Entre Nous: An Interview with Tori Chickering
by Marcelle Karp
I have been friends with author Tori Chickering since the nineties, that magical era in the lives of Gen-X women when we were on the come up, when we were fully engaged with our anger, when romance and sex were often intertwined, when we were single and wondering where our person was, when we were loud and proud when we sang-screamed “I Believe Anita Hill.” In the years since our halcyon days, barreling down the halls of our day-jobs, where we met, we have become mushy mothers who are still fierce, who are still vibrant, who are still very much here. Still so beautiful, still so brilliant, still so much much she is, to have her still in my life is a blessing. Tori, also known as V.C. Chickering, left city life at some point, became a resident of the most bucolic of New Jersey communities, raised a son, started crooning with her band, and became a powerhouse writer, first of Nookietown, and now, now Twisted Family Values. Own and read both; they’re sexy, they’re sexual, they’re good.
Okay, you write under the moniker VC Chickering. Why the mystery? Why not come out and be like HEY MY NAME IS TORI?!
As soon as I decided to write a novel with adult themes, and, yes, we’re talking sex-with-abandon, I wanted to put a bit of distance between me and my kid in the very small town in which we live. So I chose VC instead of Tori, which is short for Victoria anyway, so the V isn’t much of a stretch. The C is for chutzpah. Or perhaps a nod to VC Andrews, which makes me giggle. I’ve used Chickering my entire professional career as a writer, tv promo producer, and entertainer—I got married very late—so keeping that was a given. So, really, VC Chickering is pretty much my name.
Can you tell us a little about your journey to writing your first book?
It never occurred to me as a kid nor was it suggested to me that I could or should be a writer but I always wrote regardless. I had a jillion penpals and filled diaries to obsession. I loved creative writing in high school and wrote plays in college but wasn’t a writing major. I even got a kick out of writing thank-you notes—I know, freak—it didn’t matter. Truly, it wasn’t until you told me to write up that piece on the Geraldine Fibbers at CBGB’s for BUST magazine that I took myself seriously as a writer. I did it because you told me I could and should. I’ll always be grateful to you for that. Always. Thank you!
Why, you’re welcome! I had no idea! Tell me the process of Nookietown‘s inception, because I know that this is a good story, but I want people to hear it.
About a year and a half after my divorce I finally began to hit my stride again. I’d see girlfriends out in the world and they’d ask me how I was doing. I’d say, “I’m finally pulling out of the awfulness and finding my rhythm again. The only drawback is that I’m crazy-horny. I don’t want a new relationship, just a quick roll-in-the-hay then out you go, mister. It’s super distracting.” One of the long-married wives would say, “Oh, you should have sex with my husband. I’d love a break,” and all the long-married wives would crack up. Then someone else would chime in, “Yeah, I would totally sign Mike up for that. Would you sleep with him every other Thursday?” I’d say, “You got it. And I’ll take Pete once a week.” We’d all share a big chuckle and no one really meant it, but it happened so often—for like a year—with different groups of women, that I thought, there’s a book in there and I’m the one to write it. So that was my jumping off point for Nookietown: a ladies lunch with long-married wives and their newly divorced friend, Lucy, and the underground barter economy they create in a small suburban community to meet everyone’s sexual needs. It’s a win, win, win—for a while—then it all goes to hell in a hand basket. It’s a super-racy, hilarious romp and both men and women love it. There was a Hollywood bidding war. The rights reverted back to me and now there’s a producer in LA shopping it around. Everyone who reads it sees it as a tv series—think Desperate Housewives meets Hung with a Bridesmaids-type ensemble cast of 7 funny and sexy women in their 40s/50s trying to have and avoid sex in a small town. What could be better? Absolutely nothing. Nothing could be better.
And after you got Nookietown out, you started touring. Tell me about the process of doing the in-home book parties?
I quickly learned from more seasoned authors that only big league names get book tours set up for them by the publisher. And securing a book reading at a large chain bookstore wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a crowd. How often have you returned to see the random lady on the flyer at the register unless you already know her work? However, if I ask a friend to ask their friends to come to an event at an indie bookstore or their living room or patio—well that’s a different story. It’s much harder to blow off your friend who’s invited you to come to her house to meet an author. So I approached it like a grassroots campaign. When friends started to say, “What can I do to help you succeed?” I replied, “You can buy the book, post/rate/review the book, and/or host a party!” And folks came out of the woodwork to offer! The outpouring was incredibly generous. Plus, it’s a really fun excuse to get your friends together—a book reading and author chat is something fresh and unexpected. We have a little wine and nosh, I do my dog & pony show for about 20 minutes: tell a few jokes and fun stories, answer a few questions—then everyone goes back to catching up with friends. 19 people offered to host events for Nookietown and 21 so far for Twisted Family Values and I’ve said yes to all of them, and they’ve all been a blast. Some big, some small, some fancy, some low-key and each one of them—no bullshit—has been awesome.
And also, the band, because you have such a terrific voice, and I’ve seen you do it acapella, and I see sometimes on Instagram, your band is there.
I know I’m supposed to be just one thing in this life, to have one focus and hone that shit for all it’s worth, but, dammit, I love writing songs so much that I refuse to let it go. So, fuck it, I’m two things. I’m a writer first, but I also love to perform. I’ve always loved Jonathan Richman and Nellie McKay, so after the divorce I also started a band, Tori Erstwhile & The Montys. I write all the lyrics (most of the music) and the songs are catchy, multi-genre, and make audiences laugh their asses off. We’re a lot like Flight of the Concords, but the subject matter is more about parenting, being married, divorcing and dating again. But we also cover ninjas, dog walking, and losing your car in the parking lot at Target. My bandmates (Dave Shields/piano, Greg Jones/upright bass, John Strauss/drums) are incredible musicians, the real deal. It’s really funny stuff, still cracks me up, and I do it because, dammit, why the hell not. I’m over fifty now. Just try and stop me.
So, Nookietown comes out and how long before you started writing Twisted?
I think I’d already pitched my agent and editor the story of Twisted Family Values and had it approved before Nookietown’s launch date. I started writing a few months later and quickly found it was a much harder process. I was drawing a lot less from real life—the entire plot and all the characters and dialogue had to be made up—so it was just a tougher slog. It also takes place over 4 generations of one dysfunctional family with many more characters—your basic 50 year-long unraveling shit show. Took me maybe a year to get out the first draft. I received many excellent revision notes but there was one crucial problem. Thank gawd the solution came to me in a huge juicy plot twist while on a conference call with my agent and editor. It was truly a divine intervention-type solution, saved the book, and an exciting challenge for me as a writer was born.
In terms of your process, do you plot out the story in your head or do you let the characters lead you?
I had an idea for a story decades ago that came out of a conversation with this guy I dated for about 10 minutes who told me about taking a crush on his first cousin a little too far. That story concept I outlined wrapped up when the two main characters were 26. Then my editor told me to make them age and grow much older. So I conjured the rest of their lives—and those of their siblings, cousins, and, eventual children—as I went along, letting the characters lead me, as you said. I’m told writing that way is called “pantsing.” You’re a pantser when you write by the seat of your pants. I always knew how I wanted the story to end—(happily, because I’m a sucker for a happy ending). I just didn’t know how the characters would arrive there. It was rough at times, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, on a rollercoaster, while it’s hailing. But I had help. I canvased my FB friends for details about everything from 70s hors d’oeuvres and 80s beers to 90s electronics. I’d never wielded FB like a tool as such and it really saved the day—everyone’s responses were hilarious and it was terrific good fun.but I’m really happy with the outcome.Twisted Family Values is a funny/racy, occasionally intense romp inside Wasp culture, small-town expectations, maddening desire, and forgiveness with a healthy dose of John Irving’s reverence for the oddball, Carl Hiassen’s love of quirk, and Susan Isaac’s dames-with-moxie hilarity in good measure.
What sort of book will you write next?
Romance! Ever the creative wanderlust, I’m jumping genres and trying my hand at a romance series set in the late 80s about two best girlfriends who spend a wild summer together in Europe on Urail passes. It’s quirky and racy—of course—and one of the characters is a song writer, so there are witty tunes sprinkled about already. I’m 13,000 words in and loving it. It’s going to have all the heart and humor of your favorite romantic comedies, but with bigger hair and bangs. And, yes, the characters will the flawed, and funny, and well-wrought, and everything will work out in the end, because in my stories, it always does.
Follow Tori on Instagram at VC Chickering!
Order TWISTED FAMILY VALUES, at vcchickering.com or wherever fine dysfunctional family sagas are sold.