Miss A Interviews Cathy Alter, Author of "Up For Renewal"

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    I met Cathy Alter in Georgetown a few months ago, and she is a riot! We really hit it off, but Cathy and I are very different. We're about the same age, but she strikes me more as an artsy intellectual chick who spent the 1980's following the Grateful Dead than a blonde girly girl like me who read Seventeen magazine religiously while listening to the Go Go's at the Country Club pool. I point this out because she doesn't seem like the type of woman who would look to women's magazines for advice--she's too cerebral. Well, several years ago Cathy Alter found herself divorced with all sorts of drama in her life when she decided she needed help. She decided to commit to reading about a dozen women's magazines for a year in hopes of getting her life back on track, and landing a good man. She did just that, and the whole story is told in her book Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over. You will adore this book, and you'll learn a lot, too! 

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    Miss A: Where are you from?


    Cathy Alter:West Hartford, CT.


    Miss A:Where did you go to college?


    Cathy Alter: I spent my freshman and sophomore years at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA and then transferred to Colgate University in upstate NY. for my last 2 years. In retrospect, I should have taken my junior year abroad and graduated from F&M - it was a much better place for me. I don't like the cold!


    Miss A: What did you do before you became a writer?


    Cathy Alter: I was in the executive training program at Bloomingdale's, pushing around a lot of rolling racks and managing a bunch of salespeople who were making twice as much money as me on commission.


    Miss A: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? When and why did you begin writing?

    Cathy Alter: I always knew I wanted to be a writer - just didn't know I could actually make a living off of writing. Back in the early 90s, I began writing a monthly fashion column for the West Hartford News. I had to "try out" and submit a sample column to the editor. I have no idea how many people I was up against, but I guess my article was the best (all I remember is writing about plaid) so I was hired. During the few years I wrote the column, I really learned how to write on deadline, how to write to a specific word count, and most importantly, how to work with an editor. Turning in a story every month, seeing my byline in the newspaper, and earning a (meager) paycheck was very exciting.


    Miss A: What inspired you to write your first book?


    Cathy Alter: Up for Renewal is my second book. And what inspired me was my own life. Which needed to be cleaned up and overhauled in a major way. I was recently divorced and running around town like I was a drunk sorority girl - just misbehaving, dating all the wrong men, and surrounding myself with really bad people. I was spiraling out of control and I thought, this is not the life I want for myself. So I sat down and figured out a way to get that life I wanted. And the solution was, drumroll please - women's magazines!


    Miss A: How did you come up with the title?


    Cathy Alter: I wanted the book to suggest something positive - and renewal is such a positive word. And since the book really revolves around subscribing to magazines for a year - I also wanted a word that played off of that concept. And when a subscription ends, you have to renew it - so I thought that was a good word to work into the title. For a while, the title was The Subscription Prescription - but that was just such a tongue twister!


    Miss A: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?


    Cathy Alter: Well, this book is a memoir, so the experiences are all my own! The book follows the year I subscribed to women's magazines in an attempt to fix my crappy life. But I weave in a ton of stories from my past - so there's a lot of stuff about my mother, past boyfriends, and growing up in CT.

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    Miss A: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?


    Cathy Alter: The main message is - if you aren't happy or content with your life, you have to become an active participant in changing it. It's one thing to just read the how-do advice these women's magazines dole out - but I actually took it one step further. I actually DID these magazines. I tried out the fashion, make up, relationship, and cooking advice, among other things. I would hope my story (and happy ending) would inspire someone else to make positive changes in their own life. I wouldn't advise they read 14 different women's magazines for a whole year - but just do something, anything.

    Miss A: How much of the book is realistic?


    Cathy Alter: It's 100% realistic - it's a memoir. It really happened. Just ask my husband, who had to put up with Oprah for year!

    Miss A: Where did you get ideas for your books?


    Cathy Alter: My family is a great source for ideas. My next book will be about growing up in the shadow of a really glamorous mother.

    Miss A: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?


    Cathy Alter: At least once a week, a reader will email me and tell me how much they loved my book. They tell me how much they laughed and how much they related to my story. I think everyone has screwed up at least once in life. Made a mess of something - whether staying with the wrong man or in the wrong job for too long. So my story really resonates with readers. And who hasn't picked up one of those women's magazines and thought, what if I just tried saying, wearing, cooking, this? Could it work? Could I really change my life by reading Cosmo?

    Miss A: What do you like to do when you're not writing?


    Cathy Alter: I love to scour though thrift stores and go antiquing. Sitting at my computer all day long is exhausting - so I just try and get out and occupy my brain with something other than words words words! And I love the old ladies that work at my local thrift store - who all turned into an essay I wrote for Washingtonian. So I guess I'm working even when I'm not really working.

  • Miss A: Tell us your latest news? What are you up to? What are your current projects?


    Cathy Alter: I am working on my next book proposal - about my relationship with my mother - and writing regularly for Washingtonian. I just finished a piece for the Washington Post magazine, which should be out soon. And, I'm a professor in the Johns Hopkins Masters of Arts in Writing program. I'll be teaching Contemporary Nonfiction this spring. Boy, I sound pretty busy!


    Miss A: What books have most influenced your life most?


    Cathy Alter: I was the only kid in school who loved Dickens and David Copperfield really had a profound influence on me. It was just the most compelling book I had ever read. But I also remember reading my mother's "bodice ripper" books - and Spindrift, by Phyllis Whitney (I still remember the cover) probably was my favorite book when I was younger. It used all these euphemisms for sex and for a long time, I thought sex was just kissing.

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    Miss A: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?


    Cathy Alter: I love Jonathan Franzen - his sentence structure is so complex and his language is so mannered. But I have lots of favorite authors - Ann Patchett, Martin Amis, Jennifer Egan. And I absolutely adore Carolyn Parkhurst. Not only is she a beautiful writer - her stories are so inventive. Dogs of Babel is beyond belief, yet, in her hands, entirely plausible. When I met her, I couldn't wait to ask her how she came up with the idea for the book. It's pretty remarkable.

    Miss A: What book are you reading now?


    Cathy Alter: I just picked up Slam, by Nick Horby. I've read and loved all of his books.

    Miss A: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?


    Cathy Alter: I've traveled quite a bit - to Kentucky, Connecticut, California, and New York for book readings. I love getting in front of an audience. As a writer, I'm writing alone, into a void, with no direct feedback. So standing up and reading in front of a crowd, who is laughing at all the right parts, is so rewarding.



    Miss A: Do you have any advice for single women?


    Cathy Alter: Sometimes, I think single women just don't want to be single, (guilty!) so they'll date the wrong guy(s) just to have someone to spend a Saturday night with. As one of my friends used to say, "A girl's gotta eat." But my advice is to just date yourself for a while. Just get to know you - and what YOU really want and who is really best for augmenting your own life. It's not that you need a man, it's that you choose to have one - so make him the right one.

    Miss A: Where can single women meet good guys?


    Cathy Alter: I think that if you're doing something you truly love to do - whether it's going to the museum, joining a runner's club, or volunteering for a cause you believe in - you are putting yourself in the environment to meet a good guy. I wouldn't advise going to where you think the guys are (bars, hardware stores, motorcycle stores) in hopes of meeting someone. It's like that movie, Field of Dreams. But instead of build it and he will come - it's do it (do what you like) and he will come.


    Miss A: What do you look for in a man?


    Cathy Alter: Self-reliance and predictability (which is not an unsexy word!) are big qualities for me. And a quirky sense of humor. I guess it's the typical list after that - kind, funny, big-hearted. And someone who is good with tools and will kill bugs.


    Miss A: Do you have any dating rules?


    Cathy Alter: Whoever asks, pays. So if I guy asks you to dinner - they should pay. No going Dutch. That is cheap! And I think the guy should be the pacer in the relationship. I used to want to be in control and know when I was seeing someone, when they were going to call, when I was going to see them again. I learned to just stop and let the guy make the calls and make the plans. My husband was definitely the pacer in our relationship - and I was glad I let him be the one to set those boundaries. Otherwise, I might have scared him away.

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    Miss A: Do you think women should call or text men?


    Cathy Alter: In general, I think texting is a chicken's way out. It's so noncommittal in a way. I think it's fine for a woman to call a guy early on - but if they don't call back - don't call again. I really think a guy wants to pace a relationship. And if you appear too eager or too intense, that can scare a guy away. And nothing is more intense for a guy than to have a woman phone him or text him too early in a relationship. Just be cool like Fonzie, ladies.


    Miss A: Do you think women should ask men on dates?


    Cathy Alter: Sure! I have no problem with women making the first move. I think most men would find it sexy and disarming in a good way.


    Miss A: What do you think about "Friends with Benefits" or people who just hook up without an emotional connection?


    Cathy Alter: I couldn't do this. I tried, believe me. But it's hard not to tie emotional feelings with sex. Because it's just such a vulnerable place to be - sex does make your vulnerable. And that, whether you want to admit it or not, is inherently, an emotional connection.


    Miss A: What should women wear on a first date?


    Cathy Alter: I think all woman have that go-to outfit that makes them feel good no matter what. It could be a pair of well worn jeans or a simple black cocktail dress. I think oftentimes, women want to go out and buy something new for a first date - but that means you haven't really test driven it yet - and that can lead to wardrobe malfunctions.


    Miss A: What places or things do you think are good for a first date?


    Cathy Alter: A wine bar (I love Veritas) is a great place to start - you can get a flight of wine, which, depending on the flight, usually leads to great conversations about traveling or places you've been or want to go. Movies are a bad idea - I think a first date should be getting to know someone - which you can't do without conversation.



    Miss A: What are some signs that a guy is really interested?


    Cathy Alter: Watch his body language! If he's leaning forward as you talk, looking for opportunities to touch your arm or put his hand on the small of your back as you're crossing the street - those are all positive signs. And if he doesn't immediately pounce on you when saying goodnight. That shows a lot of respect - always a good sign!


    Miss A: What is the best time or way to discuss the relationship and have "the talk" about exclusivity?


    Cathy Alter: According to Oprah's magazine, you should have "the talk" on his own turf. So he feels sort of in control and in his element. For me, I don't want to sleep with someone who may be sleeping with someone else - so if you decide to sleep with someone early on, it's a bad idea. Because it's still premature to have that conversation. So, I suggest waiting at least a month before sex, and then, if you want to talk about exclusivity, wait until you're just hanging out at his place and bring it up. Maybe it sounds old fashioned, but I just don't like sharing a guy with other women.

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    Miss A: When should you introduce a man to your family?


    Cathy Alter: After you've had that exclusivity talk! If he can handle that, he can handle my mother!


    Miss A: How do you know if it's love?


    Cathy Alter: I knew I was in love with my husband because I never worried about stuff with him in the way I used to worry about stuff with other men. I said earlier that predictability is a good quality - and my husband was consistent and predictable in his behavior with me. He didn't play any games, was emotionally available to me, and was always good to me. I also knew, that I was choosing to be with this man - and then if he suddenly disappeared, that I would be okay. That my life would include him - but he wasn't my life. That was a new distinction for me to make. I used to just drop everything for a man, and with my husband, I realized how incorporated he was into the fabric of my own life.


    Miss A: When should a woman stop seeing a guy? What should she not put up with? Any "red flags"?


    Cathy Alter: I think you really have to go with your gut with men. If you think they are lying to you - they probably are. I would never put up with a man who raised his voice to me, disrespected a waiter or waitress, and lying is a deal breaker. A guy should be lucky to have YOU as a girlfriend, not the other way around. If a guy doesn't act like he's the luckiest guy in the world to have the privilege to take you out or walk down the street with you or introduce you to his friends, then, dump him.


    Miss A: What is the best way to break up with a guy?


    Cathy Alter: Go to an uncharged, public place - not the restaurant where you had your first date, not your place or his. Just a generic place (Starbucks?) and be honest. Tell him you want to break up and put a period on the relationship. Do not leave any window of opportunity open (by saying, you still want to be friends) which will make things linger on. Just make a clean break and move on - and let him know that that's what you mean by a break up. It's over.


    Miss A: How do you get over a break up?


    Cathy Alter: Lots of crying and then, surrounding myself with friends who will tell you all sorts of unappealing things about your ex and tell you all sorts of appealing things about yourself. And, as my mother always told me, "Just put your lipstick on. You never know who's around the corner."


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    Miss A: Who is your celebrity crush?


    Cathy Alter: Johnny Depp - ever since "21 Jump Street." But he looks disappointingly short.



Published On: November 21, 2008