The Amy Dickinson Interview

You probably know today's interviewee for her major syndicated advice column "Ask Amy," which she took over from Ann Landers at the Chicago Tribune. She's also the author of the best-selling memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville. You also may hear her on weekends as a guest on the NPR show "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" I'm happy to say I know her as a super cool person who's been nice enough to read at Funny Ha-Ha in the past and be a fun person to talk to at other Chicago literary events.

What other advice columns (or columnists in general) do you enjoy?
I love the Q and A columns in Esquire magazine, partly because they're practical and geared toward men. And though I love men, I don't feel I understand them, and so reading these helps me gain a little insight, I think.

I like Dan Savage's column, and regularly read Dear Abby and "Annie's Mailbox" -- to see what/how the competition's doing. I also love "the Family Almanac" in the Washington Post, written by Marguerite Kelly. It's the loveliest, most compassionate parenting column I've ever read.

Do you ever feel that you got a column wrong? When that happens, is it your own gut reaction, or is it more often due to reader reaction?
Honestly I don't feel I've gotten an answer wrong all that often. I write my columns two weeks ahead of time and so when I read them published in the paper I often think of alternative ways to answer a question -- or of better ways to answer -- but I don't think I screw up badly very often at all. My gut tells me what I need to know -- including if I got something seriously wrong. My gut can be helped along by reader reaction, of course. And I appreciate the opportunity to correct my mistakes in my own column.

This is a weird technical question but when people submit questions to the Ask Amy address, do they come directly to you, or do you have assistants who filter them for you? How do you choose which to run?
Assistants? Assistants? Pause here, please, and fill in the sound of my ironic laughter.

All of the email comes in to me, is read by me and is "filtered" by me.

Choosing the letters is the biggest part of my job, because it is the letters which make the column sing. I love well written letters on thought provoking and serious topics. I also love letters written by screaming idiots. And so I try to choose a balance, consisting of these extremes and much in-between. And I love letters sent in by kids.

Do you have any advice on how to grow thick skin? I'm talking the type that doesn't let weird angry anonymous readers get to you.
I have had to deal with a fair amount of anonymous anger, and it's not fun at all. Sometimes it's like road kill -- I can't look away. It brings out the very worst in me. But I try to see some of the negative mail as an opportunity to make a fan, change a mind, etc. I often respond and sometimes I can talk someone into being reasonable. And I think this sort of contact can be very good for me and for the column.

Mainly I try to tell myself that I'd rather have this anonymous anger directed at me than real, actual anger directed toward me from someone I know and love. in short, I'd rather piss off a reader than a family member or friend.

How much did you solicit the blessing/feedback of the Mighty Queens in your book prior to publication?
I received the blessing of every family member before writing the book and only solicited feedback from my mother and my daughter. My mother was in the hospital during much of the writing of the book, and I would take my pages to her room and read them aloud to her. She didn't ask me to change or take anything out, but mainly she was a great ear. Her laughter told me I was on the right track. My daughter Emily helped me with the chapter having to do the most with her. She supplied many details and was absolutely a wonderful help.

What do you do to pass the time on your flights between New York and Chicago?
I fly quite frequently but my most frequent trip is between Syracuse NY and Chicago. The flight is around 90 minutes long. Half of that time is spent examining the airplane wing for defects or loose rivets. Then I look about the cabin and envy everyone with an IPad. I spend a fair amount of time trying not to use the bathroom at the back of the plane. Sometimes I work on my column.

Aside from Freeville, what are some of your other favorite small towns?
Because Freeville is a little worn around the edges, I tend to be attracted to other towns which I perceive to be "nicer." Up here in Upstate NY we've got Cooperstown, Skaneateles, Aurora ... these are lovely places with little town squares and brick libraries. But honestly, I can't drive through a tiny place without falling just a little in love with it. I'll stop by the DinkyMart for a Slim Jim and a cup of coffee, pick up the local Pennysaver, and dreamily wonder what it would be like to live there.

Are you working in another book? What is it (or would it be) about?

I am just getting started now, thinking about that next book. I think it's going to be an "advicey" book, but I'm not sure. I've always wanted to write fiction.

Which segment of "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me" is your favorite?

I love it the most when I'm laughing at another panelist's gag. Sometimes the bluff is fun to write and read. The lightening round sort of makes me sick to my stomach. I hate the prediction because mine are always lame. But -- hey -- being on the show is even more fun than listening to the show. And I have to say, it is the most fun I seem to have these days.

What are some of your other favorite radio shows?

I love "This American Life." And I really enjoy "The Moth Radio Hour." "Prairie Home Companion," except for when Garrison Keillor sings, and "The Glenn Beck Show," except for those times when I want to stab him.

Which of your co-players usually make you laugh the most?
Um... I love being on with Roy Blount, but he doesn't make me laugh out loud, usually. He's just consistently funny in a very laconic way. Mo Rocca and Adam Felber are sooooo funny. And Paula Poundstone, of course. But honestly I think the panelists are a really balanced group and each is very smart and very very funny. It's hard for me to pick a favorite. There have been times when we sort of have to stop the show so I can compose myself.

Do you have any glamorous (or humiliating) stories from your days working as the receptionist at the New Yorker?
My stories from the New Yorker go in this order, from most glamorous/humiliating to least:

The time I got stuck on the elevator with the blind memoirist Ved Mehta and he started to scream.

The time Mr. Shawn came to my party by accident.

The time James Stevenson and Ed Koren drew cartoons for me.

The time I gave out writer Michael Arlen's home phone number and then he called me to yell at me.

The time Yo Yo Ma called and I took a message for him.

We share an alma mater: in which ways would you say you're a Georgetown person, and which way not?
I am a Georgetown person in that I graduated from Georgetown.

I am not, however, Irish, Catholic, or wealthy.

I do know all of the words to the Georgetown Alma Mater and the Georgetown fight song, which seems to put me in a special category of alumnae.

You were once a lounge-singer: what was your signature song?
I don't think I was skilled enough to have a "signature song." It's not like patrons would come in and say, "Sing 'Misty' for me, Amy." But I particularly like Gershwin. "I've Got a Crush on You." "Someone to Watch Over Me."

As a Sunday school teacher, what's the trick to actually imparting something meaningful upon your students and not just killing time via snacks and coloring?
Coloring doesn't cut it. You've got to do some serious crafting. Because what you're doing, week after week, is illustrating the axiom: Idle hands are the devil's playground.

Oh -- and you play games, write and perform skits, let the little dudes tell you about their week. Then there's some singing. Getting coats off and on also soaks up some class time.

Do you do New Years resolutions, and if so, what's yours this year?
I do New Year's resolutions. I love them, in fact. This year, I'm going to try to call a friend every day. That's my goal.

How does it feel to be the 270th person interviewed for
It feels a little tingly.