Shelly Gitlow is always on the lookout for anything that can pass the Bechdel test, an amusing but painfully accurate gender bias assessment. Originally published in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel — author of the graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? — the test requires that to pass, a movie (or book) must include two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
Such instances are harder to find than you might imagine, so sometimes writing your own story is easier. Which brings us to Dispatches from Paradise (Books & Books Press, $15 in paper), a ribald romp about three generations of Miami women — matriarch Claudette; daughter Liz, who dumps her cheating husband as a 39th birthday present to herself; and granddaughter Darcy, freshly dropped out of Rollins College.
Gitlow, who appears Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, says doing her first novel was a blast.
“I had the best time writing it,” says Gitlow, who lives in the Gables with her husband nine months out of the year. “These three women just kept nagging at me.”
The dialogue-driven Dispatches from Paradise opens with a bang, with Liz cheerfully throwing her husband out of her house and quitting her boring bank job. (“As I reach under my skirt and pull down my pantyhose, my former co-workers look dumbfounded. No one can believe I’m actually taking this job and shoving it, or maybe they’re all fantasizing about leaving, too. Whatever. I’m out of here. I throw the pantyhose over my shoulder like a bridal bouquet as I walk out the door.”)
Co-author of the screenplay for Boynton Beach Club, a comedy about the romantic entanglements in an adult community directed by Susan Seidelman ( Desperately Seeking Susan, She-Devil), Gitlow has a special plan for her Books & Books appearance. She has hired three actresses to read the parts of Claudette, Liz and Darcy and has written a “playlet” around the characters (she promises owner Mitchell Kaplan will join in, too).
“I don’t really like to speak,” she confesses. “I’m the writer! But I think the material lends itself to doing it this way.”
Q: How did you come to co-write Boynton Beach Club with Susan Seidelman?
A: I had written a screenplay about three generations of women in Miami, where sex is the city, right around the time Sex and the City had started. Susan had directed a couple of episodes, and I managed to get it to her, and she liked it. She tried to get it done on Showtime but couldn’t get it done. Then in 2003 she called me out of the blue and said she remembered the script and said, “I’m working on a new screenplay, and I think you’d be the perfect person to write it with me.” So we started writing it over the Internet.
Q: Is it hard to work that way, when you’re not together?
A: I think it might be more difficult to write with someone in the room with you. Here you have time to digest it, you’re not just like: “This sucks” or “This is great.” We were matched pretty evenly. We both worked pretty quickly so it was great fun.
Q: Dispatches from Paradise has some elements in common with Sex and the City. Were you a fan?
A: Oh yes. I just happened to catch some old episodes the other day. I wasn’t feeling great and was watching TV. ... [The characters] were talking on landlines, there were no cellphones! They talked about faxing things. But the whole sweetness of the relationships between the women, that still holds up. There were all the men, but really it was more about the relationships between the women. That’s how it is in my book, too. It’s about Wynwood and the art scene, and Miami Beach and the club scene, but really it’s more about the relationships between these family members.
Q: Why do those relationships interest you as a writer?
A: In my former life I was a clinical social worker in New York and Miami. I worked with adolescents and their families. I’ve always been interested in families and communication and what stops them from communicating and how to fix them. I did it for about 10 years, then thought, “I’m going to burn out.” Not because of the clients, but the system that drives you crazy.
Q: Did that work help you as a writer?
A: Yes. You really understand people’s motivations. You get a better sense of who people are and how to describe them and what they would do or not do. My favorite books and movies are all about dysfunctional families.
Q: How long have you lived in South Florida?
A: Since 1977. We were kind of pioneers. It’s been great seeing all the changes in culture and sports.
Q: What do you like about living in Miami?
A: It’s a fun atmosphere even for the people who work here with normal jobs. There’s kind of a party thing that goes on throughout the fiber of this community. You can sit in outdoor cafes, or you can go to South Beach and watch the sun rise or the full moon come up out of the ocean. ... Miami is a different and unique place. Those of us who live here take it for granted. We get used to seeing people walking around half-naked all the time. In other cities, even New York City, not all the women are walking around with double D cups.