! I am also so inspired by incredible women like Shonda Rhimes, who have started their own company and have created opportunities for so many other women. Shonda has opened up so many avenues for so many different and diverse women. She's really an exceptional example of what I think we all should be trying to do.
On what’s next for her
I am really excited for what's next. I am currently working on two other projects that are completely Smothered unrelated, which is nice because I've spent so much of my time promoting and writing this. It will be fun and different to have something new to pitch out! And then in terms of Smothered, I can't say much, but I'll say that I'm really hoping that this has legs and another medium, whether that be a movie, a television series or a sequel, something that will continue this story and the dynamic between Lou and her mom, Shelly.
Her advice to a girl on her way
First and foremost, don't listen to the naysayers. I know that's a pretty obvious one, but it's so easy to get caught up in all of the people who will, perhaps not directly to you, but kind of peripherally, tell you that you shouldn't be doing what you are doing. And what I mean by peripherally: it's very rare that someone will look you in the face and go, I think you're bad at this, you shouldn't be doing this. But all of the people who make comments that undermine you and your drive and abilities, ignore them. Shake it off. If there is anything constructive that could be derived from their criticisms, take it. If not, completely throw everything they said away and move on.